Beauty and miracles in the desert

“Boredom of course is another matter. It has little to do with what actually exists in the world outside any of us. The world is just fine; it is full of beauty and miracles abound even in the midst of the most desolate of deserts.” – Kevin Codd. To The Field of Stars: A Pilgrim’s Journey to Santiago de Compostella. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (2008).

*****

I read these lines just before turning in last night. The words struck hard at the heart of what has become such an epidemic in today’s modern world. Everyone, it seems, is bored. Or they are scared of being bored and race and work and stretch themselves in a million directions at once in order to avoid the fear of being bored. We stuff our lives and our homes with mountains of stuff, hoping that the next thing will once and for all fill that hole in our soul. When it doesn’t we work longer hours and push ourselves harder to make enough money to buy the next thing. Yet the hole remains, as we remain on the mad gerbil’s wheel. Instead of considering the miracles that surround us with each step we take, we bemoan the fact that our lives are drab, unexciting…boring.

It’s a paradox perhaps that the hub of what modern man sees as the necessary excitement and activity is the modern city. But it is within these city walls that we block out the very miracles to which I refer. The sun setting (or rising) on the distant horizon is difficult to see when surrounded by city buildings or suburban rooftops. Nature, grass, animals (outside of the squirrel, possum or rat variety) are non-existent unless one goes to the zoo. And my personal favorite, millions of stars and the constellations that fill the night sky, are almost impossible to see in the illuminated city at night. God’s wonder in nature hasn’t left us…we left it.

And when nothing seems to work and we begin to wear down from all the fruitless pursuit of activity we can succumb to boredom, acedia, and finally melancholia. “What’s the point of all this?” we ask ourselves. “Is this all there is to life? How long will I wander in this paved, urban desert?”

The answer, I believe, is provided in many places. I happened upon one of them a few weeks ago when I read the following poem by Alfred Noyes (1880-1958):

To A Pessimist
Life like a cruel mistress woos
The passionate heart of a man, you say,
Only in mockery to refuse
His love, at last, and turn away.

To me she seems a queen that knows
How great is love—but ah, how rare!—
And, pointing heavenward ere she goes,
Gives him the rose from out her hair.

You see, I believe the hole that lies in the hearts of humanity is, to use a well-known cliché, God-shaped. It is a huge hole, one capable of only being filled by God. And what is God? Love, of course.

I’m sure I sound like a Hallmark card to you by now and I’d have to agree, but I also know from my own personal experiences in this life that this is true. I’ve ridden the depression rollercoaster. I’ve also watched as it took hold of friends and loved ones and attempted to pull them down below the ocean waves of this life. You feel as if you’re drowning; gasping; struggling to stay above water to breathe while clinging to any life raft, driftwood or flotsam you can find each time you can get your head above water. Only too many times we are grabbing an anchor, weighed down by yet another purchase or another activity that we gravitate towards instead of the one thing that we need. Such is the stubborness of man.

In his second stanza Noyes perhaps is pointing the way. I’m not a learned interpreter of poetry by any stretch of the imagination, but to me the “queen” he refers to is Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who knows the depths of love that God’s heart is capable of storing, as well as the depths of depravity possible in a human heart. She points heavenward, and gives the pessimist a “rose from out her hair.”

A rose is a widely recognized as the queen of flowers and a symbol of love. Catholics who pray the Rosary also know the significance of Mary and roses. Indeed, the word Rosary means “Crown of Roses”. One piece of Catholic imagery says that each time they say a Hail Mary they are giving Mary a beautiful rose, and that each complete Rosary makes her a crown of roses.

From The New Baltimore Catechism of 1941, Part 1, Lesson 1: The Purpose of Man’s Existence, we read

1. Who made us?
God made us.

2. Who is God?
God is the Supreme Being, infinitely perfect, who made all things and keeps them in existence.

3. Why did God make us?
God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven.

4. What must we do to gain the happiness of heaven?
To gain the happiness of heaven we must know, love, and serve God in this world.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church today begins thusly:

God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life. (CCC 1)

Both the old and the new Catechisms in their following paragraphs point towards Jesus as the key to knowing love and finding the chief truths taught by Him. The Rosary is a biblical meditation upon the life of Jesus and one of the best ways I’ve found to come to know Him.

Or, if you prefer, perhaps the queen is an allegory for what the Greeks called sophia; that is, Wisdom. The concept of wisdom goes all the way back to Plato and his Protagoras dialogue. It is also a common tenet in Christianity where it is not only found throughout the Old Testament in Proverbs, Psalms, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, the Book of Wisdom, etc., but also in the New Testament where Christ referred to wisdom, as in “the wisdom of God.” Indeed, wisdom is mentioned over 220 times in the Bible.

So what do I do when I feel I’m about to go under? The first thing I try to do is to get out of the city for awhile. Go camping. Or hiking. Visit family or friends who live in the country. And when I can’t get out of the city? I seek wisdom in the very spot I’ve been planted.

No matter which method or activity you choose, whether accepting the conclusions of Socrates in the Protagoras:

Socrates claimed that “all virtue is knowledge and therefore one. He argues that the reason people act harmfully, to others or themselves, is because they only see the short term gains while ignoring the long term losses which might outweigh them, just like one makes errors in judging the size of objects that are far away. He says that if men were taught the art of calculating these things correctly, have a more exact knowledge that is, they would not act harmfully.

or by seeking, sharing and serving God in this world:

So that this call should resound throughout the world, Christ sent forth the apostles he had chosen, commissioning them to proclaim the gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Strengthened by this mission, the apostles “went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it.” Those who with God’s help have welcomed Christ’s call and freely responded to it are urged on by love of Christ to proclaim the Good News everywhere in the world. This treasure, received from the apostles, has been faithfully guarded by their successors. All Christ’s faithful are called to hand it on from generation to generation, by professing the faith, by living it in fraternal sharing, and by celebrating it in liturgy and prayer. (CCC 2-3)

or both (because they are not necessarily mutually exclusive) pick one. Remember Psalm 19:1: The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. 

Then (and with humility) end each day with these words from G.K. Chesterton:

“Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world around me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?”

[Admin: It should come as no surprise to anyone that my daughter’s name is Sophia Rose. It was chosen for many of the reasons I’ve just mentioned. Also, I chose not to go into depth regarding the Rosary as I plan on writing more about this prayer in the coming week or two. This single prayer, meditation, or exercise…whatever you choose to call it…has been responsible for deepening and widening my faith more than any other. It has opened the door for me to a rich world in which my head is able to stay above water. At least for the most part. I am human after all.]

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