One of the great teachers in my life was a Jesuit priest named Ivan Illich. He was an advisor at the Second Vatican Council and a noted Catholic thinker (was Vice Rector of the Catholic University in Puerto Rico at one point), until the Vatican got upset with him and asked him to be quiet. In response, he informed the Vatican that, while he could never renounce his priesthood, he would no longer perform the functions of a priest or theologian. He continued to write and teach, though, but as an “historian.” He became best known for a handful of small books in the 1970s that many considered ‘radical,’ but said things that many now believe—about schooling, about medicine, about how social services and ways many institutions or strategies we create to solve problems so often create more problems than they solve. Though he was known for those 1970s books, he actually wrote and taught until his death in 2002. And though he renounced his priestly role, he once told me that everything he wrote and everything he said was, finally, about the church—and in service to the gospel.
Ivan was interested in Christian virtue, in how we live beyond what we believe. He believed that no achievement, no pedigree or educational attainment, no strategy for success or institutional role, no technology, no amount of wealth, no level of political power can humanize a person who lacks heart. None of those things can humanize someone who lacks passion, who lacks courage, who lacks basic curiosity or capacity for friendship or simple respect for others.
Once, when talking about the first photo we saw from space of the blue dot called our planet, Ivan insisted that we risk a great irony taking us over. As we see ourselves as part of a world community we’ll act with “global awareness”—or so we’ll think. But, in fact, we risk losing touch with the very virtues we need to act well. As we try to save the big planet, we risk losing touch with the small places we live in. “I’ve no interest in saving the planet,” he said. “I have every interest in walking decently on the earth.”
He flipped the question. Commitment to the big without love for the small sours our hearts. Care for the moment will, naturally, spill over into love for more. Begin with those right in front of you, not as just a first step, but as the most important step. Be decent, loving, respectful, and try to live by the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5). Doing that, you’ll know how to save the planet.
Consider the lilies, Jesus said, and you’ll understand God’s love. Follow Jesus, and you’ll learn all things. Accept the task before you with decency and virtue (not power or privilege) and your eternal purpose will show itself.