Saint Seraphim of Sarov parish
Acquiring Ascetic Eyes and Appreciation for the Natural World
by Rachel Dovey and Franchesca Duval
As Orthodox Christians we are accustomed to periods of fasting, reflection and prayer. The Lenten journey prepares us to fully enter into the joy of Pascha! This guide is inspired by that period of “bright sadness,” during which we learn to see more clearly how we sin, or miss The Mark. Our hope is that by starting with prayer, confession and acts of asceticism — by grounding our efforts in the grace-filled traditions of the church — we will learn to see more clearly how to steward the natural world.
From micro-plastics to climate instability, our God-given planet is hurting. We know this, whatever names or titles we use to describe the hurt. So what do we do? This guide is an invitation to examine our day-to-day practices: The things we consume, the water we use, the fuel we burn, the waste we leave behind. It offers ideas for weaning ourselves from harmful habits in our personal lives, and then learning to build up healthier systems around us. It’s meant to be a working document inviting our brothers and sisters in the Church to more closely examine the places and things, animals and people, watersheds and food systems that sustain their daily lives. It offers a wide variety of ideas — we understand that the changes that need to be enacted in each person’s life may differ depending on region or circumstance. It’s broken up into tiers to reflect our various spheres of influence, from our families and homes, to our parishes and then out to our greater communities.
Again, though, we will accomplish little without turning first to prayer and the sacraments. “He who does not gather with me scatters.” (Matthew 12:30). How can we expect to purify our air or clean up our waterways if we can’t learn to seek God in the polluted landscape of our own unruly hearts?
Our hope and prayer for this document is that it will inspire members of our beloved Church, especially those in America, to more closely connect their inner and outer landscapes. Our actions matter. Let’s make caring for creation part of our daily lives.
If everyone consumed as much as the average American, we would need seven planets worth of resources. (Global Footprint Network)
The U.S. is an extremely wasteful culture. Our per capita emissions are roughly equal to those of Russia, Japan and India combined. Our average citizen produces roughly four pounds of trash every day. (Both figures from the EPA).
Often, that wastefulness is baked into the infrastructure we rely on to survive. For example, for every 300 pounds of product we see on the grocery store shelves, roughly 6,000 pounds of waste is created during the harvesting, manufacturing and shipping processes (Wired Magazine). We can tell ourselves that we’re not responsible for these larger systems — we didn’t design them, after all! But whatever the degree of our responsibility, our daily habits still end up contributing to that waste.
The first step in this section involves asking ourselves a difficult question: How are we consciously or unconsciously adding to the problems our natural world is facing? What is the impact of our daily lives — our driving, our diets, our water use? It can be helpful to simply look out the window and think about the God-given resources around us. How are those resources making their ways into our homes? How are the animals — and more critically, the people — being treated in all the steps between nature and us? (If this feels overwhelming, choose one object and do your best to trace it from its point of origin to your “point of use,” i.e., your faucet, closet or kitchen table.)
This process can be difficult because, often, it requires us to look at the damage we humans are inflicting on the amazing world God has given us! It can feel overwhelming when we really pay attention. It’s ok and natural to feel that overwhelm. Allow yourself to feel it and grieve. Bring that grief to God. Bring it to your spiritual father in confession. Allow compassion for yourself if you’re only seeing the damage for the first time. Turn it into compassion for our many human brothers and sisters who are only trying to survive, and perhaps don’t have the time or energy or means to see anything beyond the gas tank or grocery store shelves. Once we have compassion we can act from a place of brotherly and sisterly love, rather than fear.
As we educate ourselves about the outsized footprint of our daily habits, it’s critical that we begin to ask how much of what we are buying, eating, wearing and combusting we really need. We are called to be in the world, but not of the world. From electronics to clothing to travel to food, how can we learn to apply the principals of asceticism we learn during Lent to our lives as American consumers? Perhaps make a list, as you would for confession. Better yet, bring that list to confession!
Some common areas might include:
—Clothing (Collectively we generate 15 million tons of textile waste each year!)
—Fuel, including gasoline and natural gas
—Single-use items that are swiftly thrown away
—Technology (Do we always need the latest gadget?)
