Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
the calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the cobra’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD,
as water covers the sea. — Isaiah 11:6-10
The very first form of prayer I can recall in my childhood, though I likely would not have called it “prayer,” was being outdoors in solitude and silence. I have a flash-memory of a close friend of my parents coming to visit our house when I was four or five, and remember vividly saying, when she asked me if she could come out into the yard to watch me catch bees on the azalea that was in full bloom: “Only if you’re quiet. They don’t like talking.”
I specifically recall learning “contemplation” — the mind’s simple, patient gaze in search of beauty — by long awaiting in the subtlest unfurling of a marigold flower the peeking in of Infinity. And then learning the spiritual sense of smell when I would later deadhead it and inhale its sacrificial aroma. I also recall being filled with intense gratitude over a world around me teeming with life and mystery, wonder and danger, that evoked from my soul spontaneous reverence and awe.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. — William Blake
My dad used to love to remind me often that, when I was only two or three year old, I would sit in front of an ant mound for hours, immobile, lost in rapt attention. I remember doing it.
When I was a bit older, I learned to garden, digging and weeding, deadheading and pruning, fertilizing and watering, panting and sweating. It was the only form of labor I knew at the time that contained its own reward. No human praise or payment was demanded, as my labors unlocked beauty and praise from the animate and inanimate world I tended. What else could I require?
The sky and stream, the grass and trees, the snow and fog, the birds and rocks, the fish and tadpoles, the bee sting and snake bite, the decaying corpse and freshly laid egg all seemed poised to unfold for me a fresh parable that would somehow explain the meaning of existence.
Yet not until I came to Psalm 19 did that parable come fully alive:
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the firmament proclaims the work of his hands.
Day unto day conveys the message,
and night unto night imparts the knowledge.
No speech, no word, whose voice goes unheeded;
their sound goes forth through all the earth,
their message to the utmost bounds of the world.
My yet-to-be articulated childhood priesthood of grace and nature flowed freest with its chrism’d oils only when I found myself in solitude and silence, in cultivating and attentiveness, in a posture of humble learning before the dissonant harmonies of an ecosystem that towered over and enveloped me like a vast temple.
Were I to search for words that adequately enshrine this childhood vocation, and the sense of mission and hope it contained, it would include these remarkable words of Pope Benedict XVI:
The role of the priesthood is to consecrate the world so that it may become a living host, a liturgy: so that the liturgy may not be something alongside the reality of the world, but that the world itself shall become a living host, a liturgy. This is also the great vision of Teilhard de Chardin: in the end we shall achieve a true cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host. And let us pray the Lord to help us become priests in this sense, to aid in the transformation of the world, in adoration of God, beginning with ourselves. That our lives may speak of God, that our lives may be a true liturgy, an announcement of God, a door through which the distant God may become the present God, and a true giving of ourselves to God.
May God grant that I become a child again and re-learn my priesthood.