By Christopher Matthias
The Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change Report released in September gave insights more shocking than most of us would have anticipated. The cause is absolutely human activity. The timeline of absolute crisis is shorter than we thought. One might benefit from a glass of wine while digesting the findings of the report; or for a turn of phrase, take veritas with vino. (For the uninitiated the traditional phrase is “in vino, veritas” or in wine there is truth, and Dominicans are dedicated to the pursuit of truth.)
Often when religious environmentalists call on Scripture, it is from Genesis imagery of creation in the beginning. But as Dominicans ask the question, “What is Earth asking of the Order?” we are far from the beginning. We are in the present, trying to prevent an end. So instead of Genesis, let’s take heart from a few words from Jesus:
“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (MT 9:16-17)
It’s painful to say so, but the climate is in crisis, and a future with religious congregations in it is also in crisis. Both have been renewed in cycle after cycle, but now something is different. Instead of a circle where one could trace a finger along a curve that would return and renew, we have lines that diminish and have definitive ends. Now humanity and the Earth Community face a crisis unlike any other thus far. Both Earth and religious congregations need new wine, and new wine skins.
So what is Earth asking of the Order? Part of the answer is in the question itself. The Dominican Order inherits the Catholic imagination which is capable of considering the un-apparent and the invisible and shaping it into something to which the mind’s eye can relate. Earth has said nothing out loud and never will, however Dominicans have learned to listen and to watch for that which comes out of direct experience and to interpret what might be the whispering of the Holy Spirit and then give it prophetic voice.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (JN 15:5)
The roots for the vine that Jesus describes were put down over 2,000 years ago. The vine of the Church has turned up grapes in every corner of Earth; each variety has its own distinct character. In the Middle Ages a variety was born with Dominic. The essence of this grape was in part to confront the Albigensian heresy, which was dualistic and considered the physical world and the body to be evil. The wine of these grapes, and the veritas present within was a fine vintage; one which has lasted for over 800 years. The Dominican grape has been cultivated notably within St. Catherine of Siena whose veritas was poured for the sake of a renewed church, undivided. Later the variety emerged in Peru as St. Martin dePorres. Uncorked, his pour of veritas was a spiritual drink of a gentle justice. The secret to his fruit was pulling out the vines that would otherwise strangle: racism, classism, and persecution within religious ranks.
So what is Earth asking of the Order? What are these times asking of the Order? As the Dominicans of the 21st century and the inheritors of the Dominican vineyard let us examine the fruit. The average age of religious is quite high. We wrestle with “diminishment” and see little promise of a renewal of the years when classes of sisters priests would come by the hundreds. We must now ask, “What is the Dominican gift nuns to Earth and Humanity?
There is a wine called Eiswein or ice wine. It is incredibly special. The grapes remain on the vine until very late in the season. The water retracts returning to the vine and the root. The grape becomes sweeter and upon freezing in the middle of the night the grapes are swiftly harvested and pressed while frozen. The juice from these grapes is incredibly sweet and makes one of the finest wines known. The harvest is risky, and many things can go wrong. It could mean the loss of all the work and resources put into cultivation. Yet, the reward is high.
There has also been an incredibly interesting turn of events as of late. An Argentinian Malbec is being served in Rome from the seat of Peter, notably it is not served in the palace. It is rejuvenating people around the world and is being poured into the cup of the gay, the atheist, the woman, the abused, and many for whom the cup has for too long gone unfilled. This new wine is refreshing the church, and many far beyond it.
What the Earth is asking of the Order is that it take heart like the Malbec, to be brave like the Eiswein, and like all wine to pour veritas into its cup. The Dominicans have always been courageous in embracing new theologies and cosmologies, testing them for what truth they contain. That is a tradition worth preserving and transmitting. We know where the old wineskins are, but we must seek out the new wineskins. What is important now is to transmit the wealth of wisdom that has been gathered up to those who will carry it best into the future.
We are inclined to ask and re-ask questions about our identity. But we know who we are. We are the Order of Preachers! Our charism is to teach, to preach, and to pray. We must call on our Catholic imagination to seek out the vital solution to the worldwide crisis that is climate change. We must put our resources into living towards that solution knowing that like Eiswein there is an enormous risk in doing so. But the greater risk is in not imagining at all. It is in the boldness of doing so that we risk succeeding. It is that boldness that is only achievable through the collective efforts of our men and women that gives us something to teach the world about.
The North American Dominican Justice Promoters adopted a new Call to Justice early this year. The central focus, the one on which all others hang is Climate Justice created on the framework of the Earth Charter. Since, the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Leadership Council has adopted a Climate-Ecology Justice Initiative taken from those same seeds, and have begun their own cultivation. Other congregations and provinces have Corporate Stances on closely related ecology issues such as water and genetically modified foods. The Dominican Family has long cared for Earth, through permaculture, confronting nuclear weapons, investing towards sustainability, and living simply.
May our prayer be that we are on fertile ground, mindful in our harvest, and potent in veritas. May we preach this prayer with radical honesty for the sake of all the Earth.
What is Earth asking of the Order? What is Earth asking of you? Raise your glass. Toast.
Christopher Matthias is justice promoter for the Adrian Dominican Sisters in Adrian, Michigan.