Spirituality and Sustainability in Assisi

by Durjaya Thomas Pliske, PhD

In the last week of May I was grateful to represent the International Sri Chinmoy Meditation Centres at a conference on spirituality and environmental sustainability in the beautiful medieval city of Assisi, Italy. The conference was organized and planned by Elisabetta Ferrero of our Miami Centre with the help of an internationally talented steering committee. Elisabetta is a Professor of Global Studies at St. Thomas University here in Miami and has been a passionate educator and activist in the fields of Environmental Ethics and sustainability for decades. We have been guest lecturers in one another’s classes many times. Assisi was chosen because it is the birthplace of St. Francis (1182-1226) whose spirituality embraced the entire Creation, eloquently expressed in Cantico delle Creature (The Canticle of the Creatures).  He is widely honored as the patron saint of the environment.


     One of the most inspiring aspects of the Conference was the day given to presentation of current Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si (“All praise be Yours…”) On Care for our Common Home, the first two words in the title taken from the Old Italian version of St. Francis’ Cantico.  The Pope’s document sets out in extensive and clear detail the ecological sustainability, social and economic justice, and spiritual issues that Catholics, and indeed all of us, should undertake for the well-being of the Earth and of humanity.  An entire chapter is devoted to the personal spiritual attitudes necessary to follow the guidelines and to create the educational programs that must be implemented to turn the tide away from the current destructive effects of Earth-exploitation, self-centeredness and greed.  It is remarkably similar in urgency and content to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and to the Earth Charter. 

     Elisabetta was able to arrange for us a two-hour meeting in the Vatican with Cardinal Turkson, who has been selected by Pope Francis to work out the practical implementation of the message in Laudato Si.  The meeting was a great inspiration for all of us, and we pledged our mutual support in the efforts to meet the challenges and bring about the needed infrastructural changes within the church.

     The topic that underlay and permeated all the discussions and presentations during our week in Assisi was what role spirituality plays in bringing about a more peaceful, harmonious, environmentally sustainable, just and happier world.  The 40 delegates represented many diverse approaches to sustainability and world service: environmentalists, organic agriculture, religious and non-religious spiritual groups, U. N. affiliates, Earth Charter supporters, indigenous cultures, scientists, the business-legal community, social and environmental justice advocates, educators and philosophers. 

     Representing the Sri Chinmoy Centre, an organization devoted to promoting spiritual awakening, practice and service, I had the opportunity to share and work with seekers from other paths, some based in established religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Shinto) and also from indigenous shamanic traditions. Although we had diverse approaches to spiritual Truth, we all had in common the understanding that there is no separation of self-transformation and world-transformation. They go hand in hand.  Whatever illumination we receive from our individual sadhana (spiritual work) to purify, illumine and transform our individual lives, that progress is spread into the world consciousness.  This is true whether we progress through prayer, the creative arts, meditation, mental expansion and inclusiveness, selfless love and dedicated service or a yoga that combines all these. 

    We all were in tune with St. Francis and his spiritual partner St. Clare who celebrated the Creator bringing forth the universe and our own planet and the inescapable Presence of the Creator inside every atom of the creation, including us, as well as in mountains, landscapes, soils, oceans, winds and creatures that make up Mother Earth. 

       All the spiritual groups at the Conference in their own ways affirmed that Creator and creation can never be dissociated.  This belief was especially and poignantly radiated by the indigenous brothers and sisters at the conference.  In their cosmologies, there is no question that all universal Nature is alive. A living Mother Earth is constantly instructing us how to care for Her and inviting us to establish an inner relationship with Her. One of their important quests, which they shared with us, is to preserve and protect the world’s sacred places in the natural environment where Her Force has been strongly felt and manifested for millennia.  This is often difficult and dangerous work since it places them in the path of mining, energy development, tourism and other industries which are often exploiting sacred places for financial profit.

     For anyone who feels urgency to bring about progressive changes in our world and who has a spiritual practice, we felt that it is equally urgent to invoke that Presence within us to expand and illumine our consciousness and to guide us in whatever work we do.  In many of the “rituals” which opened and closed each day’s sessions, various modes of Invocation were a central feature. I used a heart-centered meditation on flowers that Sri Chinmoy had used  at the U.N. many years ago and concluded with the short chapter Smile, Love and Claim from Sri Chinmoy's well-known book Everest Aspiration, which included these lines which touched on the Conference’s theme:

 "Smile, my friends, my soulful friends, smile. Let us smile. True, this world of ours is full of suffering and excruciating pangs, but that is no reason why we should not smile. We must smile in order to unburden the world’s suffering-burden. We must smile in order to diminish its untold pangs." 1

I also offered instruction in silent heart-centered meditation each morning to any who wanted to participate.

     Sri Chinmoy always taught us that we are all creatures of the Supreme universal Creator. Is it not the Creator within us who is trying to use each of our lives as instruments to bring about the transformation we all seek?  Are not we ourselves the ones we have been searching for to bring about the necessary changes in consciousness? 

       We discussed science in several contexts and acknowledged that the persistent self-imposed limitation of thought and enquiry to the purely physical, objective aspects of universal Nature was deflecting and inviting the destructive misuse of the potential benefits of scientific innovation.  As the body needs the soul to guide its journey and manifestation, so science no less needs spirituality to guide its proper applications for the progress of earth and humanity.  We felt that educators should, from the earliest elementary grades, stress the ethical responsibilities of scientists and where possible the “sacred” status of the study of creation. 

      When we left Assisi at the end of the conference we all felt that we had received a tremendous injection of hope, confidence and inner strength that the great work of world-transformation is proceeding and increasing on many fronts and with many dedicated lives applied to the task.  While we may have had different perceptions about how spirituality was operating in our lives, I think it fair to say that everyone would acknowledge that higher Forces were at work guiding and inspiring us at every step on the path.

     The Miami Sri Chinmoy Centre offers free meditation classes that provide guidance in self- and world-transformation.  Contact: 305-335-7618 or visit www.meditationmiami.com.