As children and families we often practiced “giving up candy” or something similar for Lent, with the promise of Easter baskets filled with candies, decorated Easter eggs and other favorites.
Now it may be the time to reflect on why we are celebrating Lent? According to our Catholic tradition, Lent is a good time for meditation and prayer, penance, sacrifice and good works to prepare for a deeper understanding of the life-death-resurrection of Jesus. During Lent we are called upon to think not only the themes of Lent, but also about our own purpose for existing and what changes or deeper understandings do we want to pursue in order to embrace in a fuller way the life-death-resurrection of Jesus.
This Lent let us accept the challenge to look more broadly and more consciously at the deeper realities in our own lives and the unfolding needs of the world and the evolving awesome universe.
We will do this under three headings: 1) the interconnectedness of all peoples and creation, 2) a serious social justice issue—the abundant use of plastics, 3) the creative Spirit unfolding in the universe.
Interconnectedness is seen in all aspects of life. We continue to learn more from scientists about our biological connections with plant and animal life, as well as the source and emergence of mountains and other apparently inert formations. A highpoint in our interconnectedness is our relationship with all of humanity. Similar genes are found in people across the earth: height, eye color, certain brain functions, propensities to specific diseases and the ability to adjust to many environmental conditions. Astronomy has unfolded the fact that each of us has remnants of “star dust” in our bodies.
There is also a social connectedness, a basic human yearning for some form of community. Very few people can survive in the absence of human interaction. At the same time, and this is a connection with many people also, there is the necessity to have time alone, to retreat from the world, in order to have a deeper consciousness of one’s values, connections, relationships and hopes for the future.
Besides the need for personal interactions, there also a necessity for the connection to other communities that may be very different from ours. In many forms of communal living it is essential to have community services that are open to the needs of others. These may include the talents of doctors, police officers, editors, priests, teachers, catechists, waste managers, artists, etc., all of whom are often organized in relationship to another talent group and serve communally.
Acknowledging the broader communal reality to which we belong may be both enriching and stretching. It may challenge us intellectually, emotionally and socially as we become more aware that we are part of the convergence of populations in the world, a community of many communities, races, cultures, religious traditions and governmental structures. When we recognize both the differences and the things we share in common, we can be inspired to be part of an immense and differentiated community, the world and even something broader than that, the universe.
During Lent we are especially aware of our call to meditate and pray for and with the many communities of which we are part. Our Lenten practices call us to make sacrifices for our own community as well as the needs of other groups which may desire our assistance both in terms of sharing our talents and also our resources. This is related closely to doing good works, which also require prayer, sacrifice, and human sharing and financial assistance.
The Universal Environment and Abundant use of Plastics
Not only do we have communal, international and global connections, but we are also interconnected environmentally. According to an EPA study, other scientific research and our own observations, the Earth’s climate is changing and that effects plant and animal life, as well as human life—all are interrelated. Around the world, temperatures continue to rise; snow and rain patterns are ever-changing; and higher than usual temperatures are being experienced.
These changes are related to rising levels of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases found in the air we breathe. These deviations, from what we used to consider normal, are caused by human activities. Scientists increasingly suspect that what we do with the environment on earth, has some impact on our solar system, and perhaps other galaxies, though there is no provable evidence thus far. The impact of renewable energy, particularly solar, is still being studied. Evidence is showing that, while there are many positive aspects to it, there are also some negative ones.
Ecology and our relationship to it are very complex. Instead of giving up and saying “I can’t do anything about it,” there are some things we can do. Pope Francis is so concerned about the environment he wrote a whole encyclical about it. In
he states that “There is a growing sensitivity to the environment and the need to protect nature, along with a growing concern, both genuine and distressing, for what is happening to our planet… Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.” (
#19) These words are reminiscent of what can be our Lenten practices: prayer, sacrifice and good works.
