“One could say that the child—both in his action, and his reception by the world—is the continual reminder and symbol that creation is a gift.”
I am so resplendent in my creation,
In the sun and the moon and the stars
In all of my creatures. . . .
And especially in children. . . .
And the gaze of children is purer than the blue of the sky, than the milky sky, and than a star’s rays in the peaceful night.1
The stars proclaim, “Here we are!” and shine with gladness for God who made them.2 The voice of day and night “goes out through all the earth,” pouring forth knowledge.3 Dante tells us that “the heavens call to you and circle about you, displaying to you their eternal splendors.”4 In the Psalms and in the Canticle of the Book of Daniel chanted in Morning Prayer, the life of nature—sun and moon, birds and beasts, lighting and clouds, fire and frost, mountains and hills, the entire cosmic order—joins in the litany of praise and awe and surpassing splendor. We are surrounded by and immersed in a world of miracles and wonders, of breath-taking and breath-giving beauty and delights, of “the torrent of Thy pleasure.”5
Any parent knows that young children express an enchanted joy and astonishment when they encounter something in nature they have never seen before—a translucent jellyfish, the shimmering iridescence of an insect’s wing or a peacock’s feather, a new-born lamb—even a slug! The philosophical rule that “being is only encountered in beings” is a child’s quotidian, concrete experience, opening to infinite horizons of discovery; children are astonished at being itself, life itself, and not at conceptual abstractions. Nor do they feel themselves to be abstracted subjects confronting alien objects: to watch, for example, a child and a puppy playing together is to witness something real, true, beautiful, and good that seems to be mutually unfolding and enfolding. Children don’t imagine themselves as “consciousnesses” constructing what they experience; they are receivers of gifts from an inexhaustible trove of treasures: a lobsterman pulls up his trap and a little boy waits with bated breath to see the surprises it contains. Little children live in the perpetual surprise of Christmas morning; their stance before reality is one of open receptivity and trust.
It is a truth known to the poetic and prosaic alike that after childhood things are quite different. One ages, one is busy about many concerns, one must put away childish things, and more than anything else, temptation and sin cloud the horizon. Joy, wonder, and astonishment in all their immediacy fade, and our deeply intimate relationship with everything around us breaks apart. This rupture from a reality that does not depend on us but is given to us from nature, not merely in the modern ecological sense but in the classical sense, as that which is given to each being at its birth (natura) and thus is only understood “in relationship to an end (telos) that was already in some way present in the original meaning of each being,”6 manifests itself in separation and alienation from God, from the image and likeness of God written into our own being, from community with other persons, and from harmony with creation.
“Faith is obvious,” writes Péguy. “Faith can walk on its own. To believe you just have to let yourself go, you just need to look around.”7 He echoes St. Paul: people are “without excuse,” for ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and deity “has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.”8 Faith should be obvious: Why does that not seem to always be the case, given the splendor of creation? Edith Stein—St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross—says of the prophets that they hear God’s voice in nature, but it is not the case that natural revelation is accessible only to these chosen people. “The whole point of their mission rather assumes that others, too, can find God along this path. . . . Their only task is to bring people who hear their words to the point where they learn to see through nature.”9 To “see through” is to see both the gift and the presence of the Giver in the gift. “Creation” has a double meaning, referring both to the continuous act of the Creator himself, and to the created order; these are clearly distinct, but just as clearly intrinsically related, and should be mutually illuminating.
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1. Charles Péguy, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005), 3–4.
2. Bar 3:34.
3. Dan 3:59; Ps 19:1–4.
4. Dante, Purgatorio XIV.
5. Ps 36:8 (35:9 Vulgate, Douay-Rheims translation).
6. Alfredo Garcia Quesada, “Nature, Culture, and the Theology of Reconciliation” (unpublished paper, 2013).
7. Péguy, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 9.
8. Rom 1:20.
9. Edith Stein, Knowledge and Faith (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 2000), 100. See also Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, vol. 1: Seeing the Form, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 151: “Visible form not only ‘points’ to an invisible, unfathomable mystery; form is the apparition of the mystery, and reveals it.” It is easy to see how without a deeper understanding of creation, without the analogical imagination, “seeing through nature” could appear dualistic. Environmental ethicist Eugene C. Hargrove says that “a medieval Christian, when confronted with natural objects . . . automatically tried to find Christian religious significance in them by associating them with parables and key remarks in the Bible,” whereas modern people, when shown a picture of a fish or a bird, “thought about real fish and birds” (Foundations of Environmental Ethics [New York: Prentice-Hall, 1989], 34).