…At every moment the earth is full of the mercy of God, and nature itself is a lesson for all the faithful in the worship of God. The heavens, the sea, and all that is in them bear witness to the goodness and omnipotence of their Creator, and the marvelous beauty of the elements as they obey him demands from the intelligent creation a fitting expression of gratitude.
Pope St. Leo the Great, Sermon 6
The morning’s dew and chill wanes as the unexpected heat of a spring Wisconsin day takes over. Humidity rises in the forest air along a ridge peppered with mayapple just starting to bloom, and sandhill cranes rattle in the marsh below as I turn to make my way back to the road. While I’m glad to have spent this morning with all the creatures at Waterloo Quartzite Outcrops State Natural Area (a nature preserve in Dodge County), I’ll admit I’m also somewhat disappointed I didn’t find any of the outcroppings the site is named for.
On the trail back thru the oaks, watched over on either side by wild geranium and Virginia waterleaf both putting on quite a show, I spot a bright red mushroom just off the path and go to take a picture. As I lay on the ground to get a good view of its gills, in my peripheral vision I see a break in the understory. Before I know it, my feet carry me at a run into the glade formed by brecciated quartzite peeking out from the bulky earth. Here are the outcrops, festooned in lichen and moss, open to the embrace of sun and sky. I find a bare place on the rock and sit down.
There is no nature here. Despite how hair-splitting or glibly postmodern it may sound to state it, nature does not exist, except as an abstraction in the human mind. Our ideas and abstractions shape our attitudes and behaviors. They have consequences. Lumping everything in the world except humans into one convenient category enables our simplified admiration but also our ambivalence and apathy regarding the human-caused plight of so many creatures.
While there is no nature, I am sitting on this particular quartzite breccia, a rough and angular mixture of grey and red quartzite within a white quartz matrix formed over a billion years ago in the Precambrian. It is covered with vibrant colonies of lichen and moss I can’t even begin to identify by species. All kinds of spiders, harvestmen, and mites scurry through these miniature forests that cling tenaciously to the naked rock. Wild leek, red and white oak, and shagbark hickory comfortably encircle the glade with green. These particular mosquitoes and flies, never to be repeated in all the world’s history, dart in and out of these unique leaves and land on my leg. I hear some kind of mammal crawling around in the brush.
These are all real creatures. As am I. They are not abstractions, nor are they identity-less members of larger abstract human categories. Some of them eat, some of them breathe, some of them photosynthesize, some of them seem to us to be inert molecules arranged in hardened, roughly homogeneous forms. All of them exist discretely and in intimate relationship with one another. The terms “nature” and “humanity” don’t help me understand this moment at all. We are creatures, and we are part of this world.
Rather than conceptual frameworks that divide, my mind is called back to the vibrant hymn of Colossians:
He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation.
For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth,
the visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers;
all things were created through him and for him.
He is before all things,
and in him all things hold together….
For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell,
and through him to reconcile all things for him,
making peace through the blood of his cross
[through him], whether those on earth or those in heaven. (1:15-17, 19-20)
Here “all things” levels us—me and the harvestmen, the hickories and the cranes, the mayapple and the lichen—to one community, a community of creatures all made, sustained, and returning to the one in whom “all the fullness was pleased to dwell.”
I’ve come out to this place distant from my home, because I am trying to familiarize myself with the land in my region. Because I’m trying to alleviate species loneliness (that peculiar and self-inflicted isolation we humans have conjured up in the last century or so). Because I started a poetic project visiting such protected land when the pandemic began. Because I was terribly afraid of death.
In the wake of the first waves of the Black Death, a poet in provincial England imagined a world in which a man distraught after the death of a loved one (most likely his daughter, but there’s debate) falls asleep on her burial mound and dreams. In this poem, called Pearl by modern editors, the dreamer dreams a vision of a mysterious land divided by a river, in which he meets the young woman. It turns out that the lands across the river, where she resides, are in fact paradise and heaven, and the young woman now reigns as heaven’s queen, since everyone is a queen or king in heaven. Taken aback by this state of affairs (doesn’t heaven have only one Queen?!), he and the young woman enter into a protracted debate, filled with exempla and medieval types of dialogue on salvation and grace. Did I mention that all this takes place in rhymed, alliterating, and concatenating stanzas in Middle English? It’s quite a scene. Then, toward its end, the poem picks up speed as the dreamer is given a vision of the celestial Jerusalem, his interlocuter joining the throng of virgins surrounding and praising the Lamb (Rev 14:1-5). Overcome by the scintillating joy of the vision, the dreamer attempts to cross the river into heaven and wakes up.