—Space in our homes and on our land, empty rooms that take energy to heat, cool and light —Money
—Time to make money (perhaps to buy things we don’t need!)
Once we start to see our habits for what they are, we can begin to change them. Let’s ask ourselves just how efficient and creative we can be!
Our most obvious — though not necessarily greatest — ecological harm lies in our trash cans. Digging through them at the end of the week can reveal a lot! What is in there that doesn’t need to be? What can we avoid buying just to throw away again?
—Is it paper towels? Can you switch to rags? (This saves money in the long run).
—Plastic sandwich bags? Purchase reusable ones with zippers, use reusable wax paper or wrap things in cloth. Again, be creative! Rather than buying a bunch of new things, focus on using what you already have. For example, don’t go out and buy new rags to replace paper towels — tear up old clothes that would otherwise go into a landfill.
—Plastic produce bags? Can you sub with reusable mesh bags or cloth? Can you save those plastic bags, wash them and reuse them multiple times?
—Paint? Shoes? Electronics? Have you looked into your local recycling programs to help dispose of things properly and keep them out of the landfill? (Small examples: Nike will take old shoes and grind them up to turn them into astroturf for playgrounds. Apple will take electronics and properly recycle them).
— Hand soap dispensers, dish soap etc, laundry detergent? Many stores now offer the option of refilling your old soap container from their bulk soap containers. This saves plastic and money.
—Grocery/food packaging? Does your local grocery store have bulk containers? Can you purchase items from the bulk containers and bring them home in your reusable packaging to avoid making more trash? Dry staples such as flour, sugar, salt, pasta and beans can be brought home in sewn cloth bags or old plastic bags. Wet pantry basics like olive oil, vanilla, soy sauce, vinegar, honey and peanut butter can be transported in mason jars, as long as you ask a cashier for the “tare weight” first.
—Food Scraps? Do you have the option of a green waste bin? Space for a compost bin? Worms? Chickens to eat scraps? Chickens will give you eggs and fertilizer in return. Compost will give you rich amendments for your soil should you choose to grow some of your own food.
—Overall, what are you throwing away that you knew would not last when you purchased it? Glitter? Toys that break easily? Gift wrapping? Things packaged in clamshell plastic? Ask yourself if you can avoid purchasing any of those items or kinds of packaging.
—What items can you sell/giveaway to places like Goodwill as opposed to throwing them away? Second-hand purchasing saves packaging, stops items from going to the landfill and saves money. Are there online free groups or clothing swaps/baby toy swaps you can connect with? Can you start one if not available in your area? Go to freecycle.com for a list of resources.
DO YOU KNOW: In the U.S., only about 9 percent of plastics were recycled in 2018.
A whopping 91 percent went straight into landfills. Just because an item says it CAN be recycled doesn’t mean that it actually WILL be. Can we learn to think of recycling as a last resort? Instead, we can learn to refuse things that come with pounds of harmful packaging and have traveled long distances to get to us.
Once you’re finished with the trash, go through your house, room by room. What do you have that you don’t need? What have you purchased and surrounded yourself with that keeps you from spending your time with your family and in prayer?
—Are there so many toys in your house that you spend all of your time cleaning? Are electronics everywhere? Can you give some of them away? Can you stop yourself from buying more in the future? Can you put items away for future swaps, host a free garage sale (or swap) or put on them on your local free-cycle Web page rather than throwing them away?
—Does your community have a tool sharing library? Can you give it the extra tools you have laying around so that other others can access them for free?
—Are your closets packed with clothes you don’t wear? Americans send 10.5 million tons of clothing to landfills every year. Can you learn to buy clothes second-hand or buy only what you need (or get clothing from swaps)?
Remember that lovely quote from St. Basil the Great: “The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes.”
Once you’ve gone through your home and seen what you don’t need, can you come up with ideas for repurposing space? If you have an extra bedroom, can you host a parishioner in need? Do you feel called to foster or adopt? Are you inspired to downsize to a smaller home that doesn’t require as much electricity or gas to heat and keep lit?
DID YOU KNOW: Well-made items typically last for years or generations, and are made in the United Staes. This helps our local economies and you can also look for products that have free repair options. (The clothing company Patagonia offers free or very low cost repairs on their clothing so that it will last for many years.)
