At dusk along the Menominee River in northern Wisconsin where my family vacations, bats can often be seen swooping down into our campsite looking for night flying insects. And more often than not, when this happens, the bats are met with squeals and screams and frantic running in every direction by the youngsters (and maybe a few oldsters) in the group. That is, until my young cousin Casey straightened us out one evening. “Bats are our friends,” she implored in a small but determined voice. “They eat mosquitoes!”
I thought of this incident immediately as I began to reflect on the spirituality that underpins the Sisters of Providence commitment to care for all creation. Bats and cats and alpacas and all manner of soils, waters, plants and animals are our friends. They are not simply created matter over which we humans have dominion or even stewardship. But truly (and grandly), they and we are members of one interrelated and interdependent community. This community exists as part of an entire web of life. This web, we believe, is made possible through the creative ongoing activity of an abundant, loving, provident God.
Science and community
Science has helped us know the truth of this, especially cosmology and evolutionary science (see Sister Ilia Delio). These have established the great insight that all life on this planet forms one community. Based on that insight alone we might be led to greater care for all creation, to look for ways to better sustain all life.
But we are also a community named Providence — from a name of God that we have come to understand as loving care, as hope and healing. A provident God sustains our life. God will provide for us, will lure creation toward wholeness.
Being God’s loving care
We are a community with a mission that challenges us and all those who partner with us to honor Divine Providence. Among many things, honor means to promise. Our promise in this time is to be God’s loving care for all creation, to be one of the ways God sustains life. We desire to live in right relationship with our Earth and with all that dwells on Earth. Right relationship puts us alongside of, not over and above, others. Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, in her new book, “Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love,” says it this way:
“Human beings participate with others in an interdependent world fundamentally oriented to God. We are situated within, not over, the magnificent circle of life, whose center and encompassing horizon is the generous God of life.” (p. 268)
We are also a community whose foundress embraced Saint Mary-of-the-Woods as home. She called herself and her sisters, “Daughters of the Forest.” They depended on the fruits of the land for sustenance, and they gathered from that land healing plants to dispense as medicines. They blessed God for the wonders of creation, admired the “grandeur, the power, the goodness of God.” In Saint Mother Theodore’s own words, “I loved to consider the care of God’s Providence which extends even to the little fishes.” And, “As to our garden and yard, we have all the woods. And the wilderness is our only cloister, for our house is like an oak tree planted therein.” (See Mother Theodore moment)
Blessed with such a name, a mission and a foundress, was there any other choice but for the Sisters of Providence to establish a center for eco-justice? White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, begun in 1996, also seeks to foster right relationship with all creation through advocacy, educational programming, spiritual growth experiences and ecological activities, such as organic gardening and management of alpacas. White Violet Center seeks to serve as a model of sustainability — economically, socially, spiritually and environmentally. Perhaps most importantly, the center’s vision is rooted in an understanding and a belief system that sees all life as holy, all life as one. (See White Violet Center photo story).
In 2011 we Sisters of Providence reaffirmed our commitment to care for all creation, promising to respond to urgent global issues, especially those impacting women and Earth. At that same time, we approved the development of a Land Ethic to guide our decision-making regarding the use of our lands now and into the future.
Modeled on the work of Aldo Leopold, conservationist and environmentalist, the Land Ethic enlarges the boundaries of our community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land. Elizabeth Johnson calls that “expanding the repertoire of our love.” Guidelines are set out in the Land Ethic to ensure decision-making takes into consideration the sustainability needs of Earth community in addition to the Sisters of Providence individual and communal economic needs.
Ecological and spiritual urgency
There is an ecological urgency in all of this. Earth, our home, is under terrible threat due to human action. Recently, White Violet Center revised its vision statement to include an understanding of Providence that calls each of us to care for our natural world before our natural world is no longer able to care for us.
But there is also a spiritual urgency. Returning again to the recent work of Johnson, she explains:
“Commitment to ecological wholeness in partnership with a more just social order is the vocation which best corresponds to God’s own loving intent for our corner of creation. The long-term goal is a socially just and environmentally sustainable society in which the needs of all people are met and diverse species can prosper, onward to an evolutionary future that will still surprise.” (p. 285-6)
Her words, “God’s own loving intent for our corner of creation,” sound a lot like the definition of Providence.
That same thought can be heard from Pope Francis. At his inaugural Mass on March 19, 2013, he said:
“Protect creation … protect all creation, the beauty of the created world … respect each of God’s creatures and respect the environment in which we live … care for creation and for our brothers and sisters … protect the whole of creation, protect each person, especially the poorest … Let us protect with love what God has given us!”
My cousin Casey may have summed it up best, “Bats are our friends.”
(This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of HOPE magazine.)