Non Solum: Liturgy and the Environment

Today’s Question: Liturgy and the Environment

In the early 1920’s and 30’s Virgil Michel, OSB worked tirelessly to explore the connection between social justice and the liturgy. Getting others to see the connection was not an easy task, but now liturgists take for granted the connection between the two. Whether the faithful do today is another question. Virgil Michel’s work was perfectly timed. It followed the larger cultural Progressive Era of the time marked by the push for women’s suffrage as well as a greater concern for philanthropy. It began before the Great Depression and proceeded the larger social awakening of the Catholic Church in the United States as movements like the Catholic Worker Movement were founded. The advocacy Virgil Michel and others performed for the social justice movement is hailed by many.

As social justice concerns dominated American and European discourse in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an environmental movement was only slowly beginning to form. By the late 19th century individuals were beginning to discuss the toll of the Industrial Revolution on the environment. By the mid-20th century, conservation and environmental protection societies had begun to pick up steam. It was not, however, until the late 1960’s that ecological concerns came to the forefront.

Unfortunately, liturgists today have not been as interested in developing the connection between the environment and liturgical practice. The ecological dimensions of liturgical life are not being developed like the social dimensions once were. The liturgy is also not being used to call attention to the need for greater environmental awareness and protection. Perhaps it is because the liturgy is not the powerful source for cultural change it was once thought to be. But that applies, it seems, to the Church at large as well.

I am curious how others envision the relationship between the liturgy and the environment. How do our current rites support or stifle the call for a stronger environmental consciousness? What steps can we take to be more sensitive to the environment in our current liturgical practices? Let us know how your community’s concern for the environment is made manifest in the liturgy.


Moderator’s note: “Non solum” is a feature at Pray Tell for our readership community to discuss practical liturgical issues. The title comes from article 11 of the Vatican II liturgy constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium: “Therefore there is to be vigilance among holy pastors that in liturgical action not only are laws for valid and licit celebration to be observed, but that the faithful should participate knowingly, actively, and fruitfully.” (Ideo sacris pastoribus advigilandum est ut in actione liturgica non solum observentur leges ad validam et licitam celebrationem, sed ut fideles scienter, actuose et fructuose eandem participent.) May the series contribute to good liturgical practice – not only following the law, but especially grasping the spirit of the liturgy!


  1. I think that the 20th century minimalist church architecture has reduced our appreciation of the natural world. From the absence of natural objects in “abstract” stained-glass windows to the banning of vegetative forms in decorative touches, the message is that nature should not be part of religious practice. Unfortunately, the churches can’t be torn down.

    1. @Ann Olivier – comment #1:

      Ann, I often wonder if architectural minimalism is also intended to reflect the confusion some today experience within the spectrum of the sensory haphazard nature of lived experience and the sensory homogenization of lived experience. In my view, minimalistic churches are often devoid of imagery because for many the viewing of images is connected with a single focal point, such as a movie screen, television, or computer monitor. The removal of almost all imagery in deference to the altar and sanctuary communicates that a single focal point commands all attention and the building itself is merely a cocoon for the sanctuary.

      Contrast these very precise foci with the multiplicity of images in an Eastern Christian church. In the latter, the many icons on the iconostasis and the multiple devotional images at diverse points in the “nave” require a well-developed ability to absorb many stimuli at once. The first few times I attended Divine Liturgy, I could not focus on the liturgical action and the imagery of the entire church at once. I then realized that no effort should be made to focus on any one action or image. At Divine Liturgy, a person sits within the liturgical action and not as if she were outside the action looking inside.

      I agree that a renewed sense of environmentalism in Christianity would include displays of decorative vegetation as visual reminders of the Eucharist and the abundant life of the sacrament. I do wonder if electronic devices have partially destroyed the ability to derive theological and spiritual understanding from nature as decoration and didacticism.

  2. Also perhaps we (especially in the Western church) have lost the meaning and appreciation for how “rich” signs and symbols ought to function within the “living” ritual(s) arising form within

  3. Also perhaps we (especially in the Western church) have lost the meaning and appreciation for how “rich” signs and symbols ought to function within the “living” ritual(s) arising from within a particular culture. It appears that the West’s overly rationalistic and dualistic philosophy has overemphasized the conceptual & verbal over the natural world as mediations for the divine (and other transcendent realities). Except for the few instances where our Roman liturgy has been notably enculturated – as for example in Africa or India – our recent liturgy reforms seem to have put an exaggerated emphasis on WORDS — the “right” words – and more words – as the touchstones for liturgical orthodoxy. This is done to the detriment of more fully incorporating non-verbal signs and symbols from the natural world – and from an deeper awareness of human embodiment. IMO, this results in a liturgy that is too heady and abstract – even though we use such things as bread, wine, water, and oil as sacramental signs. These signs and the accompanying rituals become “diluted” and lose their power to the extent that more attention is paid to the proper words and conceptual understandings. My suggestion is that for the liturgy to resonate with environmental awareness and stewardship in the minds and hearts of the faithful, more attention needs to be given to enriching our traditional sacramental signs with newer rituals that speak more directly of the natural world and our embodiment. We still need the verbal, especially with texts that are less abstract and more charged with imagery and poetry and natural referents.

