Essay by Fr. Michael Monachos
“Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not’” (Gen 28:16).
A certain parish received a new priest. This priest told the people, “The only thing I expect is that you each maintain the fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, come to vespers on Saturday evening and on Sunday come to the Divine Liturgy and receive communion. Beyond that, just establish some routine of personal confession – not necessarily with me but with some regular confessor.” The people responded, “But father, that would change our whole life.” PRECISELY !
To ordinary people, stewardship is sensible. Don’t waste your resources. Any person can recognize and affirm “cultivate and keep the Garden.” The materialist can be shown the wisdom of long‐term profit through careful stewardship use of resources so that they maintain productivity. There may be some inclination toward short‐sighted profiteering, but the message of long‐term greater prosperity is not likely to be rejected.
In many Orthodox Christian circles there is an expression of humanity as “priests of creation.” Patriarch Bartholomew and Patriarch Demetrios before him, and many others have developed this beautiful idea. It restores a sense of sacramentality to our lives and relationships. But to lay people this may seem abstract and far from their experience…. And so I prefer the sense of studentship.
“Above all, perhaps, the recognition of creation as charged with the words of God has the power to change our attitude to everything we touch. It calls us to an attitude less of stewardship than 'studentship’. Limiting our wants and appetites ceases to be simply a moral obligation for the sake of sharing resources more equitably and becomes the fast that prepares us for reading, placing between ourselves and the world “a wondering and respectful distance”, within which space everything becomes an object of contemplation. And our reading will keep sending us back with renewed awe to the book of creation which we hold in our hands.”1
1 Elizabeth Theokritoff : The Book of the World
A philosopher once asked St. Anthony, ‘How do you manage, Father, deprived of the consolation of books?’ Anthony replied, “My book, O philosopher, is the nature of created things, and this is before me whenever I wish to read the words of God”.2
Or newly recognized St. Porphyrios: “All things teach us and lead us to God. All things around us are droplets of the love of God – things animate and inanimate, the plants and the animals, the birds and the mountains, the river and the sunset and the starry sky. They are little loves through which we attain to the great Love that is Christ.”
It is perhaps most profoundly and thoroughly set out in the teachings of St. Maximos the Confessor as he writes about physiki theoria, natural contemplation, or the contemplation of nature. An obscure term and activity not much discussed in subsequent texts or in our modern day. In St. Maximos it is linked with praxis (practical virtue and ethics) and theologia which for St. Maximos is not talking about God, but rather direct experiential knowledge of the divine. Whatever physiki theoria indicates, its fullness and application is a subject far beyond our present discussion, it at least suggests literally “looking at nature.”
Study and immerse ourselves in the wonder of the whole of creation, eventually discerning logoi the divine order and intention present in each bit of creation, discerning that every bit of creation is individually and collectively radiant with the uncreated light. If we ever truly understand experientially the Incarnation of Christ, we will never pollute again.
We all know that we spontaneously keep, cultivate and protect that which we love. Indeed, it is difficult and a great strain to care for something that we don’t care about, don’t know about or even actively dislike. This applies to persons, places, institutions, ideas, anything. To love requires that we know, and knowing may foster appreciation and love. So to develop stewardship and priesthood, perhaps it would be helpful to first become students.
2 Vita Patrum VI; Migne, Patrologia Latina 73: 1024.