Themes / Everyday people

Common Threads

My Integral Ecology Journey

Claire Harvey

Manna Matters November 2023

The world is on fire;
It is simply just too hot.
Gasp: wilting, burning.
My heart is heavy;
These burdens can feel weighty.
What is one to do?
And yet there is love:
In stillness and tenderness...
Fresh hope emerges.

As Richard Rohr is known for saying, “transformation is often more about unlearning than learning”, and my own life attests to this rather loudly! Perhaps this year more than most, as I have been fortunate to take part in an ‘Integral Ecology Fellowship’ with the Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea. Upon reflection, this decision was a natural development along a long journey of “recovery” from conservative, middle-class evangelicalism, through which I have been learning to connect my faith with love of creation and desire for urgent political action to safeguard the earth. Along the way, I have slowly been discovering a form of Christian discipleship which is far more integrative, expansive, engaging, relevant, hopeful, and liberating. The path is certainly not a linear one—of going directly from A to B to C, or from the valley straight to the mountain top. It has been more of a cycle, or a circle, of revisiting things again and again, in new ways, with an ever-deepening sense of conviction and awareness.

An opportunity beckons

The Sisters of Mercy is a Catholic religious institute founded in Dublin, Ireland, by Catherine McAuley in 1831. Women who join this intentional community vow to serve those suffering from poverty, sickness, and a lack of education, with a particular focus on women and children. Their ministry model is one of deep engagement in the surrounding community, including teaching, provision of medical care, lobbying, and even politics. Despite numbering more than 6000 sisters across the world, I’d hardly heard of them until a year ago, when I first become aware of—and intrigued by—their fellowship program. The stated aim of the Integral Ecology Fellowship (which I also realised is not just for women, and not just for Roman Catholics) is to “animate efforts for Gospel justice to care for and protect our common home”, and to “equip leaders for a future which presents many unknown challenges in light of the climate crisis and other related existential threats”.

The most crucial and transformative aspects, for me, were the three place-based immersive experiences. The first was in the Blue Mountains (March), the second in Queenscliff (June) and the third was in Cairns (August). Each location was beautiful in its own unique way. As someone who has chosen to severely restrict travel by air for more than a decade, I’ll confess up front that the necessary air travel was one of the most vexing and difficult aspects of this experience. But beyond that particular wrestle, I received this unique opportunity as a sheer gift and with deep gratitude. Despite the time commitment and logistics, this was in no way yet-another-thing-on-my-plate, but rather a very timely and necessary refilling of my tank and expansion of my horizons!

My fifteen fellow companions on this journey were mostly women, and mostly teachers from the Catholic sector. We engaged in awe-filled silence, opting-in to greet the dawn each day by sitting and watching the sun rise, and then joining quietly together for an embodiment prayer. We learnt about the lands we were on, including listening as traditional custodians shared ancient, indigenous wisdom. Our vegetarian meals were often prepared using locally-sourced and organic fresh produce. Our leaders, Sally and Margie, led us through a range of practices which enabled us to grow in trust and connection. Though some aspects were challenging, none of it felt burdensome or in any way like work. There was a strong sense of everything being timely and rather sacred. A beautiful sense of attentive patience characterised our time together, along with an invitation to engage openly and trustingly, curious as to what might emerge among us and through us.

As much as some of our days were quite full, including excursions, incursions, learning, and sharing, I think the key take-away for me was feeling deeply reassured and buoyed by the sense of no longer being so alone on this creation care journey, especially in naming and holding shared pain. To be an attentive, empathic, compassionate human being, one who loves one’s neighbours—both near and far—in this year that is 2023, is a journey that inevitably opens us up to the pain of struggle and of loss. Add non-human creatures to the mix, and add flora to the fauna, and then entire ecosystems too, and there is much distress that quite rightly causes grief. The groaning of creation, referred to in Romans chapter 8, comes to mind. We are part of creation too, and sometimes we need places for our groaning to be more fully expressed. My first experience of the ‘council of all beings’ communal practice was just that: for a short time we all embraced the identity of one different part of our created world, and spoke to one another “in character” of various perils and pains, be it exploitation, extraction, violence, neglect, or the very real threat of our extinction and consequent non-existence as a species or landform (we had a donkey, a bat, a turtle, bees, worms, a river and the atmosphere represented in the room, to name a few).


As just one example of the many threads that have been woven together so wonderfully in this recent season, on the March retreat I’d taken along my current reading, which just happened to be Ecological and Climate Conscious Coaching (2023), very hot off the press. While at the Blue Mountains, where we were literally up in the clouds some mornings, I read about the Deep Time Walk, which maps a 4.6km guided walk against the 4.6 billion years of Earth’s history. This equates to one million years for every metre, and accordingly the final 20cm of this walk represents the 200 000 years during which Homo sapiens has been on Earth. The very same day, Margie Abbott, one of our wonderful Sisters of Mercy leaders, introduced us to this same deep time concept! It can be incredibly powerful in re-shaping one’s perspective in terms of our unique and precious place in what is far more than mere human history, but rather the emergence of conscious life itself within an ever-expanding cosmos. I would not have expected this focus on cutting-edge scientific thinking, but ours is a God of quarks and black holes, of things more wonderful and mysterious than we could ever imagine. And somehow, in this vast universe, everything is interconnected.

