On the first day, while it was still dark, I set out for the garden. Or, more precisely, I set out for the tomb, where they had laid to rest the Light (John 20:1).
Along the way, I came upon Ignatius of Loyola, who was standing in a clearing. He walked with me, and I confessed my fears. “The world is ending,” I told him. “Everything on the earth is going the way of the Human One. Beaten, abused, mocked, destroyed. I fear for my children. I fear what they might live through or perish by. What have we done?” He listened.
As we continued on, we came to a cave, a small alcove in a ridge of stone. Ignatius slowed to a halt and then moved into the mouth of the cave. “Come,” he said, “we should pray.”
I took my place next to Ignatius and began to quiet myself.
In an instant, I was transported. I saw our world from a distance in all of its beauty and brokenness, all of its fragility and flux. I drew closer to the world and came to see all the lands of the earth as the site of a struggle.
“The Anthropocene!” a voice cried out as humanity multiplied and filled the lands. I watched as the vast multitudes of began to organize themselves into two opposing legions—each group coming to encircle a different tree that rose from the garden of the world.
At the center of the first legion stood the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Its bark was made of mortar and brick, and its branches stretched like spires toward the heavens (Gen. 11:3–4). Chiseled into the bark of the tree were the words: “You will know everything; you will be like God” (see Gen. 3:5). From the tree’s branches hung the fruit of white logic. The horde encircling the tree grew ravenous at the sight of the fruit, which they seemed to find strangely desirable (Gen. 3:6). The fruit swayed in the wind as three men approached the tree to pay it homage (Rev. 18:1–19). The first was a king, who wore a crown of pyrite. He held out the extracted tongue of a human person and nailed it to the tree. The second was a merchant; he approached with the pelts of all of the animals that Adam had once named and Noah and Naamah had once sheltered. In like manner, the merchant nailed these nameless pelts to the tree. The third man, a sea captain, approached with his sacrifice, a vial of crude oil, which he poured out as a libation onto the roots of the tree. The branches of the tree grew higher still, piercing the sky.
I saw that the three men had names inscribed into their flesh: Wealth, Honors, and Pride. Grasping at the bark and limbs of the tree, these men began to ascend—away from the garden they had plundered (Gen. 11:1–9).
Around the tree, the men and women who had gathered worked unceasingly, slavishly. Some sharpened swords and spears while others measured and re-measured, ever calculating and optimizing all that came into their view. These dictators and technocrats—the builders, as I came to know them—saw to it that nothing on the earth came to rest.
A goateed orator in noble dress instructed these builders, proclaiming: “This world is nought but a problem to be solved. Come, let us denude her and pry into her secrets! Let us enthrone man above all else.” As he spoke, the builders, nodding dumbly, constructed a furnace of wrought iron, into which they placed the goods of the earth and melted them down. These builders reshaped the molten mass into their own image and likeness—a bronzed statue, orange-faced, terrible to behold.
And then I heard the statue cry out: “I sit enthroned upon a world without end. I will never know grief!” (see Rev. 18:7). It cackled and began to consume all that it could see—devouring everything, never sated. I watched as the measured lines of the builders gave way to an orgy of flesh and fire as lust consumed even the reasoning that had sought to direct it. Around the tree an army of silicon locusts formed, ready for battle. The rivers of that land turned to blood.
Ignatian spirituality is fundamentally concerned with the discernment of God’s will. As such, it is firstly a cataphatic spirituality, challenging its adherents to scrutinize their own interior dispositions in light of God’s revelatory word. Accordingly, the Ignatian spiritual tradition frequently makes use of images from Scripture as a way of engaging and forming the imagination of the practitioner. This characteristic is true of of Loyola’s most famous work of Christian spirituality, The Spiritual Exercises, which aims to unite the human person more deeply with God and God’s will.
At the center of The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius is the “Meditation on the Two Standards.” There, Ignatius envisions the world as the site of a great struggle between the forces of Christ and the forces of Satan, with each of these forces gathering beneath their respective banner or “standard.” Ignatius asks the exercitant—the one practicing the exercises—to make a choice between the standard of Satan and the standard of Christ. As the Jesuit Dean Brackley writes, “This meditation draws back the veil on the central drama of history, the struggle between good and evil. . . . We live and move within opposing force fields. The powers of egoism pull us backward to slavery unto death, while the divine Spirit draws us forward to freedom and life.”
