Receive, Recognize, and Contemplate God in his Creation
This large canvas by Theodor Schüz († 1900) illustrates a family at prayer before a rustic repast during the harvest. A bygone era—indeed, an entire civilization—is evoked here that anyone under fifty cannot have known. It is a civilization born some ten thousand years ago on the banks of the Nile and the Euphrates through the reconciliation of shepherd and farmer. It grew up in Israel, burgeoned in Greece and Rome. Later it came to full flower in the Christian West, as its countryside was cloaked in churches, chapels, and oratories as with a beaded mantle. This was a civilization in which Creation itself placed its faith in God the Creator, in which life was intrinsically based on community. Though old as time, yet it has just expired before our very eyes.
As a child not all that long ago, I was fortunate enough to live in the heart of that civilization while it was still thriving. I was that little boy standing in prayer on the right of the painting. I tied sheaves, I built haystacks. I learned what prayer is in the school of immaculately-coated Charolais cattle which, at the first tinkling of the church bells, would stop unbidden for the Angelus. And I can attest that daily communion with Creation disposes his children toward their Creator. Schooled to the rhythm of seedtime and harvest, the parables of the Lord spoke directly to my heart and shaped my understanding. Through the passage of the seasons, all the Christian feast days seemed to me like so many celebrations of a truly living reality: the convergence in our lives of the sacred and the profane. And all the hours of the day and night didn’t seem long enough to me to give thanks for the fact that the Savior had come on earth to complete the work of the Creator. Paul Claudel well grasped the vital importance of this revelation of Himself with which God imbued nature, so that it could speak to us of Him—and of our own destiny within his providential plan. For Claudel placed these words in the mouth of Joan of Arc: “It was the linden tree in front of my father’s house that, like a great white-surpliced preacher in the moonlight, explained everything to me.”
Like Joan, it was contemplation of Creation that explained everything to the child I was then. Everything? Well, everything that really counts: that which is good, that which is true, that which is beautiful. Faced in our post-modern societies with the abolition of all this—the good, the true, the beautiful—faced with the abolition of man presenting itself almost as a pious work, I too long for those moonlit lessons of great preachers in white surplices.
Of course, as nostalgic as we may be, there is no going back to that distant idealized past. Even were that dream possible, it is not to be desired: for the Lord calls us to witness to his love and embody Christian values within our own civilization—those same Christian values which first gave rise to that civilization. Yet it remains true that, in order to assume in the here and now our vocation as alter Christi, we must stay in touch with the work of divine pedagogy that is Creation. And one thing that’s wonderful about modern civilization is that we have invented a time for this: it’s called vacation!
So, during this vacation, will I be able to rediscover the child I once was? Am I capable of totally switching off in order to reconnect with the works of divine pedagogy?
Noontime Prayer at Harvest Time (1861), Theodor Schüz (1830-1900), Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Germany. © akg-images.