Ever since I was a child I can remember the feeling I get looking at a wooded hill or stream or lake. Even riding along in the backseat of a car along a familiar road, I would sometimes stare out the window looking at a wooded area, thinking of how delightful it would be to walk there and see what’s over the hill.
This feeling of wonder, awe and joy is stronger at some times than others. I think of a backpacking trip I took with my late father, years ago. In some respects it was a terrible trip. I was a novice backpacker, and we were both carrying way too much and could hardly walk when we got home.
But we hiked north from Lutsen, walking out in a late spring snow that melted off and turned into a warm spring day, encountering grouse and tons of moose sign, camping on a pond with beavers busy all evening, crossing a beaver dam, climbing beautiful ridgelines before descending into into little green valleys with pretty streams.
From the mighty moose to little moths and butterflies and wildflowers the world is full of wonders if we have eyes to appreciate them.
These are now things I enjoy sharing with my own children, as they learn to hike the many trails in the area and appreciate the wildlife that shows up even in our yard.
This is one of the forgotten beauties of Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings,” the deep, almost mystical love of the elves especially but also of the ents and hobbits and dwarves and even the men for the created world, for trees and rocks and flowers and horses and all living things. One of the sure signs of evil in his great masterpiece is disregard for this vision of life as being part of created beauty. The villains slash and burn the trees and despoil the land.
I think we all have a little elf in us, even those of us who don’t look like it.
I also think of one of my favorite saints, St. Francis de Sales, who also must have had something of this sensibility. His writings are full of nature metaphors, making his point from the behavior of the bees or birds.
And of course everyone knows about St. Francis of Assisi, and his namesake, Pope Francis.
I am only part way through Laudato Si’, the new social encyclical on the ecology by the pope. What I have read so far is brilliant and beautiful, but I want to refrain from making any broad, sweeping statements until I’ve finished.
But in any case, the problem with Laudato Si’ is not that there is too little to say but too much, too many beautiful insights thrown out almost as digressions but really in the service of this theological vision of creation.
So I want to touch on one little point of many that touched my heart so far. “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever,” the pope writes. “The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”
I had never thought of it quite that way before.
The pope talks also about the practical reasons this loss of biodiversity is bad. For instance ecosystems are interrelated and complex, and everything is connected, such that the loss of one species will often have unpredicted consequences for others. And some species are useful to us. Perhaps there are cures for terrible diseases that could be discovered by learning about some small creature somewhere.
But the theological reason took my breath away. Beyond any use to us, every creature was willed by God and gives glory to God. In fact, one of the Old Testament canticles prayed frequently in the Liturgy of the Hours goes through the whole whole list, bidding the creatures of heaven and earth, even the inanimate ones, to “praise the Lord.”
Elsewhere in the Bible, both the Old Testament book of Wisdom and the New Testament book of Romans testify to how we can come to know God through created things.
Shouldn’t we then show reverence to every creature, listen to the message God gives us through them and pass that opportunity on to our children and grandchildren as part of the gift of creation God has entrusted to us?
There are many, and undoubtedly more important, things to learn from Laudato Si’, and some of those things are reported elsewhere in this issue. Here in the heart of a Minnesota north country summer, with God’s abundance overflowing, let this little passage be an invitation to take up the whole encyclical and to reflect on how the whole creation contains some reflection of God’s manifold truth, goodness and beauty.
Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.