In writing his second encyclical Pope Francis began it with words echoing those of his namesake, the saint of Assisi, who wrote the “Canticle of the Sun” a prayer-filled poem in which God is praised for His work of creation. “Laudato Si” (Praise Be to You), published in 2015, calls on all people to take “swift and unified global action” to preserve and care for the natural environment entrusted to them by Almighty God. Within the letter is the following prayer: “All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures. You embrace with your tenderness all that exists. Pour out upon us the power of your love, that we may protect life and beauty. Fill us with peace, that we may live as brothers and sisters, harming no one. O God of the poor, help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth, so precious in your eyes. Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction. Touch the hearts of those who look only for gain at the expense of the poor and the earth. Teach us to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation, to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature as we journey towards your infinite light. We thank you for being with us each day. Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle for justice, love and peace.” When praying these words myself the mention of journeying towards God’s infinite light never fails to conjure a sun set image.
The ability to watch the sun setting has always been a captivating and mesmerising experience for me, and through the gift of travel I have been fortunate to experience sunsets in many places, including those where the sun disappears in an instant, natural daylight vanishing with the speed of a switch, and still others, where with very long hours of daylight, the loss of one day’s light is actually in another day. Although currently unable to travel there a favourite place to observe this natural moment of wonder and awe is Lytham. On a summer’s evening I am never alone standing and staring at one of God’s gifts to us, numbers gather and for many a phone is held in hand hoping for a shot worthy of display on the TV screen during the regional weather forecast. In the moment of sunset there is an invitation to thank the Almighty for the gift of the day, and ask a blessing on the night. Whilst a day concludes for one group of people, as John Ellerton wrote: “The sun that bids us rest is waking our brethren ‘neath the western sky !” The setting sun produces a reflective moment to appreciate something of the extraordinary imagery created from the diversity of colour on God’s palette used to produce the backdrop to our lives. In the busyness of the day His creative festivals of sky colouring are often wasted on us. For me watching the sun set is often the near perfect end to time away, after which begins the journey back to God’s own county, with passport at the ready for the border crossing from the red rose to the white rose county ! Without the ability to travel far the gift of an hour to exercise outdoors was taken up by numerous singletons, couples and families in the early days of Lockdown, all coming to appreciate, as some had done for a long time, what a beautiful part of the world we live in, and which is so readily accessible from our own doorsteps.
However proud I may be of my county of birth, with its incredible natural beauty, glorious in all seasons of the year, and breathtaking in all weathers, like many I have noted of late that there is a growing boldness in the careless manner in which our natural environment is being treated. Travelling between the Spen Valley and Otley throughout the period of time which I have personally dubbed the “Big Lockdown” on roads which were bereft of their usual volume of users there was almost a novelty feature about following another car driver for any distance. On one occasion mine was the second car in a convoy of two as far as the eye could see on the M606 between Bradford and the Chain Bar roundabout. At some point on the journey I began to hear a dull thud sound against the car similar to what, had it been raining, I would have thought were heavy raindrops or even hailstones. However, without a cloud in the sky, the noise was clearly not being made by droplets from heaven. Instead, as one hit the windscreen, I was immediately able to identify the cause of the thuds: French Fries ! The offending objects were being fired from the backseat of the car in front of me, and as we moved on to the slip road, they became more numerous as their container was also ejected from the rear window. Viewing the scene through a grease spattered windscreen, I was unimpressed, and flashed my lights as a statement that such behaviour was not acceptable. The driver managed to slip through the changing traffic lights, no doubt thinking that he’d seen the last of me. Fate however brought us together again at a set of temporary lights, and as we passed the Town Hall in Cleckheaton, a canister of ice-cream was also released from the window, spilling its contents liberally, on impact, across the neighbouring pavement. At this point my own engine had converted from its normal unleaded petrol status to the fuel of frustration, bordering on anger. At a red traffic signal in the centre of Cleckheaton our cars were next to each other; the offending car making a right turn and I was going straight on. To my horror as I biblically ‘stared hard’ at the occupants of the car I was faced with three generations of litter-louts, to whom I mouthed the words “I’ve got your number!” Which was most definitely both a very random thing to say and a white lie as I hadn’t got a clue what their vehicle registration was, however, in the moment, my unleashed words let them know that their wonton wasteful attitude was wholly unacceptable.