One can’t help but surmise that the dreamer’s over-eager lunge into the river, literally falling short of premortem eternal beatitude, might have something to do with his fourteenth-century creator’s experience of a world wracked by plague and all the social upheaval that accompanied the suffering and untimely death it occasioned. (Sound familiar?) We see his horror of death and decay bluntly in early moments when the dreamer describes his lost “pearl”:
Loss and longing lean on my heart
and my breast burns with the heat of the hurt;
yet no song was ever as sweetly sung
as the silent moments that stole me away
on the many occasions she came to mind.
To think of her color, now clad in clods…
oh black soil, you blot and spoil
my precious pearl without a spot.1 (17-24)
And yet the revulsion at mortality and our inevitable return to the earth displayed here is transformed as the dreamer leaves his body momentarily on the deceased’s mound and travels in spirit to the new land.
While from one angle Pearl is a poem about soteriology, the nature of grace and merit, and our apprehension about death, from another it is a poem about the beauty and goodness of the earth, the human yearning for a unity in existence that shatters the partial and shadowy underpinning of our contingent and precarious existence in this earthly and bodily life, and the humility and patience needed to reconcile these two realities. For what I haven’t mentioned yet is that, far from setting the dreamer in a contemptible and sullen world, drab and dreary and readily rejected for the coming joys of a disembodied heaven, the dreamer dreams a world that is physically gorgeous (reflected in the sheer density of formal devices running throughout), sumptuous and sensual beyond his ability to tell. Here “astounding stones astonished the eye” (68), “Layers of leaves like burnished silver / shivered and shook on every bough” (77-78), and “The air was so fresh with the scent of fruit / it nourished and fed me as if it were food” (87-88). Given the description’s details, the place is certainly not just this earth. But the dreamer quickly recognizes the land laying across the river (which we find out later is the River of Life from Rev 22:1-2) as paradise, so his shore is not paradise or heaven either. It appears, rather, to be the New Earth of Revelation 21:1-2, an earth re-made as it should have been—as it was before the Fall, or grander. Or perhaps just a dream-enhanced reflection of the real world. Either way, a grand place it is.
Yet the dreamer still longs for the further shore:
Delight deluged my eyes and ears
till my mortal mind was dazzled by madness.
Nothing mattered more than being near her.
I wanted to join her over the water—
and no one would halt me, hold me back
or stop me summoning every morsel of strength
and swimming that stream. I would cross the current
or die trying and drown in its depths. (1153-1160)
By the opening of the poem’s last section, the dreamer still wants to take leave of the earth (even the New Earth) and live in heaven. But he reaches for what is not his and does not even hit the river’s surface before he is jolted awake.
I’m not sitting on this quartzite seeking to induce or find a particular “feeling.” At least, that’s not consciously what I’m doing. Rather, once the pandemic started and sheltering-in-place orders went into effect, I felt the isolation and fear start turning into a kind of claustrophobia and despair. I felt imprisoned by the built world, by the virtual world, and I simply wanted to be out. I know I wasn’t alone in these reactions to our collective reeling. And, if I couldn’t go visit friends or family or restaurants and museums, I could take my immediate family to areas “outside” the built world to visit our other extended family, the family of non-human creatures.
Far from looking for transcendence thru a Wordsworthian “Nature,” I was out looking for very physical, imminent encounters, encounters with other creatures, whether living or what we think of as inanimate. So I began learning the names of plants and bedrock, wetlands and birds. Not to improve my knowledge as a naturalist for its own sake, but to be able to recognize them, to encounter them with my body and my mind, to share space with them, if only for a time. To familiarize myself with an extended kin network that I had neglected for too long.
To state the glaringly obvious, our relationship with this kinship network has long been troubled. Christians began re-thinking their role in humanity’s use of and impact on the world some time ago, one flash point being Lynn White Jr’s classic essay “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” Setting the stage for Christian revision of what’s become known as the “dominion model” of creation, White and later writers saw the West’s modern interpretation of Genesis 1:28—that humans should have unchecked control of the earth and its creatures—had encouraged and validated human exploitation of non-human creation.
The “stewardship model” of creation has now generally supplanted this older model, which is certainly an improvement on our rapacious modern industrial heritage. And yet, as Franciscan friar Daniel Horan points out in his forceful study All God’s Creatures, the stewardship model bears some of the dominion model’s hegemonic and problematic hallmarks. In his critique of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ in particular, Horan notes the Holy Father still privileges a human separatism based on human difference-from rather than similarity-to other creatures; sets humanity up as managers of creation standing in as proxies of a patriarchal God-owner; and remains predominantly practically oriented toward changing our habits so as no longer to burden the earth’s habitats and those among the poor who bear the brunt of ecological degradation among human communities. Ultimately, even Pope Francis’s powerful encyclical reinscribes many of the entrenched tenants of our current mentality when it comes to understanding our relationship with non-human creatures. We’re still managers, we’re still in charge, we’re still mostly looking to sustain the human community as we pass on to the Promised Land of heaven, just with less collateral damage—or at least a wish for this that makes us feel better about the damage we do.