  4. Yes, many words are highly abstract, but not all of them. What a pity the Church didn’t engage the talent of Gerard Manley Hopkins to write some new liturgical prayers. Who better to tell the beauties of God’s creation?

    (Engage the greatest artists! Engage the greatest artists! That should be the mantra of any liturgical reform.)

  5. This is a tough question because I’m not sure the liturgy is suppose to support agendas, but certainly the teachings of the Church, catechesis and good homilies should. But in terms of church buildings, it would seem wise to build for permanence, meaning buildings that will last and not need additions or major changes made to them. I’d go without carpet with permanent tiles or concrete floors of some kind, solid pews that will last and materials that are low maintenance as well as efficient HVAC’s and lighting systems, well insulated churches, vestments that will last 50 years or so that can withstand the test of time and fads.
    I do think there is a place for minimalism in architecture such as the Trappists model with their monastic churches and buildings that blend with their surroundings and are unobtrusive.

  6. A few miscellaneous thoughts:

    1. According to the US bishops’ schema, concern for the environment is not a separate topic from social justice, but rather one of the seven themes of Catholic social teaching.

    Thus, in whatever ways a faith community is developing the connections between liturgy and the church’s social teachings, perhaps environmental teachings and concerns should be incorporated as part of that overall program rather than treated as a separate topic.

    2. I admit I’m a little wary of this formula: “The liturgy is also not being used to call attention to the need for greater environmental awareness and protection.” That verb “used” raises a red flag – it suggests leveraging the liturgy for some external, utilitarian purpose – whether that purpose is to protect the environment, or proclaim patriotic fervor on a national holiday, or exhort everyone to vote for favored candidate X. I’d think that whatever environmental themes we’d want to tease out from the liturgy should be organically connected to and subordinated to liturgy’s intrinsic purpose, i.e. to praise God and sanctify us.

    3. I just want to note that environmental concerns are quite politically divisive. However we want to highlight environmental themes in our liturgical celebrations, it calls for pastoral prudence and sensitivity. If I was going to preach about environmental stewardship, I’d want to do it in a way that avoids raising political hackles – but at the same time, doesn’t minimize what the church teaches. It’s not an easy tightrope to walk.

  7. One more thought: GIA’s Gather Comprehensive hymnal, which was in our parish pews until just a few months ago, included a Topical Index, with hymn selections arranged by topic. Under the topic Ecology, nine hymns are listed, including such old chestnuts as “All Creatures of out God and King”, “For the Beauty of the Earth” and “Let All Things Now Living”. A separate topic, Creation, lists 84 selections (if I counted right :-)), including Psalms 1, 8, 24, 29, 65, 92, 93, 96, 104, 107, 113, 121, 136, 139 and 145.

    FWIW, we replaced Gather Comprehensive with the new edition of Gather, but it appears that edition no longer has a topical index. Too bad.

  8. A few thoughts:

    1. The post brings to mind an insightful essay by Quentin Faulkner published several years ago in The American Organist and later in Antiphon, “Gothic Pillars and Blue Notes.” Faulkner explores the relationship between cult (religion/celebration), culture (belief/values) and art (artifact/activity), searching for robust examples of the latter that are both contemporary and indigenously Christian. The paucity of such examples led Faulkner to conclude that traditional Christianity is dwarfed by a nascent religion whose principal “artifacts” are sports, pop music, and shopping, reflecting values of competition, individualism and consumption – standing in contrast to Christian values of cooperation/common good, community/communion and a radical ecology that proclaims the natural order to be redeemable (e.g. New Creation, resurrection of the body).