This idea is another one of the key threads that has been emerging for me, and now that my eyes are open to it, I see interconnection everywhere. I also see its opposite: the language that “others” people, and omits and ostracises—that delights in drawing harsh dividing lines. Our rampant individualism, and our arrogant and deluded sense that we can make it on our own, our own way, on our own terms, seems ubiquitous. Pope Francis confronts this head-on in paragraph 19 of his recent letter, Laudate Deum, where he reiterates two of his core convictions: that “Everything is connected” and “No one is saved alone”. He calls out countries that put their national interest above the common good (paragraph 52), and his phrase “homicidal pragmatism” has stuck with me. He commends the life of authentic faith, recognising that it “not only gives strength to the human heart, but also transforms life, transfigures our goals, and sheds light on our relationships to others and with creation as a whole” (paragraph 70). These are timely words for all of us today, Catholic or not.

Extending the invitation

Other important components of the fellowship program included monthly mentoring sessions; materials to read, watch, or listen to each month; a group Zoom where we reflected on what we were learning and experiencing; and a personal project where we seek to engage with a pressing ecological issue in a way that educates, moves, and informs others. Late last year, while up at Gembrook Retreat, I reconnected with an old friend and it quickly became apparent that we were walking similar paths toward a more integrated, inclusive, expansive Christian spirituality. Out of this reconnection, the idea of a mini-retreat day of our own was birthed. We called it a Guling Gathering, as it was held in early August, within a short indigenous season that sits between deep winter and spring. It’s a season of new life breaking through cold earth: the emergence of orchids, the first signs of golden wattle. It’s a season of fresh and fragile hopefulness, which seemed fitting.

The Guling Gathering invited ten participants to come and rest in quiet, reflective, shared space. We read poetry and spoke in small groups of our deep hopes and our deep fears. We exercised creativity in courageously responding using pictures or words. We reflected on the idea of us all being called to be a part of something bigger and quite beautiful, just like an orchestra with many musicians all playing their own part, together contributing to a majestic symphony. We also connected less formally over morning cuppas and a simple lunch of soup and rolls. Some participants had no experience of church or faith, whereas others came as weary veterans seeking a space for a different kind of faith expression. There was a common consensus around there being a deep need for more opportunities like these, to carve out sacred space to come and simply be, together with others, in the midst of our noisy, frantic, and often fragmented lives; to practise stillness and silence, but also to find the courage to lean into the kind of deep and honest connection that ultimately we all crave.

Love in action

There are so many more threads, more than can be mentioned here. Other important ones were the growing and deepening sense that everything is indeed not just connected, but spiritual. I deeply identify with the words of Fr. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan from the Centre for Action and Contemplation, who speaks of “prophets who live on the very edge of the inside”. I resonate deeply with this sense of still swimming within the stream of the broader Christian tradition, but some days only just. In response to those who would decouple faith from material concerns, emerging church leaders like Brian McLaren have recently called for a Franciscan Renaissance: an expression of faith that is deeply grounded in ecology, nonviolence, economics, and inclusive solidarity; something thoroughly earthy in its focus, rather than exclusively heavenly.

I have come to sense a similar call so deeply, and I take deep encouragement that others do too. I feel that the challenge for many of us now is to get on with living it, and to eschew the comfortable temptation to keep merely reading, thinking, and even writing. I’m a curious person, and a lifelong learner, and reading and thinking and writing have been crucial and transformative parts of my own journey. But in our content-rich and noisy world, so full of words and images and ideas, it would be easy simply to add more of our own ideas and words, and ultimately to just add more noise. What the world needs now, it seems, is love in action: love of neighbour and love of creation, expressed in courageous and sacrificial deeds which flow from a present and trusting sense of God’s gracious abundance.

Through my time with the Sisters of Mercy and my fellowship companions, I have been encouraged to show up fully, holding in tension the fact that in these precarious times we have everything to fear, and simultaneously nothing to fear. I’ve also felt the call to rest in quiet trust that God holds the whole world in strong, kind, and trustworthy hands, mindful that—rather paradoxically—we are sacred co-creators who are being beckoned to actively and urgently play our own unique part in this unfolding symphony. 

This is the path.
Goodness, together with love, justice and solidarity,
are not achieved once and for all;
they have to be realised each day.

(Pope Francis, 2023, Laudato Deum, para. 34).

Claire Harvey has been involved in various circles over the past three decades, and is now a part of The Village Church in Mt Eliza. She currently serves on Frankston City Council, the boards of Ethos and CoPower, as well as being Vice-Chair of the South East Councils Climate Change Alliance. Claire is a registered career practitioner and is launching out as a solopreneur with her rather niche vocational/ecological coaching practice, Echo Coaching (