Shepherd to the Whole Creation

Ecological Crisis: An Orthodox Perspective


Few years back soon after I took charge of the diocese of Thrissur, I had the privilege of visiting one our parishes near the famous reserve forest, the Silent Valley. A member of the congregation took me around the area and I was literally shocked at the condition of the land there. It was a waste land. The people there reported that when they initially came thirty years back, it was a rain forest with rain all around the year pouring like small threads of cotton even in summer. The forest was cleared and people started cultivating various crops one after another including Rubber, Cashew, Aracanut, Banana, and several others. But all failed, and now it is a barren land. I saw with my own eyes what evil and violence human, son of Adam can do to his/her habitat. We are today confronted with one of the most serious problems humanity has ever faced; ecological crisis. The issue is so complex and highly sensitive that it needs a deep and through study. We do not know yet what shall be the full intensity of the consequence of environmental disturbance. Hence we should count this as our top priority matter. There are several ways of looking at the problem and analyzing it. I am attempting here to study the issue as an Orthodox Christian. This need not be a study in isolation. I admit that it is only one way of looking at the matter. What we need to do is to integrate all possible methods and have an in-depth and solution oriented research.

Orthodox Worship

To an Orthodox Christian, worship is the center of life. She/he goes out from worship to face live in the world and comes in to the house of God to renew the vitality needed for a healthy and dynamic life of quality.

Worship and Freedom.

To be Christian is to enjoy the freedom of standing before God the father as his/her child. Freedom is actualized in its most sublime and concrete form in this world through worship. In worship, to an Orthodox, we are entering in to the presence of God through the Son in Holy Spirit and having a pre tasting of the Kingdom of God. It provides us with the ability to, know His will and to enjoy the freedom to cooperate with Him in actualizing His will in history. It is a reasonable question, how humans can enjoy the freedom we being created ones? This is probably the greatest gift of God to us. The image and likeness of God present in us enables us to enter in to the divine presence and participate in the discussion going on there concerning the working of the will of God. This is evident in the vision of Isaiah (ch. 6) where the prophet was invited to listen and respond to the discussion God had with his celestial hosts, where His will was revealed. Later Isaiah was sanctified and was able to speak in the heavenly council.

Orthodox Eucharistic worship begins with a reference to this incident among several other similar ones during which humans were given the freedom to enter in to God’s council. If during the Old Testament times this possibility was with a limited scope and given only to selected individuals, through Jesus Christ, this privilege of was offered to every one in Him. Freedom enables humans to cooperate with the creator God in the rule of the universe. We are provided with a renewed command concerning the garden in which we live. Adam was revealed the will that he was to ‘till the ground and keep the garden’ (Gen. 2:15). Tilling the ground was primarily to keep the vitality alive and dynamic and only secondary objective was to provide food for human. By the word keep God was giving definite direction about the responsibility of humans to keep the identity, integrity and individuality of the garden in general and every element in it. But we should be blamed for thinking that nature has no other reason for existence except to serve man (only man).

Again in worship we also receive the freedom to stand in the company of every element in the created world without any hindrance or break in relationship. By the gift of the privilege of ‘naming the animals’ humans were given the ability to establish communication with the animal world (Gen. 2:19). Communication facility thus established enables humans to worship more meaningfully. Mary Antonette says that “the scope of ecology includes studying interaction between organisms (any form of life, – plant, animal)”. It is in the company all these we achieve a perfect worshipping mood. In the West Syriac liturgy of Eucharist, the priest says, “let us all join the sun, the moon, the stars, the earth, the seas, and the first born whose names are written in the heavenly Jerusalem in adorning the one who is to be adorned”. We can not enter in to the presence of God meaningfully while we having an estrangement from the nature around us. Adam was afraid of God and was not able to stand before Him as he violated the privacy of the tree and thus spoiled the relationship with it. That is why God said ‘because you have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, you shall not eat of it … thorns and thistles it shall bring forth’ (Gen. 3:18). The earth has not decided not to respond to the ‘tilling’ activity of humans as he has failed in his responsibility to ‘keep’ its identity. This broken relationship was mended by Jesus who was hanged on the tree (see, Good Friday Liturgy). Now we could stand with the little herb and huge tree, the tiny insect and the colossal elephant, the birds of the air and the fish of the sea, the reptiles on the earth and insects in the soil before the creator without fear (Isa. 11). On Palm Sunday placing the Palm leaves on the alter, we pray and say, “God the creator of the heavens and the earth and every thing in them, bless these leaves and the trees out of which they are cut and have mercy on us and bless us”. It is interesting to note that several of the elements of the Eucharistic worship are included in the liturgy of the blessing of the palm leaves.

