Fernando López, SJ and Arizete Miranda, CNS-CSA, translated to English by Joseph Munitiz, SJ
“Do you see the light now?” the Xapori (shamans) of the Yanomami tribe were asking those being initiated after a night passed in purification and preparation. “Do you see the light?” they insisted, as they prayed and sang and danced, their bodies painted and their heads adorned with the white plumes of the Royal Eagle. They were seeing tiny brilliant lights descending from heaven, floating like little white feathers which spoke to them. One paused in front of the initiated and asked: “Who are these who are being initiated along with the Yanomami?” The Xapori replied: “These are nape (white) friends who are fighting alongside the Yanomami in defence of the Urihi (the forest, the land, the territory).” The spirits then agreed: “If they are friends of the Yanomami and defend the Urihi, the initiation can continue.” At that, the white feathers rose up and disappeared in the sky, becoming one with the brilliant light of the sun, and the Xapori continued to pray, sing and dance around the initiated, encouraging them and asking, “Do you see the light now?”
Our aim here is to share something of the searching, the experience, and the reflections o the links between Spirituality and Ecology that we have encountered through our missions as a Travelling Team (Equipo Itinerante). We began with questions like these: is it possible to find some solution to the ecological and spiritual crisis facing our planet and its inhabitants among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon region, with their spiritual heritage, their world-view and their thousand-year old traditions? Does the Western world have something to learn from the Amazon and its indigenous peoples?
The river Cardoner is a small stream that flows past Manresa (in Catalonia, Spain). For almost one year (1522), Ignatius Loyola lived in a cave next to the river, devoting his time to prayer and penance. In his Autobiography he describes how during that time God was teaching him, as if he were a child, and (using the third person of himself) he tells us, “Once the way in which God had created the world was represented in his understanding, with great spiritual joy; it seemed to him he was seeing a white thing, from which some rays were coming out, and that God was making light out of it.” While next to the river, he received an enlightenment that was to mark him for life: “Once he was going along…by the river… He sat down for a little while with his face towards the river, which was running deep below. And as he was seated there, the eyes of his understanding began to be opened…and this with an enlightenment so strong that all things seemed new to him…he received a great clarity in his understanding.”
It was from that “water of Manresa” that Ignatius was to draw the prime matter for his Spiritual Exercises – from the initial “Principle and Foundation” to the final “Contemplation for attaining love.” For Ignatius, human beings are primarily “creatures,” and other things are more than just “things” – they also are fellow creatures. Four centuries earlier (XII c.), Francis of Assisi, who was an inspiration to Ignatius, had sung about this universal fraternity. Ignatius saw that all creatures are gifts provided by the fecund, creative love of God: He dwells in them; reveals Himself through them; offers Himself with them – “In him we live and move and have our being,” as Paul proclaimed (Acts 17:28). After Manresa, the single passion of Ignatius was, “to love and serve God in all things and all things in Him”; and so he would love and serve everything created that exists in the world.
The river Amazon is the longest and largest river in the world. The Jesuits first reached it in 1606. During the earliest period of their mission (XVII-XVIII centuries), they travelled continuously from one settlement to another, a sort of “light cavalry” working their way through the jungle and up the rivers. They were ready to “praise, reverence and serve the Creator” in all things created: and in particular in the indigenous communities. From the natives they learned to care for and protect the garden of the Amazon. Many, like the Jesuit Samuel Fritz, were prepared to risk even their lives for and with their indigenous brothers. They defended the region and its inhabitants from the plunder, slavery and greed of the Westerners gripped by the fever of the search for El Dorado.
In December 2011, our Travelling Team (Panchita, Raimunda, Arizete and Fernando) covered part of the route of Fr Fritz. The journey (2,500 kms) took more than a month. As we went along, there were visits to settlements and workshops with the locals: a hard trek, but as always happened during our years of travelling, we experienced God’s care and providence as we were welcomed by the kindly, gentle hands of different peoples.
We often asked ourselves how those former missioners kept alive that “intimacy on the road and missionary communion with God,” as Pope Francis puts it; a spirituality of travel in adverse conditions taught and lived by Master Ignatius, the Pilgrim, which kept them closely united with “God in all things and all things in Him.” What was it that led them to cross frontiers, both geographic and symbolic, even at the cost of their lives?
