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30th May 2010

Living in God’s Creation Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology

Elizabeth Theokritoff is a very interesting author, and in this recent book (published by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood New York, 2009; ISBN 978-0-88141-338-0) she evaluates the ecological stance of the Orthodox tradition. The material is laid out in a series of chapters, each dealing with a different class of evidence:  the Church Fathers (the longest and most difficult chapter), the ascetic tradition, the Saints, Orthodox worship, sacramental life and living, and contemporary Orthodox theology.  Some may be surprised that there is no chapter explicitly on the Bible, but as she points out ‘what really counts is the way [biblical] texts have been understood and used. An idea may be found in Scripture, but actually have played little part in shaping the Christian world view.’  Hence her reliance on patristic, ascetic and liturgical data, which are found to speak with one voice and offer a view of remarkable relevance to the contemporary ecological situation. 

In brief, she holds, making use of the traditional Orthodox distinction between God’s essence and energies, that the latter are present everywhere in the creation. Moreover, man (this word is used throughout) stands at the centre of the creation, with the function of relating all else to God. Ascetic practice, the bedrock of Christian living, can operate to the benefit of the environment; intriguingly, Theokritoff tells us that ‘[m]onks and nuns often seem to grasp swiftly and intuitively the environmental implications of Orthodox theology.’  The lives of the saints, in particular the delightful stories of their dealings with animals, show what can be achieved.  Perhaps not all these tales are to be taken literally, but ‘ when a story is not strictly historical, it may still graphically express the values and aspirations of the community that has transmitted and received it.’ Turning to worship, she begins with the psalms used in liturgy and goes on to examine liturgical texts more generally. Words from a familiar prayer, ‘all creation praises you for ever’, express what she finds in these texts. Sacramental life gives insight into the way things are meant to be used, pointing as it does to the original beauty of the world. There is a note of caution to be sounded, one that Orthodox may find uncomfortable: ‘Orthodox countries are hardly distinguished for environmental protection, or for widespread resistance to environmentally destructive elements of the modern lifestyle. And Orthodox communities in the West largely reflect the environmental attitudes of the surrounding culture.’ Clearly there is work to be done, and Theokritoff leaves her readers with a challenge: the familiar motto ‘think globally, act locally’ is both too broad and too narrow, for we should think not just globally but cosmically, and act not just locally but personally.

This is a very powerful and compelling set of ideas. I’d like to explore one aspect of it, that which deals with animals. Discussing relations between man and other creatures, Theokritoff states that the ‘dominion’ humans were originally given over other creatures, which would have involved them offering spontaneous and instinctive obedience,  was not revoked at the fall, but seriously modified. The attitudes they take towards various people now depends on the relation those people have with Christ, to which in some manner they respond. The authority man was originally given over them is restored in a saint, so that animals willingly submit their nature to his, while nevertheless retaining the nature that is proper to them in the world of the fall.  Various stories tell of animals in the service of man, and ‘[t]he ultimate service rendered by animals to man is to become food for him’ . But is this conclusion necessary? It is supported by two pieces of evidence, one from St Gregory the Theologian and the other from a contemporary subsistence hunting culture,  but against it can be set the obvious fact that in almost all cases when animals are confronted by the possibility of suffering harm, to say nothing of death, they seek to avoid it. Animals are not keen to render us service by voluntarily entering the slaughter house.

Theokritoff goes on to describe how man sometimes acts in service of the animals by providing them with food and healing, exercising an all-embracing compassion. But surely someone who feels compassion for any difficulties animals experience in their lives would avoid ending those lives? She beautifully demonstrates that the interactions of the saints with animals show a compassion largely lost in modern urban societies. These interactions are well expressed in words of Fr Paisios,  an Elder on Mount Athos in recent times, quoted elsewhere by Nikolaos Hatzinikolaou: ‘[W]hen God visits the heart, man becomes so delicate and gentle with nature that he neither disturbs it nor becomes defensive against it…When you encounter a beast or a snake and you love it, it will not hurt you, for it loves you too. You become a friend of creation which loves and trusts you in return…the environment is transformed into a temple and laws are replaced by miracle and divine intervention. This is ascetic theology.’ Similarly, ‘Fr Maximos’, as quoted by Kyriacos Markides, asserts: ‘When human beings are at a stage where they become a repository of God’s Grace, then animals instinctively recognize that as the state of the first humans prior to the Fall. Friendship is reestablished between humans and the rest of nature.’ Why end such friendship by eating your friend?

For most of us, all too familiar with such realities as being attacked by magpies, such words can only be an expression of distant aspiration rather than a description of what we experience in our daily lives. But I think that an intention of relating to the world around us so that we do not exploit it for our own purposes, superbly argued for in this book, is fittingly expressed by a diet that avoids the flesh of animals, and that such a diet may even nudge us a little  further along in that direction.

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23rd May 2010

Lanna Cafe and Thai Restaurant

351 Beams Rd, Taigum Qld

The VVOC inspection team of three  persons found just this number of vegetarian dishes on the menu of the Lanna, so our choices were straightforward. Our favourite was the vegetable curry, in which potato, thin strips of tofu, greens and zucchini come in a beautiful, slightly sweet sauce based on coconut milk that just cries out to be poured over the rice and enjoyed for its own sake. We also enjoyed the stir fry of cauliflower, green beans, broccoli and carrot, while thinking that it could perhaps have used a little more salt, and a dish of tofu and greens, which came with many pieces of tender baby corn. The staff, always on hand to offer more rice, are elegant and graciously attired, and an air of peace and tranquility which we like to associate with the people of Thailand hovers about the restaurant.  May it also be present in their homeland!

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16th May 2010

Lefkas Taverna

170 Hardgrave Rd, West End Qld

A visit from some old friends at a very happy time of their lives prompted an outdoors Greek lunch. We began with two dips, homous and skordalia, the latter consisting of mashed potatoes flavoured with garlic and olive oil and looking for all the world like something omnivores would eat with sausages, but much more flavoursome; pitta bread and a bowl of beautiful dark olives were also on the table. Then we moved on to lemon potatoes, cooked with a hint of oregano, Lefkas salad (a typical Greek salad of tomatoes, cucumber, red onion and a few leaves of rocket), and delicious moist dolmathis (vegans beware, the sauce poured over these is based on yoghurt; in the Middle East tahini would be used.)  Greek cuisine is one of assertive flavours and some oiliness, two characteristics that a glass of retsina would complement nicely. Some people find its tastes a bit strong, but this was true of no-one at our table, as we shared our meal with great contentment.

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9th May 2010

Dakbla Vietnamese and Asian Cuisine

65 Hardgrave Rd, West End Qld

A restaurant presenting itself as being ‘Modern and Traditional’ may seem to be making a fairly meaningless claim, but this is just what the food at the Dakbla turns out to be. You may wonder about a dish described as Lemongrass Tofu Salad Style. Well, the large piece of tofu comes nicely marinated with seasoning (lots of lime), but the salad is one of finely shredded cabbage with a small amount of carrot, so the effect is something like cole slaw. Oddly enough the dish works very well, the contrast between the strong tastes and different textures being very satisfying, so the rice sitting on the table before us goes largely untouched. The deep fried chilli tofu is also recommended. Among the entrees, the vegetables and tofu in the soup of that name are plentiful and work well together (the crunchy celery provides a good contrast in texture), but it’s been cooked in what tastes like salty water, so seems a bit bland; the spring rolls with dip are a better bet. The young and edgy crowd of diners at the Dakbla is perfectly in tune with the cuisine.

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