Christianity and Ecology: Lessons on Sustainability from the Early Irish Sea

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A fascinating event held recently at St. Paul’s was this seminar and discussion led by Prof. Alfred Siewers of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania (referenced in this previous post). You can now listen to both parts of the recording made of the seminar via Ancient Faith Radio:

  • Part One—the bulk of the seminar, introduced by your host, in which I warble on a bit about my 2001 pilgrimage in the British Isles. Prof. Siewers gives a fascinating talk about Irish Christian monasticism and how it lived in terms of ecology (“the story of home”).

  • Part Two—the question and answer session, featuring both Prof. Siewers and your humble servant.

Interested parties can also download Prof. Siewers’s handout here.

Sweet Afton

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River Afton, Ayrshire, Scotland

Flow gently, sweet Afton! amang thy green braes,
Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise;
My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

Thou stockdove whose echo resounds thro’ the glen,
Ye wild whistling blackbirds in yon thorny den,
Thou green-crested lapwing thy screaming forbear,
I charge you, disturb not my slumbering Fair.

How lofty, sweet Afton, thy neighbouring hills,
Far mark’d with the courses of clear, winding rills;
There daily I wander as noon rises high,
My flocks and my Mary’s sweet cot in my eye.

How pleasant thy banks and green valleys below,
Where, wild in the woodlands, the primroses blow;
There oft, as mild Ev’ning weeps over the lea,
The sweet-scented birk shades my Mary and me.

Thy crystal stream, Afton, how lovely it glides,
And winds by the cot where my Mary resides;
How wanton thy waters her snowy feet lave,
As, gathering sweet flowerets, she stems thy clear wave.

Flow gently, sweet Afton, amang thy green braes,
Flow gently, sweet river, the theme of my lays;
My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

Robert Burns, 1791

I’m not entirely sure why, but this poem’s been on my mind ever since my son Elias was born on Sunday. I must admit to first being introduced to it by Nickel Creek, who included a musical version of it on their debut album, framed by a melody which is so clear and appropriate that one feels that it could not have had any author.

There is something about the anchoring of and in place that comes forward at the birth of a child, particularly (if I may) a son. Since the days of Adam, men have as part of their vocation on this earth to provide stability, unity and name. (And women provide civilization and a motivation for men to undertake their calling.)

Both of my children have so far been born in Pennsylvania, while both their parents are native Virginians. This seems right to me, in a way I cannot quite explain but which is particularly informed by the reality that, in my own immediate family, between five members are five native states. That’s just how things turned out for us, but it’s not something I’d like to perpetuate.

With a new man comes a new grounding in the ecology (per Prof. Alfred Siewers, “the story of home”), a new generation to be ordered among the fathers and grandfathers. Here in 21st century America, the fathers and grandfathers rarely call the same place home.

My prayer is that my generation may be among the last to be so scattered across this world. It seems to me that the Incarnation almost expects it.

For us, there is only the trying

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The remains of St. Ninians Chapel, Whithorn
The remains of St. Ninian's Chapel, Whithorn

Among other saintly commemorations today, we remember Ninian, the Enlightener of Scotland. From all apparent worldly analyses, St. Ninian was something of a failure. He’s called the Enlightener of Scotland, because he first brought the Christian faith there in the final years of the 4th century, but he wasn’t terribly successful. He never saw the astounding conversions the way Columba did nearly 200 years later.

Yet what drove Ninian was never a desire for numbers. Out there working among the savage Picts, quite past what everyone else at the time would have considered civilization, Ninian was unlikely to be receiving any Lifetime Achievement Awards. Indeed, he left so little evidence of his passing that some secular scholars even doubt his existence (but Bede didn’t, and that is, to be frank, quite good enough for me). If Ninian had wanted recognition or even the satisfaction of a job well and fruitfully done, he was in the wrong place.

St. Ninian, like all the saints and like all true Christians, was motivated not by any of these things, but rather by what we might call a “holy selfishness.” It is said that monks are permitted only one addictive passion—books. Likewise, Christians are permitted only one selfishness, only one consuming desire which they may seek to sate at any cost—the love of Christ.

What Ninian knew was that he had to try to missionize these impossible people, these nasty Picts. Why? Because in doing so, it brought him closer and closer to Christ. This might sound a bit shocking. Surely a saint is more altruistic! Surely he is driven by unselfish love for his fellow man! Surely he cannot have undertaken this almost monstrous effort just to satisfy his own spiritual pursuits!

But really, it is impossible to love one’s fellow man, truly love him with real unselfishness, if one does not love Christ. And the awful (that is, awesome to the point of inducing reverence which can be painful if not borne and practiced aright, i.e., to be awe-full) secret of Christian life is that in seeking to slake our thirst for the God-man, we find ourselves pouring out ourselves as drink for the God-man’s brothers and sisters. To love God is to love men, women and children. And likewise, to lose one’s life is to gain it. This is the meaning of the Apostle’s words: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”

There is a perplexing paradox here. If we try to emphasize one side of this curious image—”altruism” or “piety” (however you might define them)—then we destroy the other. Ninian was not dedicated to “social change.” Nor was he some sort of sectarian, happy to live in cultic bliss without contact with creation. He was a priest, which means both those things and neither of them. Anyway, we know from experience that the pietist and the activist both lack true piety and true action. (And, if I may presume to say it, they usually lack true imagination, as well.)

Thus, as Mr. Eliot told us some years ago:

…And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

The rest, indeed, is no business of ours. We are called to have faith and to be faithful. We are not called to be successful, not even with what is ostensibly God’s work. After all, it is God’s work. What holy Ninian found was not, in the end, work at all. It was God.

And that is what he was after.