Book Review – Ritual at World’s End: Essays on Eco-Liturgical Liberation Theology by Rachel Joy Wheeler

Ritual at World’s End: Essays on Eco-Liturgical Liberation Theology. By Cláudio Carvalhaes. York, PA: Barber’s Son Press, 2021. 344 pp. $59.00

Reviewed by:

Rachel Joy Wheeler (bio)

Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality

Volume 22, Number 2, Fall 2022

Johns Hopkins University Press

I was delighted to be gifted with this book by a colleague who has been the liturgist and pastoral musician at the Catholic parish where I belong. This colleague has worked with me over the years in such a patient manner by reassuring me, especially when I have made mistakes, that “liturgy is messy,” something Carvalhaes’ book endorses. This colleague recently attended a liturgy conference at which Carvalhaes’ book had been featured—and deservedly so. It is a remarkable handbook that functions as a working theology that offers the reader a chance to think with Carvalhaes through the transformations necessary to develop a grammar of faith within liturgies responsive to the injustices of our times, both social and ecological. Having previously found Carvalhaes’ development of a confessional practice involving plants useful for my own ecospiritual and teaching practices, reading this book further elaborated for me the project of an eco-liturgical liberation theology and its implications in moving toward/creating the world we may hope for.

Carvalhaes is a visionary while he also presents himself as a humble learner and even a clown (arguing for the importance of play) while decolonizing his own worldview and lifestyle and inviting readers into the work of their own decolonizing. Though sensitive to skeptics and conscious that not all he describes or prescribes will be implemented now or comfortably—such as “turning our church buildings into shelters, parking lots into gardens and small farms, our office budgets into support for collective forms of living” (41) or turning the baptism catechumenate into learning how to become a water protector (128)—he nevertheless writes movingly of the necessity to take now meaningful steps into the future we want. One of the most profound statements, however, that he repeats in the book is drawn from the Jewish liberation theologian, Marc H. Ellis: “There shouldn’t be any religious ritual until there is justice”. This statement haunted my reading of the book, requiring me to ask of my own life and work: Should spiritual practices, as well, be halted until there is justice? What would that look like? How might such a cessation advance the work of justice that spiritual practice may only tangentially address now?

Central to Carvalhaes’ project is the expansion of the traditional lex orandi, lex credendi, and lex vivendi framework that organizes liturgical experience: What and how we pray informs what we believe which informs how we live. To this triptych Carvalhaes adds lex naturae to indicate that all our “laws” of prayer, belief, [End Page 313] and ethics are fundamentally grounded (pun intended) within the law of the land. Our liturgies must reflect awareness of this grounding, and Carvalhaes includes concrete examples of how this might be done. For example, a profound and lovely Ecological Lord’s Prayer early in the book opens with an address to “Our God who art in pluriverses, the skies and the earth,” and concludes “For life is kinship, relationally and reciprocity. Now and forever. Amen”. Other examples include descriptions of experiments, such as the stations of the cross transformed as a means to develop a relationship with a tree in one’s own neighborhood (131), the aforementioned confessional practice involving admission of wrongs done to others, beyond the human, and inclusion of plants as witnesses of our declaration of repentance (135–138), daily acts of gratitude recognizing earth as sacrament (181), a pluriform Eucharist with multiple stations where consumption of the elements might happen alongside recognition of the compromised social and ecological integrity of peoples, human and more-than-human, from different global contexts (214–217). Further, the book performs an eco-liberation liturgical theology by ending with an extended blessing.

Another important element of Carvalhaes’ project is his drawing on anthropological insights related to indigenous cosmologies that recognize personhood beyond the human. Indeed, the book title seems implicitly to connect with the anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and philosopher Déborah Danowski’s The Ends of the World (Polity, 2017) to remind us that for many peoples, human and other-than-human, an “end” of a world has already arrived, and we must learn to grapple with the apocalyptic futures that are happening at differing rates now for differing peoples—in effect, deconstructing anthropocentric expectations of a singular future ending of the world comprising a threat to human existence only. Carvalhaes draws on the thinking of Viveiros de Castro by regarding multinationalism, rather than multiculturalism, as a preferred way of being in relation with other nations of beings. Carvalhaes applies this thinking to liturgy to argue that focus on multiculturalism in our assemblies is not enough; we must also strive to be multinational in our recognition of the integrity, and indeed personhood, of the more-than-human that accompanies and facilitates all our being and belonging.

The book is a performance; it is a workbook; it is messy. While reading, I noted my discomfort with spelling and proofreading errors. Alongside that discomfort was an attempt to recognize from where that discomfort comes and my assumptions around scholarship and communication drawing from principles Carvalhaes wants to transform. The importance of Carvalhaes’ project emerges from within this messiness as he helpfully dismantles, as well, the distinction between a liturgical liberation theology and an eco-liturgical liberation theology. In discerning the layers in his thinking to push the boundaries of liturgical liberation theology and some of what appear to be eco add-ons to earlier writings, noticing the revisions reminded me that social and ecological justice go together, that liberation of the human and the more-than-human is all tied up together. Moreover, an integration of content and form around playful messiness is demonstrated by the inclusion of original artwork by children related to and/or known to Carvalhaes that illustrate each chapter, potent reminders of the young of our species and other species for whom we do the work of transforming our disciplines.

Ritual at World’s End models a liturgical spirituality useful for readers of Spiritus involved in liturgy. Its value for spirituality scholars is that it also treats [End Page 314] the troubling ways spirituality more generally has been bound up with the colonial projects of multiple nations historically (189–193) and extends an invitation to us all to join the work of decolonizing our spiritualities, internalized and expressed in our communities human and more-than-human. The project of an eco-liturgical liberation theology thus models for us how spirituality studies may further be transformed. To conclude, I share two of the many blessings that close the book: Carvalhaes blesses us “with the death of our age and time! May [our] mourning be devastating, yet also glorious, as we mourn that which once constituted us, moving through the cracks opened to think/imagine/act new worlds of life and modes of being” (339). Further, we are blessed “with the courage to let go of [our] isolated human centered world. Let the anthropocentric world die! And I bless you with the exciting joy of finding anew thousands of worlds of so many beings and agents living in full reciprocity and mutual care: plants, animals, rocks, sky, cells, flowers, birds, rivers, fishes, things and on and on and on” (343). Amen!

Rachel Joy Wheeler is Assistant Professor of Spirituality at the University of Portland where she teaches Bible and spirituality courses. She is an alumna of the Graduate Theological Union and author of Desert Daughters, Desert Sons: Rethinking the Christian Desert Tradition (Liturgical Press, 2020) and Ecospirituality: An Introduction (Fortress Press, 2022). Her work explores desert spirituality, ecospirituality, and the use of the arts in spiritual formation.

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