A lot has already been written about Laudato Si’: On Care of Our Common Home, Pope Francis’ new encyclical on ecology. Most reactions have focused on the politics, the economics, or the science in it — all good, important perspectives. But the document is truly beautiful. There are passages that made me stop in my tracks and savor. As the writer Austen Ivereigh put it on Twitter, Laudato Si’ is something you take on retreat, not a policy doc. The final chapter is gorgeously mystical, to be pondered with a candle lit.”
Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement who spent most of her life with the poor, loved the Dostoevsky quote, “Beauty will save the world.” She saw immense suffering and injustice, and a devotion to the beautiful was her response. If you see and acknowledge beauty in something or someone, it becomes difficult see haphazard destruction of creation and people and do nothing.
Pope Francis’ call for a renewed sense of wonder at the miracle of creation is a key ingredient the Church can offer to the ecological conversation, and to make that appeal with such rich language heightens the call’s potency.
Here are five of the encyclical’s most beautiful passages.
1) St. Francis of Assisi’s love of creation is a great example.
“Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever [St. Francis] would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them ‘to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason.’” (no. 11)
Fall in love with the Earth, this gift of pure abundance that God has freely given us. This disposition cannot be written off as “naive romanticism,” Pope Francis writes, “for it affects the choices which determine our behavior.” If we lose our wonder and awe, our attitude toward the Earth will be that of “masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on [our] immediate needs.”
2) We must listen for two cries.
“Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (no. 50)
Humans are designed to feel compassion when they hear someone crying. The exterior expression of pain or sadness has an interior effect on the other. We don’t hear crying, though, if plug our ears and put our heads under a pillow. “When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities,” Pope Francis writes (no. 117), “it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected.” As Jesus put it, whoever has ears ought to hear.
3) To grow your own care for the earth and for the poor, get in touch with your inner child.
“The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God. The history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning; we all remember places, and revisiting those memories does us much good. Anyone who has grown up in the hills or used to sit by the spring to drink, or played outdoors in the neighborhood square; going back to these places is a chance to recover something of their true selves.” (no. 84)
Places form us. When we forget our intimate connection to place, we take it for granted, and the move to exploitation is not far off.
4) Take the long view.
“Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others…the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.” (no. 159)
Taking the long view, what’s best for me right now might not line up with what’s best for all of us for centuries to come. If we see the planet as a gift — gift we have received and gift we will pass on — we can develop gratitude. And gratitude is the best tool for breaking down self-centeredness.
5) Simplify, simplify, simplify.
“In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.” (no. 223)
Simplicity is not a superficial reduction of stuff, but what Pope Francis calls “an attitude of the heart” (no. 226), one which “is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full.” At the center of Laudato Si’ is this call to conversion: individual, communal, and global conversion, opening our hearts to the fire of God’s love for the world. Beauty is the first spark.
Mike Jordan Laskey is director of Life and Justice Ministries, Diocese of Camden and vice chancellor for the city of Camden.