Sadly as I walk along many of our streets, venture past public green spaces, peer over the wall of the Cleckheaton Presbytery into a carpark behind the property, and, perhaps worst of all, drive along major and minor roads, I learn the frightening and harsh lesson that the occupants of that car are far from being alone in their desecration of our beautiful environment. Walking past a set of temporary lights last Sunday there next to the sign asking drivers to halt was a plastic container holding the remnants of a supper of Peking Duck, attracting a variety of swooping birdlife, which would have excited Chris Packham, clearly unabashed that they were dining el fresco on one of their own. With the amount of food waste being disposed of in this way I could not help but think that in a short few weeks as the temperature rises we’ll be sharing our streets with vermin far more bold and aggressive than most birds, with the exception of coastal chip-loving seagulls. Most of us shiver when those in the know inform us that we are never more than a few meters away from a rodent. It is information that we can cope with when we cannot see them, but when they venture forth to do their own daylight supermarket sweep on our pavements and around open and shared spaces, brushing up against their two-legged neighbours, our sensitivities for dealing with this reality may need a booster dose !
With very obvious growing amounts of waste in our localities the pandemic gives us justifiable reason for not getting involved with the great British tidy up, due to the offending item’s lack of obvious pedigree. So the mountain of waste is left to do its own thing. The only problem is that it takes a long time for polystyrene to disintegrate, food waste to decay, even the eco-friendly face covering hasn’t yet mastered the skill of self destruction or evaporation on removal. In a world where twelve months ago most non-professionals had rarely heard the term P.P.E., it is now widely possible to safely remove offending items from our locality, as many of us don our own personal protection equipment almost by second nature. A small number of people, including our neighbours on Bath Road, are frequently seen with a grabber-tool and bin bag attempting to tackle the wasteful habits of others. To these I say “Thank you” for your often unseen and all too often unappreciated ministry within our shared environment. It is also something that I do, looking after the spaces that I am the custodian of, following the slogan of my youth: Keep Britain tidy.
After a Friday wedding in Dewsbury some years ago I donned the persona of a male Eleanor Rigby (The Beatles’ character, for those who do not recognise the name) and swept confetti (not rice, as in the song) from the pavement outside of church. The volume of afternoon traffic on a one way road attempting to join the main dual carriage way meant that my task was not the easiest as the light weight confetti found a new energizing force in the breeze caused by the moving cars. With the task complete and personal satisfaction at a job well done, I walked up the hill with the tools of the trade – brush, dustpan and bin liner – to the church door. At this juncture an open-topped car joined the queue of traffic. Whilst a backseat passenger was snacking on a banana the rest of us had to endure a musical concert of deafening proportions. Just prior to closing the door, I took a final look at a well-swept, neat and once more litter free path only to see a discarded banana skin on the otherwise pristine tarmac ! The music was still blaring out of the slow moving car but the passenger in its rear clearly sat banana-less. Remaining on the steps, with the spirit of a leopard watching its prey from a distance, I hatched a plan. As the offending car moved towards the junction, a point of no return given the queue of cars behind him, I ventured down Cemetery Road with stealth, picked up the banana skin (germs or no germs, I was a man on a mission !), and on the point of the driver beginning to accelerate I politely said to the back seat passenger “I think you’ve dropped something !” at the same instant tossing the offending banana skin into his lap. Right or wrong, foolhardy or justified, I did feel an sense of inward satisfaction which was bolstered when several car drivers honked their horns … which I took to mean they agreed with my action !
Whilst not encouraging anyone to follow my bold and brash action of that Friday afternoon, perhaps an appreciation for the beauty of the environment around us is a starting point for acknowledging the incredible natural playground that God has gifted us with for enjoyment, pleasure, leisure and health, be that mental or physical. At the end of His labouring to create for humankind an environment that would sustain and provide for them, our Thrice Holy One, “saw all that He had made, and it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31) The seemingly small acts of taking rubbish home, or placing it in a bin, being prepared to sweep a shared space, or, as a part of home-schooling, encourage a rising generation to befriend nature and grow in an understanding of the need to look after the environment, may go some way to practically responding to some of the sentiments expressed in Pope Francis’s prayer. The subtitle of “Laudato Si” is quite telling and revealing of the Holy Father’s intention by contributing to the discussion on their environment. It is simply “on care for our common home.” In other words he is offering guidance on the care, respect, dignity and appreciation that our beautiful, divinely crafted and awe inspiring world seeks and needs. Reminding us by so doing that it isn’t someone else’s world … it is ours ! Not as its owners but rather its stewards and custodians, preparing to hand it on to others.
Holding you in prayerful remembrance and affection.
As ever, Fr. Nicholas
(In response to the number of enquiries that I continue to receive about Dad, just to say that he moved from the Leeds General Infirmary to Chapel Allerton Hospital (Leeds) at the end of January. In his new surroundings he is receiving a number of therapies – speech, occupational and physio – each day and is making progress. The care he receives continues to be excellent, and the staff on the ward are a joy to speak with on a daily basis. On his behalf, I thank all those who recall him in their prayers and thoughts. At this time a continued remembrance in prayer for all the sick, those known to us or even the stranger, together with those into whose care we entrust their physical, emotional and spiritual well-being is a source of comfort and support to so many.)