Laudato Si’ . . . a Call to Contemplation

A spiral can start small and journey upward and outward. At some point the arm of the spiral begins to shift upward and comes around again moving across the same terrain but from a different and wider circle. The spiral transcends its current path yet includes it as it goes around in its orbit. (Image from creativity103.com and used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0)

Pope Francis’ encyclical,"Laudato Si’ , on Care For Our Common Home," unequivocally names human behavior as a major cause of global climate change and urges all sectors of society to examine our actions, policies and behaviors in light of this urgent situation. It speaks to how the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor are one and that all forms of poverty – environmental and human – need to be addressed in an interconnected way.

However, as I read the encyclical I was struck with how it is much more than a moral exhortation on a very complex issue. I saw within it an invitation to contemplation. There was a section that caught my attention. It reads “There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm” (111).

It was the phrase, “a distinctive way of looking at things,” which in an earlier draft was translated as “a new gaze,” that resonated with me. I felt it evoked the understanding of contemplation as “taking a long loving look at the real.” There is an invitation in the encyclical to look at the worldview, the values, and the assumptions that have shaped us and modern industrialized society and which now are bankrupt. There is an invitation to transform our consciousness.

When I give talks I often speak to how our consciousness both individual and collective evolves in a developmental way. I draw on the works of many scholars and use the spiral to give an image to this complex reality. It helps to understand what I’m saying if I describe what my spiral looks like. Picture a spiral that starts small and journeys upward and outward. At some point the arm of the spiral begins to shift upward and comes around again moving across the same terrain but from a different and wider circle. The spiral transcends its current path yet includes it as it goes around in its orbit.

As consciousness develops it acts somewhat like this spiral. Because of changing conditions – i.e. the scientific revolution, the advent of quantum physics, new understanding of the origins of the universe – different values, beliefs, assumptions enter our consciousness, and like the arm of our spiral we shift upward and outward into greater complexity. New structures, systems, ways of living are created which may replace the old ways of doing/being or may exist side by side with what has gone before. These worldviews for the most part are like the air we breathe. We are not always aware of the forces that influence us until something happens. The spiral shifting is one such moment. The next evolutionary stage often occurs when the current dominant worldview or paradigm has exhausted itself and has begun to breakdown. That breakdown is felt very personally causing great discomfort, insecurity and even fear.

I believe Pope Francis is addressing such a shift of consciousness in this encyclical. Without using this language he addresses how the “technocratic paradigm” no longer works. This is the worldview that has shaped modern industrialized society and has brought us great advances in technology. However, it is a worldview that sees things as separate and disconnected. Such a paradigm in no longer adequate. He writes, “The fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, and yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant. This very fact makes it hard to find adequate ways of solving the more complex problems of today’s world, particularly those regarding the environment and the poor; these problems cannot be dealt with from a single perspective or from a single set of interests” (110).

Pope Francis makes the connections among all the numerous problems facing us that are part of environmental poverty and human poverty. He sees everyone and everything connected. He is inviting us to see beyond this atomistic worldview and generate a new way of looking, thinking, policy-making that will address these complex problems out of a new consciousness.

Albert Einstein said we cannot solve the problems at the same level of consciousness that created them. I believe this encyclical echoes that belief. We know something is wrong with our world, with ourselves.

The pope addresses this when he talks about leaving behind the modern myth of “progress” when he writes, “There is also the fact that people no longer seem to believe in a happy future; they no longer have blind trust in a better tomorrow based on the present state of the world and our technical abilities. There is a growing awareness that scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history, a growing sense that the way to a better future lies elsewhere. This is not to reject the possibilities which technology continues to offer us. But humanity has changed profoundly, and the accumulation of constant novelties exalts a superficiality which pulls us in one direction. It becomes difficult to pause and recover depth in life. . . . Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this, and continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything.  Otherwise we would simply legitimate the present situation and need new forms of escapism to help us endure the emptiness" (113).

“Humanity has changed profoundly” the encyclical states, and we are in the midst of a revolution. The arm of the spiral has begun to shift and to transcend the worldview that has dominated industrialized countries for over 500 years. Our response cannot be to go backwards – that is impossible. Rather we enter the future from this paradigm acknowledging its strengths and limits so as to include that which is of value as we continue outward interpreting our reality from this new place. We need to bring forth, as Pope Francis states, “. . . an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life.  A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal” (202).

The encyclical is a call to address global climate change and tells us we can’t do it in the old ways. It is a call to a new way of being. For me, that is a call to contemplation: to see with new eyes; to respond out of that space of Divine indwelling. Then we will act out of this new awareness creating structures, policies, systems that support this emerging consciousness.

I don’t believe we will be able to address global climate change without such a shift in consciousness. Those of us who have already begun to engage this transformation rooted in contemplation have a significant role to play. We can offer to many the spiritual practices that invite such a transformation; we can share how to face the fears of change and letting go of what has served us so well in the past; we can reflect on our own journey of shifting consciousness; we can explore with others how we saw the integrity of creation to be equal to the work of justice and peace; and we can share the evolutionary understanding of our faith.  The encyclical opens a space for transformation so necessary to respond to the cries of the poor. Let us keep widening it.

[Nancy Sylvester, IHM, is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan as well as in the Presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that she was National Coordinator of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]

To read Nancy Sylvester's entire series, click on her author name above or click here to see a list of her columns.