Just as our bodies need refreshment and rest, so too do our souls. And for centuries, Catholics have established places where we can step away from our busy schedules and contemplate the deeper mysteries of life. Whether it be at a retreat house, shrine, or hermitage, these holy places help to reorient and refocus ourselves back to an existence centered on God.
Most often, these springs of spiritual refreshment tend to be located in rural, pastoral locations, for to be surrounded by God’s creation tends to foster deep prayer and reflection. The vast ocean, the soaring mountains, the serene forest immerse us in a reality that is larger than ourselves, and remind us of how all of it came to be through God’s hand.
Early in the history of the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm, Mother Angeline purchased a large tract of land in the Hudson Valley, with sweeping views of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains, to serve as their motherhouse. Generations of sisters have spent their formative years here, a place of quiet and serene beauty. And it not uncommon to see sisters strolling the long road that cuts through the property, praying their rosary or simply reflecting on some spiritual matter. Through all the varied seasons, the sisters there are immersed in God’s creation. It was important to Mother Angeline to have this place, a place of natural beauty, for the spiritual renewal and nourishment of her daughters in Carmel.
The Catholic tradition has always looked to the natural world as evidence of God’s Providence and design: The earth is the LORD’s and all it holds, the world and those who dwell in it. For he founded it on the seas, established it over the rivers. (Psalm 24). Who, but God, could create both the striking magnificence of the redwood forests and the delicate engineering of the hummingbird? Who, but God, could establish the vast canvas of stars in the night sky, or the great variety of animals that populate our planet?
In recent years, our reverence for the natural world has taken on a more serious tone as we witness and experience the effect of climate change. While some may not regard this as a traditional Catholic concern, both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have urged Catholics to be attentive to this important issue. Pope Benedict wrote in the Papal Encyclical Caritas in Veritate (2009): The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction.
Essentially, care for our natural world is a pro-life position, as Pope Benedict himself wrote, “Today, more than ever, it appears clear to us that respect for the environment cannot fail to recognize the value and inviolability of the human person in every phase of life and in every condition. Respect for the human being and respect for nature are one and the same, but they will both be able to develop and to reach their full dimension if we respect the Creator and his creature in the human being and in nature.” To be pro-life is, certainly, to fight vigorously for the unborn and to protect the dignity of our elderly. But it is also to value and reverence the world that God has entrusted us with, the world that God has made us stewards of. To ignore the plight of our earth is, as Pope Benedict says, essentially suicide. Our interdependence with nature is not a trivial matter, but necessary for our survival.
Our current ecological consciousness postdates Mother Angeline’s time on earth, but were she alive today, one would expect her, with her sensitivity and with concern for the most vulnerable, to reflect deeply on how we can better care for the world that God has given to us. And Mother, in her day, was regarded as “ahead of her time” (and by suspicion by some) as she introduced a new way of caring for the elderly. However, at the heart of everything she did was her profound love for the elderly and for the Church. Mother understood that her “new” ideas were only radical in that they demanded caring for the elderly as Jesus himself would. Sometimes looking at things in new ways can be disorienting and seem “radical”, but if we do so rooted in our faith and trust in the Lord, we can be assured that we will not be led astray. May we take to heart the words that Pope Francis has written, “Creation is a gift, it is a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude.”