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In the debut of this column last month, we examined the ancient Christian conviction that our Lord authored “two books,” which is to say that nature is an epiphany of the divine splendor analogous to his revelation in the book of Sacred Scripture. Drinking deeply from the wellspring of sacred tradition, we inquired into the biblical belief that every creature is a logos or “word” within the book of creation, a diffusion of the Logos that manifests God’s majesty in its distinctive way. In this connection, we discovered that Patristic masters such as St. Gregory of Nyssa beheld the universe as God’s poem or hymn, the carmen Dei. In this supreme symphony, seemingly disparate elements harmonize to form a supremely ordered whole, giving rise to a perpetual cadence of transcendent praise.
From the perspective of this wisdom rooted in the deposit of faith, the logos of something as ordinary as a backyard maple tree exists in God from all eternity. Simply by inhabiting the world according to its particular nature, this living being refracts the divine light into our world from a variety of complementary angles. Mirroring heaven in temporal reality, a tree transforms one substance (sunlight) into something else (sugar and oxygen), bestows new life (through the production of seed), provides shelter for other creatures, and stuns human beings with the charm of its foliage.
However, as I write these words on a lovely winter’s day in Kansas, the trees have shed their leaves. The beauty that once adorned them now appears to have vanished, and the landscape can appear stark and lifeless. Yet even this God uses as a timely opportunity to teach us a lesson about himself and the broader created order, and that is the topic I now wish to reflect on.
All creatures reflect God, if only we have the eyes to see
According to Sacred Scripture, it is not only the pleasant aspects of our world that disclose God. The same applies to facets of creation that we find inconvenient and pain-inducing. If the biblical testimony is to be believed, then this includes darkness, ice, frost, and cold (see Ps 148; Dan 3:57–81). To put it in Patristic language, the logoi of creatures that appear ugly, monstrous, or even contrary to the divine goodness indeed reflect the one Logos most splendidly if only we cultivate the eyes to see and ears to hear.
Admittedly, it may be harder to perceive the sacred in a relentless pest or a sub-zero winter storm than, say, in the sight of a majestic eagle, sunset, or beach. Still, the truth is that those creatures that repulse us contribute to the good of the entire universe in hidden ways. As Ralph Waldo Emerson quipped, an annoying garden weed is just a “plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”
While this is not to say that we gardeners are thereby required to leave all these pesky organisms in our plots to choke out the plants that we actually want there, it should nevertheless give us pause. It should cause us to reconsider why it is, for example, that so many of us feel it necessary to break our backs in the effort to maintain a manicured yard free from every trace of clover and dandelions. The same goes for eradicating bugs. The bees in our back yard may sting us every once in a while, but they are crucial to pollinating our plants. Worms and beetles may strike us as repelling, but without them our land would be covered in mountains of refuse. Without mosquitoes, many of Earth’s marvelous migratory birds would go hungry.
St. Basil on how to read the great book of the world
Creation’s unsettling attributes present us with an exceptional opportunity to glimpse the divine mystery in the natural order, yet classical thinkers were aware that this presence is not always easily discerned. For this reason, centuries ago St. Basil compared the cosmos to an “august and blessed amphitheater” and stressed that anyone who wishes to appreciate the intricacies of creation’s drama must “bring a mind well prepared to study them.” Additionally, Basil notes that a true lover of theatre does not merely wish to be a passive spectator but indeed to participate in the drama — to assume a role within its plot, as it were. Just as a sports fan can fully appreciate a particular pastime only if he is “a true athlete himself,” so too the Cappadocian doctor emphasized that the ineffable wisdom of God in “the great and prodigious show of creation” can be apprehended only if we become “fellow combatants” in the arena of nature.
Expanding on this, Basil notes that the significance of man being part of creation’s drama is heightened when we conscientiously direct our attention to the theological and moral lessons embedded in the natural order. Echoing the wisdom of primal religious traditions and following the lead of texts like Proverbs 6:6–9 and Job 12:7–9, the great doctor portrays beasts, birds, fish, ants, and even plants as our educators whom we should consult for guidance. On this basis, this doctor urges us to “listen to the fish,” for they “know the sojourning pace that nature has assigned to them” and in their migrations move in unison “as if common deliberation transported them.”
In this same vein, Basil identifies virtues to be gleaned from the lives of “unreasoning” creatures — like bees who exemplify cooperation, cunning, and exceptional craftsmanship as they work together toward the common objective of constructing honeycombs. Perhaps most poignantly, the Cappadocian directs his attention to the caterpillar and exhorts the weavers in his audience to “remember the metamorphoses of this creature, conceive a clear idea of the resurrection, and do not refuse to believe in the change that Paul announces for all men.” And all of this is not to mention the abundance of biblical imagery in which traits of creatures — like the wild ferocity of the lion (Hos 11:10; Rv 5:5), the lamb’s sacrificial docility (Jn 1:29), and the eagle and hen’s willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice (Dt 32:11; Mt 23:37) — are leveraged as witnesses to the ineffably wondrous character of God.
Reading tips from the Middle Ages and beyond
The sacramental vision of creation that permeated Patristic thought would continue to flourish and develop in the ensuing centuries.
