Among the many remarkable aspects of Laudato si’ is the way it takes the latest advances in our human understanding of creation uncovered by science, and reflects on their spiritual and ethical implications. I suppose the most familiar example is the way the encyclical relies on scientific evidence to anchor its call on us to confront the challenges presented by climate change.
The refrain that recurs most frequently through the encyclical, however, is a call to look on the other creatures with the new understanding that modern science has gifted us with. The advance of science in recent years enables us to see and appreciate the complexity, beauty and diversity of other life forms in altogether new ways.
It used to be the case, so limited is our ability to see the true state of things, to get our small human heads around the way God is at work in the world: it used to be the case that we could think of all those millions of species – and there are millions, each one different from all the others – as ornaments, little more than props on the stage on which the great drama of creation, where the only important actors with lines to say are ourselves, is enacted, plays out.
We can no longer think like this, Pope Francis tells us, because the deeper understanding that the attentive gaze of scientific advance provides, shocks us into an altogether more mature spiritual grasp of what the other creatures of the earth are all really about.
This is what Pope Francis tells us. ‘The creatures of the earth’ he tells us; ‘The creatures of the earth were not created in the first instance for us to dispose of as we will, regardless of their place in God’s plan. They are primarily for ‘the fulfilment of God’s own unfolding plan for Creation.’ (Laudato si, 53).
Not often in the earlier history of Christian reflection on God’s creation do we see this insight surface: which is not surprising, because we were so short-sighted, we simply couldn’t see, unless we were one of those few gifted with that insight beyond seeing that mystics have: the spiritual instinct that is attuned to that something deeper.
In our own Irish spiritual tradition there are sparks of this spiritual instinct in the voluminous literature on the lives of the early Irish saints. One typical little anecdote is a tale in the life of an almost forgotten Waterford saint called Maol Anfaidh, who lived in the second half of the sixth century, which recounts how on one occasion the saint was out for a walk when he encountered a small bird wailing and sorrowing by the side of the road; and as he wondered what this could mean an angel informed him that ‘Saint Molua had just died, and all living things bewailed his passing, for he never killed a living thing, great nor small; not more do men bewail him than the other living things do, and among them the little bird that you see.’
And why would it not grieve in its different way, given that on every level that biology or medical science can study, it is every bit as complex as I am? In its own way its life is as important to itself as mine is to me. In its way, by being itself, it acclaims the creator God who has made it with the same loving care as he has created me and all those around me I see as so worthy of the love and care I bestow on them, as perhaps no-one else can see them?
This is true in its different way of every species, each unique in its praise simply by being what it is. Here is how Pope Francis puts it in Laudato si’: Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things. (Laudato si, 69).
The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us to a common point of arrival, which is God. (Laudato si, 83). Our role is to further that plan: ‘so that our planet might be what he desired when he created it, and correspond with his plan for peace, beauty and fullness.’ (Laudato si, 53)
I don’t know what little bird by the side of the road caught Maol Anfaidh’s attention. It could have been, perhaps, if it was close to a stream, the dipper, in Irish an gabha dubh, a bird like a white-breasted blackbird which you can see along every clear stream that waters the west of Ireland, going about its everyday business, hardly ever noticed.
If you’re not particularly interested in birds you might think it’s not worth a second thought. But if a deeper awareness of what God is about in creation is stirring in you, you will begin to see something else.
The dipper walks or dips underwater, remaining submerged to feed on aquatic insects. The stream is its habitat, the one corner of the world for which it has been shaped by millions of years of evolution. All the time the waterfall is in its ears, an endlessly varying symphony of sound that is different for every part of the river, different at different times of the year, so different each spot on the river could be identified by the dipper from its distinctive harmony alone.
The dipper, in a sense, is the waterfall. Its ears know nothing of any world of sound beyond the water. Its genes and proteins are so attuned to every nuance of the movement and sound of the water and the dance of light and current; it belongs in this place so intimately that every detail is part of its being in a way we can never really appreciate because it is so far beyond our superficial experience of a corner of the world that evolution has endowed the dipper to belong in and respond to, with all the biological capacity, but very differently tuned and pitched, that we humans possess. For the dipper, one stretch of stream is its entire world: it experiences no other. It reflects the ecological essence of the stream; it is its spirit.
But the important thing here is to appreciate that the sensory capacity of the bird equips it to respond in a way that is comparable with our own human response. It might have been possible a few centuries ago for some people to think an animal was an elaborate piece of clockwork, that its responses were automatic, that it was incapable of feeling pain or joy, much less anything beyond. But now our science shows us that on a physical level it has everything we have, and if we can take a step far enough back to see the entire picture – to view things holistically – it is so obvious that the very purpose of these capacities is to enable it to respond, to feel: and these feelings will include joy and pain – even if at this moment science finds it difficult to devise calipers of sufficient sensitivity to take hold of it or rulers of a sensitivity adequate to its measurement.
But the dipper is much more than this. With our theological spectacles on we might say that by being in this way the dipper acclaims creation. Smaller words hardly do its being justice, because they fail to catch the true significance of its biological closeness to us, or of the possibility that its response might not be so different from the acclaim that is expected of ourselves.
Its heart beats like ours, but tuned to the sound of the waterfall, its blood flows like ours but modulated to the swirl of the current. Its brain is a miniature of ours but geared for feather and flight and an appetite for caddis grubs and for a joy that affirms the goodness in the differentness of its experience of the one corner of creation it knows best, better than any other creature.
Its spirit and its soul are as ours on this profound level, not in some superficial way, for truly was it created with the same loving care. The role of each and every species is not merely ecological, it is spiritual; it is a unique shout of joy, affirmation, worship that no other species can give.
If any species is missing – if the dipper has become extinct say – a note that cannot be replaced is missing from the symphony.
John Feehan is a well-known Irish geologist, botanist, author and broadcaster, perhaps best-known to older readers for his Exploring the Landscape series with Éamon de Buitléar, for which he received a Jacobs Award. Since 2010 he has devoted much of his attention to the interface between religion and science. His first book on creation spirituality – The Singing Heart of the World – was published in Dublin by Columba Press in 2010 and in New York by Orbis Books in 2012. His most recent book in this area, Every Bush Aflame: God in the Natural World, was published by Veritas last year.