For further reflection, here are several key principles to help you grasp key insights which inform a Orthodox Christian care for creation. These are not comprehensive, but additional steps toward a beginning care for God’s creation. They outline additional guidelines for a right Christian relationship to creation.
1. Honor the Creator
How do we honor the Creator by caring for creation? We start by seeking His commands about creation and fulfilling them.
Hundreds of biblical passages inform creation care and help us to do His will “…on earth as it is in heaven.” A seldom referenced Biblical story helps illustrate this command. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and presented the Israelites with the Ten Commandments, God commanded him to build an altar for prayer and sacrifice. This altar was to be constructed out of common earth or of unhewn stone (Exodus 20:24-25). It was to be simple and without elaborate design.
An altar of earth or unhewn stone implies working with nature’s simplest materials. Following the presentation of the Ten Commandments, there was worship. Then God gave many other instructions for the right conduct of livelihood and relationship with other people and creation.
The Church is the center of our worship, but we still need to observe the principles which were alive in the spirit of the commands to Moses. These lead us into a spirit of respect for the land and include many details for the care of creation and a right relationship to our neighbor. Just as these detailed commands emerged after prayer, so as we put God first in our lives and seek to fulfill His will, He will guide us in the details and increments of our care for creation. This principle of first honoring the Creator should inform all of the following principles for management of the church grounds.
2. Respect God’s creation, our Earth
This is an attitude more than a specific practice. Building respect for creation into the habits of our lives becomes a striving to see a sacred dimension to all space and place in which one intuits the holy purpose of every thing (i.e., the logoi in creation). This involves some prayer and reflection but becomes an all- embracing worldview. What is a sacred space? How do we connect our lives to a remembrance of the Creator? What tools do we have to achieve this end?
Building respect for creation is rooted in an attitude of reverence and holy vision. It begins by bringing love and care into the places where you work. This builds a “sense of care” which gradually will fill the places you habituate and change its feeling. An attitude of conscious worship should be brought into all activity. This is not pantheism; this is a worship of the Creator who made the substance of all things around us. This is an acknowledgment of our Lord Jesus Christ who took on matter for our sakes. It is all the same earth, the same air and the same water. A Christian never worships matter, but the matter is respected as a gift from God so that we might fulfill our purposes in this world.
At the same time, respect for creation is a way of reflecting the Biblical vision that God made the world and “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:24-28). An attitude of respect spreads and gradually translates into a greater sense of reverence for the Creator as well as all things.
Another dimension of respect for creation is to seek ways to make our surroundings connect us more powerfully to one another and to the blessing of the Creator. Prayer informs the journey. Creation’s integrity lies in the interactions of one part with all of the others. If you seek to find ways to honor God, your neighbor and creation, you will find them. These actions bring you to more and more inspired ways and tools with which to express our connectedness to God and creation.
3. Seek durability
Durability means we act for future generations as much as for the present. This principle causes reflection about the consequence of our actions and their impact on the future. Here are some insights from architecture which can help reflection. After going through the implications of durability for construction, examine what it means in human and social terms.
What does it mean to build with durability? It means a striving for permanence; it means stability and continued usefulness into the future. Durability includes a search for styles which are tasteful, proportional and fit for the ages. This brings permanent value into structures and designs. In the long run it costs less to construct in a manner that will last for decades rather than pay less and construct something cheap and flimsy.
In new buildings, emphasize durability and sufficiency. Most modern architectural design is intended to last only for a few decades before being dismantled. Modern office buildings have a life of roughly thirty-five to fifty years. If churches follow this pattern, they fail to use God’s gift of creation in a manner that enhances our ability to live sustainably.
Durability includes building for timeless beauty. What are the qualities that encourage “timeless beauty” in we who are transient in our duration upon the earth? Take the extra time to design a garden or a fountain or a prayer and meditation corner in such a way that it will remain serviceable to future generations. This requires an avoidance of glitzy styles or gaudy decorations or other features which may soon become obsolete. As a guide to durable architecture, we build in accordance with how we think.
