Last year I sat in a webinar on climate emergency organized by Episcopal clergy and lay leaders in our diocese. I listened to Dr. Bette Hecox-Lea, an Episcopalian and marine biologist, speak words of unvarnished truth about how biosphere degradation has activated tipping points that, if left on course, will result in a massive extinction event. On behalf of the scientific community, she said plainly, “We do not know what will come after these points have tipped permanently, other than that the earth will become uninhabitable.” I wept tears of shocked but sober recognition as I absorbed this information. I had heard it before, but this time, I truly listened.
A few months earlier I had brought my weight of grief and hope for the world to the silent winter woods at Emery House. I had left screens and books and words and even food behind me for a time. I found a lone hemlock tree and dug a clearing in the snow beneath it until I could see and touch the body of the earth. I nestled my weary body against the cold, dark soil and gazed up at the green branches sheltering me. I prayed as though my life and all life depended upon it. Time seemed to stop as I lay there, and as the drops of snow-melt mingled with my tears of gratitude, something happened. My flesh knew the earth from which it had come, and to which it would return; my bones knew that death would be only a door into the Creator’s heart; and my heart knew that while I am alive I am bound by Christ to love him in and through this Creation, from which we are not separate.
In very different voices, a marine biologist and a hemlock tree spoke to me the truth in love – and helped me lay claim to a grief like no other.
Our Pain for the Earth is Pain for Us All
Grief is a natural human response to losing what we love. What we grieve most often helps us to see what we have loved most. At times, this can help us sift our ultimate priorities. For instance, the material loss of a stolen family heirloom, or an entire home destroyed by a natural disaster, is a tragedy. But we know intuitively that the grief we feel at material loss, however great, is of different order than the grief when a spouse, a child, or a sibling dies. We grieve over lost things in a way that is different than how we grieve over a death.
In contrast to these highly legible experiences, we may also undergo what is called “disenfranchised” grief. When what we grieve is honored as worthy by those around us, our capacity to move through it is strengthened. But some kinds of grief are not commonly understood or accepted. We may be embarrassed, for instance, to speak of how devastated we are by the loss of a beloved pet, an animal friend with whom we shared years of loving companionship. Women I know routinely describe how alienated and alone they have felt in the solitary grief of a miscarriage. The grief of touch starvation, as ubiquitous as it has become during these years of COVID, can feel trivial when we speak it aloud – but it can envelop us in long, pained hours of loneliness.
Grief in response to the disastrous loss, death, and change caused by climate emergency has, for too long, been disenfranchised grief in a culture that prizes business as usual.
But this is changing. More and more people – many of them college-aged and younger – experience genuine existential despair about the effect that human-caused climate change will have upon their futures, and is already having upon their present. This is not because they are naïve or ill-equipped for life’s harsh realities; rather, it is because they want and deserve the life that generations have taken for granted. The struggles of Black, brown, and indigenous peoples, whose neighborhoods and ancestral lands have been consistently treated as “sacrifice zones” to the interests of colonization, then nation-building, then energy infrastructure and corporate expansion, are claiming the attention and allies they have long deserved. There is a collective awakening to the bare reality of climate emergency – not simply that it is real, but that in many ways it is worse than we have been led to believe. The emotional response to such awakening is diverse, but its pain has been evoked in names like pre-traumatic stress, climate anxiety, or climate and ecological grief.
Hannah Malcolm, one of the foremost emerging voices on climate grief and Christian faith, notes three aspects that make ecological grief distinctive. First, she reminds us that it has its own integrity apart from comparison with better known forms of grief. Our relationship with the whole of the created order is unlike any other relationship. Second, she notes that when honored through the lens of faith and in dialogue with reason, it has enormous power for moral good – our own, and that of the world. We are not merely grieving our known human neighbors, but extending our felt sense of mourning to humans thousands of miles away. We are even expanding our definition of “neighbor” to the more-than-human forms of sentient life to whom we are connected, perhaps even to earth’s non-sentient beings. Thirdly, this grief is distinctive because we are mourning processes and systems of harm in which we ourselves are contributors, simply by living in an industrialized society. In this, we mourn the profound injustice we ourselves have perpetrated, however indirectly.
Accepting ecological grief in its fullness is helping many of us open our eyes, minds, bodies, and hearts to the truth that “pain for the earth” is in reality pain for us all. All of us call this created order our home, and all are threatened by the undeniable consequences of human-caused global warming. Letting ourselves hear this and rest for long enough in the weight of its truth is the first step to another way forward.
There are a thousand reasons to say: “I’m not up for that. I can barely keep my little corner of the world functioning. This grief isn’t my responsibility.” At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are a thousand reasons to pole-vault over it, into impassioned activism or environmental advocacy, only to discover that the underlying grief has been compounded by burn-out. If we bravely consent to let the grief in just a little, there are a thousand reasons to wonder, “Where is God in this?”
