This is a shortened version of a text written by sisters at Annunciation Monastery at Ormylia in Greece, a monastery re-introducing organic farming methods in a region badly damaged by agricultural pesticides. The booklet includes a message from the former Patriarch of Constamntinople, Dimitrios. and details about the project being launched at Ormylia. It is available without charge from World Wide Fund for Nature, Ave. du Mont Blanc, 1196 Gland, Switzerland. The icon — part of sequence on the seven days of creation — is a mosaic at the cathedral of Monreal, Sicily.
“Thine own of thine own we offer unto thee.” With these words the Liturgy captures the heart of the Orthodox understanding of our relationship to creation and Creator. Creation is of God. We do not own creation but are the free agents through whom creation is offered to the Creator.
The purpose of creation is summed up in its worship of the Creator. This is most beautifully expressed in the Christmas Hymn, “What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, who for our sake was seen on earth as man? For every thing created by Thee offers Thee thanks. The angels offer Thee their hymn; the heavens, the star; the Magi their gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, the cave; the wilderness, the manger; while we offer Thee a Virgin Mother, O pre-eternal God, have mercy upon us…” (Hymn for Vespers)
The whole of the universe worships and offers gifts to its Creator. In the very shape of the churches and the placing of the icons, mosaics or frescoes within them we find a microcosm of the universe which clarifies the role both of humanity and of the rest of creation in relation to God. For it is an expression not just of what is on earth today, but of what exists in heaven and what is to come — the eschatological promise and the redemptive transformation of all creation through the salvation wrought by Christ Jesus. This is expressed by Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter 8. As the Greek Fathers have also taught, “God became man so that man can become God.”
In worship the Orthodox church conveys this profound understanding of creation. In particular, the role of humanity as the priesthood of creation is most clearly shown.
The blessing of the waters shows us the sanctifying and redemptive power given to an element of creation through the invocation of the Holy Spirit by the Church: “Therefore, O King who lovest mankind, do Thou Thyself be present now as then through the descent of Thy Holy Spirit and sanctify this water. And confer upon it the grace of redemption, the blessing of the Jordan. Make it a source of incorruption, a gift of sanctification, a remission of sins, a protection against disease, a destruction to demons, inaccessible to the adverse powers and filled with angelic strength: that all who draw from it and partake of it may have it for the cleansing of their soul and body, for the healing of their passions, for the sanctification of their dwellings, and for every purpose that is expedient. For Thou art our God, who hast renewed through water and spirit our nature grown old through sin…” (Prayer for Blessing of Waters at Theophany)
Orthodox worship is about the celebration and use of all aspects of the senses. It is about sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. It uses and appreciates the material — be that wood and paint, writing materials, bread and wine or burning incense.
“I shall not cease reverencing matter, by means of which my salvation has been achieved,”Saint John Damascus wrote in his essay defending icons. The use of materials to make icons and the presence of elements of the natural world in most icons — animals, plants, countryside, mountains, rivers all affirm the God-given nature of creation; its transfiguration and its place with us in salvation. The anti-gnostic teachings of the Church mean that the material world is held to be of God and is thus, in its essence, good.
Similarly, Byzantine Churches were built in harmony with their natural surroundings. The art of architecture was not autonomous but together with iconography and chant contributed to the ethos of worship, giving it its physical, material expression. Thus it was natural that absolute symmetry was usually avoided; each architectural feature retained its own character while maintaining complete harmony with the overall conception.
At the center of worship is the Eucharist, the most sublime expression and experience of creation transformed by God the Holy Spirit through redemption and worship. In the form of bread and wine, material from creation molded into new form by human hands is offered to God with the acknowledgment, spelt out in the words at the head of this paper, that all of creation is God’s and that we are returning to God that which is His. In the sense that this captures the primordial relationship of Adam to both God and Creation, it is a sign of the restoration of that relationship and even more than that a foretaste of the eschatological state of creation. When we partake of the body and blood of Christ, God meets us in the very substance of our relationship with creation and truly enters into the very being of our biological existence.
>From this, we know that humanity occupies the most special place of all in creation — but is not the whole of creation. We know …
>… crucial example of our power over creation and also of the potentially disastrous results of the greedy exercise of that power.
Just as the priest at the Eucharist offers the fullness of creation and receives it back as the blessing of Grace in the form of the consecrated bread and wine, to share with others, so we must be the channel through which God’s grace and deliverance is shared with all creation. The human being is simply yet gloriously the means for the expression of creation in its fullness and the coming of God’s deliverance for all creation.
