Images of Our Own Creation

Who was the Charlie Brown character that is known for saying “Ugh!”? That’s how I feel this morning — UGH!!!

In a little more than an hour I will drive through the heart of Minneapolis during the morning rush hour. Having made the commute six times last week I really don’t look forward to the ordeal. However, I want to make finishing touches on the icon of Teresa of Avila I began with the local iconographers guild last week. Fighting traffic is my only option at the moment.

Being retired has insulted me from this hideous ritual we call rush hour — out of sight, out of mind! But last week I was ensnarled amid a ritual horde creeping ahead at 12 mph to which we have become resigned. Like me, most vehicles were occupied by only the driver. Unlike my 1999 Chevy Cavalier, many were monstrosities of engineering wizardry (I’m told some can even drive themselves!).

Yet, we all crept along snarled within the great American equalizer we call the morning commute. The collective insanity of what we have created was inescapable. There must be a better way! Yet, as complaisant rats in a benign laboratory experiment we dutifully reenact our routine oblivious to the insanity, blind to anything beyond the car ahead of us, resigned to a certain fate.

The stagnant pace on I35 between 46th and 35th street exits provided an opportunity to consider what we have become. In fact, the frustration moved me to a kind of “contemplation” of that from which there was no escape. In the moment, I could only name what I saw as an indictment of our blind, rapacious consumption.

All this was occurring during a week in which we gave lip-service to Earth Day. This was occurring en route to writing an icon. Countering the paralysis of a horde of vehicles pumping carbon into the atmosphere, iconography is about reverencing human association with nature — fine wood panels, base coats of clay layered to gold leaf, earthy pigments mixed with egg tempera, all handled reverently at a deliberate pace, the very antithesis of the mind-numbing ritual of the freeway.

Echoing through these intervening days is an off-handed remark offered by our teacher and master iconographer, Nick Markell. He reminded us of something I had never recognized. In the Genesis creation stories God creates the world ex nihilo, virtually out of nothing. Only when creating the human does God take the clay of the earth and breathe into it God’s own breath of life.  We are earthlings by original design, human as in humus — composed of dark, rich, fertile dirt; one with creation!

Would that we returned to this original awareness. Would that we truly lived the wisdom written in our very bones. Would that we awoke from collective addiction to rapacious consumption, the alienation with which we move about our day, our suicidal isolation from the earth, resignation to what we have created.

A Thing of Beauty

There is an exception to every rule!

Previous posts have confessed my compulsion with having the last word. Neither do I want this site to degenerate into a Twitter-like roster of cut-n-paste stories Yours Truly finds of interest. But there are times…

Coinciding with the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, Catholic Relief Services unveiled a 3-minute video on our stewardship of creation. Actually, three minutes and four seconds!

Click [here] to have your eyes opened, your heart touched and (hopefully) your living inspired.

It’s a thing of beauty — the Earth and the video!

Tomorrow is NOW

Today’s the day! Today is the day set aside for special prayer, awareness and action on behalf of creation. The Orthodox Church has been commemorating this day since 1989. The rest of us Christians are taking a little longer to wake up to our need for practical conversion and spiritual transformation in the way we relate to God’s good creation. Better late than never!

Yesterday’s post suggested a few ways to make our commemoration of the day less “churchy” and more “grounded.” It was based in the conviction that we don’t need more prayer; we need more action. We don’t pray ourselves into right action as much as much as our actions ground our prayer (more about that later).

Here is another simple exercise… I just completed it myself. Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home points to numerous ways world organizations, nations and communities can move forward and the way individuals — believers and people of good will — might see, think, feel and act.

