Cultivating Our Garden

Cultivating Our Garden

By Jose Ramon Villarin, S.J.

Photo by Joanne Lee

In April, Ateneo de Manila University president Jose Ramon “Jett” Villarin, S.J., visited the Mission Campus to give the Santa Clara Lecture on the pope, the poor, and the planet.

In addition to being a university president, Villarin is currently the chairperson of the Manila Observatory and a member of the National Panel of Technical Experts of the Philippine government’s Climate Change commission. His other responsibilities include chairing Synergeia, an NGO engaged in public education reform, and the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, which recognizes “greatness of spirit” in exemplary persons and institutions involved in social transformation in Asia. Villarin was a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) when it received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

Given the ecological risks that face us and the uneven distribution of responsibilities, he asked in his talk, how can we overcome a sense of fragmentation and insularity?

He then went on to consider Pope Francis’ call for an integral ecology and how that resonates for those who live in more vulnerable parts of the world. Despite the challenges, Villarin encouraged the audience to find pathways of hope and inspiration to help care for our common home.

At the conclusion of his talk, Villarin reflected on 10 steps we can take to cultivate our garden, the planet we call home.

I close with some simple steps we can take to cultivate and care for this garden in which God has placed us. These are by no means exhaustive and are only meant to stimulate us to create our own lists, borne from our own experience and desires. It is my hope that many lists can be generated and shared with others. May such an exercise deepen what we are about, how we are to cultivate and care for our common home.

Say grace before and after meals

Pope Francis himself suggested this simple ritual. “That moment of blessing, however brief, reminds us of our dependence on God for life; it strengthens our feeling of gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who by their labors provide us with these goods; and it reaffirms our solidarity with those in greatest need.” Let us then learn to say thank you. And extend this even to mark the start and end of each day. Cultivate a sense of gift rather than entitlement. Pray for those who are hungry.

Climb a mountain (or dive the sea)

And when you’re there, don’t forget to gaze at the stars. The point is to immerse yourself in wonder and get an idea of scale and size. Somehow smallness evokes a sense of radical dependence and contingency, of things difficult to control. From contingency, we return to a sense of gift and graciousness again. Until you find that mountain to climb, you could walk with a friend or catch up or reconnect with someone. It’s better to walk than take a car since a moving car gathers no grace or beauty, the kind you just might catch while walking.

Unplug and savor the silence

Let go of the wires and even the wireless. Go to a park or any place you can find inner quiet. Visit the grave of someone dear to you. Go to a chapel and learn to pray again. When alone and quiet, try your best not to wallow or mope. Don’t yield to a lot of rewinding and regretting. Just relish and rest and breathe.

Repair something broken

It can be a coffee mug or your bicycle or something of value to you. Learn the Japanese art of Kintsugi, “of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum.” It flows from the philosophy of wabi-sabi, which values the whole history of an object, including its dents and faults and imperfections. Resist the temptation to just buy something to replace what you are repairing.

Get to know a poor person

You can meet them everywhere. You can go to a hospital or waste dump or any place that is peripheral to wealth and power. Poor people become more marginal when they are shunted to the physical and social margins. Know more than their name. Share something with them, yes, but learn to receive from them as well. Go learn the meaning of the words, “blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.” There are many causes of social and environmental poverty—selfishness is the biggest of them all.

Try fasting

Try this one not just to lose the calories. You might wish to fast on shopping as well or on any of those subtle compulsions of modern life. Feel the hunger; try to understand the drive, the pressure and where it is coming from. If fasting is hard for you, try gluttony. And experience the empty.

Go read a book to children

This one’s about intergenerational equity. The point is to reconnect with children and see time as an integral continuum. There are many children and children’s books out there. Try the 1942 picture book, The Runaway Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown. A child has a way of awakening us not only to the future or the things that matter, but also to the things that need to be made whole.

Care for some space that belongs to everyone

No, you don’t have to guard the whole forest or become a street sweeper. Join groups that deepen social love through the various ways they protect and beautify some space that belongs to everyone. That space can be as vast as the climate or as near as a corner of a park or a piece of public art. It would be better if it were some shared space that matters to the poor or children or old people.

If you’re Catholic, receive communion

For all your sophistication and education, you might wish to ponder the molecular structure of that piece of carbohydrate. Just remember that even Prof. Higgs of boson fame does not really know what the matter is about matter. The point of the wafer is to recover our sense of sacrament, our sense of the sacred in matter. The hope is that we will be fed by our host and brought nearer to wholeness (and holiness).

Make a box for your valuables

Not as big as those balikbayan boxes Filipinos use. A tin box used for candy will do. Place your most treasured in this box. Money or mementoes you keep. Remembrances not just of what you have gotten but also of what you have given. Since persons are too big to put in that box, a picture of them will do. The point is to keep on knowing what you treasure, what you wish to bring with you to eternity.

When the strongest typhoon ever to make landfall hit our shores in November 2013, massive amounts of relief aid were mobilized from all over the world. Among the smallest donors was a little boy from Japan. On 15 November 2013, six-year-old Shoicho Kodoh of Japan broke his piggy bank and gave all his savings to the Filipino victims of Typhoon Yolanda. If children from far away can see what needs to be broken, we may not be so far from hope and redemption; we can be trusted to cultivate and keep this wonderful gift of a garden.

Watch a video of Villarin’s complete talk on the Ignatian Center website.


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