While I generally agree with Fr. Horan’s critique, I was also particularly heartened by one (still somewhat problematic) observation that Pope Francis makes in Laudato Si’. In paragraph 83, Francis teaches
The ultimate destiny of the universe is in the fullness of God, which has already been attained by the risen Christ, the measure of the maturity of all things. Here we can add yet another argument for rejecting every tyrannical and irresponsible domination of human beings over other creatures. The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things. Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator. (emphasis mine)
The philosophical notice of non-human creatures’ and human creatures’ common end in God, rather than non-human creatures’ end in human creatures, is likely the most radical statement in the whole encyclical, given the instrumentalization of all things under modern, industrial, and now Silicon Valley’s Enlightenment fascination and obsession with production, efficiency, and consumption.
However, and unfortunately, Francis’s final sentence in this paragraph still makes humans those creatures “called to lead all creatures back to their Creator.” If Christ is in all and through all, and he has already reconciled everything to himself in heaven and on earth, and his New Covenant’s gifts and demands apply to humans due to our ability to sin, why do other creatures need us to lead them to him? What does that even really mean? I mean that question genuinely, not as a logical catching out: how am I or any other human supposed to lead a particular muskrat or a particular wood sorrel plant to God? If the answer is “vicariously by my liturgical acts or by virtuous living,” sure, I suppose. But, with honesty and humility, I fail to see how my human acts of worship intervene in a direct relationship that is already established without me from the beginning of time. (Even if we want to go with the covenantal relationships established in salvation history rather than ontological speculations based on New Testament passages, God’s covenant with Noah and his descendants in Genesis 9 is also a covenant with all the living things of the earth and with the earth itself (Gen 9:8-17))
Rather, I find compelling the answers given by spiritual writers from St. Augustine to Thomas Merton, some pointed out deftly by Fr. Horan as he builds his “community of creation” theology as an alternative to the stewardship model. (This model itself is based squarely on Elizabeth Johnson’s pioneering work.) In noting an early instance in St. Augustine’s Commentary on the Psalms, he writes:
Augustine continues: “Go round the heavens again and back to the earth, leave out nothing; on all sides everything cries out to you of its Author; nay the very forms of created things are as it were the voices with which they praise their Creator.” Beyond the recognition that other-than-human creatures give praise to their Creator apart from human mediation, Augustine identifies the mode of each creature’s praise as pertaining to its divinely intended way of being in the world. By being simply what it is, doing what it is intended to do, these creatures give glory to God. (121)
With respect for her particular creatureliness, I can let the muskrat give her particular muskrat-kind-of-glory to the Source of all life. I can let the wood sorrel sing its praises and respect that too. And I can be grateful (as St. Leo instructs us in my epigraph) for the chance to encounter them doing so, though I have to be present for that encounter to take place.
St. Benedict teaches us to “day by day remind yourself that you are going to die” (RB 4:47).2 As a Benedictine oblate, I’ve taken that advice seriously for over a decade. But as the pandemic continued last year, the very real specter of death breaking in on so many lives where it had previously been but that distant whisper we would rather not heed, sister death’s demands weighed on me in more anxiety ridden ways than have been the case for many long years. An existential longing to “leave the body and go home to the Lord” began to grow. Paradoxically, the more afraid I became of bodily death the more I wanted to escape my body’s physical demand to be. To be clear, I do not mean that in any kind of suicidal fashion, but rather in terms of that all too human fantasy of finding final unity in our experience and eternal life without having to cross the great gulf of death: uninterrupted and perpetual self-consciousness.
That is why the forests and marshes kept calling, or, rather, I kept calling out to them—to bring back to consciousness the body’s goodness and solidity. St. Benedict also teaches that we ascend to heaven on a ladder of humility, and that “ladder erected is our life on earth… We may call our body and soul the sides of this ladder” (RB 7:8-9). We are not simply souls going about in bodies; we are bodies too, substantial unities of both body and soul made to live on this earth and with the blessed Trinity in heaven, whatever that really means. I can imagine a New Earth, New Heaven, or a New Jerusalem like the Pearl-poet did and like the dreamer found himself within. But I, like all of us pilgrims here, have to find a way to be happy and full in this body on this earth, because—just like the dreamer—I can’t cross the river before death.
