Lodate e benedite il mio Signore, ringraziatelo e servitelo con grande umiltà. 

St Francis of Assisi.

Rainbows and Catastrophes. 

When we see a rainbow, it is difficult not to be surprised by its beauty and promise. Though we know the scientific explanation, that does not take away the sense that it is a gift, and, for a moment, the earth can both delight and reassure us. Of course, in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the rainbow appears after the great flood; God’s sign that the earth is secure again.

Many world religions have stories of a devastating flood that cleanses the earth and punishes the humanity that abuses it. One of the oldest is the Epic of Gilgamesh. There are also versions in Hinduism, and one can find such stories in the religions of many native peoples. 

The story in Genesis (chapters 6-9) tells of a time when people misused the gifts of God’s creation, behaving as if ‘they’ were gods. They, too, were oblivious to all the warning signs. Reading the story, we have a sense that they thought time could be manufactured and that they were beyond accountability. God destroys their illusions and the earth they had polluted and He even comes to regret the creation that had once been the source of His delight (6:7).

Yet, there is also something strange, even beautiful in the Genesis story. Although human beings have been the disfiguring agents of destruction, they are not eliminated. Humanity is integral to God’s creation so, in the figure of Noah and his family, humans are also restored; they are part of creation’s new beginning. But Noah is not a hero in the conventional sense. He is far from perfect, and even though God chosen him, he is also flawed. God is prepared to risk it all again on this very human, human being. When Noah sees the rainbow, he knows that the waters of the great flood have abated. God’s gives the rainbow as the sign of a new covenant with the whole of creation – a cosmic covenant. In the story of the great flood, Genesis not only teaches us about ourselves, it teaches us about God. More than God the creator, we encounter a God who is not afraid to take the risk of beginning again, even with imperfect people like us. In this act, God is also teaching us. We know we are not perfect and all our beginnings tend to be flawed, but we can begin again and with each new beginning something changes and we discover even great possibilities for the good.

In 1947, the scientists of the Manhattan Project who had helped to make the atomic bomb established The Doomsday Clock. It is a symbolic device designed to warn us how close we are to catastrophe. Formerly, that catastrophe was an atomic war the threat of which is still with us. Now, however, there is the more urgent reality of human-induced climate change. Today, the hands of the clock stand at 90 seconds to midnight. That is how close we are to the irreversible destruction of our earth, our home.  

We cannot claim ignorance. The Paris Accords of 2015 made it clear that by continuing with our current domestic and industrial policies we are reaching unstable levels of global warming. As Laudate Deum sounds the alarm; the evidence is there for all to see, even though there are always the false prophets of denial.

In the relatively short time between Paris and Cop 28 (November 2023) we are already experiencing these effects and their consequences: vast fires, droughts, crop failures, floods, the displacement of people, and the loss of biodiversity. The rainbow is hidden by the flames and the smoke which pollutes the air. Yet Governments and businesses continue as they did in the time of Noah. Their complacency is barely disguised by token gestures, still grasping the illusion that money and technologies will ultimately preserve us and a profit can still be made.

The promise of a deep and flourishing life is in the gift of children, who will pay the price for our failures to act today. Children are more vulnerable to climate and environmental shocks than adults. Approximately 1 billion children – half the world’s children – live in climate-risk countries and areas that experience multiple climate stresses and hazards, creating new situations of disease, famine, and displacement, the dislocation of families, cultures, and histories. Of course, they live with the consequences of the ever-increasing inequality gap between classes and between nations. At the moment, for them the future holds no rainbows, and the chimes of the Doomsday Clock are already sounding.

The problem does not lie with technologies and science but in the failure of moral and political will. There are solutions, but they are not quick fixes. They require sustained effort and perseverance – moral and imaginative stamina and responsibility. This is why we now need not only the commitment of today’s governments, but commitments that will shape the policies of the future. The lasting solution requires a deep conversion and commitment of us, the people, the voters and those without this privilege. It needs the commitment of us all – a new rainbow coalition, the democratic ‘sensus fidelium’. For this reason, we need reliable information and expert guidance; we need to be inform and be formed that we may take those actions which are within our power not matter how limited or insignicant we feel ourselves to be. We need to educate and train ourselves and our families to cherish the earth and husband all its resources with knowledge, understanding, gratitude and respect. We need to cultivate an ‘integral ecological imagination’ which can inspire new values and new behaviours.

We love our children and want to give them the best we can offer them. There is no greater gift for us to give than a flourishing earth, rich in diversity, creativity, and potential – rich in life! Such a gift is the world we can create if we wish to. A world that is also a home in which all have a secure place. It is a world that is the home in which we learn the humility of serving creation rather than exploiting it; we see that our very inter-relatedness with everything on our planet is itself a blessing, not a limitation, for God has entrusted his work to us and made us the ministers of its goodness. It is our responsibility to the promise and to the future, which God continues to offer us.

The ‘risk of beginning again’: Renewing our Covenant.  

If we are to renew this covenant we first need to commit ourselves to change, not only of our economic and political systems, but in our hearts and our wills. It is time to claim our freedom, and choose to live with new models, values, cultures of sufficiency that we might all enjoy a simpler, more sustainable, connected and responsible life. It is time to leave our seductive captivity to the old gods of rapacious consumption, to start the new exodus from our old ways and habits that creation, too, can be free.

Our earth is not a ‘silent planet’. Even though every form of life has its own language of pain and lament, it also has the song of life – the great celebration – Laudato Si!  Both Laudato Si and Laudate Deum invite us into this great song of praise that rightly belongs to a creation which knows and rejoices in its own blessedness.  As their titles indicate, Laudato Si and Laudate Deum remind us that all creation is a great and joyous hymn of praise to the Creator for the triumph of life over nihilism and death. It is creation’s Magnificat and for too long the clamour of our lives have made us deaf to it. If we wish to take up our part and join the wonderful polyphony we must learn to sing together and adventure with trust to follow the score which God has composed. Such a conversion to the communion of life is not such a difficult thing once we give up our addictions and illusions and say ‘yes’ to the gift of our world, its beauty and complexity, its abundance and generosity, its goodness and its blessing.

As with the story of the flood and the flawed but faithful figure of Noah, God does not despair of humanity. Behind the black clouds of polution, the rainbow still breaks through. It is there to call us; to give us hope that we can change and together we can act. Time is God’s creation and God makes time for us to change. We can reset the hands on the Doomsday Clock, end the suffering and exploitation of creation. We can discover how to use our science and technology for the benefit of life and become the creative carers of our common home once more.

What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them, the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled, and one cannot bear to hear or see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayers continually, even for irrational beasts, the enemies of the truth, and those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. In like manner, such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.

(St Isaac of Syria)

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About the Author

James Hanvey SJ

Secretary for the Service of the Faith for the Society of Jesus

His particular research and teaching interests are in the areas of Trinitarian Theology, Pneumatology, Ecclesiology and Catholic Social Thought as well as Ignatian Spirituality.

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