4. Silence and peace
What are the values of silence and peace? Are there lessons in the silence? What are they? How does a sense of peace enhance a feeling of reverence for life and encourage a sense of the sacred? Does your home foster these qualities?
Silence allows one to discern the “music” of a place and learn about its natural features. This can be difficult amidst the hustle and bustle of city life where the pace is too fast for reflection and too fast for worship and prayer.
Each place and each building has its own set of sounds. When we are silent, what can we sense? What is the “song” your backyard or favorite place sings? Is it a mechanical symphony of exhaust fans, cars, air conditioners or furnaces? Is it the noise of a busy street? Is it the song of birds, or the silence of their absence? When we slow down enough to listen, we are better prepared to pray and worship.
As much as a peaceful and quiet feeling can be brought to our lives, so much will it help bring a remembrance of God. And so much will we better understand the passage in Zechariah 2:13: “Be silent, O all flesh, before the Lord: for He is raised up out of his holy habitation.”
Again, to reflect the fact that creation exists in God, we read from the Psalms, “Be still and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10).
Russia’s Saint Seraphim of Sarov says that the best of all spiritual exercises is the practice of silence. There are many levels to silence. To what extent are you able to grasp it?
5. Appropriate Technology
What is appropriate technology and its companion, appropriate design? Why is it a valuable component in caring for God’s creation? How does it aid or enhance respect for the life in creation? What are examples of appropriate technology? What are examples of inappropriate technology? What are examples of inappropriate products?
How can we design our lives with a sense of appropriateness? What standards do we use to make this evaluation? What is appropriate in our lifestyle and what is not? Take this theme and apply it to the functions of your home. Go room by room and examine the implications for caring for creation. All this leads to a theology of lifestyle, something which existed in early Christianity, but which has largely disappeared in the present. For a detailed expression of lifestyle in the Early Church, see St. Clement of Alexandria in “Christ the Educator,” Book Two, on an appropriate Christian lifestyle.
As a further reflection, many clergy and theologians observe that to a large extent, the high speed of American life has lost the sense of the sacred in daily affairs. The consequence is difficulty in articulating the worth of natural places. By intentionally seeking appropriate technology and design, appropriate to one’s circumstances, appropriate to the features of the landscape, appropriate to climate and geography, a journey can be initiated to reconnect to an understanding of how to integrate human lifestyle into the ecosystem of the planet. This is particularly important for children as they are better taught by the visions we embrace than impositions of theology without a foundation.
The aesthetics and lifestyle of the material culture touch our homes and churches as much as the media and commercial establishments. The material culture conditions patterns of living and promotes unnecessary complexity. Simpler patterns of decoration and grounds management of parishes encourage a simpler and more fulfilling way of thinking.
How does the surrounding culture affect your home or parish? It may require prayer and reflection over time to answer this question, but the material culture can influence the quality of our worship and determine how we see the world around us. To see into how our culture influences our sense of taste, compare how your church is designed in comparison to churches in other cultures. What are the reasons for the differences? Where do the differences originate?
Simplicity in lifestyle design means focusing upon the essentials without omitting anything. This means learning to emphasize the essential and avoid the unnecessary. It means avoiding clutter and excess. Because this involves the virtues of restraint and self-control, simplicity becomes a guide to Christian lifestyle as well as an exercise that helps avoid the consumer mentality.
7. Emphasize beauty
True beauty is a reflection of God’s prior beauty. Beauty is not only in exterior shape and design; it has an inner dimension, a quality of spirit which reflects something of the divine amidst the material, of the eternal in the temporal.
This beauty is more effectively encapsulated in natural, living things than the comparatively sterile and lifeless constructions of human design. Therefore, to emphasize beauty means to introduce natural, living things to our surroundings and to arrange them in a tasteful, thoughtful and mathematically ordered manner. This will make our settings attractive places to bring friends and children because there is a feeling for God’s vitality and vigor everywhere around us.
