Living lightly and lovingly

Living lightly and lovingly

Garrett (second from left), with other novices of Entrance classes 2010 and 2011 in a bike tour of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, MN in the US, during orientation week 2011. Photo credit: G Gundlach

Scholastic Garrett Gundlach, SJ

I have to admit right away that the main reason why people call me a ‘Jesuit tree hugger’ is because I literally hug trees.  In fact, Google-image-search my name, and the proof is right there, in green plaid and brown bark.  But with a semester under my belt as a vowed scholastic in Chicago, I’m slowly searching for the appropriate and progressive integration of community life and ecological advocacy; institutional community life and green choices, after all, don’t come together automatically.

I begin where I most committedly can – my own life’s choices for this short pilgrimage.  My personal journey began with the realization that “my choices” were not so disconnectedly “mine;” this journey of eco-spirituality began with the simple recognition that my choices must be determined more by responsibility than by right.  Yes, our human dignity implicates certain rights to resources, but in a world today that wears such deep disparities, our responsibilities – not only to our Mother Earth but to our fellow brothers and sisters – must shape our lives.

A friend on a bike ride suggested to me once, “You know Garrett, I think our goal is to live as lightly and as lovingly on this world as possible until we go.”  Bingo.  Only in this context of friendship and joy can I frame any reflection on ecological conservation and advocacy.  For me, it’s less about numbers than about a radical reorientation towards the things that I eat, drink, consume, throw away, borrow, and lend: this path has been less about quantitatively than qualitatively changing my lifestyle, because numbers only change sustainably when reverence is in the saddle.

The “eco-” prefix has made a permanent home in my spirituality.  The call of Christ that catches me is the pilgrim’s call, one of deep engagement because of few things and open hands for holding other hands.  Jesus calls me to leave behind the luggage of a heavy lifestyle, one that clutters my heart and burdens the Earth: I am “me” not because of what I own or use but because of who I know and love – God, my brothers and sisters, human and arboreal, especially the most voiceless and the most forgotten.

Simple conservation is often purely mathematical: “What things can I subtract from my life in order that others can add?”  Numbers are important, of course, (particularly these two: 6.9 billion people, 1 Earth), but I have found that a spirituality-pedaled conservation emphasizes the resultant opportunities that each sacrifice provides more than just the mathematical offsets.  Yes – vegetarianism, short showers, cycling, air-drying clothes, second-hand shopping, and never-ending darning and sewing, etc – do each make numerical differences, but I am much keener on the possibilities that each – and the lifestyle they evoke – can create.  Together, these choices and habits have reawakened my humanity (that is, relationality) that becomes so easily pacified in a fast, hungry society that prizes convenience and consumption more than permanence and love.

A “No” to a heavy habit requires resolve and imagination, but gives way to life-giving discipline, intentionality, gentleness, and even some great hobbies: each of these is a “Yes.”  Poetry, bread-baking, gardening, hiking, composting, sewing, cycling, tree identification, and kombucha-brewing all arose in times and spaces freed up from the “subtraction” of habits and hobbies that I used to unthinkingly embrace.  With an eye towards light-living, I am constantly re-breaking the shell of my daily schedules and activities to reimagine how I might divert more of my energies into simpler and more graceful habits, whether regarding nourishment, clothing, transportation, laundry, or friendships.

Beyond restructured lifestyles, another opportunity that eco-spirituality provides is education.  Rarely does a day go by without someone asking me (more-or-less) why I eat and live the way I do; each reimagined choice (e.g. vegetarianism) provides fertile and curious grounds for conversation, particularly these days as global warming, “green living” and the environment have become more popular subjects.

I am eager to see where this young eco-spirituality continues to take me, certainly in terms of personal growth, but even more so in education, activism, and advocacy: reverence at some point must encounter injustice structurally, and this reimagined lifestyle can be at the service of a struggle of solidarity.  After all, you can argue with numbers and angry activists, but can you argue with a buoyant joy, living lightly and lovingly with open hands?  In Christ’s call I hear an invitation to live lightly and reverently, not for His sake, but for ours – yours, mine, hers, and the trees’.

Garrett Gundlach SJ, 25, is a first-year Jesuit scholastic studying philosophy, theology, and social work at Loyola University Chicago in the US.  He is passionate about the ministry of “remembrance,” not simply accompanying the marginalized but transforming the structures and culture that can “forget” the dignity and reverence that every living being deserves.  Garrett enjoys far-flung interests, exploring everything from interfaith dialogue to urban cycling, camping to bread baking, and poetry to community spirituality.  Garrett can be reached through his email garrett.gundlach(at)


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