Sister Linda Neil: Wake up and learn not to devour

By Tom Maguire | Associate editor

For once, yes, act like a two-year-old.

“I always think if we have trouble finding amazement,” Sister Linda Neil, CSJ, says, “all we have to do is follow a two-year-old around for a few minutes. They seem to find amazement everywhere.”

Finding amazement is one of the answers to a better life, according to Sister Linda’s Oct. 21 Zoom webinar, “Living Simply in a Consumer Society.”

Sister Linda, of Schenectady, is an educator, hiker, and naturalist. She holds a master’s degree from the Earth Literacy Program at St. Mary of the Woods College, Ind., and a master’s in Religious Studies from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, Pa. She has done presentations and retreats in many places in the Northeast, Kansas, and Hawaii.

Her webinar, which often cited Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home), preceded her presentation at weekend Masses at All Saints Church in Syracuse.

Out on the trail

“I see a lot more people out in nature, people with their families,” Sister Linda said in the Zoom session. “It’s very encouraging, people taking walks and their kids engaged in looking at things; I just love to watch the way kids interact with nature. I think that’s really the first step, in a way, because we have this wonderful gift, it’s called ‘biophilia’; we love the earth, and we’ve kind of come away from that. And maybe one of the gifts of COVID[-19] is that we’ve been put back into nature in some ways.

“So when people say, ‘Well, let’s get back to normal,’ I hope that we don’t in some ways. I hope that normal doesn’t mean that the family spends the afternoon at the mall, because I saw lots and lots of families out on the trail, and maybe they would have been at the mall; but I think when people fall in love with creation again …, then you care for what you love.”

Sister Linda asked the webinar participants to ponder questions related to the “incredible challenge” of slowing down:

• How can we humbly, creatively take our place in the web of life?

• How do we listen to the tiny whispering sounds (as with Elijah in 1 Kings 19:12) in the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor?

• How do we stand as witnesses to what is possible when we change to a simple lifestyle?

• How do we wake up and learn that we don’t need to devour?

• What’s your favorite mode of play?

(“I think play is amazement made visible,” she said, “expressed in joy and abandon. … Deep joy is more profound that just amusement or entertainment.”)

Jesus learned many of his lessons from the earth, Sister Linda said, citing the parable of the fig tree. Luke 21:29-31 says: “He taught them a lesson. ‘Consider the fig tree and all the other trees. When their buds burst open, you see for yourselves and know that summer is now near; in the same way, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near.’”

“How do we envision living simply?” Sister Linda asked. “Because we are completely immersed in a consumer society. It’s almost like asking a fish: Do you see the water? Or a bird: Do you see the air?”

A dizzying array

The consumer society can sometimes paralyze. No fewer than 25 varieties of coffee confronted her in a food mart one day. “So I stand there with my empty cup before this array of coffees, and I was overwhelmed,” she recalled. “I finally made a choice and then I tried to [put sugar and cream] in my coffee. Wow. Other choices. At least 12 kinds of cream, and many types of sweeteners. I was done in. I reflected on the blessing of choice and the curse of choice.

“I just wanted a cup of coffee. I juxtaposed my feelings that day with how I feel in a forest when there are many choices of great diversity, for example, of trees and plants there. I feel uplifted, stimulated, not smothered. And so maybe it would be good for us to think about how this constant exposure to so many options makes us feel.

“Sometimes, our choices are not between good and bad but between bad and less bad. We need to educate ourselves about the products we use most frequently. We need to inform companies that we want them to change certain things. Sometimes, we even need to boycott products. Our purchases have tremendous moral weight.

“Pope Francis points out that many times being distant from ecological problems, not really encountering the people or the ecosystems that are impacted, can lead to a numbing of our conscience.”

Sister Linda’s talk at All Saints can be viewed at Click on “All Saints Masses and Related Videos.”

She tells the All Saints congregation: “Our love of neighbor is as urgent as our love of God. … Laudato Si’ reminds us we have no right to destroy the creatures who share life with us in this community of creation. … As we look around us, can we see creation as neighbor? Can we honor the Creator by being conscious that we are kin to creation, not dominant masters? Pope Francis encourages us to take our job, as he says tillers and keepers of earth, very seriously. We are meant to be the very face of God for creation.”

She adds: “Laudato Si’ reminds us of our mutual relationship with nature. This is not meant to be a guilt trip. Jesus was not guilting out the lawyer who posed the question, Who is my neighbor? Jesus was trying to help him see differently and to understand more deeply. … We CAN be the good Samaritans for the planet. We can hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor and respond with compassion.”

Hello, Mother Earth

Kathy Gosh, a member of the All Saints Caring for Our Common Home Task Force and the parish’s Director of Faith Formation, has heard Sister Linda speak four times.

“Each time,” she wrote in an email, “I leave feeling calmed/healed — and yet energized to keep on proclaiming the message of our connectedness with our Mother Earth. Two statements she made have resonated with me — First that ‘living simply is NOT negative — it is living fully’ and that ‘simplicity is GAINED, not sacrificed.’

“In our consumer society, possessions and possessing are so emphasized — yet we so often feel empty. As a former math specialist in elementary schools, I often heard that Americans teach math ‘a mile wide but only an inch deep.’ We are surface creatures. I see the same with our spiritual depth — we fail to go deeper (simpler).

“We need to pause and SEE creation.”

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