A reflection on Spirituality Ecology, a one-day forum hosted by St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, April 2016
St Ethelburga’s is a small 12th Century church, nestled among the glass towers in what’s now London’s teeming financial centre. The original church was partly destroyed by the IRA’s Bishopsgate bombing in 1993. Afterwards, out of an urge to respond both to the violence of that event, and to what it witnessed to, the surviving fabric of the building was repurposed as a Centre for Peace and Reconciliation.
Last April I attended a one-day forum at St Ethelburga’s, on the theme of Spirituality Ecology. The day related to a new programme of youth mentoring for under 25’s that they’re initiating there, around the same theme. On this occasion most of us were a good deal older than that. For those already familiar with this conversation, the forum was introducing the work of Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Joanna Macey, and Macey’s associated the idea of ‘the great turning’: a root and branch transformation of life values, in the face of ecological crisis. I was very pleased to be there, and am inspired by what they’re doing. Parts of the day also left me aware that I’m still uncertain as to the meaning and usefulness of the term ‘spiritual ecology’. So writing this is both about saying thankyou, and about beginning to name the questions that arise for me around this idea, towards a further involvement in it.
The day introduced Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee’s pragmatic understanding of spiritual ecology in terms of its four framing principles: interconnectedness, reverence for Life, service, and stewardship. It also presented Vaughan-Lee’s four-fold approach to working out a personal embodiment of these principles in our day-to-day lives: witnessing, grief, prayer, action. Beyond those two easy to grasp frameworks, it wasn’t an information-heavy day. Less about studious note-taking than about communication, and encounter. And it was the latter, for me, that turned out to be its most valuable aspect. To invite a conversation about ‘what we are doing to the planet’ seems to trigger a fairly predictable set of reactions in many of us. Grief, yes. Fear, yes. Messianic zeal, possibly. But also irritation, impatience, and an aversion to earnest hand-wringing. Even with one’s own hands silently wringing, under the table.
All of which was skilfully grounded by a series of instructions which invited those present to become more fully embodied, and from there, to meet the others in the room, one at a time, and at close quarters. Through cycles of silent face-to-face meeting, followed by a rotation of speaking and listening, those irritable, worried reactions were pulled down from the space of airy argumentation, into an encounter with what’s written on the face of this one unique human being – the one looking back at you now, and now. I was taken aback, stunned even, by how effectively this cut through any drift towards opinionated position-taking. This was followed by a simple improvised ritual, in which each person present was invited to step out into the circle of others, and to address them by continuing this sentence: ‘Being in service to something greater means…’. Again, what this drew into the room was less a stock set of more-or-less pessimistic, ardent or muscular ‘positions’ on ecological crisis, than the far more unpredictable and fascinating presence of a series of individual human beings.
So I was grateful to be part of all of this, and it’s left an impression on me that I’m still making sense of. One part of that impression was the realisation that the most viscerally present fear around ecological crisis, for me, concerns our mysterious ability to remain in a state of distracted preoccupation, even in the face of an overwhelming need for change. I don’t mean that in sweeping ‘big picture’ terms - the curious momentum that keeps the over-developed world entranced as it sails over the edge of a cliff - although there is that. I mean it first and foremost about myself. I mean, perhaps most of all, the curiously tenacious grip of performance anxiety, the endlessly busying struggle to be good enough, within contexts that you know in your bones to be distractions from what actually matters. I also noticed that being around people, as I found myself to be at St Ethelburga’s, who speak of these things using old-fashioned words like faith, prayer, or ‘service to something greater’, feels like a dangerous place to be, for me. Because, I suppose, that’s how I think of it myself, even if never quite following through on where that line of thought might lead.
This more encounter-based part of the day was followed by the presentation of a number of localized initiatives, as well as an invitation to share our own related projects. The projects presented were inspiring, valuable, urgent. But at this point I also noticed a growing sense of misgiving - in both myself, and one or two others next to me - around the proposition that what all of this comes down to, then, is the need to initiate new eco-spiritual ‘projects’. I find it difficult to discuss this without immediately contradicting myself. Case by case, each of the projects discussed presented meaningful, helpful, grounded work. And yes, we badly need many more such. But I’ve heard this mode of response described by another name, too: eco-busyness. Yes\We\Can: our addiction to restless displacement activity, to an acting-out whose unspoken functions include warding off the unspeakable, and restoring – trying to restore – our sense of human agency, faced with an irrevocable process of change which our culture’s relentless escalation has set in motion. Yes\We\Can.
Certainly, framing any of this in terms of ‘what can we do to convince others’ is where I find myself switching off. The mystery of our culture’s collective momentum, after all, is that we already know where this road goes. The information is there, has been there for years now. And what I’ve come looking for here, I see, may be less about finding a way for us to change the world, or even a way for us to change the culture, than just - or rather, most fundamentally - a way for us to change. Again, I think there’s a good, old-fashioned word for that: metanoia. A turning around in the heart. Conversion - not as a hardening position, or the uncritical adoption of a set of received answers, but as the ongoing eruption of the question presented by ecological crisis itself within one’s life. ‘Continuous conversion’, as its sometimes called. What does life want of me? That seems a good way of putting it. When you stop to consider the full implications of ecological crisis, what does life want of you?
In the round-up to the day, one man, an Anglican priest, spoke of his sense that although we’d made a good start, ‘We need to be much braver’. ‘What might the world look like’, he asked, ‘if we were?’ He threw it out to the room that in our niceness, in our eagerness to put each other at ease, we were all still ‘dancing around the elephant in the room’. His provocation was picked up by a woman participant, who responded to it with the suggestion that ‘dancing round the elephant’ was a useful image to express the value of what we were already doing here, rather than lamenting the inevitably limited nature of our responses. Faced with an elephant of such unimaginable size, what we’re left with, she suggested, is just that - the ongoing dance of all that its looming, immoveable presence provokes in our lives. I like that image, and will keep it.
For myself, what I valued most from this day brings me back to where I began. Provocative questions or challenges like that last, are best put, perhaps, whilst looking into the face of one particular person - one fallible, resourceful human being. I’m still intrigued by how doing that shifted the conversation away from the guilt, from the morose prognoses, and most of all from the too-easy judgements passed on our peers, that such conversations so easily default to. My thanks to the people who set this up, and who hosted it. I look forward to coming back.