Beauty is also interior. By practicing beauty as a spiritual exercise, meaning wherever one sees exterior beauty, consider it a reminder of a prior interior beauty that is required to discern it. One can then use exterior beauty to intentionally test one’s thoughts against beauty, to let one’s words reflect beauty, to examine one’s relationships against beauty, and to make one’s whole life an expression of beauty.
Our understanding and emphasis of natural beauty helps bring a sense of interior beauty to our homes and workplaces. By bringing beauty to these places, a subtle reflection and remembrance of God’s providence and prior Beauty touches the subconscious. With this exterior preparation, people can be more easily reminded of God’s presence in other dimensions of their lives.
Fyodor Doestoyevskiy says “Beauty will save the world.” What does this mean? How can you practice beauty?
Fourteen centuries earlier Dionysius the Areopagite declared “We say that it is good to participate in beauty.” This is because “Beauty is participation in that cause which beautifies all good things” (The Divine Names IV:7).
In our day HE Metropolitan Kallistos Ware declares “Unless we feel the beauty and attractiveness of the world around us, our ecological efforts will be tragically weakened. It is all too true that human selfishness and sin have obscured this cosmic beauty, but none the less the world still remains a place of joy and awe. If we are to save the world for future generations, we need to renew our sense of wonder,” “Safeguarding the Creation,” Ravenna, Italy, 2002.
From Iveron monastery on Mount Athos, Elder Vasileios (Gontikakis) tells us, “True beauty is captivating; it pours forth love. Furthermore it teaches man to love goodness, offering, and sacrifice…. Beauty is not reckoned as a category of aesthetics, but rather as the divine grace and energy which forms and holds together the universe…. It regulates both the harmony of the physical cosmos and the spiritual peace of man’s interior cosmos.” (Beauty and Hysychia in Athonite Life, Alexander Press, 1996, p. 9-10).
The American poet and naturalist Henry David Thoreau describes beauty simply, “The perception of beauty is a moral test.” (Journal, June 21, 1852).
8. Sensitivity to place
To care for creation, we must respect it. To respect it, we must interrelate with it and seek a feeling for the fact that this is the land which the Creator has made. The substance of it is of God; it was made of the Word; it is sustained by His Holy Spirit. This framework allows us to interrelate to it in a manner that both acknowledges the Creator and that integrates with natural surroundings.
Nature is a local harmony of plants and animals that have adapted to soil, climate and other features of geography and geology. In planting parks, backyards, or the parish yard, seek trees and flowers which fit into the grounds – or the nature which is native to that region. This means that instead of selecting from thousands of nursery stock options, a sensitivity to place urges a preferential option for native species. This is because native species can flourish in your church yard with a minimum of water, fertilizer, cultivation and care.
Additionally, perhaps more importantly, native flowers and herbaceous plants represent those best fit for your climate and soil. These are the floral citizens native to your land, the ones which God’s providence anciently planted on your soil. To root these up and plant flowers exotic to your area usually requires an artificial support that is costly and disconnects members of the parish from the beauty which God anciently placed on your land.
Sensitivity to place allows you to connect to the native features of one’s area. What God has allowed to grow in your area demonstrates something which is appropriate to your locale. Native flowers are not only hardier than exotic, imported varieties, they connect you to the natural history of your area. This does not mean that other imported species cannot also flourish where you live, and they should, but it does mean that the areas you care for should include species which can flourish without a lot care in the unique geo-ecological features of your area.
9. A Theology of Design
We build according to ur values and how we think. Whether writing or designing a piece of art or building a new structure, or landscaping church grounds, the actions which we take are as much a reflection of the nuances and character of our faith as the way we worship.