Open the doors and look in!
—Flown or trucked in from far away?
—Grown or produced in a factory-farm setting (often with little regard for animal welfare or human workers)?
—Can you learn to become a producer as well as a consumer of food? Gardening, foraging, farming, hunting, fishing — or buying locally or regionally from those who do — vastly reduces the size and impact of your eating cycle. If you have limited space, just start with an herb garden! Anything grown in your own soil (even on your windowsill) will cut out waste and emissions from what has become, in our food national system, a bloated process of “manufacturing.”
—Can you join a Community Sourced Agriculture program (CSA) in your local area? Joining a CSA gives your local farmer a guaranteed income for the growing season.
—Can you learn to more rigorously follow the Orthodox fasting year? Industrial agriculture — particularly cattle farming — is a key driver of both climate change and biodiversity loss. One 2018 study found that avoiding meat and dairy was the single biggest way for an individual to reduce their carbon footprint (published in the peer-reviewed journal Science). The research showed that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75 percent – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined.
Our church, in her wisdom, already calls us to a plant-based diet for nearly half the year (maybe she understands some things better than us)! Simply following the fasts could drastically lower our personal emissions and water waste.
DID YOU KNOW: “Buying local” is often touted as environmentally-friendly because it cuts down on transportation emissions (all those trucks and trains, boats and planes needed to cart our food from field to plate). This is true, but another reason to eat locally is that it builds up our regional food systems. Building strong economies closer to home makes us more resilient; as fires and hurricanes become stronger and more frequent, it’s helpful to diversify our food sources so that goods travel a more direct and simple path. It also fosters a stronger connection with the land and with our neighbor — one that we don’t get from grocery chains and mega-farms.
Let’s think about our light switches, heaters and cars.
—Think about where your electricity and heat comes from? Can you find out? If it comes from non-renewable sources, can you switch? Does your state or municipal power company offer an all-renewable option? Can you look into solar panels? Can you consider leasing through a company like Solar City if buying isn’t an option? Can you talk to your local electrician (if you have one available) and think outside the box? Here in Northern California, we see all kinds of fascinating examples: Dairies that power their operations on methane, people who have turned old trucks or school buses into giant batteries to supplement their solar systems, etc. Make sure it’s safe (hence the electrician!) and be creative.
—Can you switch your bulbs to LED?
—Can you turn the hot water option on your washer off? When clothing is washed in cold water a lot of energy is saved.
—Can you think about stacking functions? For example, if it’s cold, bake a loaf of bread with your kids instead of turning the heater on. The oven will warm the house, and your fuel will be used more efficiently.
—Can you learn to live without a car? If that’s a resounding “no,” as it is for most of us, can you switch your gas-powered car for an electric or hybrid vehicle? Can you take public transportation? Can you sub just one trip each week for biking or walking somewhere? Can you learn to be content at home? Can you educate yourself about carbon offsetting programs and find a reputable one?
—Can you learn to cut down on flying? Do you have the ability to sub shorter long-distance trips with a train ride or road trip? Train rides are long but they’re a great way to travel with young children. Generally a train trip emits about half the carbon emissions per person of a plane trip (although not always, National Geographic offers a helpful guide here).
—Where does your water come from? Is it a well you actively manage? Is it city water that you don’t think about much because it just comes through your faucet? What if you were only able to use a few gallons a day? What would you do differently to conserve the precious resource God has given us?
Simple ways to conserve water include:
—Turning the faucet off after wetting your tooth brush while brushing your teeth. —Wetting your hands for washing, turning the water off and then back on to rinse.
—While showering, wet your body and hair, then turn the water off while using soap and shampoo. Turn back on to rinse.
—Keeping a houseplant or two, and at the end of the day while collecting water cups (if you have kids, you’ll have a million!) you can give the plants a drink from the water you would otherwise be pouring down the drain.
—Fixing any leaks in your house
—Swapping out decorative plants and lawn-space for edible or medicinal plants or native habitat for pollinators.