This suggests that the blessing human receive is shared by the nature and vice versa we share the blessing received by the nature. The word of the curse of God, ‘because of you the earth is cursed’ is crucial and significant. We may be reminded of the passage which talks about the blessedness of Joseph son of Jacob which says, “from the time that he (Potipher) made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’ house for Joseph’s sake, the blessing was upon all that he had, in the house and field (Gen. 39:1 ff.). The field was blessed because a blessed person was in charge of it.

To sum up, the freedom we enjoy in worship is the freedom of fellowship and participation with the creator and the creation in the context of the salvation received through Jesus Christ. The foundation of Christian faith and worship is the incarnation of the word, the second person in the H. Trinity. This salvific word of God was not just for humans alone. Rather it was for the whole creation. The tem ‘ecology’ is related to oikos or household. The Church stands as one family of the whole creation. In the prayer of public confession of the Eucharist the leader would say, “I beseech you O Lord, for the absolution and pardon for the sins of the whole creation”. Worship and Church Catholic

The catholicity of the Church is understood in a wider and all inclusive manner. It is not to be in a horizontal manner alone including just ‘all nations and peoples’, but also in a vertical style to include all species in nature. British scientist James Lovelock’s theory (1979) named after Greek goddess ‘Gaia’ says, ‘the earth, its rocks, oceans, atmosphere, and all living things are part of one great organism, evolving over the vast span of geological time’. In the Church worship becomes meaningful only when humans realizes that he/she is part of a larger community stretched to all world and all things. God is confessed as creator and Lord of all that is seen and unseen. The very term ‘ecosystem’ may mean the same.

This fact also calls for a fresh evaluation of our attitude towards nature. Since every element is part of the Church Catholic, it becomes the duty of the humans to bring together each of those elements in to our community and work in cooperation and perfect mutual understanding with them. The kiss of peace is to be shared with the fellow creatures in nature just the way we share it with our fellow human beings. Each of the elements both human and non-human should work in cooperation as parts and organs of the same body of Christ for its own betterment and for the glory of the head which is Christ himself. Thus our faith in the Church catholic compels us to take up the responsibility to bring together with us in perfect harmony all the species in the nature.

Worship and the H. Trinity

In Orthodox pietism worship is directed to the H. Trinity. The priest after each bit of prayer would, some time even to the extend of becoming repetitive and hence monotonous, say “we offer up glory and praise at this time and at all times and at all seasons and at all ages, to you God the Father and to you son and to your H. Spirit”. The blessed Trinity is the focal point of our worship. The H. Trinity also becomes a paradigm for the mutual relationship that should be established between the participants in the worship. We believe that the three persons in the H. Trinity is worshipped and glorified as one God due to their mutual love and relationship or in other words sharing of the same substance. We stand before God as one community, and it is our mutual love which makes us one (Jn. 15:14 ff.). This oneness is accomplished not only the humans but also with every other element in creation. The quotation referred above from the Eucharistic worship which says, ‘we stand with the cosmic community before God’, proclaims without doubt that we can not forget nonhuman elements when we consider our togetherness in worship. “All components of an ecosystem are interrelated, interconnected and interdependent with each other” (Mary Antonette). In one of our prayer hymns we sing, “let us adore Him who is adored by all creatures”. Hence in worship the H. Trinity becomes not only the object of worship but also a model for our love relationship to be established between all elements in nature including the humans. Here our love relationship with nature is quite important. We can not take them for granted our use them as we please.

Orthodox Mysticism

Orthodox mysticism explained by the Syriac word rose is some thing which helps us enter in to a realm where every thing in this cosmos is experienced as such in its own identity and integrity. We are no more to hide behind the tree for fear and lack of understanding. The tree is not to come between us and God as a medium of hiding, but as partner standing with us in the presence of God as creatures. Here we try to overcome human sinfulness. Christian mysticism hence, is not an attempt to take us away from this world, rather helps us to approach this world in a healthy and genuine manner. We take this world seriously as God created it and found it good and as Jesus Christ became incarnate and lived in this world to sanctify and perfect it. It is through the mysterious changes that occur to the bread and wine, the produce of the land, we today celebrate the atoning sacrifice of Christ. If we believe in the Kingdom of God we got to believe in the coming of it in to this world.

Christian mysticism is an experience of togetherness and not of separated-ness and aloofness. An experience of being with God and with creation never promote escapist tendency. The Assisi declaration of 1986 emphasizes this aspect. Therefore, Gal. 2:20 (yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me) is taken seriously not to say that ‘I lose myself completely but to know that in Christ I am with every thing else and that is where I find my own identity’. To know that I am not alone itself makes me out of fear, free and relaxed. We do not live as independent individuals living in detachment, but as individuals and parts of one community.