As Saint Isaac the Syrian taught, “The humble man approaches ravening beasts, and when their gaze rests upon him, their wildness is tamed. They come up to him as to their Master, wag their heads and tails and lick his hands and feet, for they smell coming from him that same scent that exhaled from Adam before the fall, when they were gathered together before him and he gave them names in Paradise. This was taken away from us, but Jesus has renewed it, and given it back to us through His Coming. This it is which has sweetened the fragrance of the race of men.” (Homily 77, Ascetical Homilies)
But, when we look today at our world, we see a different picture. Humanity’s rebellion, pride and greed has shattered the primordial relationship of Adam. It has ignored or discarded the Church’s understanding of our role as priests of creation. For now we behave like the exploiters and robbers of creation. By doing so, we have brought not just species but entire eco-systems to destruction. Our world is facing a crisis of death and corruption to a degree never before experienced. The Fathers of the Church, while being able to recognize the basic cause, sin, never had to experience such all-embracing and life threatening consequences of sin to creation as we do today.
“The earth is mourning, withering, the heavens are pining away with the earth,” Isaiah preached. “The earth is defiled under its inhabitants’ feet, for they have transgressed the law, violated the precept, broken the everlasting covenant. So a curse consumes the earth and its inhabitants suffer the penalty, that is why the inhabitants of the earth are burnt up and few are left.” (Isaiah 24:3-6)
Throughout the world, forests are being destroyed by fires and logging; wetlands are being drained for development and agriculture; species are disappearing as a result of greed and ignorance; natural resources are being wasted faster than they can be replenished; waters are being soiled and skies polluted. This global crisis is threatening the very world upon which we human beings depend.
We must attempt to return to a proper relationship within the Creator and the creation. This may well mean that just as a shepherd will in times of greatest hazard, lay down his life for his flock, so human beings may need to forego part of their wants and needs in order that the survival of the natural world can be assured. This is a new situation — a new challenge. It calls for humanity to bear some of the pain of creation as well as to enjoy and celebrate it. It calls first and foremost for repentance — but of an order not previously understood by many.
“Love all God’s creation,” wrote Fyodor Mikhail Dostoevsky, “the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light! Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. And once you have perceived it, you will begin to comprehend it ceaselessly, more, more and more every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an abiding universal love. Love the animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and untroubled joy. Do not therefore, trouble it, do not torture them, do not deprive them of their joy, do not go against God’s intent.”
But repentance without action is meaningless. As Christ says, “Many will call me ‘Lord, Lord’, but only those who do the will of my Father shall enter heaven.” So we must call for an ascetic approach to give expression in our everyday life, to this repentance.
The monastic and ascetic traditions of Orthodoxy offer important insights. They develop sensitivity to the suffering of all creation; there are many stories of saints living side by side with other creatures, sharing their everyday life. They offer a celebratory use of resources of creation in a spirit of enkrateia [self-control, voluntary abstention] and liberation from the passions. Within such a tradition many have experienced a more profound joy and a more lasting satisfaction than the ephemeral pleasures of a consumer society. The emphasis in the cenobitic monastic tradition on community rather than individual life is central to a balanced understanding of our needs.
It is in this asceticism that many of us will experience the pain which is that of the shepherd willing to suffer for the sake of his flock. For without substantial changes in how we live and what we expect from life, we will fail to fulfil our God-given role in creation.
Too many of us have allowed greed, selfishness and ignorance to alter our world and the way we relate to it. Our agricultural land, once clean and productive, has been spoiled by excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. By burning our forests, land grabbers are destroying a fragile resource simply to gain illegal title to land. Developers both large and small, who dump raw sewage into our once crystal-clear seas and who build haphazardly on our beaches are attacking not only those of us who were content with living in harmony with nature, a nature that is vanishing, but are attacking many aspects of creation as a whole.
We cannot continue plundering God’s creation without reaping the results of its eventual destruction.
We should also note that we cannot look at creation and decide what is useful, what is not. Jesus taught us that it was through those things which men called foolish that God has often spoken to us. The weak, the ‘useless’, the foolish, the broken have to be taken as part of the whole of creation, for through them we can often glimpse more of God than through the great, the powerful and the useful.
Who on earth would look at a tiny pink forest flower and guess that the rosy periwinkle is responsible for virtually eradicating childhood leukemia? Should not the needs of sea turtles to nest and reproduce on Zakynthis and Akamas — their Mediterranean nesting sites be recognized as fully as those of the tourists to enjoy themselves? Nature abounds with thousands of examples of seemingly useless or even harmful pests, reptiles, plants and mammals. Yet when examined closely, what is harmful or useless to some species may be crucial to others. We are in no position to make that judgment. He who is has not set a sliding scale on the value of that which will be allowed to survive and that which will not.
We need to constantly encounter and be challenged by the profound teachings of the Church and by the cry of creation — the flock over which we have been set — but which now lies victim to our faithlessness. Our model can only be the One who came to be the shepherd to his flock — Jesus Christ.