It may help to recall a moment when God was undoubtedly present to us – and in response, we felt a holy discomfort. If we understand God to be the source, or the instigator, of certain kinds of grief, our perspective shifts. What if the awakening of our conscience to profound new layers of the world’s pain is a sign – not of God’s absence, but of the Spirit of God excavating strata of our personhood and our collective attention that we are now called to engage? And what if the path of grief thus sensed could become a sober and conscious choice – claimed and lived, come what may, as the cost of our full becoming? What if, in the words of Bill McKibben, this is the moment the church was made for?
A Man of Sorrows, and Acquainted with Grief
Having made a personal beginning at living it through, I believe that climate and ecological grief is one way that God engages with us, reaching out and through to the heart of our present moment. In that grief, God stands not over or outside us in the ways we have done for too long with non-human life, but alongside us. As Malcolm reminds us, the God-among-us in Jesus is “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).
It is important to acknowledge privilege in accepting an invitation to grieve. Citizens of the global south live in countries whose peoples have contributed the least to human-caused global warming, yet are suffering first and worst. This suffering is of a different order because it is not chosen. Grief cannot be ignored or denied when your family starves due to soil erosion or your house is washed away by rising tides.
But in the global north, or in any place where we are on high enough ground with enough wealth to pretend the situation isn’t that bad, entering into grief may be our primary spiritual work. Without facing, accepting, and feeling our grief with and for the planet, we cannot honestly lay claim to Christian hope. This is as true of our relationship with the climate emergency as it is with any facet of discipleship. There is a direct parallel here to the work of the cross: without it, there is no risen Life.
“Blessed are those who mourn,” said our Teacher, “for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).
Godly Grief: Compunction, Contrition, & Conscience
How exactly is mourning a blessing for followers of Jesus? In his second letter to the Christians at Corinth, St. Paul writes, “Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor. 7:9-10).
Godly grief is a response to seeing our sins as they are, and a response to seeing ourselves as we are: broken, fallible, and imperfect. In relation to a changing earth, godly grief gives rise to profound humility, as we awaken to just how complicit we all are, both in what we do and what we fail to do, in weaving the web of structural violence that harms other life. Our sins of action and inaction in the so-called developed world especially harm the most vulnerable communities on the planet and the vast number of non-human creatures upon whom we all depend. On these verses, St. Augustine comments, “Sorrow because of one’s own iniquity produces justice.”
For these reasons, climate and ecological grief is potentially a godly grief for two kinds of Christian: both the one who has been ignoring or denying these feelings for far too long and for the one who attempts a strident moral purity in relation to climate change. While the first may do harm through inaction, the second may unwittingly shame and blame others for their high carbon footprint, while never feeling “green” enough themself. The Spirit brings the gift of humility to both: humility to grieve blindness and resistance to seeing the truth in the first case, and in the second, humility to repent of the arrogance that presumes to save ourselves and everyone else. God, the only Savior, both pierces through to the first and crushes open the second, with the gift of godly grief.
Those words “pierce” and “crush” may feel violent, but they are root meanings of two common words in our Christian lexicon: compunction and contrition.
Compunction comes from the Latin compunctio, “to puncture.” When we realize that something is not quite right between our inmost self and our God, or self and neighbor (God’s image), a feeling of appropriate judgment pierces through our former oblivion. Similarly, contrition comes from the Latin contritus, meaning “to crush or bruise.” The classic image used was of incense grains: they could only release their fragrance by being crushed. With grief, there is something in us that can only be released through breaking open. So in Psalm 51, the psalm of penitents, we read, “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” God witnesses and receives this inner movement as an offering.
The sensitization of our conscience in compunction and contrition is a painful process. So much more of the world’s pain can be seen, heard, and felt in this agonizing new place. There is new potential for overwhelm, a sense of helplessness – even despair. But the very fact that we feel the pain, rather than carrying on with life oblivious to it, may be proof that God is breaking in and breaking through to touch us. The prophet Ezekiel called this being given a heart of flesh to replace a heart of stone. Through Ezekiel, God says, “I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh… Then you shall remember your evil ways, and your dealings that were not good; and you shall loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominable deeds” (Ezek. 36:24-26; 31). Though self-loathing is pretty pungent language, this is no self-centered brooding. Rather, it is a liberating turn away from the impotence of self toward a savior: the God of saving justice.
St. Paul sees the alternative – refusal to be pierced by compunction, crushed by contrition, or moved in response to the promptings of conscience – as a crippling regret. Therein we feel the weight of our fear, sadness, or anger, but we stand inert and paralyzed. If we remain there, the apostle writes, it produces death. There is a foreclosure of possibility and meaning, one of the darkest places to which the heart can descend.
At this cultural moment, there are many who find themselves in just such a place in relation to climate emergency. According to the Yale program on Climate Change Communication, a large proportion of Americans report feeling “alarmed” by the dire nature of the changes unfolding on the planet. But more than half of this group report that they are not yet engaged in any form of constructive action on the issue.