In the Medieval period, St. Bernard of Clairvaux is reputed to have said that his theological wisdom had been entirely acquired in woods and fields, where more lessons can be found than through the instruction of books and teachers. The renowned practitioner of God’s presence Brother Lawrence was likewise of the persuasion “that books teach few things in comparison with the great book of the world when we know how to study it as we should.” Drawing inspiration from the sunflower, St. Francis de Sales taught that, just as this plant thrives by turning its leaves to follow the course of the sun, so too human flourishing demands fixing the gaze of our hearts firmly on Jesus, the Sun of Justice. Hugh of St. Victor extended this principle to the contemplation of creatures that seem superfluous. By virtue of their gratuity, these beings train humans to perceive “the sort of invisible good that they ought to seek” in the “superabundant riches of [God’s] goodness.”
In his reflections on creation as God’s poem or song, St. Bonaventure emphasized that one cannot truly appreciate the beauty found in creation’s harmonious order “unless he has an integral view of it.” Prefacing his discourse on how the believer can ascend to God via the “ladder” of creation, the Seraphic Doctor added that the mirror of the external world “is of little or no value unless the mirror of our soul has been cleaned and polished.” On a sobering note, Bonaventure observed that the man who fails to attain this literacy — he whose soul is not elevated by contemplating the splendor of created things — is a blind, deaf, and dumb fool. In this, we find an echo of Hugh’s teaching from a century earlier when he lamented how “unlettered” people look around the world and seeing only “characters” rather than “words.”
As we discover in the work of these theological giants, achieving literacy in the sphere of creation is accessible to everyone, but it requires attentiveness and the pursuit of holiness.
To read creation with literacy this winter, we must perform an “experiment”
This brings us back to winter. Some blessed souls out there live in a temperate climate and don’t have to worry about frostbite for multiple calendar months. Others genuinely enjoy the cold, relishing the prospect of sledding, skiing, or doing some ice fishing. However, right now many of us in the Northern Hemisphere — especially people like me who are severely immunocompromised — already find ourselves counting the days until we can get back outside and properly savor the great outdoors. For those who aren’t inclined to appreciate this season of the year, a renewed source of joy can be found by embracing the Church’s sacramental character of creation that we have been discussing.
I have found an image from Pope Benedict XVI to be of great usefulness in this connection. He insisted that the key to perceiving the truth of God’s two books lies in embracing what he dubs the “experiment” of faith. Aware that the world’s goodness is not evident to everyone, he proposes one of his characteristic analogies inspired by the sciences: “Only by entering does one experience; only by cooperating in the experiment does one ask at all; and only he who asks receives an answer.” This declaration is closely connected with Benedict’s contention that the true interpreters of Scripture are the saints. If this is true of the book of Scripture, then it is probably also the case when it comes to the book of creation. On this matter, the Bavarian pontiff looked to St. Francis as an exemplar who possessed the skill not only to read the book of creation but also to embody its lessons in his life.
And what does this saint have to say about winter? His jubilant Canticle of the Creatures praises our Lord “every kind of weather through which You give sustenance to Your creatures.” Counter-intuitive as it may seem, science is on the saint’s side here. Yes, many creatures — including those of us who bear God’s image — meet their earthly end because of factors specific to this season. At the same time, though, this dimension of the cosmic order is an essential feature in the cycle of life. For instance, frigid temperatures keep insect populations in check. Many plants and trees require the dormancy brought upon them by freezes to set fruit in the spring. Perhaps more fundamentally, winter is necessary for climate regulation and the survival of life as we know it on a global scale. It is not difficult to imagine the devastating repercussions of a scenario where there was no winter anywhere on the planet, ever.
Bearing the wisdom of Pope Benedict in mind, we might therefore consider how each of us can “run the experiment” of trying to read God’s other book with increased attention right now. Instead of dreading the inconveniences of it all, the Church would have us cherish the passing of the seasons. For starters, we can thank the Lord that this season characterized by darkness and death also makes new life and light possible in the spring. From a distinctly human perspective, we can rejoice in the matchless experience of rising at dawn on a dark and crisp winter’s morning. Similarly, this moment in the calendar affords us the opportunity to delight in the warmth and smell of a campfire or hearth.
But then there’s the indoor confinement that cold weather imposes on so many of us. How can this be good? Beyond question, it has to be what bothers me most about this phase of the year. Yet, once again, even here opportunities for joy and holiness abound. Being stuck inside means more time for prayer, reading, games, and family festivities. It also provides occasions to engage in — or perhaps recover, as the case may be — the eminently human tradition of storytelling. These all rank among the most timeless and distinctive activities of the human race, and it so happens winter offers the perfect time to partake in them.
Meditating on the Church’s doctrine of creation, in this way it becomes evident that the way we think about the natural world is no mere theoretical affair. Armed with the literacy to read the book of creation with fluency, it is clear that many of the most dreaded features of this universe are in fact essential to its flourishing. For human beings, learning to find happiness in them is a vital part of the journey toward holiness. While this enterprise will look different for each person, it will inevitably involve a rediscovery of God’s presence in unexpected places within the order of this good world that he made for us to inhabit.
This appeared at Catholic World Report.