Awe, wonder, and Laudato Si

“If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.” Pope Francis, Laudato Si (11).

One of the points that Pope Francis makes in Laudato Si is the centrality of  the conversion of the human heart in order to be responsive to climate change. Often, the discourse on environmental change is about what we have to give up in order that the planet may thrive: giving up fuel, especially dirty fuels like coal, and many material goods in general that contribute to planetary destruction. A recent article in Crux featured an environmentally conscious person asking whether he should give up going to national parks, although he and his family love them, since the volume of use can potentially contribute to their demise (especially when people act irresponsibly while there). One suggestion made was to go to the parks, respect the rules, but then to put time in to lobby for meaningful changes to laws to protect the environment on a larger scale. I thought it a good answer, but the fact that the question was posed as it was shows how much of the discourse on the environment is on what we lose now vs what we lose later. Sacrifice now so that others later do not have to sacrifice even more basic needs. Sacrifice is good and meaningful. However, sacrifice is hard to sustain in the long run without some deeper motivation to underpin it.

Francis speaks to the deeper reason for changing our actions: awe and wonder. In Plato’s Theaetetus, Socrates remarks that wonder is the beginning of all philosophy. Maybe awe is the beginning of all mysticism. Francis’ document cites many mystics, but mysticism is not for the few but potentially for anyone. When we spend time in beautiful natural spaces and feel united to the ocean, rock, or sky, or when we gaze on a little newborn baby and feel awe at what is created, that’s awe, that’s the birth of the mystic in us all. Then the question is where we find our awe, and to whom and to what we are willing to extend it: only my cute newborn baby, or the child that will have to live in the world in another fifty years, which will be affected by my actions and my community’s actions now? Or, do I love only my view of the ocean, or the ocean itself as my brother, as part of God’s common creation?Laudato Si is a call to wonder more deeply, so that we can live more ethically and authentically.

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