Challenged by the crisis of our times and the menace of a globalised world, we can easily feel lost and imprisoned in our mission. Where are we to find again that balance and the healthy spiritual tension between the three dimensions – institution, insertion, and onward march – of our service to the Apostolic Body outlined by the inspired First Companions of Ignatius: “for the greater glory of God and the good of souls.”
In today’s world, the Amazon region is the largest tropical rain forest, and one of the richest areas on the planet for its geology, biology and native culture. Life is found here in extraordinary complexity. The geographical limits extend to 7.8 million square kms (fifteen times the size of Spain) covering parts of nine countries. Its natural wealth includes 34% of the planet’s primal forest, which is fundamental for the intake of carbon and the water cycle; one third of the world’s genetic varieties, including many unknown species; with 20% of the planet’s unfrozen fresh water (a discharge of about 220,000 cubic meters per second). It has the longest navigable river (100,000 kms), and some of the richest mineral wealth in the world. There has been human habitation here for more than eleven thousand years. The present population is around 33 million (70% living in cities) including migrants, riverside dwellers, and mixed-race peoples; the indigenous groups count only some three million spread out in 385 known communities. In the year 1500, there were at least five million indigenous people in the area, but extermination came through illness and the violence of the invading Europeans. Nevertheless, the locals resisted and the Amazon basin is the one area of the planet with the greatest number of people who have never had contact with the West. New groups of “isolated Indians” are constantly appearing as the threat of extermination spreads ever wider with the advance of the depredation brought by “civilisation.” In the words of the sage Bernardo Sateré-Mawé, “The indigenous peoples are a living library. Whenever one of them is exterminated and disappears, a face of God dies and the whole of humanity and the cosmos is impoverished.”
Given the present ecological-spiritual crisis that has gripped the globe, and under the influence of a model of economic development that imposes uncontrolled plunder, the Amazon region ceases to be just somebody else’s backyard and emerges as the Central Square of the planet. It has enormous geopolitical and strategic relevance, and the great powers covet its natural resources and its biodiversity. The indigenous peoples, vulnerable and poverty-stricken, find themselves caught in the crossfire of rival covetous ambitions, and become victims to outside pressures and deadly violence.
So the questions that the indigenous leaders raise are: “Why do you white people think only about money, and are ready to do anything to gain money? The soil, the water, the air, the trees and the animals, are they all just money? Can’t you see in them the mother, the sister, the brother, who cares for us and helps us? You must be sick! Is money something that you can eat or drink or breathe? Then, why do you poison the air you are to breathe and defecate in the water that you are to drink?”
The message in which Kopenawa Yanomami denounces this situation is straightforward: “We are tired of hearing that we indigenous peoples are an obstacle to progress. On the contrary, we hold the seeds of the solution to the great problems that the Western world has created for humanity and the planet.”
In the indigenous peoples we can see age-old experiments, attempts to connect by means of the spiritual and to establish a reciprocal relationship in the care for nature. In their culture, it is normal for the women to breastfeed the young of different animals. And if you ask one of them why she does this, the reply will be, “Just as the mother boar had to be sacrificed to feed us, I have to nourish her little ones so that tomorrow my children and hers may continue to help one another.”
The Bishops of Latin America have given their approval: “The Church thanks all those who engage in the defence of life and of the environment… It has a special regard for the indigenous people, who know how to respect nature and who love mother earth as source of nourishment, as our common home, and as an altar of human fellowship.” (DA 472)
We must go on learning all the time. As Gonzaguinha sings, “Oh to live and not be ashamed to be happy! Oh to sing and sing and sing – the happiness to be always learning anew!” The task before us is to re-learn in our own “jungle” the wisdom of reciprocity, the spirituality based on caring, the justice that includes the socio-environment, the paradigm of “good living” which is also “good sharing” – as is well known among the indigenous peoples. In order to live and be happy we have to set down our roots; in other words, we have to humbly remove our shoes, “for the place in which you are standing is holy ground.” (Ex. 3:5)
After many decades of struggle, suffering and death in defence of their territory, the Xapori Kopenawa asked, “What can we do together?” The two “jungles” have to join forces: the Amazon jungle and the asphalt-concrete jungle of the rich countries (so much more dangerous!). Neither jungle can go it alone! The battle has to be resolved in this mercantile, consumerist jungle, if the jungle of the Amazon and its peoples is not to be ravaged. It is clear that multinational business firms and world capital are invading, buying and selling the Amazon and its inhabitants, because they want to preserve the capitalist system, being interested only in savage and devastating development. And yet scientists have warned that the destruction of the Amazon will bring catastrophic consequences to the equilibrium of natural systems and forms of life on our planet.