Here is the fruit of my personal “examination of conscience.” In other words, where I felt a special need or where I felt I could immediately adapt my behavior. Again, they are what I am attending to today — you will certainly come up with a different assortment. The references in parentheses indicate paragraphs in the encyclical where more is said about this suggestion:

— Reduce, reuse, recycle. Preserve resources, use them more efficiently, moderate consumption and limit use of non-renewable resources. (22, 192)

— Stop blaming problems on population growth. The real threat is excessive consumerism and waste. (50)

— For genuine change, put the common good first. (54)

— Be consistent. Pro-life, environmental and social justice movements are all connected. (91, 120)

— Make public transportation a priority and a more pleasant experience. (153)

— Plant a tree. Take mass transit. Car pool. Turn off the lights when you leave the room. Chilly? Wear a sweater. Little things add up. (211)

More than anything, here’s my ultimate favorite. It’s a practice we had at home as kids. What a transformational consequence of prayer it would be if we paused to thank the Creator for our food, for the earth that provided it and for the laborers who brought it to our table.

— Say grace before meals. (227)

In all honesty, here’s the one that presents the biggest immediate challenge at our house. We are much too tied to our iPhones, iPads and “mindless television”:

— End the tyranny of the screen, information overload and distractions. Watch out for media-induced melancholy and isolation. Cultivate real relationships with others. (47)

Above I claimed that we don’t pray ourselves into right action as much as much as our actions ground our prayer. I promised more about that later. Well, here goes! This is the suggestion (admonition?) that calls for my deepest personal conversion:

— Get down from the ivory tower and stop the rhetoric. Get to know the poor and suffering; it will wake up a numbed conscience and inspire real action. (49)

We will all mark this World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation in ways that are meaningful and practical for each of us. If you’d care to reflect on the forty or so suggestions that come from Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home, you can access the list [here].

Dearest Freshness Deep Down Things

Who doesn’t like the musical, Annie? It’s theme song, Tomorrow is one of those melodies engrained somewhere in the recesses of our minds that surfaces just when we seem to need encouragement the most!

Well tomorrow — Tuesday, September 1 — really is a special day. When Pope Francis released his prophetic encyclical on ecology and the environment – Laudato si – back on June 18th, a leading Orthodox bishop who had been asked to help present the document, said: “I should like to mention that the Ecumenical Patriarchate decided as early as 1989 to devote the 1st of September of each year to praying for the environment.”

Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon then made a request: “Might this not become a date for such prayer for all Christians? This would mark a step towards further closeness among them.” So what’s the Pope to do? Of course, he followed suit by endorsing what the Orthodox Church has been doing for 25 years!

Most of the recommendations I’ve seen for tomorrow’s World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation strike me as disembodied, cerebral, too “vertical” — focusing on “saying” prayers or going to church. Seriously, isn’t that just the sort of heavenly-minded spirituality that has got us into the bifurcated mess we find ourselves in?

So here are a few more creation-centered ways of marking a day that is to refocus our attention on the Earth and how all life is intertwined:

  • Sing “Tomorrow, Tomorrow, the sun’ll come out tomorrow” along with Annie. Be child-like again — the way you were playing outside in nature when you were a kid! Here is a YouTube [link]. Consider: “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.” Mark 10:15
  • Sit aside running water (we have a creek 3 blocks away). Listen to the gurgle. Wonder at the leaf floating atop the passing water. Imagine the stream’s source, it’s destination. What’s all this got to do with your Baptism (or ceremonial washing common to all world religions)?
  • Walk around your block — actually any place will do. This time get out of your head and dismiss every thought about what you have to do next. Just consider what you see. Pay attention. Attend to nature’s persistent poking forth. Marvel at the minuscule. Consider the lilies of the field, the birds of the air — just consider them, resist making this about you and your worries. Simply consider what you see — as they are, for what they are!
  • Go get yourself a Fall plant from the Garden Store. Fantastic purple-blue asters are coming into our markets right now. Reverently transform your yard with autumn splendor. As you dig the hole and carefully pat down the earth around your favorite Fall selection, remember that human, humus and humility all share the same root-word.
  • Spend some time — whatever you have — getting the following poem into your bones. It is surely as relevant today as when Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote it in the 1880s:

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
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
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.

Finally, just be grateful. Say, “WOW… Thanks!”  If tomorrow’s World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation gets more us us doing that it will have been a rousing success.

