The word ent has deep roots in the English language. It is Anglo-Saxon (Old English) for ‘giant’. Most people today know it from JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and the films based on this. In the second volume, The Two Towers, we meet strong, giant, tree-like shepherds of the forest, most notably in the person of Treebeard.
The hobbits Merry and Pippin had escaped the vile orcs but escaped and fled into Fangorn Forest, home of Treebeard. Around this time, Saruman the wizard who’d turned collaborator with Sauron the dark lord, was felling trees to build his fortress Isengard and its military-industrial complex.
The scenes are evocative: trees are destroyed and with them a whole ecosystem, culture and worldview; in their place come machines and fire to serve ambition, violence and power. This rouses the Ents into rare anger and activity: they march on Isengard destroying Saruman’s headquarters and ending his power.
My reason for recalling that epic today is that it hovers in the background of Pope Francis’ recently published encyclical letter, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. One pundit says that it is an encyclical Tolkien could have written, saying “There are no Ents, but images of the Shire are evoked on every page”.
Certainly, Tolkien’s work was a cri de cœur regarding a technocratic age that has seen the destruction of so much of the countryside, the rise of big cities full of smog, noise, poverty and ugliness; an age that rewards the production of things rather than the cultivation of character and honours infinite consumption of the latest things over simple traditional pleasures.
Others have pointed to famous 20th century theologian Romano Guardini as an inspiration for the Pope’s encyclical: like Tolkien, he was critical of the way knowledge has become power, the power to control and exploit nature, leading to a “deep alienation between humanity and nature”.
So Pope Francis cries out to 21st century humanity, cataloguing the damage this technocratic attitude does to our natural and human environments.
In The Lord of the Rings trees are personified as Ents. The title Laudato Si’ comes from a hymn in which St Francis of Assisi also personifies nature, praising the body-warming “Brother Son” and heart-warming “Sister Moon”, the life-sustaining Brothers Wind and Air, Storms and Clouds, the useful and pure “Sister Water”, the powerful and enlightening “Brother Fire”, and the colourful and fertile “Mother Earth”.
So, too, Pope Francis beautifully explores the three main concerns of his name-saint: love for the natural world and its creatures, love for humanity and especially the poor, and love for the Creator of them all. He calls for a radical rethink of our relationship with all three.
Thus, the encyclical is not about the environment narrowly considered, but about the entire moral ‘ecosystem’ and the relationships human beings have with their Creator, the world and each other.
Some have pointed out that the Church’s performance with respect to Galileo should make Churchmen humble about talking climate, economics or any other science; that Christ gave His Church no particular wisdom on whether climate change is real, what causes it and what can help it; nor does the Gospel present a divinely inspired critique of free markets.
Nonetheless, Christians must, like all other persons, make their best judgments about present facts and future challenges. And we have a particular wisdom to offer about matters such as reverence for the Creator in His creation, reverence for God in our fellows as His divine image, about right relationships with others, especially the poor, about what is truly ‘the good life’ for persons, and about the social and moral dangers of rapacious consumption a la Saruman – all of which rightly interrogate science, technology and economy.
Pope Francis’ encyclical speaks to contemporary Sydney with all its natural and social beauty, its potential and its challenges. He reflects, for instance, on our attitudes to our own bodies, including the need to live a healthy masculinity or femininity.
He comments on the poor quality of life for many in big cities and the frenetic pace that inhibits “serene attentiveness”; on the broken relationships and enduring responsibilities between generations; on the dangers of voracious consumerism and the ‘throwaway society’; on the naïveté of belief in unlimited progress and the perils of excessive deference to technology; and on the relativism behind so much of this thinking and behaviour.
Echoing the Scriptures and Tradition he calls us to a simpler, humbler, more ascetical lifestyle – a call both very traditional and very contemporary.
There is a deep interconnectedness between the different ‘ecologies’ (or ‘economies’, as we used to all them): natural, social and supernatural. If sin disrupts one it disrupts them all; where grace heals one, all are healed.
The Holy Father will not admit the man versus nature paradigm than treats human beings as the enemies of the natural order, as a kind of pollution that needs to be minimised.
But he is willing to call a spade a spade, to name the attitude that sees the universe as a smorgasbord to be gobbled up and then excreted, leaving behind only ‘filth’. He echoes Pope Benedict’s thought that the desertification of our landscape reflects growing deserts in our hearts.
There is an important supernatural element to all this. In today’s first reading the Israelites murmur because the wilderness is not as luxurious as was their former life in Egypt (Ex 16:2-4, 12-15).
It’s as if they’ve already forgotten how the poor were treated in that particular economy, how they were all enslaved. Their liberator God now demonstrates His mercy once more by giving them manna in the desert.
We Christians know this prefigures His greatest gift to humanity: “the Bread come down from heaven”, Jesus Christ (Jn 6:24-35).
In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis suggests that “in the Eucharist all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation” (236). By a greater attentiveness to the Sabbath spirit on Sunday, to the action of grace in transforming simple things like bread and wine and human company into sacraments, to practices like grace before meals and fasting to share with those who have less, the Pope suggests our relationships with the Creator, creation and our fellow man can be healed (237).
Have a look at the new encyclical if you’ve not done so already: it’s available on the internet or in hard copy from Catholic bookshops.
Consider how you might address the perennial temptations to selfishness and greed, how you might cultivate habits of simplicity, asceticism and generosity.
As St Paul says, “give up the old way of life; put aside the old self corrupted by illusory desires” (Eph 4:17-24). It’s a spiritual revolution, not just a scientific or economic one, we need, a conversion to “the goodness and holiness of the Truth”.
As you examine your conscience at the beginning of Mass, before Confession or before you sleep, consider your attitudes towards creation and your treatment of the poor. In all you do, “work not for food that cannot last, but for what endures to eternal life, the food the Son of Man is offering you”.
This is the edited text of the homily given by the Archbishop of Sydney, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, on 2 August at St Mary’s Cathedral.