During Lent 2011 the chapel community at Crook viewed Sir Stanley Spencer’s paintings taken from his Lent collection Christ in the Wilderness. A favourite painting of mine from that set is called “Consider the Lilies.” It shows the rather large, rounded and dishevelled Jesus throwing himself on the ground, on all fours, in order to place his absorbing eyes and nose within a few inches of some oxeye daisies. It is Spencer’s ingenious and imaginative way of picturing those astonishing words “Consider the lilies of the field, not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these” It is just one of the many sayings of Jesus which reveal his great love for the natural world.
On the 24th May 2015 Pope Francis published his long awaited Encyclical on the natural world. It is a letter addressed not just to Roman Catholics and United Reformed Church people but to the whole of humankind. Francis writes “I wish to address every living person on the planet.” The letter addresses the profound danger the world faces from environmental deterioration: the destruction of Sister Earth, as he calls it, our common home. The title of the letter is taken from Saint Francis’ beautiful canticle, Laudato Si’, Praise be to you my Lord – best known now through the hymn, “All creatures of our God and King” (R&S 39).
Francis plea is for the whole human family to come together at this key moment in our history to seek sustainable development across the earth. The letter describes what is happening to our natural world: an accelerating process of decay. He draws attention to pollution on a massive scale; to climate change which threatens to change life on earth for ever, to acute water shortages, to the loss of biodiversity. The letter draws out the clear consequences for human life and the breakdown of human society. All of these developments heighten and increase inequality across the earth and disproportionately affect the poorest nations. “The poor,” says Pope Francis “should be at the heart of our concern for the environment and the two cannot be separated.” The letter is a wake- up call to a complacent world.
Like Spencer the Cookham artist, Francis sees the relationship each one of us has with creation as a profoundly spiritual matter. It is not just about economics, or saving the most vulnerable communities in the world, crucial though that is, it is about getting our whole relationship with nature and one another right.
It is important not to be over-romantic about the natural world. Rural poverty has stained human history and from which billions still suffer. Technological developments may lift some people out of gruelling toil. But our forebears knew that they had to treat the natural world with respect for its own unfolding rhythms, working in partnership with it, coaxing it rather than plundering it. That is why a key Christian concept of Francis’s letter is stewardship. The natural world is not ours to do with just as we like. We are accountable to one another and to future generations – accountable both for the economic policies of our governments and our own consumer habits.
Most human beings find refreshment through the natural world; Spencer found that tonic looking at a field full of daisies. Like the artist many experience a similar refreshment as something spiritual. The Encyclical is hard hitting about the complacency and lack of will in both Government policies and our own lifestyles in the developed world but is not finally pessimistic. As the letter says. “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home” We are still capable of “choosing what is good and making a new start.”
Minister, St Andrew’s Dawson Street, Crook