This year we have been challenged not to take water for granted. Long weeks with little or no rain dried up fields and gardens, while rivers’ flow diminished. In one lake nearby many fish died from lack of oxygen.
It was a relief to come to the back of the old Harbledown leper hospital near Canterbury the week before the drought broke and to find the spring flowing in the holy well.
Edward, the Black Prince and Prince of Wales would have been happy, too. He attributed a cure he received to taking the water. He was devoted to Canterbury and was buried in the cathedral in 1376. The well is sometimes called the Black Prince’s Well, sometimes St Thomas’s. This was the last spot to water horses before descending into the city; a chance for riders, too, to take a cold drink and for the hospital to beg for alms.
Notice the Prince of Wales’s feathers carved on the capstone of the arch, an older example of this emblem, more formal than the version on British 2p coins and instantly recognisable to passers-by. The stone appears to be balanced on top of the arch rather than holding all of it together. Perhaps this sign of royal favour was enough to spare the well under the Tudor monarchs’ vandalism.
Let us pray with Saint Francis:
Praised be You my Lord through Sister Water,
So useful, humble, precious and pure.
And let us remember how precious water is, and how impure it has become because we have despised its humility and taken it for granted.
Another reflection from Chesterton on Saint Francis*, who among many other things, could be called a Performance Poet today.
Saint Francis hails the elements with an old familiarity that is almost an old frivolity. He calls them his Brother Fire and his Sister Water. So arises out of this almost nihilistic abyss the noble thing that is called Praise; which no one will ever understand while he identifies it with nature-worship or pantheistic optimism.
When we say that a poet praises the whole creation, we commonly mean only that he praises the whole cosmos. But this sort of poet does really praise creation, in the sense of the act of creation. He praises the passage or transition from nonentity to entity; there falls here also the shadow of that archetypal image of the bridge, which has given to the priest his archaic and mysterious name.
We in the West may be over-familiar with stories of Francis calling up his Brother Fire and his Sister Water, and this partly because we have lost touch with fire and water. How many households are all-electric and possibly only light candles on birthday cakes? Many have nowhere to light a fire, keeping warm and cooking without a flame, at the touch of a switch.
In our everyday lives water is tamed to flow through pipes, to be heated in a closed boiler, disposed of when dirty through more pipes; not the way to treat a sister. Still less the pollution in rivers and the ocean. Maybe we need to listen again.
We praise you, Lord, for all your creatures,
especially for Brother Sun,
who is the day through whom you give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour,
of you Most High, he bears your likeness.
We praise you, Lord, for Sister Water,
so useful, humble, precious and pure.
*Saint Francis of Assisi: The Life and Times of St. Francis” by G. K. Chesterton
51. Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time. The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialised north has caused harm locally, as for example in mercury pollution in gold mining or sulphur dioxide pollution in copper mining.
The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming. There is also the damage caused by the export of solid waste and toxic liquids to developing countries, and by the pollution produced by companies which operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home. Generally, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable”.
52. The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned. In different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future. The land of the southern poor is rich and mostly unpolluted, yet access to ownership of goods and resources for meeting vital needs is inhibited by a system of commercial relations and ownership which is structurally perverse. As the United States bishops have said, greater attention must be given to “the needs of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable, in a debate often dominated by more powerful interests”. We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalisation of indifference.
41. In tropical and subtropical seas, we find coral reefs comparable to the great forests on dry land, for they shelter approximately a million species, including fish, crabs, molluscs, sponges and algae. Many of the world’s coral reefs are already barren or in a state of constant decline. “Who turned the wonderworld of the seas into underwater cemeteries bereft of colour and life?” This phenomenon is due largely to pollution which reaches the sea as the result of deforestation, agricultural monocultures, industrial waste and destructive fishing methods, especially those using cyanide and dynamite. It is aggravated by the rise in temperature of the oceans. All of this helps us to see that every intervention in nature can have consequences which are not immediately evident, and that certain ways of exploiting resources prove costly in terms of degradation which ultimately reaches the ocean bed itself.
42. Greater investment needs to be made in research aimed at understanding more fully the functioning of ecosystems and adequately analysing the different variables associated with any significant modification of the environment. Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another. Each area is responsible for the care of this family. This will require undertaking a careful inventory of the species which it hosts, with a view to developing programmes and strategies of protection with particular care for safeguarding species heading towards extinction.
All Creatures are dependent on one another, but humans can consciously care for this family. Francis is strongly supporting the scientists here.
In 2017 Pope Francis had this fountain disconnected because of a water shortage in Rome. In this section of Laudato Si he tackles the problems of water poverty.
28. Fresh drinking water is an issue of primary importance, since it is indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Sources of fresh water are necessary for health care, agriculture and industry. Water supplies used to be relatively constant, but now in many places demand exceeds the sustainable supply, with dramatic consequences in the short and long term. Large cities dependent on significant supplies of water have experienced periods of shortage, and at critical moments these have not always been administered with sufficient oversight and impartiality. Water poverty especially affects Africa where large sectors of the population have no access to safe drinking water or experience droughts which impede agricultural production.
29. One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor. Every day, unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases, including those caused by microorganisms and chemical substances. Dysentery and cholera, linked to inadequate hygiene and water supplies, are a significant cause of suffering and of infant mortality. Underground water sources in many places are threatened by the pollution produced in certain mining, farming and industrial activities, especially in countries lacking adequate regulation or controls.