Tubs, Tissue Paper and Umbrellas

The clerk at CVS had just spoken of his fear that the roof was going to blow off during the storm front that had just passed. Now we navigated some of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes consolidated in the Target parking lot. Though unspoken we both tried to dismiss concern about the weather for our outdoor wedding three weeks to the day.

Antique baskets for the table and altar flowers need to be packed carefully. We were in search of tissue paper and solid plastic tubs. The price of plain white tissue paper — neatly folded and encased in crystal clear cellophane — could rattle the rafters!

“Do we have paper towels at home? We could use paper towels and they’d be right there ready to go at the wedding.” Once again, the ingenuity of the man I love shone forth.  We moved on from paper to plastic.

Who knew storage tubs came in so many sizes and could be marketed for so many distinct purposes? The price caused us to ask if cardboard boxes might serve as well. We even considered emptying tubs we already have tucked away in the basement for this one-time wedding use. In the end we bought two more imagining additional uses, protestations that we already have too much stuff not withstanding!

Target’s automated doors swung open to a world awash in infinite shades of gray. Thankfully the rain had stopped, the wind had subsided. Remnants of a white and green umbrella obstinately poked from the trash bin near the exit, certainly a casualty of the recent rattling storm. Being the unabashed dumpster-diver that I am, of course it required my inspection.

“Honey, you are not taking stuff home from the Target trash bin!” Mortification washed across his face as he distanced himself from me.

“But, look, it’s perfectly good… three of the pins just need to be reattached”, proudly claiming new-found treasure, feeling satisfied in my ability to repair and reuse. Besides, at 65 I am long past caring what others think of me retrieving what someone else too quickly trashes.

One thing I am not so good at is keeping my spirituality firmly grounded in the stuff of life. For example, last week regulars here read this only slightly veiled self-revelation of my own conviction:

The monk … feels in a confused way that he must live within a certain ill-defined ecclesiological space, at a point where the partitions erected by the separation have not prevailed and where already those walls are yielding which, as Metropolitan Platon of Kiev said one day, certainly do not rise all the way to heaven.

I can hear my bother-in-law John saying, “What the hell does that mean!?!”

So, my apologies for the many times I get too heavenly minded to be any earthly good. Yet, never will I apologize for reveling in such wisdom. It’s the way I’m wired. Besides, the intellectual and mystical tradition of the church is also a place to find God and to be pursued as well as cherished.

But my personal need for spiritual growth is to keep myself grounded in the equal wisdom of spiritual giants like Wendell Berry. Regular readers will recall that I quoted the Kentucky farmer two weeks ago:

No use talking about getting enlightened or saving your soul if you can’t keep the topsoil from washing away.

My brother-in-law would say, “Amen to that, brother!”

Tubs, tissue paper and umbrellas are more than utilitarian. They reveal values, priorities, how connected we are with the physical world, revealing our true spirituality! Preparing for a marriage has a way of bringing this to the forefront — perhaps we all need to renew our covenant of love with the creation that makes it all possible.

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The reference to “the monk” recalls my August 20 post and is from In the School of Contemplation by Andre Louf, p. 128.  The Wendell Berry quote was first cited here in an August 12 post.

Homeland

Tomorrow we head off to Omaha. That’s where I want to be to celebrate my 65th birthday on Sunday — with people I love and in the place that will always be home. What can be a six-hour drive will be one of indeterminate length because of Jeb the Dog. He’s family and I cannot imagine a birthday without him.

Stopping every 100 miles or so is not a burden — we use Jeb’s need for “exercise” as our excuse. Truth is, we’ve plotted a pretty handy course which correlates Jeb’s needs with antique malls, casinos, candy stores and Made-Rite hamburger restaurants. Without frequent stops, how else would we have discovered that the highest point in Iowa — we’re talking altitude — is on a farm-place just across the state-line from Worthington, MN?

Driving through farm country Monday evening after attending the wake of a 63 y/o man in Northfield — something we are also doing more and more these days — heightened our anticipation for our trip to Omaha. Timely rains have yielded beautiful landscapes and the promise of an abundant harvest. The elongated shadows cast by the 6 pm sunlight remind all who are lucky enough to see just what inspired Claude Monet’s obsession with haystacks!