Is there a way forward? In May 2008, one Makuxi woman faced up to the hooded gunmen brought in by an industrial farming enterprise that was invading the Tierra Raposa Serra do Sol: “We will fight to the last Indian!” she shouted bravely. Ten of the indigenous people were wounded then and more than twenty had been assassinated earlier. Many individuals from outside, trying to defend that part of the forest, also gave up their lives alongside the indigenous people. But in our own jungle of asphalt and concrete, are we ready to fight as they did “to the last Indian?”
In September 2008 Fr Adolfo Nicolás visited the Amazonian Region of Brazil and wrote as follows: “One of the great battles to preserve the ecological balance of the world is being fought in the Amazon basin. This is the habitat for a great variety of indigenous peoples; together they make up an immense cultural and human wealth. But it is terribly threatened. The battle to preserve the Amazon is one that humanity cannot lose and the Society of Jesus is, and should be, involved. Quite rightly, CPAL (Conferencia de Provinciales Jesuitas de América Latina) has given priority to the Amazon Region… it needs support in both human and material resources if it is to carry out its mission. Several Provinces, from inside and outside Latin America, have contributed and continue to contribute generously, and I would like to invite others to do the same. In doing so, they should be aware that they are contributing to the mission of the whole Society in fostering a just relation with the created world. May our Creator and Lord, who lives in all creatures, bring us to love and serve His Divine Majesty in all things.”
“What is the good of salt if it does not go into the cooking pot?” D Romero used to say. In today’s world, the “cooking pot” is to be found in ecology. The spiritual leaders of our planet, confronted by the ecological crisis, have to find the right “salt,” a way to help humanity to re-connect with itself, with its deepest spiritual roots, with the Mother Earth that feeds and supports it, with the universe and with the Misterium which dwells within and gives it life. There is an urgent need for the spiritual leaders, the literary and scientific experts, the politicians, all to meet around this ecological “cooking pot.” A common way has to be found that will allow humanity and all the beings of the planet to travel together along the path of life today and tomorrow.
Pope Francis took the name of the saint from Assisi, but more importantly he accepted a prophetic obligation towards his brothers, the poor, and his sister, nature itself. In the homily he gave at the very start of his pontificate (19/03/2013), he clearly declared: “I would like to implore all those in positions of responsibility, whether economic, political, or social, all men and women of goodwill: let us be guardians of creation…” And since then, in his speeches and writings, he has continued to impress their ecological responsibility on all who make up the human race.
Despite all that separates them – distance, culture, history – the tiny Cardoner and the immense Amazon are “water from the same source.” Similarly, despite their enormous variety of culture and tradition, the mighty spiritual currents of humanity draw from the same Source. The true mystics, the shamans and the spiritual leaders, can communicate in what is essential. They have all been enlightened by the same Light and washed in the same Water coming from the one Source.
“Do you see the light now?’ was the question constantly put by the Xapori of the Yanomami to those being initiated, and at the end of the dark tunnel a brilliant light did shine and enlighten everything. It made everything new, all the creatures of the world: “God in all things and all things in Him” – from the Cardoner to the Amazon: water from the same Source!
The Travelling Team is a combined institutional project intended to be of service to the Amazon Basin and its peoples and formed in 1998 under the inspired and prophetic leadership of Fr Claudio Perani, SJ, the first Superior of the Jesuit Region of the Amazon (DIA, Brazil, 1995). It is especially concerned with areas of violence and mortal danger to the locals. The Team is sent to cross frontiers, both geographic and symbolic.
Fernando López was born in the Spanish Canaries (1960) and became a Jesuit in the Province of Paraguay in 1985; he was missioned to join the Team and served in it from 1998 to 2012. Arizete Miranda was born in the Brazilian Amazon region in 1959 and belongs to the Sateré-Mawé (Tupí-Guaraní) indigenous people; she joined the Congregation of Our Lady (former Canonesses of Saint Augustine) and was a member of the Team from 1998 to 2013.
This article is part of the 2015 Yearbook of the Society of Jesus that focused on ecology, published by the General Curia of the Society of Jesus in September 2014. Ecojesuit was given permission to feature stories from this publication.