Mysticism if on the one hand is an experience of being together, is also an experience of searching for the complete meaning of this togetherness and each participant in the community. The meditative aspect of Christian mysticism is thus for us to take up this search seriously. When we are together we realize that we need to explore and get to know each other better. This will enlighten us and make us respect other elements in creation.

We as creatures are having certain limitations that are to be overcome finally. The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was not to be eaten from, though every thing else was for food for human. This tells us about the mysterious nature of the garden which also provides individuality and uniqueness to the garden and every thing in it. God created ‘earth according to its kind’. Humans are called to respect this individuality and explore its meaning in itself and in relation. Eating of the fruit of the tree of the garden certainly breaks the relationship and closes the door of exploration and knowledge. Thus the tree of the knowledge becomes a tree of lack of knowledge and darkness. This was why Jesus had to come as the true light of the world, a good teacher filled with knowledge (Lk. 2:40). We today in and through our mystical participation with Christ share this possibility of knowing others.

Our knowledge of the individuality of various elements in creation compels us to approach them with respect. This respect of course, does not go to the extent of worshipping them. “The earth is sacred to us. We are connected to the earth. If it is lost, so are our lives” (Datu Mampadayao). We understand that, just like we do, each other individual in this created world has its its own unique kind of relationship with God the creator, and we are not in a position to understand it exhaustively. Hence they are not at our complete disposal. This is for sure, contrary to the traditional understanding of the usage the phrase ‘have dominion’. There shall not be any confusion between dominion and domination (Gal. 1:26). Dominion is to act with care and to hold it in its proper position in creation. We understand the other elements in creation only in relationship and not in our own absoluteness.

Here mysticism is to be understood as a ‘life style’ which compels us to mystically explore the meaning and relevance of each element in creation and try to understand own self in relation (Sanayasins of ancient India are to be remembered in this context). Thus eco-friendly attitude becomes a life style for a Christian mystic.

History and Ecology

Orthodox position regarding history is quite significant. History is not made by humans alone, though most of the time we assume that it is so. Rivers and the water in it, hills and the trees on it, seas and the minerals and creatures in it, earth and its vitality and air and the birds in it, all have their own share in creating the history as we have it now (Hos. 4:14). A tiny little tree and its fruit reversed the destiny of the man and his wife. If the tree at the center of the garden responded passively to the aggression against it, things would have been different for us. History of India would have been evidently different if not entirely if Mount Himalaya was not there to prevent Alexander the Great during his military campaign. Species of Kerala brought the foreigners to South India and consequently the history of the region including that of the ancient Church was changed. The ‘dividing’ of the red sea and the river Jordan on the way of Israel to Canaan had definite binding on the making of the history of Israel. Rivers and trees have contributed so much to the ancient cultures of human race. Isaiah 24:4-7 is quite telling in this context. “The wine mourns, the vine languishes, all the merry-hearted sigh” (Isa. 24:7).


Hence, our attitude to the rest of the creation makes a lot of difference in the way we and our coming generation would live in this world. In our road to liberation from bondage pertaining to our daily life, these factors play a vital role (Rom. 8:22). Life situation is the “combination of all conditions affecting an organism, including the physical and chemical conditions (eg. Climate, soil, etc.) as well as the influence of other living organisms. More simply, environment s what surrounds an organism, the conditions for its development and growth” (Mary Antonette). We could bring bread and wine before the altar only when wheat and vine bush behave friendly with us. The very historical re-enactment of the salvation event (H. Qurbono) is possible only if we experience the favor of the plant world. In other words, plants too join us in our celebration of salvation in history and consequently in planning our future history.

Eco-scientists say that our behavioral patters are formulated and controlled by even the tiny little amount of pollution in our atmosphere. It is estimated that 65,000 commercial compounds enter our environment every year and some of them are extremely poisonous and cancer causing. When the green plants refuses to convert the all the carbon dioxide produced by our industrial activity in the atmosphere as plant food, humans and animals suffocate. Shellford’s law of tolerance says, “An organism can tolerate change in conditions of its environment as long as these do not exceed the organism’s tolerance limit for such change”. But it has now certainly exceeded for several organisms. Life became hard for Adam as the field refused to respond to him. Cain realized that God was not pleased in his sacrifice when he experienced a crop failure the year following the sacrifice. In short, when God attempts to intervene in human history to make it salvation history, the created world around us also plays an important role.