For this nostalgic occasion I will try to quiet anxious voices reminding all who will look or listen that we have created a perilous ecological crisis. This Earth — who ancient peoples reverenced as mother, the “home” we all hold in sacred trust — labors under the weight of our blissful ignorance.  Dare we acknowledge this as the consequence of our collective greed?

Returning home through farm-country I will take along two poignant assertions by Kentucky farmer-writer Wendell Berry: “I’m not interested in spirituality that is dependent on cheap fossil fuel, soil erosion, and air pollution.” Or even more to the point, “No use talking about getting enlightened or saving your soul if you can’t keep the topsoil from washing away.”

Milestones increasingly recognized as a gift — like turning 65 — are not times for rancor or remorse. So, I will hold as bedrock and birthright an even more foundational quote: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning — the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31)
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This reflection was inspired by Eric Anglada’s review of Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, edited by Chad Wriglesworth in the current issue of the National Catholic Reporter [http://ncronline.org/authors/eric-anglada]

Life in the Garden

Breathtaking! Absolutely amazing precision within a process that took more than nine years resulted in sharp photos of Pluto! OMG… literally Oh, My God! How many billions of years old is the universe? Consider what we have just seen for the very first time! Consider for a moment more, human ingenuity achieved this incredible feat.

That sharp black and white photo of Pluto’s craggy surface — much more complex, variable and revealing than scientists had anticipated — has been fixed in my imagination. This Pluto voyage completes NASA’s decades-long mission to investigate all the planets of our solar system. For a generation old enough to remember President Kennedy’s outrageously bold aspiration of a moon landing, NASA’s achievement is nothing short of mind-boggling.

Another image is becoming fixed. Slowly, as the stunning achievement of planetary exploration settles into our consciousness, something else becomes obvious. Each and all of the planets in our solar system appear to be devoid of life as we know it. Even the Mars probe has yielded scant evidence of water on the Red Planet or other conditions necessary for life.

That awareness could make us feel terribly alone. Or, allowing this evidence to seep into our consciousness could be awe-inspiring! Rather than a testament to our insignificance it may awaken an awareness of our inalienable dignity and moral duty. Think about it… our home truly is what Thomas Berry aptly coined “the garden planet of the universe.” The authors of the Genesis creation accounts could not have been more accurate than to say we have been placed in a garden and it is ours to tend and till.

Sadly, there is mounting evidence that we are killing it. Somewhere along the line we got the impression that Earth exists for our “use.” Just like our original forebears we became drunk with the original sin that we are the masters of good and evil. That we are as good as God! We have bought “the lie” that the Earth exists as a reservoir of passive resources for our economic exploitation. Supply is infinite and parts are replaceable! Slipping from the perch of inspired scientific research we fall into believing all we discover exists primarily for our commercial exploitation feeding an insatiable consumption.

Coincidentally, a storm ripped through Minneapolis the same weekend the spacecraft began sending back photos of Pluto. The winds tore through three lead branches of our seven-year old Hackberry on the boulevard in front of our house. City crews have marked it for removal due to the damage. We are heart-broken — it was itself a replacement for a diseased tree and was only now taking on the promise of its mature potential.

Our shredded tree stands as a gash and scar in our front yard — sentinel of a changing climate. Nature’s desperate attempt to communicate that something is terribly wrong with this picture. Scientific evidence is incontrovertible except for those who choose to live in denial. We cannot sustain our obsession with removing Earth’s bounty naively counting on more… always more!

Like the Tree that stood in the center of Eden reminds us, we live in a paradise.  But we live within limits as the Genesis account attests.  We have also been set in relationship with all other creatures brought into being by the one Creator. We are not God. Given for us to tend and till, neither are we sole proprietors for whom this Earth was created.

All is not right in our garden. With such incredible scientific feats revealing the truths of our universe, will our generation be the one to finally learn from the torn and shredded tree — the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?