Coffee Cups and St. Isaac the Syrian

by Vincent Rossi

When the issue of the environmental crisis is raised in Orthodox circles, I often notice an uneasy ambivalence. It is not a topic that lends itself readily to pleasant and congenial discussion. Is this because the Orthodox sensibility or ethos is aroused to defend itself against alien concepts, western bandwagons, and worldly trends? Or is it because we know in our hearts that there is something radically wrong with current human exploitation of nature and that we ourselves are not doing enough about it? Is it rejection of worldly vanities or reality-avoidance? Perhaps it is a bit of both. We thrill to the words of the great St. Isaac the Syrian when he sings about the “merciful heart” that embraces all of creation in love, even snakes and insects and demons. But we hate to talk about replacing in our church kitchens the cheap convenience of throw-away cups with breakable dishes and the hassle of finding dish washers for every parish function. We are proud of our Orthodox Tradition when others recognize in it the catholicity and harmony of its iconic, sacramental vision of the universe. But we are reluctant to recognize the ethical and ascetical responsibilities of our Orthodox cosmic worldview.

Consider what may seem a silly question: If throw-away cups and dishes had existed in St. Isaac’s day, would he have used them?

The point is that the goal of Orthodox spirituality is a transfigured life — in all its dimensions, human, non-human, cosmic. The pneumatic virtue acquired by the saint suffuses and transfigures everything in his life, not just his body, but his cell, his utensils, even his clothes. The significance of relics depends upon this fact. The saint in ancient times lived “close” to nature in a way difficult for us to imagine; and nature often spontaneously honored the saint’s virtue by an irruption of paradisal conditions. But most of us today are separated from nature by several technological levels. The utensils of a desert father were made by hand out of what nature provided; the utensils and artifacts of our consumerist culture are made by extractive, exploitative, and destructive processes unseen by most of us. A utensil like a throw-away cup or dish is not a simple product of an artisan’s craft. It is a complex artificial construct the making of which creates a trail of degradation throughout the natural world. It takes a strong ethical sense to imagine the destruction behind the seemingly innocent utensil. But it is this ethical imaginative power that is needed if we are going to live by a sound Orthodox environmental ethic.

According to Orthodox tradition, the world is a sacrament of the divine presence, a cosmic revelation, a means of communion with God, a sacred Temple. The vocation of every human being, as microcosm, is to be a mediator between the creation and the Creator, to be a center of unity, harmony and eucharistic transfiguration, to offer the world to God in thanksgiving. What kind of metanoia is needed for us to fulfill this vocation in the context of the world in which we live? How do we embody the eucharistic vision of the cosmos of St. Maximus and the merciful heart of St. Isaac in a way that honors God and reflects true Orthodoxy? It is the task of today’s Orthodox Christian.

What kind of cup did you pour your coffee into today?

And what is a merciful heart? It is the hearts burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he continually offers up tearful prayer, even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns in his heart without measure in the likeness of God.

— St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 8