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A Lenten Reflection

An Interfaith Conversation

One of the most compelling benefits that Laudato Si has yielded over the years has been its outreach to peoples of all faiths, creating a comfortable space for interfaith dialogue. That particular good was celebrated in a recent edition of the Earthbeat section of the National Catholic Reporter, which reported on the robust environmental movement that has been emerging from Islamic communities across the globe over the last several years. That movement has recently taken on special vigor as Islamic scholars and religious leaders have themselves entered the conversation, many of whom have claimed spiritual inspiration from Laudato Si. This has encouraged a quiet yet dynamic interfaith conversation between Catholics and Muslims about care for the earth and the flourishing of its peoples, while also providing a possible inception point for more complicated but crucial discussions between the two religious traditions.

The focus of the Earthbeat article was the publication of a new document, Al-Mizan: A Covenant for the Earth, that Muslim religious leaders and scholars composed as a kind of sibling to Laudato Si. The document has become a point of entry for Muslims and Catholics to work in tandem in the creation of a global consciousness about care for the earth, grounded in the common beliefs that the earth is the glorious gift from a merciful and loving God and that human beings are properly understood to be khalifahs, or stewards, of the earth. Both documents also address the issue of environmental justice with their unflinching witness to the fact that the poorest nations in the world (many of which are Muslim majority) are suffering from some of the worst effects of climate change caused by the richest nations in the world, yet with the fewest resources to combat such deleterious events: raging wildfires, extreme drought, rising sea waters, loss of fresh water and loss of arable land. Stewardship, as Laudato Si and Al-Mizan insist, is a moral obligation of the faithful in striving for the common good.


A Lenten Reflection…

There is perhaps no better time than Lent to pause briefly and consider that seemingly minor but telling moment of interfaith engagement because the United States today—and, increasingly, the Church in the U.S.—is rife with fissures and demarcations, barriers and barricades, and is destabilized by caustic binary thinking among oppositional communities. Against all of that, the discreet Catholic-Muslim dialogue stands in stark contrast. Much of contemporary American society—and the Catholic community within that larger society—seems now too ready to reject subtlety in thinking and flexibility in human interactions, to rebuff conversations of differing perspectives, preferring ideological bombast and coarse contempt for the other. The ethos of Lent, however, can provide some corrective to the corrosive temper of the times.

Lent is a time of prayer, of memory and of meditation, practices that Laudato Si and Al-Mizan together encourage. It is a time for reflection: What is the life I am leading? How do I treat the vulnerable (human and otherwise)? Do I presume the privilege of acquisition and consumerism, by utilization and exploitation, both of the physical environment and in my life with others? Do I live a life of discontent or a life of gratitude? The Christian Middle Ages (particularly the Benedictines) embraced Lent as the holy time of conversion, that is, the righteous occasion of turning the soul “with” and toward God. As St. Benedict taught, Lenten conversion was a devotion of body, mind and soul for more authentic self-awareness (such as reflecting on questions), for a more intimate relationship with God (understanding the importance of questions) and for a more generous communion with others (caring about the answers to questions). St. Benedict understood Lent as an interval of spiritual and intellectual growth, not just for the individual but for the entire community, through prayer and meditation, but also action, notably the works of mercy.

One “act” to initiate the Lenten endeavor is the cultivation of listening: to God, to one’s most authentic self and to the other. It could be argued that such active listening can become a tool to begin healing those fissures in society. St. Thomas Aquinas described listening in a sermon as the heart of wisdom, and Jesus (naturally) as the perfect model for that act of listening. Jesus, Aquinas said, listened “assiduously,” with his heart and with an openness to many different people, some of whom strongly opposed him. He turned to others graciously, listening not to prove them wrong but to listen without barriers to their thoughts, their feelings and their perceptions. Such active listening can open spaces of connection for a deeper understanding of the other, which may reveal (as Laudato Si and Al-Mizan demonstrate) more areas of concurrence—places of meeting—than might have been previously believed.

June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.