Virtual Oblate Gathering: For Everything There is a Season: Care for the Earth

Erie Benedictine Oblates

Nearly 90 oblates gathered for the 2021 oblate gathering “For Everything There is a Season: Care for the Earth” that was grounded in the spirituality of Ecclesiastes 3 and attuned to the pressing needs of the day. Planning team Oblates Becky Spudich, Priscilla Richter, Mark Gorman, and Sandy Selby, worked with co-directors Sister Dianne Sabol and Oblate Joanne Cahill to plan what they initially hoped would be an in-person gathering at the monastery. A new oblate logo, designed by Oblate Jo Clarke, was introduced at the gathering.

Panel presenters Sister Anne McCarthy spoke on the Laudato Sí Action Platform (LSAP) and Sister Annette Marshall on the vision of the community’s Care for the Earth Committee — that embraces the “integral ecology” of Laudato Sí and sets forth measurable goals. Click here for action sheet.

Oblate panelists Mark Gorman and Marlene Trambley challenged oblates to recognize the urgency of the times and the responsibility to make our Benedictine practices of listening, humility, and stewardship come alive in new ways as oblates and sisters commit to LSAP. (Their comments are below.)

Prioress Sister Stephanie Schmidt encouraged oblates to recognize the opportunity—the responsibility—to join the building worldwide momentum to address “one of the most critical issues facing the world today.” She encouraged them to “be honest in your conversations, be bold in your vision, and be committed, along with the sisters to ‘be a healing presence and prophetic witness for peace and justice by actively addressing the climate crisis and the rights of women and children.’”

Introduction: Dreamers Virtually Dreaming
Mark Gorman, Oblate
Benedictine Sisters of Erie

Good day, everyone. All of you wonderful Oblates, wherever you may be. And welcome to our 2021 Oblate gathering morning panel, which I’ve secretly (until now) entitled in my notes as, “dreamers virtually dreaming.”

I think we can safely say that these days are anything but ordinary. We are living in extraordinary times. In fact, I would wager that if we went through the verses of Ecclesiates 3 and checked off which seasons we are in right now, many of the checkmarks would fall next to times to weep, mourn, hate, wage war and - most obviously, perhaps, in these viral times - a time to refrain from embracing.

I don’t need to recite the extraordinary facts and figures for you. You know them all too well. Suffice it to say, we’re mired in one disaster: a global pandemic, while a climate disaster is perched on our doorsteps: it is hotter than it has been since at least 125,000 years ago. And the atmosphere has more heat-trapping carbon dioxide in it than any time in at least the past two million years. And just last month, the UN calculated that the world is on course to become 2.7C hotter, which would be devastating to most life as we know it on our beautiful planet.

It’s difficult enough in ordinary times simply to live, simply to survive, simply to be human. But it’s especially difficult to fully be our loving selves - to be human - in these seasons of sadness and plague and darkness and death - in these extraordinary times.

When we’re in the midst of a pandemic, finding ways to heal our selves and the other can seem unimaginable. When we’re in the darkness, it’s often hard to see how to move into the light. And it’s difficult to retreat to nature for solace, peace and comfort when the forests are burning and the rivers are dying. In such extraordinary times as these - it seems - simply to survive another day longer has become an extreme endurance sport.

So, back in February as our committee pondered these dark seasons that we are in and planned for today, we realized that the message of the poet who wrote Ecclesiates 3 was not the pessimistic view that we would become mired in one dark, dismal season after another, but that the season of war will inevitably shift to a season of peace, that a time of hatred will bloom into a time of love, and that the virus that stops us of from embracing will eventually give way to a season when we can hug one another again.

The question we’re posing today is, “How?”

Especially in these seasons of darkness, Benedict suggests a solution in his simple Rule. In that Rule, he invites us to be humble. Not simply to exist but to exist simply. To stop putting our unholy mark upon nature, but to humbly realize that we are but a small part of a holy universe, and that we need to do our part to help to restore nature, and nurture and protect all life. Benedict shows us in other words, how to face up to these extraordinary times by being exceedingly ordinary - by being simply human - by being fully who we are meant to be.

This should be easy enough, but history suggests that it isn’t. Because we have a penchant for being a proud and overbearing people who are not humble; especially the older, paler, western men among us. I’m speaking from experience. Humans, especially the old, white, western male humans, have put our prideful mark upon the Earth to such an extent that scientists now call the age that we live in the Anthropocene - a period during which human activity has been the predominant influence upon the climate and the environment. Quite the opposite of humility, in other words.

It’s now time - now is the season - for all of us to practice being humble, so that we may listen with the ears of our hearts to those among us who ARE humble; who can help us answer the question, “How?”. They’re often the quiet ones, who aren’t listened to, and who are not heard over the din of so-called “progress.” But they are the holy souls who can lead us out of darkness into new seasons of hope, healing, peace and life. Those of us running and sustaining our western patriarchy, and propping it up with money and violence and lies and deceit, do so against the will and hopes and desires and dreams of those many others: the women, the poor, the children, the abused, the enslaved and the exploited. Annette, Anne and Marlene today will help us to better listen to those voices of wisdom. It’s our job, then, to hear, to reflect and then to act.

