My Beloved, the mountains
The Principle of Sacramentality in Laudato Si

By Maria Teresa Morgan*

In 2015, confronting the crisis of an increased alienation between humanity and our planet, Pope Francis issued his encyclical Laudato Si calling “all people of good will” (LS 3, 62) to environmental responsibility and ecological conversion. Five years later, in May 2020, Francis expressed a renewed concern for our “burdened and grieving earth” (LS 2) initiating a year of ecological activities and issuing an invitation to a seven-year period of ecological implementation and prayer for the environment. (Bruggers, Inside Climate News). This recent appeal invites us to journey with Francis’ encyclical so as to reawaken our awareness of the crucial issues underlined in this document and to strive to implement its valuable lessons. 

This reflection examines Laudato Si from the perspective of the principle of sacramentality. After underscoring some foundational points of the encyclical, I will draw attention to the contemplative and spiritual dimensions of Laudato Si by considering the sacramental hermeneutics present in this document and pointing to convergences between the mystical language in Pope Francis’ encyclical and the spirituality of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and John of the Cross (1542-1591).

  1. General Introduction to the Encyclical

Because a review of each major section of Laudato Si would exceed the limits of this paper, I will summarize a few chosen points of the encyclical. Throughout the document, Francis calls for an “integral ecology” (LS 137-162) that connects care for the earth and social justice (LS 16, 48-62). An important aspect of this ecology involves vocation and praxis, a refusal to exploit the goods of the earth for our own advantage as well as seeking “a sustainable and integral development.” (LS 13) that will benefit not the few, but the whole of humanity and takes into account the poor (LS 93-95; 101-136).

In considering the ills that afflict our earth, Francis lists pollution, global warming, loss of biodiversity and the scarcity of water considered in relation to the common good. Francis sounds the alarm about the factors that diminish the quality of human life as they disproportionately affect the poor and contribute to an increased economic disparity.

Francis’ call to “awe and wonder” leading to an “aesthetic conversion” (LS 215), his summons to an “ecological spirituality,” (LS 216) to “learning to see and appreciate beauty,”(LS 214) and his emphasis on the sacramentality of creation (LS 233) forms the basis for my reflection and to these aspects of the encyclical I now turn my attention.

  1. The Principle of Sacramentality in Laudato Si

Given the valid concern for clarity and precision, mystical language is generally not characteristic of papal encyclicals. I was struck then, by the citations from the rich treasure of Christian spirituality as well as by the metaphors and analogies that weave throughout various sections of Laudato Si. The title, as we know, honors Francis of Assisi Canticle of Creatures, that incomparable hymn of praise to the Creator for the beauty and goodness of creatures, in whose communion the saint finds a reflection of God. Francis of Assisi and his sacramental vision of creation is the inspiration and foundational figure of Laudato Si, and Pope Francis returns to him repeatedly throughout his encyclical, referring to saint Francis as “mystic and pilgrim” (LS 10). Among the numerous teachers of doctrine Pope Francis quotes, he includes references to spiritual writers who have discerned God’s presence in creation in unique ways, such as Bonaventure, John of the Cross and Dante Alighieri. Pope Francis also touches on Sufi mysticism (footnote 159), as well as acknowledging the contribution of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. (footnote 53). Citing Patriarch Bartholomew, Francis exhorts us “to accept the world as a sacrament of communion.” (LS 9) An entire section of Laudato Si is dedicated to Sacramental Signs (LS 233-237). In addition, creation as a sacrament of God appears in chapter two, “The Gospel of Creation” and especially in sections III, IV and VII of this chapter: The Mystery of the Universe, The Message of Each Creature in the Harmony of Creation and The Gaze of Jesus, respectively.

Before proceeding further it is necessary to explain the principle of sacramentality.  An integral belief of Catholicism, the sacramental principle affirms that by virtue of the Incarnation, God is present in and reveals Godself in human beings, in human experience and in all creation, while affirming that always and at the same time God is separate from and transcends visible realities. Seen from this perspective, all creation is a visible sign of an invisible reality (God) and is capable of manifesting the presence of God. This principle pervades Francis’ encyclical and is clearly exemplified in Laudato Si #221: “…the awareness that each creature reflects something of God and has a message to convey to us, and the security that Christ has taken unto himself this material world and now, risen, is intimately present to each being…” Pope Francis expresses the sacramentality of creation as well as a core of his Ignatian spirituality of “finding God in all things, and all things in God” when he states that “the universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face… the ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior, to discover the action of God… but also to discover God in all things.” (LS 233) 

In tracing the sacramental principle in Francis’ encyclical I found points of convergence between Laudato Si, Hildegard of Bingen and John of the Cross. I first want to consider Hildegard of Bingen who, though not specifically mentioned in Laudato Si, reflects a hermeneutics of the sacramentality of creation.

Among the surprises Benedict XVI had in store after he became pope, was that of placing Hildegard of Bingen in the sanctoral of feast days to be celebrated by the universal church (September 17) and declaring her a doctor of the church, the fourth woman to be granted this honor. Benedict’s initiative was somewhat astonishing given that this Benedictine abbess was often embroiled in conflicts with the hierarchy. She travelled and preached extensively defying the prohibition to preach imposed on women and for a time her convent was placed under interdict by the bishop, an interdiction that was lifted only a few months before her death.  Hildegard’s view of the fall of humankind is more Irenaean than Augustinian. She was a mystic who spoke and wrote not with the theological precision of rational language but through the swirling metaphors, images and allegories of her visions.  A poet, musician and herbalist, she has bequeathed to successive generations a wealth of analogies that continue to unravel the mystery of God’s presence and action in the cosmos. Previous to Benedict’s promulgation this “Sybil of the Rhine,” as she is called, was scarcely known, studied mostly by medievalists and by graduate students in theology taking elective courses (where I first encountered her). Thanks to Benedict, there is at present an intense interest in Hildegard’s person and in her vision of God’s immanence in creation.