—Watering a garden or landscaping toward the end of the day or in the early morning to make the water stretch further. Watering in the middle of the day will cause more water to evaporate due to the heat.
A). Share your journey.
Talk about everything you’ve discovered from assessing your personal habits with your spiritual father or parish priest and members of your church. Discuss how you can apply those lessons to the church grounds and parish life. Perhaps, with the blessing of your priest, your parish could start by creating a “Greening” or “Care for Creation” council/committee — something like the parish council, but for helping your church bring its practices in line with good stewardship. Each year people could be nominated, as with the parish council.
TO CONSIDER: It’s a truism often stated in churches that 10 percent of the people do 90 percent of the work. Try to be sensitive to this fact. Nothing will create divisions faster than a group of zealous, eco-minded parishioners attempting to overhaul systems (for cleaning the church, say, or dealing with the Agape meal dishes) they know little about. Instead, humbly approach the people doing the work and ask for their input. See where THEY see waste and what seems realistic to them in terms of system change. If they already seem overwhelmed — and changes away from single-use convenience stress them out — work first and foremost on getting them help, and then create a plan to reduce waste together.
B). Identify Waste
Start, once again, with the garbage!
—What’s in there? Paper plates, plastic cutlery for agape meal? Plastic packaging from meal prep? plastics/paper from Koliva? Children’s holy water cups? Food waste?
—Can your agape meals be served on dishes that can be put into a dishwasher at the end of the meal? Can disposable cups be swapped out for metal or hard plastic ones that will hold
up to years of use and washing? Can your church charge a small amount at agape meals and use that money to pay someone to clean up after the meal so less is thrown away?
What other waste can be:
—Vermicomposted (Many kinds of paper and cardboard can be fed to worms! This is especially helpful, because some recyclers no longer accept paper waste.)
—Used as mulch (cardboard, Amazon boxes)
—Given to someone’s chickens (Maybe the church should have chickens!)
—Reduced by buying in bulk with reusable containers
—Reduced by buying in bulk at a place like Costco (but watch for excess plastic)
—Replaced with multi-use options (dishes, napkins, cups, hard plastic or tin washable cups for kids)
Now the Recycling. What’s in there that shouldn’t be. Is it:
—Hard plastics? Many recyclers are scrambling to deal with plastics right now. What can be swapped for options that come in glass or tin, or better yet, bought in bulk with reusable containers?
—What can be repurposed? Old coffee tins can become planters. Broken china and glass can be saved and given away to artists on Freecycle. Hard plastics can become seedling trays. Cardboard can become mulch, or given away on Freecycle (people are always looking for moving boxes in our area!).
—What can become Tupperware? What can be washed out and then repurposed for take-home meals, meal-trains or take-out containers for your shelter or soup kitchen?
C). Energy Use
Ask again, this time on a slightly larger scale, where your electricity and heat come from. Can you find out? Can you switch, once again, to an all-renewable option? If that option is pricier, can you consider asking (or praying) for donations? Is there any funding in the global orthodox community for parish “greening”? It’s worth looking into.
Our trips to and from the church probably cause a fair share of our parish’s total carbon footprint. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t come to church! The church is where we learn who God is and how to care for his creation. But we can learn to change our travel patterns to be more respectful of this lovely world.
—Ride bikes. The church could make this mode of transport easier for parishoners by providing bike racks or ensure that the roads close by are equipped with safe bike lanes.
—Take public transportation. As a church, can we send out a shuttle for elderly parishioners/those who don’t have cars? Or rent or purchase a bus to send out on Sunday mornings like so many Southern protestant churches?
—Encourage people to live close to church. For example, we have one person in our church who looks for houses to buy close to church with the idea of renting them out to parishioners.
—Switch our gas cars for electric vehicles. The church could consider providing chargers. There are a lot of used EVs with limited ranges (12 to 80 miles) coming on the market right now, at least in California, so chargers could make a big difference.
Think about your parish’s buying power. Are you buying food from local companies — supporting your neighborhood farmer? Are your appliances American-made? If cost is a barrier, can you choose one product in your kitchen to switch out for a local supplier?
Beyond that, can you:
—Divest your holdings? If your parish has anything invested in fossil fuel companies, you could move it. 350.org has been a leader in the student divestment movement, but they also help faith organizations.
