Praying with greater wonder


Autumn colours Paul Varnum via Unsplash

Harvest thanksgiving celebrates not only God’s seasonal gifts of crops for sustenance, but has become a more general celebration of thanksgiving for his gift of all the rich and interdependent diversity of life on earth.  We are increasingly aware of the fragility of the intricate balance that sustains such a rich diversity of life on our unique planet, and of the fragility of the conditions required for any life to continue on earth at all.

Early in the last century with so many boasts of ‘scientific progress’ there was confidence life might be found in the solar system. But our hopes of finding extraterrestrial life have dwindled as we discover more about the extraordinary improbability not only of the emergence of life itself but also of the peculiarities of our own human evolution. These combine to emphasise scientifically and politically, as well as spiritually, our increasingly lonely human responsibility of acting as stewards for the support and sustainability of all life on our small planet.

This is not in itself to be seen as proof of the existence of God. But our care for our natural environment is important enough for Pope Francis to make it his first pastoral priority for his time in office. And we are beginning to see the sheer human folly of following leaders whose aggressive greed blinds them to their vital moral responsibilities for their own nations and for the whole living planet.

Our need for a genuinely global response to the dangers of climate change meets with a number of serious difficulties. Unfortunately the timescale of the data for effects believed to be exclusively caused by human activity can only be argued in terms of degrees of probability. Dealing with the causes of global warming inevitably involves unpopular decisions likely to create too many local resentments for governments to be able to sustain the international cooperation needed for long term climate reversal. Even without the global warming caused by atmospheric pollution, we know the earth is still in a natural process of warming after the last ice age.

The second problem is the degree of international cooperation needed to make our response sufficiently effective and fair.  Cooperation of so many nations is likely to be more verbal than real, simply because nations are competing selfishly for economic advantage. The British government’s delay in reducing car pollution is an example of how democratic governments tend to undertake only short-term decisions which will gain them wide enough political support for the next elections. The United Nations is too weak, divisive, unpopular and politically unreliable to provide anything more than rather ineffective general resolutions. The only governments able to take the kind of long-term political decisions are autocratic states, who are unlikely to take decisions that will limit their control or threaten their own political interests.

The only feasible strategy to change lifestyles is therefore widespread public education about climate change, and how an individual can make a difference. Universities, schools, the internet, and religious bodies can and already do much to educate us in the political and economic values required to achieve real change. The Church can do much as long as it ensures that its message is fully supported and endorsed in an ecumenical and interreligious  context as far as possible.

A specifically Christian and Catholic perspective can relate environmental care and concern to the intrinsic value of God’s creation. We marvel at the cave art of our primitive ancestors. We can marvel at the way in which they recapture the beauty and movement of the vanished creatures hunted in the ice age. Anthropologists believe these images in some way also invoked animistic worship of the spirits within them, worship clearly inspired by wonder at the natural world in which they live. This wonder and response is still reflected in the lives of primitive peoples all over the world.

Wonder at the natural world still inspires us, and many of us find we can pray with greater wonder among mountains and hills, under starlit skies, along a deserted seashore, before beautiful sunsets. The real power of nature is in its extraordinary delicacy, intricacy, and beauty. While fewer of us now encounter animals in the way our cave dwelling ancestors did, we nevertheless all tend to wonder at the devotion in the eyes of our dog, the clear song of the blackbird, or  joyful leaps of dolphins at play.  We mourn the gradual loss of familiar species by our neglect and careless destruction of habitats and natural means of livelihood. How did the once common sparrow come to decline?

All this has vivid meaning for Christians who believe God entered his own creation. By his incarnation and sacramental presence God has revealed the true value of his creation with his presence as the Word made flesh in earthly as well as human form. For the Christian (like St Francis of Assisi) the natural world sings of its Creator, the complexity and wonder of its interdependence. 

The whole natural world is experienced by the Christian as sacramental by disclosing the presence of God. For example a place like a holy well, or a wayside shrine, made sacred by a formal blessing, a miraculous event, or by its association with a saint or pilgrimage route. It does not matter whether its story is accurate, as long as it implicitly represents the presence of Christ and his love and grace for his people. It is only our wonder and joy that gives us its true value, like the beloved toy of a small child. The sacramentality of God’s creation depends only on the genuine recognition and veneration of his people. Like Socrates, who in a grove of great beauty, spilled a drop of wine to honour the unknown god or spirit of the beautiful place, we should try to be still in veneration whenever we find ourselves in the presence of great natural wonder and beauty.

May we always find and discern His presence in the wonder and beauty of His creation.