  Inspired by the verdant valleys that surrounded her alongside the Rhine, Hildegard referred to God as “the greening” (viriditas). Hildegard gives this word a unique meaning, referring to the renewing power of the Creator Spirit enlivening and manifesting divinity in all creation. Her use of “the greening” reflects Pope Francis vision of the generative action of God: “God’s love is the fundamental moving force in all created things.” (LS 77) At times, Hildegard expresses the meaning of this principle in clear terms: “The Word is living, being, spirit, all verdant greening, all creativity. This Word manifests itself in every creature.” At other times, she breaks into ecstatic expressions of praise, in words that transcend their limits: “O most honored Greening Force, You who roots in the Sun; You who lights up, in shining serenity, within a wheel that earthly excellence fails to comprehend. You are enfolded in the weaving of divine mysteries. You redden like the dawn and you burn; flame of the Sun. (Hildegard of Bingen, Causae et Curae}.

Like Francis of Assisi, Hildegard lived in relationship with the created world; her vast knowledge of the healing properties of herbs came as much from her experience that “every creature has its own purpose” in the harmony of the created world (LS 84) as from her meticulous scientific study of nature. Similar to Pope Francis’ call, she admonishes us that “the earth which sustains humanity must not be injured, it must not be destroyed.”

Having presented key correlations between Hildegard of Bingen and Laudato Si, I now proceed to consider another doctor of the Church, John of the Cross, whose poetic genius reflects with unparalleled beauty the immanence of God in creation.       

Francis dedicates an entire paragraph to John of the Cross in his encyclical, choosing one of the most daring verses of the Carmelite mystic:  “My beloved, the mountains.” This is the opening line of stanzas 14 and 15 both of which the saint considers as a unity in his commentary on the Spiritual Canticle. The words that follow in stanza 14 are equally baffling: “My beloved, the mountains/And lonely wooded valleys/Strange islands, /And resounding rivers … “ In selecting these lines, Francis appears to desire to awaken us from some sort of ecological stupor for we are taken aback by the verses of John of the Cross. What does it mean, we ask, to call Christ, “mountains, sonorous rivers, wind, valleys”? Pope Francis is careful to explain, based on the principle of sacramentality, that John of the Cross says this not because mountains and rivers and all of creation are divine, “but because the mystic experiences the intimate connection between God and all beings and feels that ‘all things are God’ (Spiritual Canticle, XIV, 5))… and perceives that the interior awe being lived has to be entrusted to the Lord.” (LS 234) Not only are stanzas 14 and 15 of the Spiritual Canticle luminous in their sacramental vision of creation but also like the paragraph on the Eucharist that follows Francis’ inclusion of John of the Cross in Laudato Si: “It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation” (236), John of the Cross’ metaphors point to creation finding its fullest expression in the Eucharist. For the saint concludes the above mentioned two stanzas with the line: “My Beloved… the supper that recreates and deepens love.” (Spiritual Canticle, XIV)

Conclusion

In a long lost book I once read that in their progressive approach to God saints become more and more alike. That observation is evidenced in the manifold display of images and metaphors of God’s goodness and beauty that imbue Christian spirituality. From the closing vision of the Trinity in Dante’s Paradiso, quoted by Francis in Laudato Si: “The Love that moves the sun and the stars” (LS 77) to the hatching Spirit renewing a broken world in Hopkins’ God’s Grandeur. From Francis of Assisi Canticle of Creatures, to the insignificant ant Teresa of Avila watches laboriously hiding and at once revealing the mysteries of the Creator (Interior Castle IV: 2,2), as well as the tiny hazelnut that becomes the infinite space of revelation for Julian of Norwich, seeing God therein as “the Maker, the Keeper, and the Lover …for his goodness takes in every single one of his creatures and all his blessed works.” (Revelations of Divine Love, 5). The above mentioned metaphors point to that fundamental belief of Catholicism elucidated by Pope Francis in Laudato Si, the principle of sacramentality: “The entire material universe speaks of God’s love” (LS 84). 

As an ecological task, I have planted a fruit tree in our yard every year we have lived in our home. These five trees stand as a homage to Laudato Si, for Pope Francis simply says: “plant a tree.” It is a small contribution, I know, but still a concrete and delightful praxis that authenticates my roots and which Francis presents as a way of healing the earth (LS 211). This summer, in the midst of lockdown and the cares that demand my attention, I harvested mangoes, pineapples, and am now tasting the guavas from the tree planted last year. After all, Gabriel García Márquez says that every respectable house should have a yard with a guava tree. I am still watching for the bananas to ripen, for the carambolas to turn from flower to fruit, for the maracuya to spring its first blossom. All along, thanks to Laudato Si I have acquired a new perspective of our mother earth as I gaze upon “the greening” power of God in the growth of leaves, in the flowers that turn into fruits that then ripen into wondrous “greening.” The sacramentality of creation I found in Francis’ encyclical awakened my appreciation of the simple earth, and the bountiful gift she gives to us with such little effort on our part. As my mother would often remind me, “la tierra es muy agradecida” (the earth is very grateful). 

My trees are too humble to reflect the soaring images of John of the Cross.  But my past is etched with mountains and sonorous rivers, with wooded valleys and a strange island - descriptions of which the Carmelite mystic probably heard- where I was born. And reading John of the Cross’ poetry alongside Laudato Si, the ecological task of sacramentalizing my memories becomes a prayer.

*Maria Teresa Morgan, D. Min.                                                                                                        
 Assistant Professor of Theology St. John Vianney College Seminary.

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