As a young child, accompanying the priest of our local village to remote chapels on our native island of Imvros in Turkey, the connection of the beautiful mountainside to the splendor of liturgy was abundantly clear. This is because the natural environment provides a panoramic vision of the world. Nature’s beauty leads us to a broader view of creation. It is like the wide-angle lens of a camera. It prevents us from using our planet’s resources in a narrowminded or selfish manner.
Eucharistic and Ascetic Beings
In the Orthodox Church, this broader vision is defined by the “eucharistic” and “ascetic” dimensions of life. These two fundamental concepts – “eucharist” and “ascesis” – are profoundly theological and spiritual. The implications of the first term are easily appreciated. The word comes from the Greek word eucharistia, or “thanksgiving,” the same term used for the sacrament of the Divine Liturgy. In calling for a “eucharistic spirit,” the Orthodox Church reminds us that the world is not our private property, but a precious treasure or divine gift. And the proper response to God’s gift is gratitude. The second term that defines our response to God’s generosity is “ascesis,” which derives from the Greek word askeo and describes the way we treat creation. The world’s resources are offered to us by God not only to satisfy our needs, but rather to be shared with others. They are not ours to abuse or waste simply because we have the desire to consume them or the ability to pay for them. The ascetic dimension implies a vocation to respect and protect creation through self-restraint and self-control, as well as through frugality and simplicity. In this way, everything is restored to its original vision and purpose, as God intended it from the moment of creation.
Love for the Whole of Creation
On the sixth day of creation, God fashioned humankind in His image and likeness. (Gen. 1.26) However, most people tend to forget that numerous “living creatures of every kind, cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind” (Gen. 1.24) were also created on that same day. The close connection between humanity and the rest of creation is a reminder of the intimate relationship that we share as human beings with the rest of creation. There is more that unites us with the earth than separates us from it. This is a lesson of which science and ecology have reminded us in recent decades. The saints of the early Eastern Church also understood this lesson very well. They knew that a person with a pure heart was able to sense the connection with the rest of creation, especially the animal world. And this reality has parallels in both Eastern and Western Christianity. Think about St. Francis of Assisi talking to the sun and the moon, or St. Seraphim of Sarov feeding the bear in the forest. This connection with the rest of creation is not merely emotional; it is profoundly spiritual. It is the same truth expressed by St. Paul in his Letter to the Colossians, when he spoke of all things created in Christ. (Col. 1.15-17) This is why Abba Isaac of Nineveh wrote in the seventh-century desert of Syria:
What is a merciful heart? It is a heart, which is burning with love for the whole of creation: for human beings, for birds, for beasts, for demons – for all of God’s creatures.