In these first weeks together, we have experienced the joys and sometimes the challenges of building and renewing our community of friends with a common love and a common way of life together: reading, talking, and writing. That life has a rhythm, almost like music, shared by faculty and students alike, as we do what feels like the same things over and over. We keep returning again and again to fundamental questions, trying to listen and attend to the roots of things alongside our books. We keep going back to the beginning again, to the elementary things, for, as Eva Brann points out, thoughtfulness about beginnings is a way to turn our minds to what really IS, and the return to the beginning, again, again, is the way of the one who wonders.Eva Brann, “Eight Theses on Liberal Education.”
Several years ago, my husband was helping my daughter get out of the car when a great flock of birds took off. With a crash and a roar like the tumult of the sea they washed over the car, the driveway, the house. For a split second they filled the horizon, and our daughter’s eyes widened and she gave a tremendous gasp. The look of astonishment she had was seared upon my husband’s mind: an homage paid to the natural wonder that attends created things that she could still pay, but that adults struggle even to acknowledge. We somehow so easily lose sight of the beauty of things, or we confuse that beauty with the mere novelties we use to fend off feeling bored.
Why do created things become “old to us”? “I’ve seen it before,” “Been there, done that.” Why do we think that once we’ve experienced something “enough”, it has somehow been exhausted of its beauty, its capacity to stir us, its delights. Why does the return to something—again and again—seem so easily to make it lifeless?
G.K. Chesterton suggests that that the problem is not with the things, but with us. They are not exhausted; we are. For some reason, he says, the way modern folk look at the world persuades us that the world is mostly a dead machine, just whirring along, sun up, sun down, sun up again.“All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; … Continue reading Chesterton tries to upend this mindset by a curious suggestion:
[It] might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.Ibid.
Our Father has the Creator’s view of the created universe that bent creations like ourselves struggle to see. I want to propose to you today that part of the vocation to which God has called us in this place—as we return again and again to the beginning—is to renew our sense that we can only truly know things as they are when we know them to be created. And this is not merely a Christian idea: Josef Pieper points out that not just Aquinas but atheist Jean-Paul Sartre also assumed “that we can speak of the nature of things only when they are expressly considered as creatura [creatures].”Josef Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas. The difference between them is that unlike Aquinas, Sartre rejected the idea of God as Creator and therefore also the idea that we can speak of the nature of things and of the cosmos as a whole.
For us, though, living in the light of the Word of God and of Christ, we are being renewed in our minds to speak again as creatures of our Creator and of what He has created. This world is a wonder, a miracle; “Your life is a miracle. Speak again.”Shakepeare, King Lear
So says Edgar to his tortured and blinded father, Gloucester, in Shakespeare’s play, King Lear. Gloucester, so terribly tossed by the seas of fortune, wished only to despair and die. Edgar calls his father to life by recalling Gloucester’s life to him as a miracle and bids him, speak again.For this example from Lear I am indebted to Wendell Berry’s Life is a Miracle, where he meditates on it as a call not to give up on life but “to suffer in it and rejoice in it as it is.” For … Continue reading
In speaking again, we are attuning our words to the witness of the cosmos, joining in the song and the glory of creatures. Scripture tells again and again of the voice of creatures glorifying God and calling us to join them. This is especially so in the Psalms and Isaiah, that great Old Testament theologian of creation, who speaks again and again of Yahweh, the Creator, the King.
Let’s start with a few examples from the Psalms (best read out loud for the full effect):
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his hosts!
Praise him, sun and moon,
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the Lord!
For he commanded and they were created.
And he established them forever and ever;
he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away.
Praise the Lord from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and mist,
stormy wind fulfilling his word!
Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Beasts and all livestock,
creeping things and flying birds!
Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and maidens together,
old men and children!
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for his name alone is exalted;
his majesty is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a horn for his people,
praise for all his saints,
for the people of Israel who are near to him.
Praise the Lord!
There is no corner of the cosmos left out of this song. Nothing is too small or too great to have a voice in it. God’s creating word by its very nature calls into being a responding word of praise from all creatures. They praise because they are creatures; this is why the praise once begun cannot stop and cannot rightly be transferred to any mere creature. It is both the most intimate and individual act of all creatures and the most corporate and inclusive. How estranged we are, then, from the rest of the cosmos—yes, and from our very selves, too!—when we act and speak out of tune with this praise.
Isaiah, too, that great theologian of creation, shows over and over again that the creation of the world by the word of the Lord is brought to perfection in the redemption of the Lord’s people, who fill the earth with the glory of the Lord. See how he uses Genesis’ creation language when he speaks of Israel:
But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
And see how the psalm’s universal song of praise is echoed by Isaiah when he describes how nature responds when redeemed Israel returns in the fulfillment of the fruit-bearing word spoken by the Lord:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Isaiah just keeps on linking the Lord’s creation of the world to the creation of Israel and, through Israel, to the creation of a redeemed worldwide people of His own who are made holy in His sight. Isaiah sees the gathering of the remnant along with those who like them turn to the Lord as a working out of God’s creation of the cosmos: the Lord gathers “everyone who is called by my name, / whom I created for my glory, / whom I formed and made.”
