Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Pope and Pocahontas

OK, stay with me. I believe this works.

I was recently reflecting on Pope Benedict's latest letter to the world, Caritas in Veritate, and was captivated by the attention and reverence he gave to creation. It was in section 48. And then I thought about the Disney Pocahontas song.

Come run the hidden pine trails of the forest
Come taste the sunsweet berries of the Earth
Come roll in all the riches all around you
And for once, never wonder what they're worth

Now I grew up loving the woods. I discovered Thoreau's Walden when I was in high school and I found myself reading snatches of it constantly, and reflecting on them as I'd walk the bogs or the pine woods of southern New Jersey. As a young Catholic, I discovered that God not only poured his Grace and Love into us through the Bible and the seven sacraments, but through His first Book, Creation as well. God has planted (and continues to plant) countless lessons for us in the rise and fall of the seasons, and in the rhythm of life of all manner of creatures.

Creation is our first birthday present, in a manner of speaking. These miracles around us are like little love letters for us. With prayer and a sacramental vision, we can discover in a walk outside a shimmering trail of signs pointing to God.

Sadly, I've met many "Conservative" Catholics who are afraid to read this book. They feel it's like dipping our toes in the waters of the New Age movement. But how can God's creation, when rightly viewed, lead anywhere else but to... God? Enter Pope Benedict...

Nature expresses a design of love and truth. It is prior to us, and it has been given to us by God as the setting for our life. Nature speaks to us of the Creator (cf. Rom 1:20) and his love for humanity. It is destined to be “recapitulated” in Christ at the end of time (cf. Eph 1:9-10; Col 1:19-20). Thus it too is a “vocation”. Nature is at our disposal not as “a heap of scattered refuse”[116], but as a gift of the Creator who has given it an inbuilt order, enabling man to draw from it the principles needed in order “to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15).
- Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 48

Years ago, when the Disney film Pocahontas came out, I remember being struck by some of the lines in the song Colors of the Wind.

You think you own whatever land you land on
The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim
But I know every rock and tree and creature
Has a life, has a spirit, has a name...

Now I knew there was some truth to this, but I knew as well that something was just a bit off as the song continued. Man suddenly became "lost in the cosmos" to quote a Walker Percy title. Just another piece of the mosaic, with "the heron and the otter as his friends." So just as I've met some who shy away from creation, I've met some who have obsessed about it, seeing God as somehow in everything - a kind of Christian pantheism. We should remember that the Spirit hovered "over" the waters in the beginning of Genesis, not within them. That's what we mean by the term "supernatural."

I think we just need balance, which is exactly what the Pope gives us in his latest encyclical:

...It should also be stressed that it is contrary to authentic development to view nature as something more important than the human person. This position leads to attitudes of neo-paganism or a new pantheism — human salvation cannot come from nature alone, understood in a purely naturalistic sense.
- Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 48

Keeping our heads about us is the key. Pope Benedict quoted his predecessor Pope Paul VI as saying that “the world is in trouble because of the lack of thinking.” We need to recognize that our place in the universe is not random or insignificant, nor is our role to act as dominators of the environment.

...It is also necessary to reject the opposite position, which aims at total technical dominion over nature, because the natural environment is more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure; it is a wondrous work of the Creator containing a “grammar” which sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation.
- Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 48

We are sons and daughters who have been given the task of caring for and custody of all creatures great and small. We are stewards of a great gift, and if we are attentive to it, if we listen to it, we can learn much from it. As the Pope said in his letter, "The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself..." (CV 51)

You can own the Earth and still
All you'll own is earth until
You can paint with all the colors of the wind

That "wind" in my mind is the Holy Spirit, Who alone can give us the insights and the grace we need to untwist what is twisted in our thoughts, our music, our agendas and ideas, and essentially our world. So come Holy Spirit, enlighten us!

With Christians, a poetical view of things is a duty. We are bid to color all things with hues of faith, to see a divine meaning in every event.
- Cardinal John Henry Newman

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Riddle

A couple of years ago, my wife and I were driving from some place to some place else when Five for Fighting's "The Riddle" came on the radio. "Have you heard this one?" she asked. "I don't think so..." Then she smiled, "You're gonna love it." She was right.

"The Riddle" is a tapestry in tune that weaves man's fear of being insignificant, the quest for meaning in life, and a child's sense of wonder into a love song. For Love, we discover, is the answer to the "Riddle."

