In the history of famous Christian conversions, that of St. Augustine stands second only to St. Paul’s in stature. In both cases, Christianity would have looked very different today had either one of these men not turned off the path they were downward erring. A beautiful element of Augustine’s conversion not apparent in Paul’s is its communal nature. Paul experienced Christ directly, privately. Those around him at the crucial moment seemed unaffected by the occurrence. With Augustine, conversion took place within a believing community, consisting primarily of his mother, Monica. Without her ceaseless prayers, it is quite probable that the great Doctor of Grace would have died a heretic.
Prayer and community, therefore, were keystones to Augustine’s conversion. The saint himself attributes the commencement of his redemption to the unfailing faith of his mother. She saw her maternal responsibility not only in giving birth, nurturing, and educating her son, but equally in caring for his spiritual health. Her incessant intercessions proved that he was not alone.
The same should be said for us human beings as a species. On September 1, enter again the Season of Creation, the liturgical period that Pope Francis officially introduced to the Catholic Church in 2015, in order to help the faithful celebrate with greater intention and delight our embedded relation to the rest of the created order. In many ways, our treatment of Earth mirrors Augustine’s early struggles with egoism, error and disregard for others. Our profligate lifestyles, waste, and indifference to the biological ravages caused by our consumption parallel the personal sins of lust and wilful ignorance of which Augustine would later repent. But repentance came only after his heart was long softened by the tears of his mother. Similarly, I imagine Mother Earth as our modern day Monica praying tirelessly, torturously for our spiritual well-being.
For as it stands now, we, the denizens of wealthy, consumerist economies bearing much more responsibility than others for climate change, habitat loss and extinctions, live in mortal danger. The peril of judgement hangs over our heads for making life on this planet increasingly un-viable. We are stealing the future from coming generations of people and other species. This pains the Earth immensely, not only physically, but, as strange as it may sound, mystically. We are children of the Earth, and our violence and vice pierce her to the heart. Like Monica she pleads for our conversion.
And like Augustine, we need these prayers. Entrenched in sinful structures of injustice and convenience, we are too deeply sunk in our expectations and presumptions to climb out ourselves. Only God can deliver us. Yet it seems that we are powerless even to turn towards God on our own volition, despite all our scientific understanding of the magnitude of the situation. That is why the Earth prays for us, even as our behaviour wracks her cruelly. She has an instinctive certainty that our true happiness depends on our ecological conversion, whereby we are moved towards reconciliation with all other beings. She knows that we will always be restless until we rest in right relation with our Creator and the whole of creation.
As we celebrate the beautiful community of redemption which Monica and Augustine shared, let us give thanks and give ear to the petitions of our planet for our own loving conversion away from the errors of dominance and hubris towards nature, turning instead to humility and service as children of God and Earth.
–Greg Kennedy SJ is a Jesuit priest working as a spiritual director at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph, Ontario. His prayer often takes the form of poetry. Care of creation is central to his vocation. His new book, Reupholstered Psalms: Ancient Songs Sung New, is now available for purchase.