And to act quickly.

Because we’re running out of time. Every sector of the world is badly off track in attempts to curb a catastrophic climate breakdown. Earlier this month the International Energy Agency estimated that the current plans to cut global carbon emissions will fall 60% short of their 2050 net zero target. The agency noted that coal use, rather than declining, is growing rapidly, contributing last year to the second-largest increase in CO2 emissions in history.

Holy urgency, infused with extreme humility and compunction, as the Rule suggests, are needed before it’s too late; before there will be no more seasons of growth and life; no more seasons of autumn, or winter or spring. Before we are, quite literally, cast ourselves out of paradise into a permanent summer of hell — a hell of our own making.

We’ll turn things over now to Sister Anne McCarthy, but first, I’ll leave you with wisdom words spoken down through the ages to us, today, from the Néhinaw North American native people (Cree). They warn us that

“When the last tree has been cut down,
The last fish caught,
The last river poisoned,
Only then will we realize
We cannot eat money.”

Marlene Trambley, Oblate
Benedictine Sisters of Erie

In the Rule of Benedict written in the 6th century, Chapter 31: Qualifications of the Monastery Cellarer it states that all utensils and goods of the monastery should be treated like sacred vessels of the altar. Joan Chittister in The Rule of Benedict Insight for the Ages, writes “that a Benedictine cares for the earth and all things well. The Benedictine heart practiced ecology before it was a word.”

On Chapter 32: The Tools and Goods of the Monastery, Joan writes “that Benedictine spirituality sees the care of the earth and the integration of prayer and work, body and soul as essential parts of the journey to wholeness that answers the emptiness in us”. So we see that Benedictinism has always incorporated care for creation among its values.

I have been an Oblate since 1981 and have been fortunate to live in Erie. I taught at St. Benedict Academy, the sisters’ all girls’ high school in the inner city, where many of the sisters became my good friends. Some of them got me involved in the Stewardship committee. Later, when the school closed, Sisters Annette and Pat Lupo asked me to help start two environmental youth groups, Earth Force and the Junior Pennsylvania Lake Erie Watershed Association, as outside activities at the new school.

Changing careers, I then became chair of the CARE committee, a committee to look at renewable energy resources for the Mount and the inner-city ministries. And now with a new phase of my life, Annette asked me to join the working energy group. So I have been involved in this ministry for a long time. Would I have been this involved had it not been for the sisters and their corporate commitment? I don’t know. All I do know is that God works in mysterious ways.

According to the Benedictine website, when we signed on to become oblates “we chose to enter into a distinct relationship with others and to be sustained by others on a similar spiritual path.” Besides the Oblates, the others are our Benedictine sisters. We are a part of and an extension of the community wherever we may live in this global village. The sisters are counting on us to bring the rule to where we live. They are counting on us to be prophetic witnesses to the rule. Wait a minute – a prophetic witness! I am not a prophet. But in Joan’s book The Time is Now she defines a prophet. “Prophets ask questions most people do not ask or take the time to pursue. Ask yourself what you really stand for. And what you have done to prove it. At that moment we either become prophets or simply church goers. The time is now! The question of who is called to proclaim truth in a silent generation is an easy one – we all are. The time is now!” Will you accept your role of a prophet to help carry out the corporate commitment?

Pope Francis in Laudato Sí states “that the ecological crisis facing us today requires many things to change, but it is we as humans above all who need to change. He further states “that both everyday experiences and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poor.” The climate crisis is a moral issue! I listened to Greta Thunberg’s address to the Youth4Climate Live conference in Milan. These young people have it right! Now if only we would listen. I heard a young man after the election to replace Angela Merkel express his feeling that once again the “old” people are in power who don’t really have a clue as to the importance of climate change on our planet and what the future holds for us, the youth. Greta talked about hope – “hope always come from the people, she said it starts with people facing the reality of the situation as uncomfortable as it may be." She further states that:
"Hope is not passive
Hope is telling the truth
Hope is not blah blah blah
Hope is taking action and it starts now."

Her question to the youth – “What do we want?” Answer: Climate Justice
Question: When do we want it? Answer: Now Will you be a person of hope for our youth?

I realize that many of us are at the stage in life where we have been given many challenges. Sickness, death of loved one, financial concerns to name a few. I also realize that there are so many issues that need to be addressed. It is overwhelming! Whatever you can do, even the smallest of practices can make a big difference in reducing our carbon footprint and fulfilling our commitment to be a healing presence and prophetic witness for peace and justice by actively addressing the climate crisis and the rights of women and children.

I will close by telling you one of my favorite parables.

“Tell me the weight of a snowflake”, a chickadee asked a wild dove. “Nothing more than nothing” Was the answer. “In that case, I must tell you a marvelous story,” the chickadee said. ”I sat on the branch of a fir tree, close to its trunk, when it began to snow, not heavily, not in a raging blizzard, no, just like in a dream, without any violence. Since I didn’t have anything else to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952. When the next snowflake dropped onto the branch – nothing more than nothing, as you say – the branch broke off.” Having said that, the chickadee flew away. The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought the story for a while and finally said to herself: “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace and justice to come about in the world.”