Earth Day & Sunday

Benjamin Church meets World

Breakfast always has an air unreality about it, perhaps because a thin barrier of coffee is all that separates it from the dreamworld. My breakfast the other day was touched by the mystical when I stumbled on a quote in the comics:
“Outdoors is where the great mystery lies, so going into nature should be a searching and humbling experience, like going to church.” – Skip Whitcomb

Newspapers are filled with the whir and bustle of humanity, and the noise and smoke of modern civilization. Rarely are we still enough to hear the whispers of that great mystery which lurks beyond the fences of our towns.

The civilization we build and the activity it contains is a great comfort to us. We know that this human world is limited and artificial, but it wraps life in a blanket of familiarity and reduces the world to a size we can understand and comprehend. We instinctively know that the blanket is not reality, that its pressing demands are somewhat arbitrary, and we feel as much smothered as comforted by its constant weight. From time to time, in a moment of natural disaster or personal disaster, our warm blanket is torn off and we are left naked and shivering, facing the bitter truth of human life. We struggle to cope with that truth and to clean up the debris, bury the bodies, and return to “normal” as quickly as possible. At other times, through gaps in our ordinary life, we catch glimpses of something glorious that lies beyond, a world that only heroes inhabit, where life is lived to its fullest possibilities.

Unsure how to handle all this, we generally play it safe and only venture beyond the confines of our life in manageable ways. We take small expeditions to the wilderness beyond cell-phone reception or weekends at a cabin on the lake. The great mystery, however, does not appear predictably before our gaze, and one can venture into the wilderness without sensing its presence. Having not felt the mystery does not prove there is no mystery, much like having not sighted any deer does not prove they are extinct. The quote above notes that, in order to encounter the mystery, we must go into nature with the proper attitude, and the proper attitude is humility.

Perhaps the reason the mystery is so rarely mentioned is that the virtue of humility is hard to find. As our confidence in science grows, we dam the rivers and cut through the mountains, fell the trees and mine the valleys for ore and harvest the wind for power. As surely as the animals have retreated from our hubris, so has the great mystery.

Some of our most revered saints are the desert fathers, men and women who pursued the mystery of God by venturing into the wilderness alone. Being in the desert alone can easily drive you insane. Insanity is closing yourself off from the mystery you are unable to handle, and the mad man is the one who has reduced the world to simple rules, despite the fact that these rules are false. There is an air of insanity, however, in all of civilization, because we have constructed a comprehensible world which ultimately is not real. Because so many of us live in this insanity we presume it is true. But it is not true, and venturing into the wilderness alone is also a way to drive yourself sane, provided you have the courage to face the great mystery.

It struck me, in the quote above, that venturing into nature is compared to venturing into church. The great forests and the great cathedrals have a striking similarity, as if the builders of the cathedrals had lived so close to the mystery they felt comfortable with it. Those were wise people, and it was not by accident that they placed a shrine to the creator of the world in the middle of their busy towns, like a hole cut deliberately in the blanket of civilization. Just like observing the Sabbath as a day of rest, these holes in the world keep us from being smothered by our constructed life. They prop open the door of our human life to the infinite possibilities of the mystery, and so ultimately it is the churches that keep us sane.

Yet as surely as the forests have been cut down, our churches have been domesticated. No longer do they soar to mystical heights, tugging at the boundaries of human life. Instead they are carpeted, padded, restrained, and comfortable. Their services are familiar, interesting, and soothing. Yet, in the effort to be relevant, these churches have lost the very reason for their existence, which is to testify to the mystery of God. The Catholic Church has not been entirely domesticated, thanks to the power of the Eucharist. This sacramental presence means that even the most arrogant and insipid priest cannot prevent the infinite mystery from sneaking into his liturgy. It is this presence of mystery which has prevented the Catholic Church from following the path of so many other modern worship experiences.

Yet it is exactly this which makes the Catholic Church “insane.” So many people live in the false world we have constructed, the world of business and commerce and film, that we assume it is sane. The Church with its very different approach to life, with its testimony of desert monks and cloistered nuns, is an uncomfortable door through which untamed winds continue to blow. Secular society would rather shut the door, and keep out the winds of mystery, and every effort is being made to coax the Church into conformity. Yet the instant that door is shut, human life begins to suffocate and die. A life without mystery is too small to live.