At Mount St. Helens, a spiritual insight into ecological healing

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I was more than 4,000 feet above sea level – almost a mile. As I approached the Johnston Ridge Observatory in the Cascade Mountains, the world opened up and I beheld something awe-inspiring: the smoking, glacier-strewn remains of a volcano.

Although it has borne the European name of Mount St. Helens since 1792, many Native Americans speak of it Loowit. The clickitat peoples call it Louwala-Cloughcall it the Cowlitz peoples Lavelatla (“the smoker”), and the Puyallup peoples call it Loowitlatkla (“Woman of Fire”). These names predate Europeans by thousands of years.

I had visited Loowit 16 years ago when I lived in Seattle. At that time I was deposed. The destruction from the 1980 eruption—the year I was born—still dominated the surrounding landscape for miles: mountains and valleys were covered in dust, rocks, and tree stumps, and mostly lifeless. Some rivers and streams flowed through the area, and some lakes and glaciers dotted the landscape. But it resembled a lunar landscape more than a life-giving ecosystem.

This time the world around the volcano had changed. The once desolate landscape was now green and full of life. Wildflowers in the meadows were plentiful. Tall pines, cedars, and deciduous trees had returned. They created a canopy for ferns, bushes, berries, and all kinds of other plants that can grow under their shelter. These in turn created a home for more life. Hawks, eagles and other birds soared above the trees while small animals and insects went about their business below.

In the 42 years since it erupted and the 16 years since I last visited, the country has experienced something of a resurrection. In large part, that’s simply because we’ve avoided humans. Sometimes human cooperation with God requires us to yield and allow God’s spirit to work. Instead of trying to solve a problem that is beyond our control, we stand back, observe, and wait.

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We see a similar discipline practiced by the earliest disciples at the initiation of the Christian Paschal Mystery. The disciples who do not flee after the passion and execution of Jesus, especially Mary Magdalene and the other women on guard, show Easter discipline after a terrible tragedy. Instead of seeking retribution, revenge, or resuscitation of the body—to control what was beyond their power—they remain true to Jesus’ way and their Jewish tradition of honoring dishonored prophets. Even unknowingly, they flow with God’s resurrection spirit rather than trying to direct or control it.

Daoist philosophy uses the term wu-wei (“active inaction”) to describe this attitude. I explain it to my high school students with a famous metaphor about swimming in a river. A practicing person wu-wei is a person who brings his body into harmony with the power of water. They don’t swim against the current, nor do they swim faster than the current. Rather, they maneuver their bodies to be carried by the current at the speed of the river. That’s what it’s like to flow with God’s Spirit.

This discipline of cooperation with God through decentering of human agency is part of the story of man’s resurrection Loowit Region. According to a report by Michael Casey for CBS News, the main variable that contributed to the region’s rebirth was keeping out human encroachment, whether through the logging industry or aggressive ecological restoration. The stewards of the land simply had to get out of the way, observe, read the surroundings, and follow small ways of stewardship, like planting trees strategically to stop erosion or introducing fish to the new lakes created by the eruption have arisen. This kind of collective human acknowledgment of finitude in the face of overwhelming power, along with a willingness to be a steward or midwife as opposed to a master or surgeon, is key to life’s new blossoming.

Loowit’s Paschal Mystery—his life, death, and resurrection—is a symbol of hope.

It’s the same volcano and landscape as before, but also very different. Earth cannot return to the beauty of the region before the eruption. The destruction caused by the explosion cannot be overlooked. The scars are permanent. But the wound no longer festers. It has experienced healing and growth. Natural processes and human cooperation with them transformed this landscape from one of desolation to one of prosperity. As ecologist Charlie Crisafulli described the landscape to CBS News a few years ago, “In some places it doesn’t even make sense to talk about recreation. We are talking about new landforms and there is no way to go back to precoveration.”

In Jesus, God brings risen life from destruction and death. At the resurrection, Jesus’ body still shows the wounds from his torture and violent death. The wounds are not erased. But as theologian Robert Schreiter points out, Jesus’ wounds are now healed and he can extend that healing power to others. You will be transformed into a new reality that gives life.

Whether in the gospels or at Loowit, this kind of transformation is no small thing – especially in a time of ecological crisis fueled by ruthless human stewardship of the earth. Yes, the fracture of the earth at Loowit had little to do with human activity. It is not the same as the wounds caused by tar sands mining, excessive carbon emissions, massive deforestation, microplastic pollution and consumer behavior that prioritizes affordability over sustainability. But it reminds us that human cooperation with the Earth under the Spirit’s guidance actually brings new life.

As I have learned from the African American Christian tradition, God does not make a way out of any way. God’s ways are different and more effective than our own. When the impossibility of human dignity and a future worth living becomes “normal,” God offers a new way forward, one that any individual can scarcely imagine. It often begins as a hidden path or a small path that furthers the lives of the most wounded and vilified. This is the history of Christianities initiated by God through the Black Church in North America and by Our Lady of Guadalupe in Latin America. In systems that have gone horribly wrong, God does “emerge,” people respond, and the seeds of a new future—a future closed not through human cooperation with sin and evil, but through cooperation with grace and God’s Spirit is opened – Sat.

What could this path look like in response to the looming ecological crisis? Franciscan Father Daniel P. Horan National Catholic Reporter The article Global Climate Change Is Also a Spiritual Crisis provides a helpful summary. He writes: “We cannot afford to ignore the spiritual dimensions of the climate crisis in our midst. In fact, as [Pope] Francis regularly reminds us everything is connected, and that includes not only the vast community of creation that you and I are a part of, but also what we bring in prayer and what comes out of it in action.” An answer, then, will require unprecedented shifts in global economies and systems of food and energy production as well as an ethic of the global common good and the willingness to transnational cooperation. However, it also requires an authentic repentance and conversion of believers to follow where God is moving and a willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to bring forth a healed and glorified earth.

The Easter Mystery Loowit– his life, death and resurrection – is a symbol of hope. It reminds us that the earth wants us to work together. It reminds us that as creatures of the earth, in God’s image, we can participate and witness the healing and transformation of the earth’s wounds from death to life. As finite creatures, we can accept our limitations and seek the hidden path, the small path that can lead to restoration and healing in this world: the path of life.

There are two ways, one of life and one of death; but a big difference between the two ways.

Or we can ignore the Paschal Mystery and example Loowit provides ecological healing. We can continue to seek dominion over the earth, unlimited control over resources, and reckless consumption of the bounty of creation.

God continues to offer the choice that God offers to the Israelites in the book of Deuteronomy: “Today I call heaven and earth to witness against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (30:19). Much later, the earliest Christians recognized the importance of this verse and understood it as the key to Jesus’ path. You put these words as the opening lines of the Didache, the earliest known catechetical manual: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death; but a great difference between the two ways.” Evidently they were trying to teach their candidates how to choose God’s offer of life.

choose life? Or choose death? It should be a simple answer. But our current ecological crisis shows that we have yet to respond.


This article also appears in the April 2022 issue of US Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 4, pages 15-17). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Pixabay/Virtual Visa

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