Repost from 2014 in honor of Pope Francis’ new encyclical [an excerpt of which I include at the end]
This past Thursday I took a day away from work to recoup some energy after a multi-week blitz of activities and just enjoy doing nothing especially productive. It was a truly a Sabbath that allowed me to pause with God, look with him at creation and join him in saying, “Very good.” And I find it’s only when I keep Sabbath that I can receive and echo his “very good” during the other six days of work.
Please allow me to be indulgent in today’s post and share some of my enjoyment of mid-March glory.
I went outside before dawn and breathed deep the cool, clean and dry air that settled over us in the wake of a recent cold front that drenched us with heavy rains. As I was bathed by the majesty of the dawn I concluded one cannot fully love the day without being fully present to its awakening! The sunlight was just beginning to illumine the highest heavens with a grey-blue hue, and near our house, concealed in the tangled branches of a budding tree, a mockingbird was canting away with his lovely, unoriginal repertoire. I sat there in the quiet for a time and reveled in the solitude. No one talking. Yet, how interesting that when I begin my day in this wakeful solitude, and with prayer, I find myself far more ready — even desirous — to wade into a world of words and noise and busy rush. Mission flows from communion.
After getting the kids off to school, I set off to my favorite local Eden: the grassy levee by Lake Pontchartrain. I walked up the slope of the levee far down west of where our house is and snuck into the backyard of a local retreat house. I was greeted by an expansive, fenced-in prayer meadow that was ablaze with tiny yellow blooms mixed into the greening grass, while the trees were frosted with innumerable white flowers.
I sat on one of the wooden patio chairs, with no book in hand — how rare! — setting aside sacred Writ to read liber naturae, the “book of nature,” which bears round about us, in refracted splendor, the traced vestiges of the seemingly shy FarNear Creator.
I listened to the songs of the warbler, chickadee, blue jay, starling, and mourning dove whose haunting lament always makes me think of my childhood. When I was probably eight, a pair of robins built a nest right outside my window, and every morning for a few weeks the hatchlings would wake me early in the morning with their insistent, plaintive cries for nourishment.
The air was crisp and breezy, tossing about the remaining dead winter leaves across a verdant blaze spotted with darting flares of purple deadnettle. There were honeybees all over, consuming secret nectar from impossibly tiny flowers — how do they find anything in there to drink? What carefree patience. The bees made a wonderful buzzing sound that, when there are dozens of them, sounds almost symphonic. It was as if there were some hidden conductor deftly calling them into a sonorous harmony.
My phone rang and passed into voice mail.
Then I wandered again out the retreat house property and hiked back up the levee’s gentle slope. It also was blanketed in a floral blaze, tinted by splashes of yellow painted into the deepest greens, and — wow! — the grass had just been mowed, filling the air with that delicious smell that has no worthy analogue. Why does the grass reward us for striking her down? Yet she does.
I stopped and just looked, listening to the silence only to discover in my state of mindful attention yet another sacrament: a chorus of crickets! Invisible, ubiquitous, hymning for sheer joy in unbroken melodies — as long as I remained still. Blissfully oblivious to the raging tumult of the world, persisting endlessly in their oscillating buzz beneath the still gentle mid-morning sunlight. They seemed especially jubilant that winter had passed.
I crept up to the crest of the levee and had my breath stolen by the flashing gleam of rolling blue water and the laughing joy of an azure sky. Too much to take in! I collapsed for sheer joy down in the lush vegetation, remembering at once all five of my senses were alive. How I forget!
Abounding beauty, glory’s eternal secrets finally being broken as God, like a child, seems only able to hide himself so long when we sit in still wonder, waiting in faith for him to appear.
I heard a purple martin’s throaty chirps and creaky rattles. It is my very favorite of all birds. The first of the season for me to spy. My heart leapt as he soared by with his pulsed and carefree flutters, diving and shooting back up again in search, no doubt, of his morning meal. But my attention was stolen at once by a tiny pewee that landed nearby in the grass — so close! I recognized his pitiful song: “pee-a-wee!”
Over the water there were terns diving for fish, which drew me at last down to the waterside to sit on the barrier rocks and soak in the rhythmic sounds. It was that kind of moment, so fleeting, when the heart overtakes the mind and demands supremacy. That must be what Paradise is. I closed my eyes and listened to the rolling waves slapping and dashing against the boulders. Unrelenting. Faithful. Spending themselves in a forgotten finale. I opened my eyes and watched. They seemed to be playing, dancing and hiding amid the crags and cracks, and on occasion would conspire to douse me with a dozen or so drops.
How thin at this moment was the veil of the Kingdom that longs to be torn.
I looked all around me. Black swallowtail butterflies were skipping over the grass while striped cucumber beetles in ridiculously large numbers, mixed in with a few ladybugs, carpeted the rocks around me. Where did they come from? Random. Beauty, almost too much to take in, everywhere. The book was open, the script was super-abundant, the meanings were beyond language.
As these are still a foretaste of the Age to Come, I had to leave them all behind. But before I stepped off of the rocks to make my way back to the car, I noticed a tiny ant mound. I stopped and stooped. They were working furiously in their excavation project, each worker tireless, single-minded in her selfless devotion to the good of the colony.
It was time to return to my work again, wiser for my Sabbath. Deo gratias.
Four things are among the smallest on the earth,
and yet are exceedingly wise:
Ants—a species not strong,
yet they store up their food in the summer;
Badgers—a species not mighty,
yet they make their home in the crags;
Locusts—they have no king,
yet they march forth in formation;
Lizards—you can catch them with your hands,
yet they find their way into kings’ palaces. — Proverbs 30:24-28
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From Pope Francis’ Laudato Si #11-12:
Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason”. His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’”. Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.
What is more, Saint Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker” (Wis 13:5); indeed, “his eternal power and divinity have been made known through his works since the creation of the world” (Rom 1:20). For this reason, Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty. Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.