Detergents and chemical products continue to pour into our rivers, lakes and seas.
30. In some places there is a growing tendency to privatise this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity. This debt can be paid partly by an increase in funding to provide clean water and sanitary services among the poor. But water continues to be wasted, not only in the developed world but also in developing countries which possess it in abundance. This shows that the problem of water is partly an educational and cultural issue, since there is little awareness of the seriousness of such behaviour within a context of great inequality.
31. Greater scarcity of water will lead to an increase in the cost of food and the various products which depend on its use. Some studies warn that an acute water shortage may occur within a few decades unless urgent action is taken. The environmental repercussions could affect billions of people; it is also conceivable that the control of water by large multinational businesses may become a major source of conflict in this century.
Pope Francis here draws together many of the problems we face, and now turns to climate change – which will have the greatest impact on the poorest people. If you can no longer make a living because your land is degraded, what can you do but leave and try to find somewhere better? But some people in power deny the problem exists, or is any of their business.
25. Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited. For example, changes in climate, to which animals and plants cannot adapt, lead them to migrate; this in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children. There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognised by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever. Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.
26. Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change. However, many of these symptoms indicate that such effects will continue to worsen if we continue with current models of production and consumption. There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy. Worldwide there is minimal access to clean and renewable energy. There is still a need to develop adequate storage technologies. Some countries have made considerable progress, although it is far from constituting a significant proportion. Investments have also been made in means of production and transportation which consume less energy and require fewer raw materials, as well as in methods of construction and renovating buildings which improve their energy efficiency. But these good practices are still far from widespread.
I’ve used this image a few times, but nobody has ever commented on the throwaway cup in front of the gate; if I’d observed it before taking the picture, it would have been whisked away. I think we have got to the point where often we don’t notice pollution or waste. Today, in our reading from Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’, he addresses waste, contrasting human manufacture’s failure to reuse or recycle with the exemplary way the cycles of nature operate.
20. Some forms of pollution are part of people’s daily experience. Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths. People take sick, for example, from breathing high levels of smoke from fuels used in cooking or heating. There is also pollution that affects everyone, caused by transport, industrial fumes, substances which contribute to the acidification of soil and water, fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and agrotoxins in general. Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.
21. Each year hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive. The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Industrial waste and chemical products utilized in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low. Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected.
22. These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. To cite one example, most of the paper we produce is thrown away and not recycled. It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants. But our industrial system has not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximising their efficient use, reusing and recycling them. Only limited progress has been made in this regard.
Click here for a challenging article on how not to waste the gifts God gives us.
After discussing statements on the environment and the misuse of Creation by popes over the last fifty years, Pope Francis continues by saying how scientists and other thinkers have contributed to church thinking.
7. Other Churches and Christian communities – and other religions as well – have expressed deep concern and offered valuable reflections on issues which all of us find disturbing. To give just one striking example, I would mention the statements made by the beloved Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, with whom we share the hope of full ecclesial communion.
8. Patriarch Bartholomew has spoken in particular of the need for each of us to repent of the ways we have harmed the planet, for “inasmuch as we all generate small ecological damage”, we are called to acknowledge “our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation”. He has repeatedly stated this firmly and persuasively, challenging us to acknowledge our sins against creation: “For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins”. For “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”.
9. At the same time, Bartholomew has drawn attention to the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems, which require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms. He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which “entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion”. As Christians, we are also called “to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet”.
Bartholomew and Francis are close to Blake’s vision:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.
But Blake is not sentimentalising. He goes on to catalogue some sins against Creation, specifically cruelty against animals. If we saw a Heaven in a Wild Flower we would accept the world as a sacrament of communion, and not act in this way:
A Robin Red breast in a Cage Puts all Heaven in a Rage. A Dove house filld with Doves & Pigeons Shudders Hell thr’ all its regions. A dog starvd at his Masters Gate Predicts the ruin of the State. A Horse misusd upon the Road Calls to Heaven for Human blood. Each outcry of the hunted Hare A fibre from the Brain does tear. A Skylark wounded in the wing A Cherubim does cease to sing. The Game Cock clipd & armd for fight Does the Rising Sun affright.
I am never alone when praying the psalms, and this is not just because I pray them in the liturgy and in community. Many people pray the psalms privately, and they, too, are not alone. This is because the psalms, you might say, “refashion” the heart of the person praying.
Canterbury had a railway link to London before 1850, engineered along the Stour Valley from Ashford, a relatively flat line which needed few road bridges, over or under. However, there are a number of level crossings, two of them in central Canterbury, capable of holding up road traffic for minutes at a time in queues 100m and more long.
Sad to say, most cars and motor vehicles (but not the local buses) have their engines left on at this time, wasting the drivers’ money in fuel burning uselessly. That we might say is their problem, but it’s everyone’s problem when the air on St Dunstan’s Street is so often polluted above safe levels; it’s everyone’s problem when greenhouse gases are unnecessarily emitted into the atmosphere to add to global warming.
Please think about switching off your engine when traffic grinds to a halt at a crossing or other hold up.
Bin liners are a constant plastic we use in our everyday lives, however if we all transitioned to plastic-free or compostable ones we would greatly reduce its impact on nature.
Number 40! Changing your dietary lifestyle can make a huge impact on how much plastic you use. Nut milks mostly come in recyclable cartons and you can purchase your beans and nuts loose from places like unboxed!