Love is at the heart of singer/songwriter John Ondrasik's other works as well (The name Five for Fighting is not the number of band members, incidentally, but alludes to the penalty time for fighting in hockey). Through a dominant lead of piano and his operatic ability to hit those soaring notes, Ondrasik begins with the question of questions put to an old man who is soon to die; "What's the sense in life?"

What is it all about? Why me, why here, why now? The answer comes as a riddle. The aged man invites the younger to ask the big questions, to experience the wonder of the world and draw his own conclusions.

He said, "Son, why you got to sing that tune?
Catch a Dylan song or some eclipse of the moon?
Let an angel swing and make you swoon
Then you will see, you will see..."

Then he said, "Here's a riddle for you.
Find the answer: There's a reason for the world
You and I."

Today, we are so often made to feel insignificant as human persons. Some larger entity becomes the driving force of our efforts and our time, and we are cogs in the machine, consumers that must consume to drive on the economic mechanism, the success of the Almighty Dollar. But we know there's more to Life than this. We all hearken to the strains of this music that sings us a fairy tale, a story about our being More than just random pieces in a random puzzle that's the result of random chance.

"Man is not a lost atom in a random universe"
- Pope Benedict XVI

The younger man in the song grows older and has a son of his own. Still he longs to know the answer to this riddle of human life, and asks his son on the way home from school if he's "learned anything";

He said, "Dad I'm big, but we're smaller than small
In the scheme of things, well we're nothing at all."
Still every mother's child sings a lonely song
"So play with me, come play with me."

And hey Dad, here's a riddle for you
Find the answer: There's a reason for the world
You and I?

Faced with the enormous size of the universe, we can often feel that "in the scheme of things, well we're nothing at all." But it is not always the size of a thing that matters. Is not the miracle of human life communicated through the microscopic cells of sperm and egg? If the human body were compared to a universe, and those reproductive cells could speak, they would certainly think themselves insignificant. But the continuation of the human race literally depends on these seemingly insignificant, "smaller than small" cells!

Some philosopher's speak of the anthropic principle, according to which the whole universe seems to have been mapped out from the start for human life to develop. Dr. Peter Kreeft says "If the temperature of the primal fireball that resulted from the Big Bang some fifteen to twenty billion years ago, which was the beginning of our universe, had been a trillionth of a degree colder or hotter, the carbon molecule that is the foundation of all organic life could never have developed. The number of possible universes is trillions of trillions; only one of them could support human life: this one. Sounds suspiciously like a plot. If the cosmic rays had bombarded the primordial slime at a slightly different angle or time or intensity, the hemoglobin molecule, necessary for all warm-blooded animals, could never have evolved. The chance of this molecule's evolving is something like one in a trillion trillion."

The Riddle sings on...

There are secrets that we still have left to find
There have been mysteries from the beginning of time
There are answers we're not wise enough to see
He said, "You looking for a clue? I love you free."

For me, sitting in the car with my wife, driving down a random road to a place I can't remember now the first time I heard this song, I felt that "love" flowing right from the lips of the Creator. The answer to the "problem" of human life, of the whys and whats, is none other than a Person. We are here for each other.... You and I. We are made for communion with God and Neighbor. We are made to be gifts... and everything made is a gift for us.

A spirituality of communion indicates above all the heart's contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity dwelling in us, and whose light we must also be able to see shining on the face of the brothers and sisters around us.
- Pope John Paul II

If we surf through the lyrics of some of the "top hits" today, we find very few that celebrate the pure gift of love, the sheer wonder of looking at another person as gift and not just something to use for pleasure or power. "The Riddle" is a refreshing return to the miracles around us and in us as human persons, to the vision of life that is free from the distorted lens of lust. To the wonder of You and I.... made in God's image and called to image God.

The batter swings and the summer flies
As I look into my angel's eyes
A song plays on while the moon is high over me
Something comes over me

I guess we're big and I guess we're small
If you think about it man you know we got it all
'Cause we're all we got on this bouncing ball
And I love you free, I love you free....

If I could add anything to this Twisted Mystic, it would be to untwist this last verse. Are we all we've got on this bouncing ball? Does Ondrasik leave out the Divine Musician Who set the melody to this music in his own heart? Well, the riddle perhaps continues in another song of Five for Fighting's... "If God Made You:"

I can't say what I might believe
But if God made you then He's in love with me

This Twisted Mystic is obviously still searching for answers. But aren't we all?