It is too late to start for destinations not of the heart – RS Thomas

Penelope Turton writes her first blog, in the new Earth Justice series, where she explores how we can only make meaningful change in our lives from the inside out.

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On 4th April this year the UN Secretary-General António Guterres delivered a video message on the launch of the third report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It is very hard-hitting, as the following excerpts show.

“The jury has reached a verdict.  And it is damning.  This report is …a file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges and broken climate promises that put us firmly on track to climate disaster (and) an unliveable world..… This is not fiction or exaggeration.  It is what science tells us will result from our current energy policies…and (it) will be catastrophic… 

High‑emitting Governments and corporations are choking our planet, based on their vested interests and historic investments in fossil fuels, when cheaper, renewable solutions provide green jobs, energy security and greater price stability… Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals.  But, the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.

And it doesn’t have to be this way.  Leaders must lead.  But, all of us can do our part.  We owe a debt to young people, civil society and indigenous communities for sounding the alarm and holding leaders accountable.  We need to build on their work to create a grass‑roots movement that cannot be ignored. I am appealing directly to you:  demand that renewable energy is introduced now — at speed and at scale; demand an end to coal-fired power; demand an end to all fossil fuel subsidies.

These action points are relatively easy to adopt. But we all know in our hearts that we have to make changes in the way we live our lives too. For we are complicit in the harms that are choking our planet and killing its creatures (including of course our human neighbours). That causes us pain – but real personal change is hard, something we instinctively resist.

All spiritual writings have much to say on this topic and much of it is common across the traditions. For me, two things stand out.

Firstly, we can only make meaningful change in our lives from the inside out.
On this, Christian scripture is clear.

Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. (Proverbs)

The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. (Samuel).

Jesus’s teaching in the synoptic gospels is particularly uncompromising: Are ye so without understanding? Do ye not perceive, it is from within, out of the heart, proceed all evil thoughts and intentions.. murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, false witness, blasphemy, pride… If the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness…

John’s gospel is more mystical but equally clear: Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water. If a man loves me, he will keep my words.  Whoever does not love me cannot keep my words.

Sadly, recognising the ring of truth in these sayings does not make it easier for us to change, any more than it absolves us from the responsibility to use our brains and our reason and our argument and our bodies to take radical action. So the second question that arises for me is How do we let the one who cries in us help us hear the cries of our planet?” as Franciscan Richard Rohr puts it. He suggests that our three primary motivations are the need for power and control over our lives, our need for safety and security and our need for esteem. When we accept the vulnerability that comes with recognising that we are ultimately not in control, we begin to feel a greater kinship with all life. We start to see that each living thing reveals some aspect of God, and God inter-penetrates everything that is (panentheism as opposed to pantheism). As we feel our absolute interconnectedness with the material world that gives and sustains our lives, it becomes wonderful and sacred. Can love help us to change the way we relate with the rest of life?

I witnessed a very particular manifestation of the transformative power of the ‘self-emptying’ that comes with accepting our ultimate vulnerability in my mother’s last years. She suffered a 15-year decline into dementia, a terrifying gradual process of dislocation from her sense of identity, home, safety, independence, ‘usefulness’, connectedness or control over any aspect of her life including her bodily functions. I often wished she could simply die.  But in this painful process of ‘letting go’, initially struggling with the humiliation of each new indignity and finally graciously yielding to it, she reached an extraordinary state of joyful calm. At the very end of her life, she was almost entirely mute, only speaking rarely in short enigmatic musings:” Who and when and what and why .. these things are not important. I like it that way” and later “Love is important”. A few days before she died, I broke the silence in which we sat to ask her if there was anything she wanted. There was a long pause and she said “One thing. A larger heart”.

Penelope Turton