by Father John O'Brien, OFM Profiles in Catholicism
Edward Lorenz is a scientist who studied weather
patterns. Even as a boy he was fascinated by the
weather. He was intrigued by weather prediction.
With the advent of computers he saw the chance to
combine mathematics and meteorology. By the early
1960s he was able to construct a mathematical model
of a weather system. The system was reasonably
successful. In 1961 one of his programs ran awry. He
checked his figures and there was no major mistake.
There were, however, small mistakes. These mistakes
were minor but they caused the read-outs to be out of
sync. Small changes can affect weather patterns. In
popular culture this became known as the “Butterfly
In reading Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
I see how prophetic his poem is. He wrote the poem
in 1797 and it was published in ‘Lyrical Ballads’, along
with works by William Wordsworth. The poem was
originally called “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.
Coleridge wanted to use archaic language to give a
feel of an ancient tale. The poem recounts the
experiences of a sailor (the mariner) who has returned
from a long voyage. The mariner stops a man who is
on his way to a wedding ceremony and begins to tell
his story. The wedding guest becomes fascinated as
the story progresses.
The tale begins with his ship departing on its journey.
Despite initial good fortune, the ship is driven south
by a storm and reaches the icy waters of the Antarctic.
An albatross appears and leads the ship to safety.
Then the wedding guest notices a change as the
Mariner continues his story. The mariner tells him
that he killed the albatross.
“God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends that plague thee thus!–
Why look’st thou so?” – With my cross-bow
I shot the Albatross.”
The ancient Mariner inhospitably killeth the
pious bird of good omen.
The rest of the poem goes on to explore the profound
spiritual and material consequences of this random
violent act. He has disturbed a delicate balance of
nature. The poem goes on to tell of the death of the
other sailors and of the survival of the mariner. He
describes the situation thus:
“Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.”
The story of the killing of the Albatross is something
we have seen in our time. Chris Jordan is a
photographic artist and cultural activist. He says that
in order for people to really become inspired about
cleaning up the planet we must first grieve over what
we have lost (Scientific American, November, 2009).
He photographed the dead albatross slain on Midway
Island in the Pacific ocean. The seas of the world, even
those remote southern waters, have been filled and
polluted with the throwaway plastic garbage of our
consumer society – empty bottles and containers and
so forth. The Albatross would fish these waters and
they would mistake the plastic for food and feed it to
their young. The young birds would find that their
stomachs were so full that they had no room for real
food. Thousands of them died. Jordan photographed
the remains of the dead birds. The gratuitous killing
of the albatross is repeated again. In 2017 Jordan
made a film about this devastation simply called
‘Albatross’. Jordan says:
“For me, kneeling over their carcasses is like
looking into a macabre mirror. These birds
reflect back an appallingly emblematic result of
the collective trance of our consumerism and
runaway industrial growth.
Like the albatross, we first-world humans find
ourselves lacking the ability to discern anymore
what is nourishing from what is toxic to our lives
and our spirits. Choked to death on our waste,
the mythical albatross calls upon us to recognise
that our greatest challenge lies not out there,
but in here.”
Lorenz saw how small changes can affect climate
change. The death of the albatrosses show us how we
can destroy life. The killing of the Albatross is a kind
of metaphor about how we can destroy each other and
The Mariner can only be saved when he realises that
he is guilty and must take responsibility for his creme.
He begins to pray. The first stage of his recovery
begins, as so often with people recovering from
trauma, with the return of sleep. He says:
“Oh sleep! it is a gentle thing,
Beloved from pole to pole!
To Mary Queen the praise be given!
She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven,
That slid into my soul.”
Mary had already been invoked in the poem in the
brief prayer “Heaven’s Mother send us grace”. Later
on in lines 297-300 we are told “by the grace of the
Holy Mother, the ancient Mariner is refreshed with
rain.” Eventually he comes to safety and confesses his
sin. We too need to turn again to God and confess our
sin – take responsibility for ourselves and our world.
Pope Francis tells us in the encyclical “Laudato Si”:
1. “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you,
my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint
Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home
is like a sister with whom we share our life and a
beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.
“Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister,
Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who
produces various fruit with coloured flowers and
2. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm
we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and
abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.
We have come to see ourselves as her lords and
masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence
present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected
in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the
water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why
the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among
the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she
“groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that
we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our
very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe
her air and we receive life and refreshment from her
Nothing in this world is indifferent to us
3. More than fifty years ago, with the world teetering
on the brink of nuclear crisis, Pope Saint John XXIII
wrote an Encyclical which not only rejected war but
offered a proposal for peace. He addressed his
message Pacem in Terris to the entire “Catholic
world” and indeed “to all men and women of good
will”. Now, faced as we are with global environmental
deterioration, I wish to address every person living on
this planet. In my Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii
Gaudium, I wrote to all the members of the Church
with the aim of encouraging ongoing missionary
renewal. In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into
dialogue with all people about our common home.
– Laudato Si