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The Possibility of Restraint

Franciscan Ecological Wisdom

The Possibility of Restraint
Friday, May 22, 2020

Francis rejoices in all the works of the Lord’s hands, and through their delightful display he gazes on their life-giving reason and cause. In beautiful things he discerns Beauty itself; all good things cry out to him: “The One who made us is the Best.” —Thomas of Celano

Goodness is a first principle of the universe. God declares it on the first page of the story of creation. —Barbara Holmes

Creation is the first Bible, as I (and others) like to say [1], and it existed for 13.7 billion years before the second Bible was written. Natural things like animals, plants, rocks, and clouds give glory to God just by being themselves, just what God created them to be. It is only we humans who have been given the free will to choose not to be what God created us to be. Surprisingly, the environmentalist and author Bill McKibben finds hope in this unique freedom. He writes:

The most curious of all . . . lives are the human ones, because we can destroy, but also because we can decide not to destroy. The turtle does what she does, and magnificently. She can’t not do it, though, any more than the beaver can decide to take a break from building dams or the bee from making honey. But if the bird’s special gift is flight, ours is the possibility of restraint. We’re the only creature who can decide not to do something we’re capable of doing. That’s our superpower, even if we exercise it too rarely.

So, yes, we can wreck the Earth as we’ve known it, killing vast numbers of ourselves and wiping out entire swaths of other life—in fact . . . we’re doing that right now. But we can also not do that. . . .

We have the tools (nonviolence chief among them) to allow us to stand up to the powerful and the reckless, and we have the fundamental idea of human solidarity that we could take as our guide. . . .

Another name for human solidarity is love, and when I think about our world in its present form, that is what overwhelms me. The human love that works to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, the love that comes together in defense of sea turtles and sea ice and of all else around us that is good. The love that lets each of us see we’re not the most important thing on earth, and makes us okay with that. . . . [2]

Over these past several months I have witnessed many examples of this restraint, which Bill McKibben calls love. While the lives of our elders, our vulnerable, and essential workers are at stake during the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of millions of us across the globe have been restraining ourselves at home, choosing not to do many things for many weeks in order to protect those we love (and those others love as well). Surely the earth is breathing a sigh of relief for our reduction in pollution and fossil fuel use. This “Great Pause,” as some are calling it, gives me hope that we will soon find it within ourselves to protect our shared home, not only for our own sake, but for our neighbors across the globe, and future generations.

References:
[1] Some brief examples describing the book of creation:

Anthony of Egypt: “My book is the nature of created things; any time I want to read the words of God, the book is before me.” Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, 62.

Augustine: “It is the divine page that you must listen to; it is the book of the universe that you must observe.” Expositions on the Psalms, 45.7

Ilia Delio: “Because the world expresses the Word . . . every creature is itself a “little word.” The universe, therefore, appears as a book representing and describing its Maker.” A Franciscan View of Creation (2003)

[2] Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? (Wildfire: 2019), 255, 256.

Epigraphs: The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, ch. 124. See Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2 (New City Press: 2000), 353; and

Holmes, Race and the Cosmos: An Invitation to View the World Differently, 2nd ed. (CAC Publishing: 2020), 216.

Image credit: Legend of St. Francis: 15. Sermon to the Birds (fresco detail), artist unknown, formerly attributed to Giotto di Bondone, c. 1297–1299, Upper Basilica of San Francesco d′Assisi, Assisi, Italy.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Saint Francis was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature, and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace. —Pope Francis
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