No Time for Despair
As the Catholic priest Richard Rohr has said, “We do not think ourselves into a new way of living, but we live ourselves into a new way of thinking.”1 I will soon be re-entering the world as a minister, and I have many questions for Father Rohr about how I will live my way into that new way of thinking.
I spend a lot of time contemplating how to do the work of living out my faith authentically in my dayto- day existence. Beyond creed and doctrine, what do I do each day to live out the teachings of Jesus in the world? I continually pray to God for God’s blessings and mercy on the suffering in my midst.
Nowhere is this work more urgent for me than in my interaction with the natural world. My deep love for God’s creation and my anger-filled despair over humanity’s damage to it fuel my desire to live out a faithful love of nature in my ministry. To that end, I strive to do the practical things one might expect: I follow a mostly plant-based diet, I buy local produce, I recycle and compost my waste and I use only cruelty-free (i.e. no animal testing) beauty and cleaning products. At YDS, I co-lead the student environmental group FERNS (Faith, Environment, Religion, Nature and Spirituality) and have purposefully spent the last three years helping to organize conferences, producing a journal on religion and ecology, hosting guest speakers and film screenings, leading trash pickups and more, all in the effort to inspire my fellow students to care more about God’s gift of creation and to defend it from the forces that seem intent on its destruction.
All of that is valuable. All of that is good. And yet, for me, there is a void in this work that remains to be filled. We agonize over the biodiversity loss, the fracking damage, and the rising sea levels. But then, all too often, we sigh and shake our heads, turning back to the work in front of us. We manage to push away the anxiety we feel in our hearts over the seemingly distant environmental ruin. This is the moment when that void exists for me – when we disengage and leave nature to suffer alone. But the truth is, nature is not suffering alone. We’re suffering too. This is precisely the moment when faith should step in. This is the place where I hope my ministry will provide a bridge.
In my faith tradition, Unitarian-Universalism, one of our seven principles affirms a “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”2 When we shake our heads at the climate crisis and turn away, we are denying that interdependence and shirking our responsibility. I do not question the legitimate anger, fear, and overwhelming despair that many feel, but we are letting that fear win when we do not acknowledge our capacity to protect the other members of our interdependent web. I am just as guilty when it comes to this pattern. But we cannot afford to keep our backs turned. We need to live ourselves into a new way of thinking about our relationship to the world around us.
I am lucky to live close to the mountainous ridge of East Rock Park in New Haven. When I walk that park, as I try to do frequently, I find the calm presence of God among the trees and the rocks and the birds. The late Mary Oliver wrote in her magnificent poem “Wild Geese” that the world “calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”3
I feel that calling so strongly there, a calling that tells me that the practice of my faith is what matters most – that my ministry is meant to help fill that void left by our climate change despair. One practical way I hope to do this is to one day open a retreat center, with a working farm and animal sanctuary, to help my fellow humans rediscover their place in the family of things. I want my ministry to invite others to contemplate the reality that our God is a God of every living thing. The more we can live ourselves into this way of thinking, in partnership with this planet, the better we are able to repair the damage we have wrought on creation.
A native of New Orleans, Emily Bruce came to YDS after a 20-year career in the theatre industry. After graduation in May, her vocational plans include a congregational internship, ordination, college interfaith chaplaincy, and an environmental ministry.
1 This is one of eight core principle of the Center for Action and Contemplation, an organization based in Albuquerque and founded by Rohr. See cac.org.
3 Mary Oliver, Devotions: The Selected Poetry of Mary Oliver (Penguin, 2017), p. 347.