    2. Lack of focus in the liturgy on the aforementioned traditional Christian values seems related to introversion in the liturgy encouraged by many liturgical environments – namely acoustic isolation resulting from lack of integrity between forms and materials. When what is perceived by eye and ear (and touch) do not match, we experience sensory disintegration, compounded by remedies such as electronic mediation. The liturgical experience becomes one of virtual reality. If the exterior senses are not coordinated, how can the “interior senses” be cultivated? How can the natural order open to the supernatural? How can the communal be realized unless everyone can hear and be heard? How can the individual find his or her proper place in the community if on different acoustical planes? How can such radical ecology be cultivated with building materials and methods appropriate to the 10-year life span of a shopping center? (If any of this sticks, I’ll write some more about the pipe organ as a symbol of radical ecology. )

    Hope these thoughts will elicit some reflections by some more expert in these matters! Thanks.

  9. Jim Pauwels : FWIW, we replaced Gather Comprehensive with the new edition of Gather, but it appears that edition no longer has a topical index. Too bad.

    Fr. Jim, you must be looking at a copy of the CHOIR edition of Gather. That particular edition does not contain all the indices because choir harmonizations take up much more room than melodies alone, as is the case in the PEW edition.

    The PEW edition of Gather, either with Sunday lectionary readings or without them, contains the full complement of indices, including the topical index.

  10. Fr. Krisman – you’re right! Btw, I’m a deacon, but just call me Jim.

    Fr. McDonald – I agree with you that hardbound, ‘permanent’ hymnals are more ecologically friendly than the subscription variety. FWIW, the two I mentioned are of the hardbound variety; we happen to have bought new hymnals recently. We also donated the old ones to a parish that needed hymnals – another ecologically sound practice.

  11. The use of water in baptism, if not reduced to the minimum, is a very important access point for liturgical reverence of creation-redemption-the earth.

    In the Orthodox tradition the event of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan is recalled as something which makes all waters sacred. The Great Blessing of Waters can take place in the open, over rivers. Here’s a quote from one such blessing: “The sun sings to You, the moon glorifies You, the stars meet together before Your face, the light obeys You, the deeps shudder before You, the water springs serve You…”

    Ever see the Epiphany water rites in Russia? They cut holes in the ice and jump into the water. Here’s a great picture of one such set up:

    It’s coming up on in two days!

  12. I think Jim Pauwel’s caution about “use” is on the mark, and relevant to the question. Western culture is dominated by utilitarianism and instrumental reason, and this dominance of “techne” is part of the problem in our dysfunctional relationship with the environment (and some of our problems with social justice, too). By contrast, sacramentality fosters an attitude of reverence toward the created, material world—an attitude which is quite the opposite of instrumental “use.”

    Or at least it should. Liturgical worship is weakened in its ability to nurture that reverence whenever it’s turned into something “useful” itself. This happens all the time, whether it’s “using” the liturgy to push an “agenda,” or to manufacture a sense of “holiness”, or to teach something. Of course, good liturgy can do these things all the time, but there’s a very subtle difference between allowing it to do something and turning it into a tool to do something.

    The ideology of instrumental reason creeps into our thought and our practice, because it’s so pervasive that we don’t notice it. (“Whoever first discovered the water, it wasn’t the fish.”) As long as we allow that ideology to affect us, though, the liturgy reinforces part of the problem, rather than allowing us to imagine a different possibility. And this can happen precisely in our attempts to address the problem!

    1. @Christian McConnell – comment #14:

      “The ideology of instrumental reason creeps into our thought and our practice, because it’s so pervasive that we don’t notice it.”

      We Americans have sort of a “can-do” spirit – it’s all wrapped up in the American Dream. This is the land of opportunity, the place where persons make themselves. God’s creation, according to that spirit, consists of raw materials that are to be put to whatever use we deem worthwhile.

      I find the spirit of the liturgy to be quite different and alien to American optimism. It’s not “can-do”, it’s more like, “can’t do without God”. I find this really comes through in praying the psalms in the Liturgy of the Hours. It’s a spirit that says, We’re poor, weak and vulnerable. We’re teetering perpetually on the brink of peril. God is our rock, our stronghold and fortress, without whom we would perish. It’s a very different way of thinking about ourselves. It presents a different point of view from which to think about the gifts God has given us.

  13. Benjamin Stewart’s little book on worship and ecology (“A Watered Garden”) is essential reading for anyone thinking about these issues!
    The issues are so much deeper and more complex than a homily here and there or a few ‘cosmological’ hymns can attend to.
    We live in a time of ecocide, after all, any many of our liturgical practices are complicit in this, helas. Thinking simply of adding a few nice eco-friendly touches to worship here and there masks the planetary emergency we need to confront.

  14. The various elements we use in our rites, water oil, bread, wine, stone (dedication of an altar), beeswaxed candles, incense when used well during worship can help the Church see and make connection with the environment and all of God’s good creation.

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