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Environmental lessons from Christian Celtic heritage

Second Reading

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

Another week, another chilling report on the parlous state of our environment. Last week, the international journal ‘Biological Conservation’ claimed that we are witnessing ‘the largest extinction event on earth’.
Insect biomass is decreasing at a rate of 2.5 percent per year throughout the world. At that rate, half the insects in the world will be gone in 50 years time, and all of them in a century.
The article is a résumé of 73 reports on insects from around the world. The researchers, Francisco Sánchez-Bayo and Kris Wyckhuys, state that the root cause of the problem is the intensification of agriculture in the last 60 years. The copious use of pesticides is having a major negative impact. Insect habitats have been destroyed or polluted.
“The conclusion is clear: Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades,” the researchers argue.
“The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least, as insects are at the structural and functional base of many of the world’s ecosystems, since their rise at the end of the Devonian period, almost 400 million years ago.”
If this catastrophe is to be averted there is an acute requirement for habitat reconstruction, a huge reduction in the use of pesticides and the planting of flower-rich strips along the margins of fields.
A Guardian editorial on the ‘Biological Conservation’ article argues cogently that our own avarice lies at the core of the issue: “The chief driver of this catastrophe is human greed. For all our individual and even collective cleverness, we behave as a species with as little foresight as a colony of nematode worms that will consume everything it can reach until all is gone and it dies off naturally.”
We are almost mid-way between the celebration of the feast days of our great Celtic saints, Brigid and Patrick. It is an appropriate time to reflect on what our Christian Celtic heritage has to say on care of the earth.
The transition from Paganism to Christianity in Ireland was relatively peaceful compared to other places. Pre-Christian Celtic belief had a reverence for the environment. The sea, rivers, mountains and valleys were regarded as places where whispers of the divine might be discerned. This sense gelled with the Christian theological principle that God is present in creation.
There is a celebrated conversation, recorded in an ancient manuscript, between St Patrick and the daughters of the High King of Tara, which illustrates this convergence. The daughters asked the saint who his god was and where his god lived. Patrick replied, “Our god is the god of all men, the god of heaven and earth, of sea and river, of sun and moon, and start of the lofty mountain and the lowly valley, the god above heaven, the god in heaven, the god under heaven. He has his dwelling round heaven and earth and sea and all that in them is. He inspires all. He quickens all. He dominates all. He sustains all. He lights the light of the sun. He has put springs in dry land and starts to minister to the greater lights.”
The princesses liked his answer. He was talking their language. In Christian Celtic Ireland there was what has been called ‘a holy intimacy’ of human natural and divine. Reflection on this heritage has the potential to enlighten us and challenge us as we contemplate pending environmental Armageddon.