Going out to the drumlins and kames, bogs and dunes of southeastern Wisconsin over the last two and a half years has helped me to develop a sense of that fullness, through the myriad creatures I’ve encountered in all these places with my body as well as my soul. Laying on bedrock, smelling the marsh mud buried below ice after a misstep, hearing the metallic whir of cicadas swirl around me on sun-drenched quartzite bluffs, seeing the thousands upon thousands of blossoms of plants that will never be repeated, tasting pine needles and bark simply to be with them more directly: this is a work of the body and the intellectus, the intuition. It is a contemplative work.
St. Gregory the Great called contemplation a “loving knowledge.” Later, when thinkers tried to schematize mystical theology, a point of contention arose over which human faculty enjoys the highest reaches of contemplation, generally landing on either reason or will. While many scholastics (not surprisingly) opted for reason, others, like the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, opted for the will. Why? Constantine Barbanson, an early Capuchin Franciscan, provided a singular answer in his The Secret Paths of Divine Love. He explains that for every creature and argument one encounters, the will must be persuaded by some exterior means, and so knowledge precedes the will’s movement. However, given that God himself alone has direct access to the will, the movement of the will toward God alone does not rest on prior knowledge of him, on external means of persuasion, though surely in everyday life and faith those contribute greatly to our ability and desire to love. (Surely too, this argument finds a sound scriptural basis in St. Paul’s wish for the Ephesians “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God [4:17-19].) Though the apparent conflict may be dissolved if we resolve the dichotomy of “reason” and “will” in the heady balm of contemplative intuition—a kind of knowledge free of the trappings of the discursive mind and in touch with the body and its habitats because resting in them.
I wonder though, if we wrench ourselves out of the human-separatist anthropology that is the very water in which we swim, if we dropped our concepts of what “nature” is and what “humans” are, if we might be able to look with new, contemplative eyes at the earth itself in this way too. Before anyone launches into accusations of pantheism, I would only point out that, like God, the earth too and our relationship with it is prior to our reason. We are always already earth, just like we are always already present to God. We need no other witness than Genesis 2:7. There we hear: “the LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.” Though the newly-formed clay only becomes a living being after the soul has been breathed into it, the clay, the earth, is prior to this new being’s life. Just as our mothers’ (and fathers’) bodies are always prior to ours. Do we need arguments or external measures to be convinced of the earth’s relationship with us? We are already earth, earth living with spirit.
Before I go on theologizing, as I am no theologian, let me turn back to more grounded speculation (pun very much intended). It’s pretty clear that many of us Christians—though certainly not all—have come around to the conviction that we need to care for the earth. Rather than us seeing ourselves as the species that must take care of the earth, though, I wonder if we could actually reshape our relationship to all these creatures around us to allow once again the earth to take care of us. While (due to the outsized effects our species has on every other species, the water, and the soils of this planet) we actually do have to continue the work of repairing, of healing, and of changing our habits, we also need a new perspective from which to work. Not as managers or landlords, stewards looking to fulfill a charge, but as creatures among other creatures, trying our best to heal wounds that we have inflicted, that those other creatures might trust us enough to welcome us back into a larger world than this cramped, screen-addled, currency-obsessed human-separatist world we’ve made for ourselves. Can we let the earth take care of us?
If we do let the earth take care of us again, for Christians I think this will come about when we begin to heal our own sense of our bodies being “us.” The Cartesian revolution, and Greek patterns of thought long before it, have not left Christians to their integral biblical anthropology, though certainly some correction has been taking place the last few decades. That is, in talking with students, fellow parishioners, and other folks whom I encounter day-to-day, I still pick up on the vaguely Neo-Platonic sense that our souls will one day go to meet our Maker, and the body—though a good thing! not bad like our grandparents or those medieval people thought!—will be left behind. And so it will, until the Last Judgment. But then, so we profess in the creeds, the resurrection will occur, and we will live on in our bodies even as we “see [God] as he is” (1 John 3:2). The body is not a testing ground from which to graduate, but the bride whom the Bridegroom will take to himself. What are we doing to make the bride ready? Can we do more?
One mid-twentieth century attempt to face the reality of modern Christians’ failure to take the body seriously (rather than perfunctorily) as an integral part of the human creature was the Camaldolese monk Cipriano Vagaggini’s The Flesh: Instrument of Salvation, a Theology of the Human Body. In this study, Vagaggini drives at the heart of the Christian claim that, as Tertullian framed it, “flesh is the hinge of salvation” (“caro salutis est cardo”) (77). Tracing the role of the human body in Western pagan and Christian thought, Vagaggini returns again and again to the bare Christian insistence in Scriptures, fathers, and liturgy, that salvation history is centered, and centered vehemently and irrevocably, on the human body.
