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ARC Home > News and Resources > News archive:

Ecumenical Patriarch writes about the seas

Our Planet Magazine: May 27 2004:

PHOTOGRAPH: Nikolaos Manginas

By His All Holiness Bartholomew of Constantinople

When we consider the creation story in Genesis, we tend to recall the first moment – or perhaps the sixth day – of creation. We often overlook what occurred on the third and fifth days, when the world’s waters came into being. Yet these days are an essential part of the whole story.

They are a critical part of our own story. At the foundation of the world, ‘in the beginning ... the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters’ (Genesis 1:1-2). The Judeo-Christian scriptures speak of water as a sign of blessing and peace (Deuteronomy 8:7). The way we relate to God is reflected in the way we respect water. Water pronounces the sealed covenant between God and the world; drought and thirst announce the rupture of this binding relationship, an apostasy from the divine commandments (I Kings 17). The heavens, too, are set among the waters (Revelation 4). Marine pollution is nothing less than the violation of a hallowed promise.

Our fourth-century predecessor in the See of Constantinople, St John Chrysostom, understood the spiritual and mystical connection between the creation of water, the creation of humanity and the role of the Creator:

‘We experience a sense of wonder before the boundless extent of the seas; we are filled with awe before the unfathomable depth of the oceans; we confess our amazement before the marvelous works of the Creator.’

In the same city of Constantinople, beneath the magnificent Church of St Sophia (the wisdom of God), there flows a channel of water. The Byzantines believed that this stream issued from the church itself, since water has traditionally been considered to be the symbol for life and wisdom (John 7:37).

Moreover, rivers of green marble on the floor of the Great Church represent the streams of paradise. Water is the binding force between heaven and earth. A dying sea is more than simply the result of industrial or chemical waste, of oil spills and water mismanagement. Marine pollution is nothing less than paradise lost.

"Rivers of green marble on the floor of the Great Church represent the streams of paradise".

No water, no world

In Eastern Orthodox iconography, blue is interchangeable with green. These colours are predominantly used for foregrounds and backgrounds, being reserved also for the depiction of the celestial. As in the viewpoint from space, so also in the perspective of icons: both heaven and earth are blue! We tend to call earth our habitat; yet, in many ways, water might be more appropriately hailed as our home or natural environment. If there were no water, there would be no world. Marine pollution is nothing less than the devastation of our earthly premise.

An early mosaic of the crucifixion of Christ, found in San Clemente, Rome, portrays streams of water flowing from the foot of the cross, a symbol for the Sacrament of Baptism (John 19:34). Like the Sacrament of the Eucharist (or Communion), the Sacrament of Baptism derives from the loving passion of Jesus Christ. Just as blood issued from the body of Christ, water constitutes the blood of the Church and of the Earth. Marine pollution is nothing less than an assault upon a delicate cosmic balance, preserved over millions of years.

Orthodox spirituality employs water imagery to describe the struggle to redress a balance between matter and spirit, between body and soul. In Orthodox ascetic practice, tears function as a way of reversing habits that abuse creation and divide the world. The silence of tears and the stillness of water (Psalm 22) echo the need to refocus attention on sharing God’s gifts fairly. The depths of the ocean resonate with the depths of silence.

This is why Orthodox spiritual practice emphasizes stillness as a way into the human heart and as a window into the divine abyss. Paul Claudel once observed: ‘Everything the heart desires can be reduced to a water figure’. Some 2,500 years ago, Thales of Miletus founded his school of philosophy on the same conviction: ‘All things are water’.

There is, then, something sacred, almost sacramental in the very fabric of water. The meaning of water somehow conceals the very mystery of God. In this respect, Orthodox theology proposes a model of environmental action based on the spiritual significance of water. On a planet where oceans and rivers are polluted, we would do well to remember the original and radical relationship between living sources of water and the life-giving spirit of God.

In a world where the unjust demands of the few stifle the fundamental survival of the poor, water reminds us of the need to live simply and simply to live. At a time when wastefulness has become so rampant and pervasive, we are challenged to recall the implications of our actions as well as to assume responsibility for a society where water is justly shared and where everyone has enough. We tend to call earth our habitat; yet, in many ways, water might be more appropriately hailed as our home or natural environment.

"If there were no water, there would be no world. Marine pollution is nothing less than the devastation of our earthly premise."
In light of this commitment, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has to date organized five international, inter-religious and inter-disciplinary symposia: in the Aegean Sea (1995), on the Black Sea (1997), along the Danube River (1999), around the Adriatic Sea (2002) and in the Baltic Sea (2003).

A sixth is currently being prepared for the Caspian Sea in the summer of 2005. The purpose is to call attention to the plight of our seas; to attract religious leaders, scientists, environmentalists, politicians and journalists; and to raise awareness about collective responsibility for our environment for future generations.

None of us is able to resolve the environmental crisis alone; ‘everyone has a part to play', as we stated in a Common Declaration with Pope John Paul II at the closing ceremony of the Adriatic symposium.

All of us know that we are surrounded by rivers, seas and oceans. What we do not immediately recognize is the way in which these are intimately and innately connected to one another as well as to our environment. We may not immediately discern the close relationship between the world’s waterways, the world’s people and the world’s Creator. There is an interconnection and interdependence between the water of baptism, the sap of plants, the tears of humans, the bloodstream of animals, the rainfall of a forest and the flow of rivers to the sea.

We are called to avow water as the wonder of life if we are ever to avert the world crisis in water pollution and distribution. In order to correct the wrongful politics of water by those who regard it as their rightful property, we must first celebrate water as the irreplaceable patrimony of all humankind; we must accept the indiscriminate and inalienable right to water for all people in the world. Water can never be reduced to a marketable commodity for profit – especially for the affluent, especially for the few. It must always be protected as part of the fundamental quality of life – especially for the more vulnerable, especially for our children.

On the third day of creation, ‘God gathered the waters under the sky into one place; and God saw that it was good. ... So God created every living thing, with which the waters swarm. And God saw that it was good.’ (Genesis 1:9-21). The Greek word for ‘good’ implies beauty and harmony. The very least that we owe God, this world and our children, is to preserve the beauty of our planet’s water, to leave behind a world that remains good

This article is reproduced with permission from Our Planet, the popular United Nations Environment Programme magazine.

The "Seas, Oceans and Small Islands issue" published in mid 2004 also includes articles by the Prime Ministers of Mauritius and Tuvalu, an explanation of why the oceans need mountain from a retired US Navy Admiral, and a profile of Cape Verde singer Cesaria Evora, who is an Ambassador Against Hunger for the World Food Programme.


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