So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them.Genesis 1:21-11 NRSVue
The clank and rumble of machinery mix with the hollow surf sound as my eyes return to the low glide of pelicans over the water. Each summer, our family pilgrimages to the Carolina coast just before the summer crowds arrive. We search for more remote places and times—dunes and sandpipers out- numbering bright beach gear if we’re lucky.
As a new mother, I am finding it difficult to settle myself, in more ways than one. I breathe deeply, allowing my mind and body to sink into the shifting arch of sunlight on water, the etch of rivulets in the sand, the rhythms of tides, the slow surrounding life. Always shifting, rarely changing—coastal life reminds me of T. S. Eliot’s description of spiritual exploration, of the way in which we are “still and still moving.”
But this description denies the real changes infringing on my contemplation. Massive construction projects dot the coastline, moving nearer and nearer to our staked-out spot of sand. Excavators, cranes, and other machinery pump sand into piles on the shore to maintain the facade that the beach is pristine, unchanged by human artifice or production. They smooth a space for tourists to build sand castles, little villages, and homemade tide pools.
Beyond my frustration at their racket, I wonder about these beach building projects, try to categorize them. I realize that similar projects have been standard practice in coastal maintenance for decades: they help locals maintain their livelihoods and properties, and they buffer the coastline from the erosion that is often caused by rising sea levels. Yet they also shield us from having to think about the climate crisis, letting us relax without fearing the rising ocean.
My eighteen-month-old daughter sits below me, trying her hand at her first sand constructions, piling mountains, digging moats, dumping water, looking up at me with a mix of pride and glee. As I scrawl her name in the sand with a finger, I think of the common and impossible injunction to leave no trace on the natural world. How do we live on this earth without leaving our mark—and is that even what we really want?
“The entire world is an icon,” writes the Orthodox theologian John Chryssavgis. “The whole of creation constitutes an icon painted before all ages, an image eternally engraved by the unique iconographer of the Word of God, namely, the Holy Spirit. This image is never totally destroyed, never fully effaced. Our aim is simply to reveal this image in the heart and to reflect it in the world.”
Icons are both material and sacred. They are meant to usher us into prayer in the deepest sense—inviting us to live into the sanctified world of the icon, which is also our world. Icons urge us to see all creation as sacred, sustained by di- vine love. They are reminders of creation and the incarnation through which God embraces the material world. The Franciscan theologian Ilia Delio puts it this way: the incarnation “makes the entire creation—all peoples, mountains, and valleys, all creatures big and small, everything that exists—holy because God embraces it” in love. It is this holiness that an icon aims to capture. In an icon, Chryssavgis writes, “There is no sharp line of demarcation between ‘material’ and ‘spiritual.’ The icon constitutes the epiphany of God in the world and the existence of the world in the presence of God.”
But what does it mean to see in this world, here and now, the restored im- age of all creation? To see in the warming ocean, the shifting shoreline, the hunch and fuzz of the sandpipers as they run away from me, a healed creation, a restored relation? What does it mean to say that this swooping pelican, this one right here, is an epiphany of God in the world? I don’t know exactly. I know it involves a constant, vigilant training of my vision, an openness to seeing the deeper reality seated within all creation. I know it means I am not allowed to look dismissively at any living thing. “The potential sacredness of the world is more than a mere possibility;” Chryssavgis writes. “It is a vocation.” In other words, our witness to the iconic significance of the world is a job, requiring all the effort and intentionality we can muster.
But, before I am pulled up into the beatific vision of restored creation, I can’t quiet the nagging question: Does this change anything? Does this vision of the redeemed world lead me to responsibly inhabit that world, or does it simply comfort my fears, without changing me or the world?
I trace the graceful, dark bodies of pelicans as they hover and brood over the water. Their slow float turns into a quick dive when they spot a fish, and for a moment, they become a spray of water on the horizon.
Behind me, the steady clang of construction reminds me that our world sits on the precipice of losing so much, that time is running out. The familiar tension: my desire to live as a human in the rhythms of the natural world tugs against the cost of human living on the natural world. How do I participate in creation with- out destroying it?
Sitting in the fragility of a twenty-first-century coastline, my eyes turn and return, in a trance, to the brown bodies of pelicans fishing for breakfast. From 1970 to 2009, the brown pelican was among the most endangered species in the United States, virtually extinct from the Pacific coast for many years. The insecticide DDT had contaminated waterways, which in turn made pelican eggshells too thin to support the growth of embryos. And so brown pelicans continued to mate, making nests and laying eggs whose promise cracked under the slightest weight. When re- searchers linked pelican and other wildlife and ecosystem decline to DDT, action was swift. In 1972, the EPA banned its use, and the following decades have witnessed the slow recovery of a species on the brink of extinction.
