By Mac Stewart
We had a lot of rain in Maryland this spring. The April showers continued well through May to the point that the area registered one of the wettest Mays on record and some devastating flooding in certain areas. I grew up in the eastern United States (North Carolina), where the tall green trees of the deciduous forests are a testament to the climate’s perennial wetness. But having spent the last three springs in Oklahoma, I was far more sensitized than in my youth to the number of times I was putting on my rain jacket as the seasons turned this year.
The upshot of those months of steady rain is that for a week or so in the middle of June we have experienced some of the brightest and clearest weather I can remember. The air has been clean and crisp, the temperature consistently in the 70s (F) during the day, the sky almost cloudless with a deep, radiant blue, and the land below bursting with green. This last detail is not so pleasant for everyone. I spoke this week with someone who lives and works on a farm, lamenting how much extra work it has been having to trim back all the excessive vegetation on his land. But to the leisured city boy like me, it all goes down as joyful consolation.
Creation is always a wonder. It is a standard theme in patristic literature that the miraculous events in the history of salvation — the parting of the Red Sea, fires from heaven, water into wine, even resurrection — are particularly intense and concentrated instances of a broader principle: Everything, in fact, is a miracle. The fact that there is anything at all, something rather than nothing, is itself a marvel worthy of our deepest wonder, and the particular waythat things are is no less inexhaustibly marvelous. One of the reasons for the more concentrated miracles of salvation history, the Fathers tell us, is to awaken us to this basic wonder at the given nature and gratuity of things. Yes, God turned water into wine at a wedding; but God turns water into wine all the time through rain falling upon grapevines. At Cana he did it a little more quickly, to be sure, but he did so partly, the Fathers say, to remind us of the beautiful truth that he is always doing this, always creating and sustaining life and health, giving seed for the sower and bread for the eater, opening wide his hand and filling all things living with plenteousness.
St. Basil had a particularly keen eye for the marvel that creation is. His homilies on the Hexaemeron (the six days of creation) inspire the reader to take a walk in the woods. At the very least they make one wish that one had paid more attention in environmental science class. Basil was clearly paying attention when he took the equivalent in Athens, as his intricate knowledge of natural taxonomies suggest (see his catalogue of all the different kinds of fish in Homily VII).
But his reason for dwelling on such details is not merely to show off his fluency in the best science of his day. It is always to heighten the attention of his fellow Christians to the delightful texture of creation’s carefully woven fabric:
And shall we, whom the Lord, the great worker of marvels, calls to the contemplation of His own works, tire of looking at them, or be slow to hear the words of the Holy Spirit? Shall we not rather stand around the vast and varied workshop of divine creation and, carried back in mind to the times of old, shall we not view all the order of creation? (Homily IV.1; NPNF2 VIII, p. 72)
Nor does Basil need to catalogue fish in order to stir up rapture for creation’s wondrousness; the simple observation of heaven, earth, and the air in between serves the purpose just as well:
Heaven, poised like a dome, to quote the words of the prophet [Isa. 40:22]; earth, this immense mass which rests upon itself; the air around it, of a soft and fluid nature, a true and continual nourishment for all who breathe it, of such tenuity that it yields and opens at the least movement of the body, opposing no resistance to our motions, while, in a moment, it streams back to its place, behind those who cleave it; water, finally, that supplies drink for man, or may be designed for our other needs, and the marvelous gathering together of it into definite places which have been assigned to it: such is the spectacle which the words which I have just read will show you [Genesis 1:9]. (ibid.)
I don’t normally put much thought into the nature of air, but the clear brilliance of these June days has recalled me to Basil’s doxological analysis of its “tenuity.” It is easier to recognize the miracle that air is when the sky above is stunningly blue, the grass below is a healthy green, and the air in between is perceptibly “soft and fluid.” It is especially perceptive of Basil to recognize air as “nourishment,” a description we usually reserve for food. The plenteousness with which God’s open hand fills us can be celebrated anew every time we inhale; no wonder the monks of the East try to unite their prayer with their breath.
Basil was not a romantic transcendentalist along the lines of Thoreau. He was well aware that creation can be frightening, too; that not all days present the fresh air clearly and crisply for our enjoyment. The rose has thorns now in this fallen age of the world to remind us that “sorrow is very near to pleasure” (Homily V.6; p. 78). But Basil’s awareness of creation’s groaning under its bondage to decay brought no attenuation of his conviction that all of creation sings to the glory of God: “I want creation to penetrate you with so much admiration that everywhere, wherever you may be, the least plant may bring to you the clear remembrance of the Creator” (Homily V.2; p. 76). Even the thorns on the rose can do this, albeit negatively, by reminding us of our sinful rejection of the Lord and of his call to us to live this life in penitence.
All of creation is a marvel, but all of creation pales in comparison to the one to whom creation points:
[C]ompared with their Author, the sun and moon are but a fly and an ant. The whole universe cannot give us a right idea of the greatness of God; and it is only by signs, weak and slight in themselves, often by the help of the smallest insects and of the least plants, that we raise ourselves to Him. (Homily VI.11; p. 89).
God gives us many signs of his greatness and his love for us. Some of them are supernatural (the sacraments), but far more of them are ready to hand at every moment of our lives. St. Basil would simply have us pay more attention.