In this section we will focus briefly on one cause of pollution and ultimately climate change, that is our use of plastics. The production of plastics as we know them today, emerged in the 1950s. Now we have 9.2 billion tons of plastic with which to deal. 6.9 billion tons of that never made it to recycling. Recent news reports have reported the staggering amount of plastics that end up in the ocean. It is estimated that it would take 450 years for five plastic grocery bags filled with plastic trash to completely biodegrade into molecules. Subsequently, this “ocean plastic” kills millions of marine life and effects our food supply.
The facts go on and on. A June 2018 article in
noted these facts: “…40% of the now more than 448 million tons of plastic produced every year is disposable, much of it used in packaging intended to be discarded within minutes after purchase. Production has grown at such a breakneck pace that virtually half of plastic ever manufactured has been made in the past 15 years. Last year the Coca-Cola Company, perhaps the world’s largest producer of plastic bottles, acknowledged for the first time just how many it makes: 128 billion of year. Nestle, Pepsi Co. and others also churn out torrents of bottles.”
We are not naïve enough to believe that we can significantly change or eliminate this reality, but we can make a difference by being a good example and gather others around the issue so together we can make a difference. This can happen first at home. Can we request paper bags instead of plastic at our grocery store? These are much more easily recycled. Can we re-use plastic containers that are made for one thing, but can be used for other purposes, such as cottage cheese containers, can be used to store left-overs or renewable containers for liquids?
Can we work with our teachers, administrators, scout leaders, etc. to start a campaign and raise awareness of the harm plastic bottles cause our environment? Can we have our students and their parents, with support from the school or organization, write effective letters to their elected public officials raising their awareness of the negative effect plastic has on the environment and request that they do something about it?
Little steps will grow with some persistence and creativity. We can make a difference. What better time to start or continue this practice than during Lent. In this season of Lent we are called to make sacrifices, to do good deeds. To give up a few plastics will have a greater positive impact on the larger community than giving up candy, which does have some personal benefits.
The Creative Spirit Unfolding in the Universe
Lent is a good time, not only to think about our interconnections with each other and all creation, our need to “get down to earth” and care for our environment, but also to reflect on the larger picture of the vast universe which continues to evolve through the creative energy of the unfolding Spirit. Jesus reminds us in a Gospel proclaimed during the Easter season that he has come that we may have life and that more abundantly. (John 10:10)
The resurrection focuses on being more conscious of and deepening new life, as well as enhancing creativity. Rooted in a community that is energized to live faithfully is part of the experience with and in the evolving Spirit. The pattern of life-death-resurrection is found throughout our individual and social lives, in the nation, the world, in the solar system and the universe.
Moving through the dynamic movement of life and death into new life is found on the personal level where faith helps us get through the dark and painful moments. Such times might involve losing a loved one, being incapacitated in some form, failing in a project, missing a goal, or sharing in other’s disappointments.
Up until the early part of the 20h century, scientists believed that the universe was “all made.” They acknowledged that while things changed in the world, the universe itself did not change. In the 1920’s Edwin Hubble through using a hundred inch telescope discovered that there were many galaxies and that the universe itself was expanding.
Scientists, as a profession, were not acknowledged, as such, in the first century when the Christian Scriptures were written. However, there are symbolic references to a greater world than could be seen with the naked eye. One finds in Philippians, in Luke’s Gospel, and in some of the prayers during Easter time expressions like being “citizen of heaven,” God speaking through clouds or through fire and other references to the “holy mysteries.” There was a recognition “that there is more to life than meets the eye,” even though the universe, as such, is not mentioned, because it was not discovered until centuries later.
Now in the 21
century science has evolved and new insights and expressions of faith have developed through the dialogue between science and theology. Fr. Thomas Berry, a scientist, as well as a Passionist priest, has done much to show the relationship between our evolving and growing in faith and the evolving universe. He talks about the sacred character of the natural world being the primary revelation of the divine.