As the Psalmist sang, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1), so our works should reflect something of our devotion to God and find a way to give glory to God. This striving should imbue the work of every Christian, but it should especially characterize the way we design our parish grounds.
To achieve this end requires focused attention upon every decision in design. It means construction in a manner that each component fits into a harmonious pattern of understanding and construction. This has become a lost art in the design of many modern Orthodox buildings because we attempt to blend old world designs with the modern culture of efficiency.
Still there are opportunities to touch the heart and inspire the spirit through design that blends Orthodox Christian designs with local American settings. It will likely take some time and reflection to address and develop this sensitivity in our care and keeping of creation.
For now it is sufficient to know that this potential exists; it once flourished in our Christian heritage and it can be reclaimed. With prayer and reflection, with intentional study and examination of our church yards, we have the potential to reclaim a whole Christian theology of design.
10. Priests of Creation
Cultivate a Eucharistic vision of the world in which every person learns how to consecrate everything in the creation back to God. Consecrate the world back to God. Bless it and seek to keep it as God made it. Protect the world from any and all desecration and defilement.
This is an important theme that needs to be recovered among all Christians. We are all priests of God’s creation. HAH Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and also HB Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow plus many other
top bishops repeatedly call for the restoration of this priesthood of all believers. Observe some of their pointed and inspired commentary:
Microcosm and Mediator at the Altar of Creation
“Everything that lives and breathes is sacred and beautiful in the eyes of God. The whole world is a sacrament. The entire created cosmos is a burning bush of God’s uncreated energies. And humankind stands as a priest before the altar of creation, as microcosm and mediator.”
HAH Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, May 24, 1999
Acquire an All-Encompassing Love
“Let us love one another, and lovingly learn from one another, for the edification of God’s people, for the sanctification of God’s creation, and for the glorification of God’s most holy Name. And humankind stands as a priest before the altar of creation.”
HAH, Georgetown University, Washington, DC, November 3, 2009
The Duty of Every Christian
“Every Christian is called to be a “steward, protector and ‘priest of creation,’ offering it by way of doxology to the Creator.”
HAH Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Athens, June 5, 2018
Man is not a Master of the House, but a Priest
“In the Christian view, nature is not a repository of resources intended for egotistical and irresponsible consumption. Rather, it is a house in which man is a housekeeper. It is a temple in which he is the priest, serving not nature, but the one Creator.”
HB Patriarch Kyrill, Patriarch of Moscow and All-Russia, June 1, 2012
Priests in Communion with God
“A human is the Priest of creation as he or she becomes a vehicle of communion with God and fellow human beings. This means that material creation is treated… as a sacred gift from God which is meant to foster and promote communion with God and with others. Such a ‘liturgical’ use of nature leads to forms of culture which are deeply respectful of the material world while keeping the human person at the centre.”
HE Metropolitan John of Pergamon, Production and Consumption, April, 1996
Priests of All Creation
“By teaching this principle of our duty of consecration of creation and all in our realm back to God, we become caught up in our return of the world and lifted along with everything else. This will initiate the start of our own journey into the bright Light of Christ and the treatment of all things now living as holy creations of God.”
HAH Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Santa Barbara, November 8, 1997
Self-Sacrifice for the Common Good
“We are to practice a voluntary self-limitation in our consumption of food and natural resources…. There can be no salvation for the world, no healing, no hope of a better future, without sacrifice…. Without a sacrifice that is costly and uncompromising,
we shall never be able to act as priests of the creation in order to reverse the descending spiral of ecological degradation.”
HAH Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Venice, Italy, June 10, 2002
Therefore, with all of the above in mind, each of us should strive
to attain genuine experience of the Light of Christ so that all of us can be transformed and participate in the transfiguration of the world and everything in it. This is the supreme task of the Christian who is genuinely alive to Jesus Christ in a world infused with the sacred presence
of God in all things.
You might consider adding your own Christian ecological principles to this short list to accelerate your Reflection and Practice