In an age that valorizes ambivalence and ambiguity, the two standards may appear antiquated, even dangerous. Are these not the kinds of crass binary oppositions that fuel holy wars and fascism? Surely it is better to leave the wheat and chaff alone than to try to rend the complexities of both history and our hearts. Yet wheat is not chaff, just as sheep are not goats. The kingdom is not the anti-kingdom. Their respective separations are eschatological, to be sure, but their differences are real. And these differences, captured in the image of the two standards, can help to illuminate our path amid all of the messiness of history, the opacity of our desires, and the mysteriousness of God’s call to us within an ambiguous world.
In this essay, I have adapted the two standards, beginning with a meditation on the standard of Satan, in an attempt to face the eco-social crisis that Pope Francis describes in the encyclical Laudato Si’. There, Francis (a Jesuit himself) calls all women and men of goodwill to respond to the interrelated cries of the earth and the poor, exhorting us to resist and transform the social structures and ideological paradigms that facilitate the ongoing exploitation of the earth and the poor. In contrast to these regimes of exploitation, the pope entreats humanity to receive the gift of creation with gratitude and to respond accordingly by cultivating and caring for creation. Moreover, Francis identifies the exploitation of the earth and the poor as the product of sin, while also affirming the work of cultivating and caring for the world as a product of God’s grace. Thus, the exploitation of the earth and the poor and the work of serving the earth and the poor fall under the respective standards of Satan and Christ. In following the insights of Pope Francis, this meditation invites readers to reflect on the call of fidelity to the standard of Christ within the context of a human-produced eco-social crisis.
Reeling from this horror, I turned to consider the second legion of humanity, gathered around the tree of life.
The branches of the tree fanned out in every direction, bending back toward the earth in obeisance. On each of the myriad branches an animal rested—I saw that each reflected a vestige of God’s variegated glory. Traced into the living bark of the tree were the words Cultivate and Care, Serve and Observe (Gen. 2:15).
From the branches of the tree hung medicinal fruits—balms for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2). The fruit hung low for the encircled crowd to take and share. I watched as three kings approached the tree to give it homage. They were garbed in sackcloth. In their hands, each held a broken crown. They came to a halt at the foot of the tree. In front of them, the tree’s roots had crisscrossed and grown over one another, forming a manger-like trough.
The three erstwhile kings kneeled at these roots. The first presented an offering of gold for reparations and placed it in the trough. Next to the gold, the second king placed a bowl of frankincense as an offering of praise and reverence. The third presented a jar of myrrh to anoint the dead, the victims of history.
I saw that the three kings had names written in ash on their robes: Poverty, Insults, and Humility. I watched as they took fruit from the tree and turned back toward the earth, giving to those who were empty. There was enough for everyone.
Around the tree, the women and men who had gathered there worked and reclined with restraint and delight. Out of the weapons that they had inherited, they shaped pruning hooks and plowshares, the tools of service and care (Isa. 2:4). Those who measured and calculated the goods of the earth interrupted themselves three times a day to offer prayers of gratitude for the sacraments of the soil that they observed. These persons, I came to see, inhabited the vocation of gardener. Amid the gardeners, a prophet cried out, “We are called to go forth into the world!”
Shoulder to shoulder the women and men harnessed themselves to yokes and turned to face a desert of fire and bone. Together, they bore the weight of the wood—the weight of reality—and walked forward, turning over the desiccated earth. Others followed behind those who were yoked. They watered the ground and scattered seed from every seed-bearing plant and tree (Gen. 1:11–12, 29–30). They continued on until they came to a river of blood. Down the river floated a crucified people—the body of Christ—tied to the flotsam and jetsam in the reddened stream. I saw also that a world of species, threatened with annihilation, struggled in the river, gasping for breath.
The gardeners waded into the water, binding up wounds where they were able, staying with those who could no longer rise. They sang Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of Creation.”
In the distance, the buzz of mechanical insects grew louder.
A beam of light hits the wall of the cave. Dawn is breaking. Ignatius has gone. Then I remember—the tomb! I hurry out of the cave and continue along the way.
When I reach the garden, I see the tomb standing at the garden’s center. Moving closer, I see that it is empty. I fall to my knees and begin to weep, watering the soil with my tears. They have taken our Lord. They have taken our shelter.
Something stirs. A gardener has arrived to tend to this God-forsaken place, this Gehenna.
“Sir,” I call out. “If you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him” (see John 20:15–16).
The gardener turns to me, “Mary!” he says.
“Rabbouni.” The Human One—the Gardener!
I will not cling—come what may, I will follow.
John of Patmos tells us there will come a time when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. There will be no more sin or death: “On both sides of the river grew the tree of life that produces fruit twelve times a year, once each month; the leaves of the trees serve as medicine for the nations” (Rev. 22:2 NAB).