A few posts ago, I wrote that “spiritual disciplines are also a means of caring for creation” and asked, “What if Sabbath, simplicity, and fasting were the starting points of a Christian ethic of caring for the earth?” I really think that spiritual disciplines are where we should begin in talking about how Christians should practice environmental stewardship. There are two reasons why: (1) Spiritual disciplines are means of changing our hearts. This is how we cultivate an attitude of reverence for the Creator that leads to protection of creation. (2) Practicing spiritual disciplines in themselves yield simple benefits for the environment.
First, much of the environmental destruction present in the world today is due to the effects of human greed, violence, or other sin. Through spiritual disciplines such as simplicity, we learn to live within limits, not taking more than we need. The fourth century monk St. Evagrios the Solitary taught that one should “Keep to a sparse and plain diet . . .” and “with regard to clothes, be content with what is sufficient for the needs of the body” (Philokalia p. 32). On a spiritual level, a disciplined diet helps one overcome the other desires of the body. Fasting from food was prescribed by early monks as a way of training the body to avoid other sensual desires (i.e. lust). Similarly, St. Evagrios goes on to say that being content with what we need for clothing in the same way helps us spiritually tame our pride and our worry. Now think about this: if through spiritual disciplines we train ourselves to limit our desires and to humble ourselves, are we not also recognizing our creatureliness that helps us to honor the Creator?
But the importance of spiritual disciplines for creation-care extends beyond the spiritual into the concrete realities of daily life. Returning to the practice of fasting, we rarely think about the way our diet affects the environment. A simple diet is not only better for our health and for training ourselves spiritually – it also protects the earth by reducing the polluting side-effects of our consumption. (No, I’m not saying we all have to go vegetarian, but what if we practiced fasting in a way that took the food industry’s effect on the environment into account? The Orthodox tradition of a vegan fast during parts of Advent and Lent is an example. Fair Trade and Organic/Local foods are other examples.)
The same could be said of the practice of Sabbath. On this topic, I strongly recommend the chapter on Sabbath Environmentalism in Norman Wirzba’s book Living the Sabbath (Brazos 2006). On a spiritual level, Sabbath reminds us of our creatureliness by forcing us to stop and trust in the Creator’s providence for our sustenance. This reinforces the lessons of fasting and simplicity that teach us to limit our desires, or at least not to trust in human ability to fulfill our desires. On a practical level, imagine the decrease in greenhouse gas emissions or other pollutants that would come from a disciplined practice of Sabbath? What if Sabbath meant walking instead of driving, or eating simple meals at home rather than going out, or not turning on high energy appliances or electronics one day per week? A practice like this not only would shape us spiritually to be less harmful to creation, but would have an immediate tangible impact.