Center of Concern | Fri, Nov 14, 2008
Returning to the city last weekend from a course I had attended in Virginia, I took a detour through Shenandoah National Park. My father would bring my brothers and myself here on fall breaks when we were children, a trip I always loved. I hadn't been back since, but memory did not disappoint - Shenandoah is stunningly beautiful this time of year.
I hiked up a trail to find a rock outcropping overlooking a valley below, with trees in a myriad of autumn hues carpeting the hillsides around me. It was absolutely breathtaking, and I realized with some sadness how long it had been since I had last taken a moment just to be in a natural setting.
I have read various reflections on how our competitive and materialistic culture has created a disconnect in communities. Many of us no longer know our neighbors. Individuals and families feel increasingly isolated, and have fewer networks of support to rely on in times of crisis. Widening the angle on the lens, most of us don't know where our food is grown, or where the products we purchase are made, let alone by whom.
But I think the disconnect goes deeper. Our communities are not only determined by people, and the relationships (or lack thereof) between them. Communities are also physical entities, located in a given place, and shaped by natural forces - weather patterns, air and water quality, access to land, endemic flora and fauna. But how often do we take note of these things, beyond mere questions of convenience? Our relationship to the physical world we inhabit is profoundly fractured as well.
As Pope John Paul II reflected, "the aesthetic value of creation cannot be overlooked. Our very contact with nature has a deep restorative power; contemplation of its magnificence imparts peace and serenity. The Bible speaks again and again of the goodness and beauty of creation, which is called to glorify God" (1990 World Day of Peace Message, 14).
Only that contact is becoming rarer, and harder to access for too many of us. We don't have the time, or fail to take the time, to be awed and humbled, not just by the beauty of our wild spaces, but by the power and drama of a summer storm, the delicacy of the cherry blossoms in spring, the magic of first snow. Or just the leaves drifting off the tree outside my office window as I write this.
Of all the looming ecological crises, from climate change to loss of biodiversity to air pollution, perhaps this one, our disconnectedness from Creation, is both the most basic and the most dangerous. Because what we feel no connection to, we feel no responsibility to protect or care for. And our unconcern affects not just ourselves, but the health and wholeness of all of our communities, local and global.
The problems we face, as we look at each individually, seem monumental and overwhelming. But at heart, the question seems to be more one of relationships that must be re-established - with our neighbors, with the natural world, and with the Divine. In a spirit of reconciliation and humility, it may not provide all the answers or mend all the ruptures, but at least it seems a good place to start.