This reluctance is cause for curiosity, compassion, and conversation with each other, because acknowledging and working through the enormity of our grief may be the missing link. What if we let our repentance of ecological sin be the first constructive action taken – a true action of the heart? What if we led by finding, feeling, and confessing our grief about these changes to one another? This kind of public, collective lament has power to express anew the paradox at the heart of the church: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4:8-10).
The Gift of Tears
The cultivation of godly grief flowered in the deserts of Egypt and Syria in the fourth-century monastic movement. I find meaning in a saying attributed to one of these early monks: “Tears are both the mother and the child of prayer.” To me, this phrase expresses something profound about the spiral movement of both godly grief and ecological grief. With each, layer upon layer are uncovered, and the work is never done, because what we are grieving is so much larger than our finite creaturehood. Yet somehow, each spiral turn weaves us deeper into that largeness: our care begins to mirror the largeness and the tenderness of God’s care for every living thing, “not one [of whom] will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matt. 10:29).
The experience of tears, whatever the source, often opens us to our need. Stretched beyond our capacity, we call out in prayer to the One we need most. Or, marveling at the fulfillment of a need, our tears of relief prompt prayers of gratitude. Or the beauty of life itself brushes against our depths and tears flow, in wordless wonder at the divine mystery of it all.
At other times, we are not conscious of any particular response until we begin to pray. Something inside shifts, gets knocked loose, and a gurgling spring wells up in our eyes. You may recall how good it can feel when you have let those tears cleanse you from the rust of apathy, the mildew of complacency, or the hard-packed crust of denial. When prayer gives birth to tears, we feel alive again. Touched by a loving hand, we are returned to the land of the living – even if it is a place of pain. Our pain is placed in God-given perspective; it is the pain of the living, in solidarity with all life.
What upheld the desert monastics on the path of godly sorrow was community and a strong sense of place. They were grieving together, not as isolated individuals. They were grieving as those who did not belong to the world, but had nonetheless settled in the barren and clarifying wilderness. Its particular animals and landscape features infused their imagery and sayings. The desert and its harsh lessons of survival, its burning heat and frigid nights, the monastics’ dependence on the generosity of travelers, the asceticism of subsistence gardening: all of these elements were essential to their particular path of conversion. They lived closely and lightly upon the earth – and, through their tears, came to cherish God’s radiance in the created order around them as a foretaste of heaven.
The Bridge of Grief and Hope
Alongside my encounter with God in the monastery, I am meeting the crucified-and-risen Jesus afresh in a place outside its walls: in a climate grief circle. The circles are a routine offering by Extinction Rebellion, a nonviolent resistance movement which aims to convince governments to act on climate and ecological emergency. In these gatherings, tears flow freely and without fear of judgment, as courageous people bring their whole selves to their fight for a livable world. For ninety minutes, we consent to look with a steady gaze at hard truths around and inside ourselves, and don’t turn away. At times, hope and despair wrestle visibly. But by the concluding moments, something miraculous happens. Without any group engineering or artificial optimism, the web of Life restores the sanity, the conviction, and the deep love we need to act together on Life’s behalf. It all happens – in Christian terms – by remaining steadfast together at the foot of the cross. It is not the cross any of us would have chosen, but the cross our planetary moment has given us.
What’s on the other side of this cross? To put it another way, what’s the relationship between climate grief and climate hope? Reflecting on competing definitions of “hope” in climate discourse, climate grief psychologist Jennifer Atkinson asks, “What if hope is not an end game, but a bridge that allows us to cross over that gulf between the beliefs and actions of today and the possibilities and outcomes for tomorrow?” As a follower of Jesus, I resonate with this question, and latch on to the word “bridge.” A bridge is an in-between place. Perhaps people of hope are inherently bridge people. Astride a river of uncertainty and pain, we are called to live in two worlds. The death and resurrection of Jesus – the foundation of Christian hope – is our bridge. At times, we may be closer to one shore or another, but our eyes are trained on that place where “mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). In this way, godly grief is also a bridge. It fulfills a sacred purpose by forming us on the journey; taking up our cross we follow the Crucified. But having fulfilled its purpose, it too will pass away.
In the meantime, let us respond – unabashedly, and as one Body – to this precious gift of our climate grief. This grief is a function of our love, and our capacity to love is the surest sign of our creation in the image and likeness of the God who is love. This grief is also our surest antidote to the worldly grief of climate despair, a final door that is locked and sealed forever. The crucified-and-risen Christ has wrenched that door from its hinges, so that we may pass through it, as he did, into the heart of God. His resurrection is, in the words of Rowan Williams, “the open door at the heart of every situation.”
Even as we grieve, this open door is cause for the ultimate rejoicing, and our surest motive to act – in love – in the time we have been given.