Nature and Culture: God’s Grandeur
In my notice of the passing of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, I suggested that one of his great gifts was a constant awareness that all of us—and all natural things with us—have been redeemed. All of nature is fundamentally good; it is designed by God to be perfected, not obliterated, by grace. In a great many large and small ways, this fundamental fact is critical to Catholic culture. Indeed, it is critical in every conceivable way.
Though I am a life-long Catholic, this understanding did not come easily to me. I always affirmed it in principle, certainly, but some of my attitudes belied it, in particular my attitude toward the apostolate. In my late teens and twenties, perhaps even to some degree into my early thirties, I was much too preoccupied with the fact that I had managed to prepare for and implement a career which was directly involved at all times with the advancement of the Catholic Faith. Studying, reading, editing, publishing, founding a Catholic college, and teaching: My goal was to transform the world in Christ, and I had managed to work toward this goal “full-time”.
So far so good. But I also tended to (unconsciously) look down on those who had not managed to make this goal into a career. I tended to think (again mostly unconsciously) that everyone was called to full-time apostolic work, and that those who were not doing it were almost by definition lesser Christians. Given this tendency, it is perhaps not surprising that God had in mind that I should be forced to become a computer programmer to keep body and soul together, when my original Catholic publishing efforts failed. While by then I had largely abandoned those particular unfortunate tendencies, I had never really experienced what it meant to be an “ordinary” working man. I had to be forced to learn first-hand how extraordinary this really is.
Fortunately, my mistaken (and incredibly arrogant) viewpoint had already foundered on the essential goodness of the natural order. The unfortunate tendency to which I had been prone was rooted in an unconscious denial of that goodness—a very Protestant denial. In effect I was assigning natural work with natural things to the outer darkness, permitting the Divine light to shine only where this work and these natural things were completely replaced by purely spiritual concerns. Such a viewpoint involves a sort of dualism. Either everyone is called to separate himself completely from natural things and focus all his energies on God directly, obliterating the natural in favor of the supernatural; or else our daily lives (that is, all our works) are unregenerate irrelevancies, untouched by grace, in spite of which we might be saved through a disembodied act of Faith alone.
It is of course a myth to think that any human person can be preoccupied solely with spiritual concerns, but that is another issue. The point here is that it is part of the genius of Catholicism to recognize the profound reality that we are part of nature, that natural goods are essential to our destiny, and that we are called by God Himself to be involved with natural things in many different ways: working, producing, shaping, buying, selling, using, perfecting and just plain enjoying—all for the glory of the God who made us body and soul. The implications for our daily lives, and for culture, are incalculable.
The Ordinary Life
To this day it remains difficult for me to rhapsodize about the paradoxically extraordinary character of the ordinary. Chesterton could do it. He had a knack for standing everything on its head, arresting our attention long enough to see what the Catholic priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins referred to as the “dearest freshness deep down things.” Consider Hopkins’ great poem, “God’s Grandeur”:
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; cleared, 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.
An authentically Catholic vision beholds the goodness, beauty and freshness of natural things as created by God, nurtured by the Holy Spirit, and given to man to perfect, man who is charged with bringing all things—and especially himself—home to the Father. The secret of the ordinary life is to love all things and use all things for the glory of God, ennobling all things through the Redemptive power of the Son. We must be attached to all that is good, but we must be ordinately attached, loving all things as part of our love of God, who contains all in All. We are thus given a special power and a special duty, the power and duty to impart to each thing an appropriate stamp of divine grace, according to the end for which it was created. The world really is charged with the grandeur of God; through the proper use and perfection of natural things, it is our task to make that grandeur increasingly visible, as both sign and signal of the God to which all nature groans to return (Rm 8:22).
All the Difference
The first and most important difference this makes is the difference between despair and hope. If we see in nature, and so in our ordinary lives, no connection with God, no purpose, no place in the economy of salvation, then it is difficult to escape abject despair. But if we understand that nature is the pre-eminent means given to us to glorify God, and that it has been placed under our stewardship precisely so that we might manage it well for Our Lord until He comes, then the entire universe is at the very least charged with the specific grandeur of hope.
Beyond this fundamental difference and everything it implies for the proper ordering of our own lives, it is difficult to overestimate the difference that the proper view of nature and grace makes to the formation of a Catholic culture. Culture is a unified collection of spiritual, mental and physical habits which govern how we interact with everything in our lives. In the Catholic vision, nature is something to be enjoyed for God’s sake; and for our own sake insofar as we subordinate ourselves to God; and for the sake of the natural good (which we also subordinate, both to ourselves and through ourselves to God). Everything is held in an interlocking pattern of ordered love. Within this pattern we seek to place a human stamp on nature, perfecting it according to its natural ends. But since we ourselves have both natural and supernatural ends, this human stamp also includes the imprint of grace, mentioned earlier, which both reveals the grandeur of the Creator and draws everything back to Him.
Every human activity can be initiated, adjusted, completed or even abandoned and refashioned in this context of the ordered love through which we are called to glorify God. Gradually the ways we interact with natural things will develop into those habits and customs which, as the building blocks of culture, manifest certain truths and purposes to all those who are influenced by that culture. To take a crucial example, the ways in which men and women court, marry and live with each other under the influence of ordered love will be very different from the cultural manifestations of those who do not possess this Catholic vision. To take a far more homely example, the way a cobbler makes a shoe out of ordered love will be very different from the cultural manifestations of those who regard the materials, the environment from which they are derived, the product, and the customer as mere grist for an economic mill.
Often we must begin simply by doing little things with great love, refocusing under the Divine light many tasks which we may find lacking in personal satisfaction. This is an essential first step, and it makes an immediate and profound difference to the value of whatever we do. But that enhanced value does not consist only in the grace that accrues in the spiritual order, for we do not inhabit only a spiritual order. Instead, our refocused vision (along with the grace it invites) enables us to discern certain features of beauty in our work, certain aspects of importance to ourselves and to those for whom our work is performed. Ultimately we will discern certain ways to translate love into action so that the work is not only transformed spiritually but changed materially in many subtle but marvelous ways—and sometimes in ways that are not so subtle after all. A new habit of being is acquired and, along with it, a new characteristic, custom, procedure or method in our actions which makes them tangibly different: richer, deeper, more perfect than what they were before.
If this seems hard to imagine in concrete circumstances, perhaps it is because our habits are currently so poor. Look: The mother and father who love their children, each other, their work and God in the right order will not constantly miss family dinners or preoccupy themselves so much with their careers that all they can do is snap at other family members between rushed efforts to ensure that their hectic schedules are met. The employer who loves his work, his employees, his customers, his suppliers and God in the right order will not foster a corporate culture which rewards excessive hours or substitutes advertising for quality. The carpenter who loves wood, his tools, his skills and God in the right order will not do anything slap-dash, hoping to get by until moving on to the next job. Will one who loves properly deny correction? Resist improvement? Avoid prayer?
These dramas are played out a thousand times a day in as many different settings. Their outcome depends simply and solely on how we handle the ordinary, everyday ingredients of life. Too often we handle them very badly, obscuring the grandeur of God in natural things. It is what we can do instead with the truly extraordinary ordinary that will create a fresh and vibrant culture, an authentically human culture, a Catholic culture.
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