Not just the Scriptures, but poets too are witnessing to this kind of creation song that keeps dwelling on beginnings. And this makes sense because the heart of the craft of the poet is to listen to the roots of things and speak again. See, for example, T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Hear it again from Gerard Manley Hopkins:
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Can you not hear in Hopkin’s poem here a commentary on the Psalm 104: “Oh Lord how manifold are your works / In wisdom you have made them all / The earth is full of your creatures.” He whose beauty is past change “fathers-forth” manifold “original” beauties, which in turn, in their very who knows how fickle freckled-ness, cry out “glory!”
These voices of creatures, in all their finitude and frailty, in their very repetition, their coming to be and passing away, again and again, are ever ancient, ever new. They testify to each generation to the Word of the Lord their Creator:
Let all the earth fear the Lord
Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him
For he spoke, and it came to be
He commanded and it stood firm.Psalm 33:8
Or, as Isaiah puts it:
For thus says the Lord,
who created the heavens
(he is God!),
who formed the earth and made it
(he established it;
he did not create it empty,
he formed it to be inhabited!):
“I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I did not speak in secret,
in a land of darkness;
I did not say to the offspring of Jacob,
‘Seek me in vain.’
I the Lord speak the truth;
I declare what is right.
“Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.
By myself I have sworn;
from my mouth has gone out in righteousness
a word that shall not return:
‘To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear allegiance.’Isaiah 45:18-19, 23-24
Can you hear it? The antiphonal song of the scriptures and testified by the poets? They keep singing that the Word that spoke into creation also gave creatures their vocation. That creating Word we return to—again and again—to try to discern the vocation of things as well as our own vocation to turn to our Creator in love and find in Him our redemption. Our vocation and the vocation of the other creatures sing in counterpoint. When we are redeemed by His word, the cosmos bursts forth into acclamation: our glorification by God is attuned to the cosmic chorus that is glorifying our Creator, with the result that His world overwhelmingly reverberates with the strains of “Worthy!” “Glory!” and “I adore You!”
Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it;
shout, O depths of the earth;
break forth into singing, O mountains,
O forest, and every tree in it!
For the Lord has redeemed Jacob,
and will be glorified in Israel.Isaiah 44:23
Your life’s a miracle. Speak again!
All the beauties of the world, its wonders—they point to this, they whisper, they sometimes shout. They keep speaking to us of this even if we don’t recognize it, even when we blear the world with our sin and ignorance and confusion, even if we block our ears and close our eyes, even in a world that seems dead to us because of our inner death and our habituated reluctance to say “again, again!” or wonder at the freshness of the thing, its mystery, its glory, its testimony to its Creator. Again, as Hopkins puts it:
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.
Nature is never spent, because it is a creature. God’s creative Word will accomplish its purposes; it will not come back to Him empty. The bent world is not abandoned to corruption but renewed in His creative word. And in our careful attending to the beginnings, to the roots of things, again and again, and yet again, He has given us a place to listen, to wonder at the miracle of being that only is because He created it, and to speak again and again, to His glory and to our joy.
So let us speak again! And in doing, know that we seek to sing with the Scriptures the creation song, a song that expresses our hope and faith that God will graciously and gloriously bring to fulfillment our human vocation in concert with all His creatures:
Speak, O Lord, and renew our minds;
Help us grasp the heights of Your plans for us.
Truths unchanged from the dawn of time,
That will echo down through eternity.
And by grace we’ll stand on Your promises;
And by faith we’ll walk as You walk with us.
Speak, O Lord, ’til your church is built
And the earth is filled with Your glory.Stuart Townend & Keith Getty Copyright © 2005 Thankyou Music (Adm. by CapitolCMGPublishing.com excl. UK & Europe, adm. by Integrity Music, part of the David C Cook family, … Continue reading
|↑1||Eva Brann, “Eight Theses on Liberal Education.”|
|↑2||“All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork.” (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy)|
|↑4||Josef Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas.|
|↑5||Shakepeare, King Lear|
|↑6||For this example from Lear I am indebted to Wendell Berry’s Life is a Miracle, where he meditates on it as a call not to give up on life but “to suffer in it and rejoice in it as it is.” For Berry, “To treat life as less than a miracle is to give up on it.”|
|↑8||Isaiah 45:18-19, 23-24|
|↑10||Stuart Townend & Keith Getty Copyright © 2005 Thankyou Music (Adm. by CapitolCMGPublishing.com excl. UK & Europe, adm. by Integrity Music, part of the David C Cook family, firstname.lastname@example.org)|