Now, in front of me, their small bodies resist and yield to currents of wind and water, their flight a perfect image of resilience: endlessly adaptable yet completely committed in their descent toward the water. Considering their remark- able recovery from endangerment, the contours of that resilience shift in my mind to encompass our whole fragile ecological moment—a moment requiring both adaptability and complete moral commitment. They image a life withstanding, thriving, in the face of extinction.
And yet, to see only their resilience discounts the role humans have played in their story—as if they were subjected to natural forces and managed to adapt and survive despite the odds. Our actions were part of their endangerment. And we also played a part in their survival. So, they also image repentance, a dusty, mis- used word but one deeply necessary for our time of encroaching ecological disaster. Their history tells me how humanity can face its destructive choices and change.
I worry that only seeing these birds as an image of repentance or hope does a certain violence to them—am I still trying to dominate these pelicans? Here, again, I mark God’s free creation with my own need—my need for hope, my need for understanding, my need to know that these birds, whose strange flight I rely on to soothe my anxieties, will survive. Even my own creative efforts—writing these birds, praying them, seeing them well—bear marks of my limited and often self-centered humanness.
But maybe that is not a bad thing. Maybe it is a sign that my creative efforts can never bear the freedom of God’s—an opening up of freedom to the other, infusing them while allowing them to exist as only their own. And to think that I can approach them as God, without my own human need and desire, could be to commit an even greater violence.
“The discipline of ascesis is the necessary and critical corrective for the excess of our consumption,” observes Chryssavgis. Asceticism is often described as a kind of spartan self-discipline, focused on personal spiritual improvement. But asceticism is not simply a personal spiritual discipline; it is an ecological one. While creation itself is an extravagance of God’s love, we humans need the discipline of ascesis to preserve, instead of waste, that extravagance.
In the anxiety that many of us hold over the state of our world and where it is headed, many of us are tempted to adopt a spirit of frantic action. Am I doing enough, am I doing enough? is the anxious refrain in my head, as if the fate of the climate crisis rests on my shoulders. But Chryssavgis invites me into a different posture: “Ascesis is not just another or better way of acting; it is, in fact, a way of inaction, of stillness, of vigilance. We are called to remember that the present ecological crisis is a result precisely of our action—of considerable human effort and success to ‘change’ or ‘better’ the world—and not only of our greed or covetousness.” Again, the question arises: how do I live in creation without destroying it, even while trying to save it? Human action can be redemptive and destructive, but the line between the two—like the coastline—is not always clear. It shifts. Like the beach construction, I try to categorize my own efforts. Are they good, bad, or neutral?
Chryssavgis’s answer to these riddles is ascesis, or leaving space. “Ascesis,” he writes, “means allowing room for the Spirit, for an action beyond our action.” In other words, I have to learn to both hold creation before God and let it go, as already held by God. These birds exist beyond my efforts to turn them into an im- age of hope or resilience. I cannot wrangle answers about the future out of them. I remind myself to let them be, to leave them space. They are themselves, and in being fully who they are, they are also icons, living reminders that the divine life courses through material bodies in all their complexity and beauty, all the ways we lose and save them.
I count pelican squadrons, my eyes running over the curves and arches of their flight as if over a line of prayer beads. Where are they headed? Where are we all headed—the pelicans, my daughter, the eroding coastline, members together of this burning planet?
I run a finger through my daughter’s hair below me, my mind tracing the curves of her future, this life I have helped create. What will she see? How will she respond? She grins, throws fistfuls of sand, over and over.
“Look,” I say, pointing to the pelicans, trying to train her attention to see them. She squints up briefly and returns to the handfuls of sand.
I want to cultivate in my daughter what Delio calls the “depth-seeing of all reality,” or “the action of uncovering, searching out, penetrating or fathoming, al- lowing the depth of the mystery to unveil itself without destroying it.” Depth-seeing opens us up to a relationship with the mystery of God, hidden throughout creation. But it also preserves the mystery of creation as mystery. It leaves space, keeps us from dominating creation. “Perhaps we can interpret this ‘depth-seeing’ of all reality by saying that we must take this world seriously,” Delio writes. “We must look deeply at each person and everything we encounter, not by looking at the surface but by looking at the details of each person, by gazing upon every creature we encounter.” In this vision, the attentive gaze is transfigured into prayer.