Pope Francis addressed evolution grounded in scientific realities and the Biblical stories about creation. He did not see them in conflict, but rather compatible. The Pope stated at a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that it is easy to misinterpret the creation story in Genesis as God as being a “magician, with a magic wand which is able to do everything.” The Pope continues, “But it is not so. God created beings and let them develop according to internal laws which God gave every one, so they would develop and reach maturity.”
The National Geographic published a special edition called “
Beyond Our Galaxy”
where we are challenged to 1) Discover the Multiverse, 2) Explore the Secrets of our Universe, 3) Experience the Latest Discoveries. It notes that if the 1918 edition of the magazine were written 25 years ago, it would have stopped with Pluto, the last planet to be discovered. Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) found that the universe is composed of many galaxies and that the universe was expanding, and has been since its beginning approximately 14 billion years ago. Scientists are now talking about a multiverse—many universes. NASA named the world’s first large optical telescope after Edwin Hubble, who confirmed the notion of an expanding universe. Not to over simplify all the work that NASA and other research scientists have done, it can be stated that stars die (because they lose fuel) and often are the bases for the formation of planets. What a broad example of death leading to new life. It draws forth a sense of awe and wonder as we look up at the star studded night sky, light years away.
What is the connection between the purpose of Lent and the suggested reflections around the topics of 1) our communal needs, 2) our need to respect the earth and “give up” something that if we continue to exploit it will ultimately destroy the earth 3) and being open to explore and be energized by a deepening knowledge of God’s unfolding creation of which we are all an intimate part? Each of these topics lends itself to mediation and prayer, sacrifice and doing good works.
In one sense Lent is a snap shot of what we are called to be and do throughout the year. Lent raises our consciousness to who we are and who we are called to be. We are invited to aware of the presence of God integrated into our lives and to see the interconnections in all aspects of our lives. Teilhard de Chardin reminds us that “By reason of creation and even more so the incarnation, nothing is profane for those who know how to see.” Lent is about seeing the connections between communities, the environment and our growing realization of the unfolding consciousness of the Spirit in our lives, the world and the universe.
As we contemplate our experience of Interconnectedness, the Environment and Plastics and the Creative Spirit Unfolding in the Universe for what are we most grateful? What is of greatest concern for us?
As we explore our communal relationships, the need to care for the earth and the Sprit in the evolving universe, what, if any, is the significance of these topics for you personally, at the local, national or international level?
What challenges do we face as we try to raise the consciousness of the importance of these topics how might we address these, or begin to address them?
From your perspective, what, if any, do you see as the connection between the topics and the observance of Lent—leading up to the celebration of the death-resurrection of Jesus.
References for further reflection
Journey of the Universe
Emmy award winner—Best Documentary Shelter Island
IMAX Hubble—Change Your View of Our Universe
, Warner Video
Books or Magazines
(Translated: “Praise Be to You.” Subtitled: On Care of our Common Home.) Pope Francis, May 24, 2015
National Geographic March 2019
We Are not Alone
National Geographic 2014
Beyond Our Galaxy, Exploring the Vastness of Space
The Dream of the Earth
Thomas Berry 2015-1988 Counter Point. Berkeley
Becoming Planetary People—Celebrations of Earth, Art and Spirit
Jim Conlon 2016, Trowbridge & Tintera Publishing
Turning to the Heavens and the Earth, Theological Reflections on a Cosmological Conversion
Essays in Honor of Elizabeth Johnson, edited by: Julia Brumbaugh and Natalia Imperatori-Lee 2016, Liturgical Press
Journey of the Universe,
Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker
Yale University Press
Living Cosmology, Christian Responses to Journey of the Universe,
edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim
The Universe and Beyond
(Fifth Edition) Terence Dickinson 2010. Firefly Books,
Maureen Gallagher is a Partner and Senior Consultant with The Reid Group, a national consulting firm providing services in Executive Search, Leadership Development, Strategic Planning, and Conflict Management to nonprofit and faith-based organizations.
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