—Move your money to a community bank or credit union?
—Focus on community outreach? What programs can you link up with in the greater community? River cleanup programs, CSA programs, Freecycle groups, people who host clothing swaps, tool sharing libraries, local programs for recycling, or solar, wind and geothermal programs? Consider building connections with these community programs as a way to witness our faith and spread the (still-limited) knowledge of Orthodoxy in the U.S.
Does your church have extra land? How can it be repurposed to glorify God in His creation?
—Build affordable housing for parishioners, to cut down on travel distance?
—Create a community garden or small farm? Keep chicken or other livestock for eggs, scraps and soil enrichment and to close the nutrient loop? Food could go to your food kitchen or parishioners on a limited income.
—Learn about carbon sequestration? Carbon can be “captured” by plants and stored underground when soil is healthfully managed with compost, livestock and certain planting practices. Can you set up a space with perennial plants or polyculture crops that will do this work? (Learn more about how soil can store carbon here).
—Plant native trees, fruit trees or a “food forest?” (More about food forests here.)
Generosity runs deep in our beautiful tradition. Think about St. John Chrysostom’s words in that wonderful Paschal sermon we hear every year: “For the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; He gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.”
If we feel called to interface with the wider community on issues of stewardship and creation care, we must remember that attitude. Instead of judging fellow humans for their waste and emissions, let’s ask ourselves how we can build greener options that work for us all. Often, people persist in unsustainable practices because they have no other choice — not because they don’t care. One example: Many of us are locked into our state’s utility energy mix, and even if we’d like a cleaner grid, we can’t opt out.
Again, look around. What is broken in creation around you? What are the more macro-level laws, policies and incentives that are hurting your immediate environment? If you feel called, zoom out and look at your county, state or country’s environment. Is your water contaminated from pesticide runoff? Is your air polluted from tailpipe emissions or wildfire smoke? Is a waste facility burning plastics and harming the people around it? If consistent temperature extremes threaten your ability to grow food, or cause algae blooms that make your water toxic, or force large-scale migrations, how should you prayerfully (but urgently) respond? Start small. Develop a working knowledge of your city council roster, or state representatives. Make calls, write letters, become a squeaky wheel. Join email lists with environmental policies you can pray about (Christians Caring for Creation offers a great one). Attend marches, send funds to legal groups who protect endangered lands. Always, always remember that even if someone opposes you on these issues, they too were made in the image of God. Pray for them. Pray
There are a million entry points into the policies and laws that govern our fallen world. As Orthodox Christians, many of us (the authors of this paper included) might be tempted to shy away from these systems, because they seem so broken beyond repair! But for those of us who do live in the world, policy/advocacy can be an excellent way to create large-scale change on an accelerated timeline. And it can be a good way to work more efficiently. For example, let’s say you want to eliminate plastic waste in your personal life. You could either go to a great deal of effort to cut out single-use bags and clamshell-clad fruit and vacuum-packed meat OR you could spend some time advocating for a bag ban at the state level. You could send letters to your favorite retail chain — Trader Joe’s recently promised to cut plastic waste in response to a letter-writing campaign. You could pass along some funds to entrepreneurs developing alternatives to plastic wrap. Like moving the fulcrum further up a lever, this kind of work can accomplish more with the same amount of effort.
Always, we should enlist the help of our priest or spiritual father and prayerfully move forward. The public arena is a tricky one but once we’ve begun to cultivate a healthier “inner ecology,” we can trust that we’ll be given eyes to see the clear path forward.
One Final Word
An excerpt from The Inner Kingdom, by Met. Kallistos Ware, on the newly canonized St. Amphilochios of Patmos.
“Two things in particular I recall about him. The first was his love of nature, and, more especially, of trees. ‘Do you know,’ he used to say, ‘that God ave us one more commandment, which is not recorded in Scripture? It is the commandment Love the Trees.’ Whoever does not love trees, he was convinced, does not love Christ. When hearing the confessions of the local farmers, he assigned to them as a penance the task of planting a tree; and through his influence many hillsides of Patmos, which were once barren rock, are now green with foliage every summer.”