Chrysavgis quotes Leontius of Cyprus from the seventh century:
Through heaven and earth and sea, through wood and stone, through relics and Church buildings, and the Cross, through angels and people, through all creation visible and invisible, I offer veneration and honor to the Creator and Master and Maker of all things, and to him alone. For the creation does not venerate the Maker directly and by itself, but it is through me that the heavens declare the glory of God, through me the moon worships God, through me the stars glorify him, through me the waters and showers of rain, the dew and all creation, venerate God and give him glory.”
This is an honorable vocation for us humans: to stand in the tension between heaven and earth and offer materiality up as praise.
As I watch the beach construction around me, I am struck by the immensity of human action, that we can move a whole coastline. And Leontius of Cyprus’s articulation of the human vocation strikes me as deeply true: we have a calling to see and name creation’s praise of the creator. But I also wonder whether this sentiment regards humans too highly. I envision pelicans continuing to dive in praise of God long after we humans are gone. “Their voice goes out into all the earth, and their words to the end of the world,” as the psalmist says, even when we cannot hear it (19:4 NRSV).
My own prayer is a beginning. It may not be enough, perhaps, on its own. But it is a way of seeing that is infused with love, an attempt to live into the human vocation to offer the world back to God in praise. It is to see us all, in our limited materiality, as walking, soaring, standing icons of God’s love in and for the world.
When thinking of the threat of ecological destruction, prayer seems woe- fully inadequate. I confess: my prayer is throwing a grain of sand into an ocean—it is insignificant compared to the immensity. But this prayer is not passive; it is an active encounter with the deepest reality of each member of creation, down to the sandpipers and pelicans. It is an act of leaving space.
What if prayer itself is an act of creating, coloring the image of a restored creation into the outlines of all that is in front of us? And what if that vision does change things? What if each time I run my mind over the particularities of creation, I am joining, in some small way, God’s work of preservation? What if I am restraining my action and attention in service of the other, and in so doing, am preserving some of its freedom?
I count each particular pelican body in flight—three, twelve, sixteen! Each one a prayer, a hope, a weight—seen, counted, lifted. They glide by, still wings still moving forward, blissfully unaware of the weight that lifts with them as they head to open water. They scatter, searching for food. A low glide, a curving ascent, a hover, a brief pause in which time is suspended before the sharp dive and smack of their bodies against the glint of the water. This fishing for food is useful. But it is also something else. As I watch their focused and reckless dive, the word that comes to mind is joy.
And so, ultimately, I must give them space to be their own kind of prayer. Beyond me, their bodies form a doxology about survival and joy. The rhythm of their flight and descent, the monastic simplicity of their movements, offer a prayer for the life of the world. Their bodies praise God for salvation from extinction; they pray: more food, more sustenance, more joy. When I think about the threats creation will face in the coming years, I rarely pray for joy. But the pelicans’ flight and dive instruct me differently. They are nothing but joy.
“You are an icon of God’s invisible love made visible,” I whisper to these birds, who couldn’t care less what I have to say about them. It is a blessing they both need and don’t need. They need it for their survival, because we fumbling humans can’t see they carry this blessing with them, always. And they don’t need it, because they already live it, carrying the blessing pronounced over them at the beginning of creation.
 Eliot, “East Coker,” in The Four Quartets (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1943), section 5, line 33. 2. Joshua Learn, “Beach Building Is Keeping the Atlantic Coast from Going Under,” Phys.Org, January 31, 2019, https://phys.org/news/2019-01-beach-atlantic-coast.html.
 Joshua Learn, “Beach Building Is Keeping the Atlantic Coast from Going Under,” Phys.Org, January 31, 2019, https://phys.org/news/2019-01-beach-atlantic-coast.html.
 John Chryssavgis, “The World of the Icon and Creation: An Orthodox Perspective on Ecology and Pneumatology,” in Christianity and Ecology, eds. Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Reuther (Cam- bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 91.
 Ilia Delio, The Humility of God (Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2005), 31; and Chryssavgis, “The World of the Icon,” 84.
 Chryssavgis, “The World of the Icon,” 89.
 Chryssavgis, “The World of the Icon,” 92.
 Chryssavgis, “The World of the Icon,” 92.
 Chryssavgis, “The World of the Icon,” 92.
 Delio, The Humility of God, 118.
 Leontius quoted in Chryssavgis, “The World of the Icon,” 86.