The human body of Jesus recapitulates salvation history and gathers it up along with human sin onto the cross, this body dies, and this body returns. In this body, ascended back to the Father, all creation has been redeemed. And in this body, as the Eucharist, humans come into physical contact with God in their own bodies. St. Irenaeus puts it like this:
In the fashion in which life’s root, placed in the ground, produces fruit in due time, and the seed cast upon the ground and decomposed, reappears multiplied by the Spirit of God which is in all things, and then those elements which in God’s wisdom come to be used by man, receiving the word of God, become Eucharist in the body and blood of Christ, so also our bodies nourished by this Eucharist, committed to the earth and there decomposed, will rise in time because the Word of God will make them rise for the glory of God the Father. (73-74)
And lest we think that this only applies to human bodies, not other creatures throughout the entire universe, Vagaggini comes, through much argumentative toil, to the flesh’s relation in the fullness of Christ to every creature:
Since these realities are given also to Christ’s body and every human body is called to be a recipient of them, we must say—granted that the whole of creation finds its pivotal point and its unity in man’s body—that in what happened in Christ’s body, the entire cosmos is concerned and in its own way involved in the glorious transformation. Christ’s body is the first fruits not only of men but of all creation. (140)
While anthropocentrism remains in Vagaggini’s view here too, it is worked out as directly related to Christ’s Incarnation in the flesh of a human body rather than a general commission or directive as those anthropologies that rely squarely on Genesis’s creation narrative.
In light of seeing flesh as the hinge of salvation, and the Eucharist as the great sacramental sign that mediates this reality, I’m reminded of why I’ve come to this rock outcropping jutting gently out of a silty hill in Dodge County. I’ve come here to encounter new creatures, to learn something about them, but really to love them and, in them, the earth itself. But if I’m being totally honest, at root I simply want to be comforted by the earth—by the rock outcropping, its lichen and moss colonies, by the oak and hickory trees characteristic of this part of Wisconsin, by the insects and arachnids I happen upon in this small and vital opening in the wood. And as I lay on this rock, feeling small grains of quartzite rub against the skin of my hands, I wonder if I can not only take comfort in being alive amidst such glory embodied in all these creatures. I wonder too if I can think about my death, and being buried in the earth, as a comfort. I see that looks morbid right after I write it. But I wonder if it might not. I wonder if it could be a great comfort, to lay peacefully in the earth waiting for the ultimate comfort when the Son of Man returns, and this body rises on the Last Day.
I look at the time and realize I have to be on my way if other hikes will happen today. I am stirred from my quiet in the glade and try not to damage sister lichen as I step back onto the leaf-littered soil. There is grounding here among these creatures that I am now a part of, though I realize I am not a local. It is time to head out.
At the end of Pearl, the dreamer realizes his folly after abruptly waking from his dream. To escape death and plague, the dreamer laid himself down on a burial mound and dreamt of a New Heaven and a New Earth. But in his overreaching leap he was sent back to the world of normal, everyday beauty and of suffering, loss, and death. Yet he recognizes that he cannot have possibly crossed the stream without dying, and it was rash to try. Rather than go on and on about the ills of sublunar life or about penance (as some medieval works are wont to do), he simply recognizes the work that is his charge for now:
To please the Prince and join Him in peace
is the simple choice for his faithful flock,
for day and night He has never been less
than a God, a Lord, and a loving friend.
Here on this mound this happened to me:
at first I pined for my fallen pearl,
then gave her up to go to her God,
with my blessing, and also the blessing of Christ,
who the priests prove to us time after time,
His body as bread, His blood as wine.
May we live both as His lowly servants
and beautiful pearls, pleasing to Him. Amen. Amen.
Coming back from the dream, the great vision of the New Jerusalem, is to accept what is possible here, and to see with fresh eyes that it is a great charge: being a humble servant and a beautiful pearl that the Jeweler will come looking for. And I can’t help but see myself in the dreamer, as he leaves his mound and knows he has to stay here and face his death, that, invoking Christ, he invokes no heedless God of the faraway, but “a loving friend” whose blessing to his people is his own body and blood in the Eucharist here in this world, the great bodily and cosmic sacrament that reconciles “all things,” “whether those on earth or those in heaven.”
- Simon Armitage, trans., Pearl (New York: WW Norton, 2016
- Timothy Frye, ed., The Rule of St. Benedict in English (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1982).