During Friday Mass at my private middle school, the choir occasionally instructed us from the green Gather hymnal thusly:
The heavens are telling the glory of God, / and all creation is shouting for joy! / Come dance in the forest, come play in the field! / And sing, sing to the glory of the Lord!
It was a bit much to ask from young boys in their first throes of puberty, but the Marty Haugen-leaning taste of our choir director prevailed against this fact and others, such as that Americans had changed a great deal since the 60s, and were much less inclined to be seen dancing in forests. What’s stuck with me over time, though, is that first line, which is adapted from Psalm 19, the “Psalm of the Sun”:
The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands. Day unto day pours forth speech; night unto night whispers knowledge.
It occurs to me that, if Christ is Catholic (as Hans Urs von Balthasar noted, he is), and if “[a]ll things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be”, then Creation must have some sort of Catholicism. Amen, amen, “What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race” (Jn 1:3-4).
Creation harbors a sort of protoevangelium, or primitive gospel. Paul tells us, “Ever since the creation of the world his (God’s) eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Rom 1:20). How so? Well, “from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wis 13:5). As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
(from “God’s Grandeur”)
GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
When perceiving something beautiful, the natural thing is to want to thank somebody, even if imperceptibly. But nature is not all sunshine and dewdrops, of course. Animals eat each other. Some insects enslave and zombify each other. The jewel wasp, for example, stings a cockroach with venom that blocks it’s escape instinct neurotransmitters, then leads it back to a burrow by the antlers where it deposits an egg in its abdomen, and then leaves before closing the burrow entrance with pebbles.
Nature can be ruthless, unruly and undependable. “It’s not for no reason that Christ called Satan the Prince of this world,” observed Simone Weil, and human hearts aren’t the only things that death touched when it entered. But that whole sentence Weil refers to is, “Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out” (Jn 12:31), and just a few verses earlier Jesus uses this poignant nature metaphor:
Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.
If even nature was thrown into a warp by the sin of our first parents, the redemption of Christ will extend literally to the ends of the earth. “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” (Isa. 11:6). Paul’s “O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55) will apply to the redemption of man as well as the ant-decapitating, honey bee mind-controlling phorid fly. In the mean time, closeness to nature provides Catholics with a God-given description of our faith. In “The May Magnificat”, Hopkins compares Mary to Spring:
All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathizing
With that world of good,
Czeslaw Milosz saw this implied familiarity between nature and faith when he wrote his trio of poems on “Faith”, “Hope” and “Love”. The last one goes:
Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills–
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.
Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Stand in the glow of ripeness. That is, in the light of beauty, goodness and truth; in their full incarnation. That’s as good a definition of holiness as any. That’s an excellent description of evangelization, in my opinion. While we wait for nature’s odd couples to settle their differences, we can wonder at, and participate in, the flux of death and resurrection that ripples out across the universe, encompassing grains of wheat and white dwarf stars, from the center of the Cross – indeed, the heart of the Church. So let’s occasionally break free from the four walls, the flourescent light, the manicured lawns, and keep up with our old Mother Earth, visiting her from time to time.
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with
ah! bright wings.
(from “God’s Grandeur”)