Saturday, November 12, 2005

Mistaking the Thing Created for the Creator

Friday's first reading at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was from Wisdom 13:

All men were by nature foolish who were in ignorance of God, and who from the good things seen did not succeed in knowing him who is, and from studying the works did not discern the artisan;

But either fire, or wind, or the swift air, or the circuit of the stars, or the mighty water, or the luminaries of heaven, the governors of the world, they considered gods.

Now if out of joy in their beauty they thought them gods, let them know how far more excellent is the Lord than these; for the original source of beauty fashioned them.

Or if they were struck by their might and energy, let them from these things realize how much more powerful is he who made them. For from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen.

But yet, for these the blame is less; For they indeed have gone astray perhaps, though they seek God and wish to find him. For they search busily among his works, but are distracted by what they see, because the things seen are fair.

But again, not even these are pardonable. For if they so far succeeded in knowledge that they could speculate about the world, how did they not more quickly find its Lord?

I was surprised and delighted to find this reading yesterday in the Mass, because it's my favorite piece of Scripture outside of the Gospels. It changed my life a long time ago. I may have told this story already, but I can't hear if you try to stop me:

Being in undergraduate biology studies, I and my fellow science- and engineering-major friends all took biochemistry, genetics and physics classes together. We spent hours in the cafeteria, smoking and slamming coffee, easily solving all the world's problems, and had excitedly created a view of God that was based on Energy. We decided that since "Energy can neither be created nor destroyed," and the measurement of our aliveness was our metabolism, then the loss of Energy at death must be what people described as the loss of the soul. God must therefore be the name of the Life Force that powered the universe. A million parallels and proofs leaped up. One hilarious one I remember is that we thought this explained why you could get the feeling that someone was looking at you: the thought and look were disturbing the balance of Energy!

We grooved on what we saw as the true meaning of Communion: being fed, being given Energy. Gosh, we couldn't get enough of our own thinking. To our credit, we didn't react against God as a puppet-master, or blame our Christian ancestors as old meanies and prudes. We simply thought that science was our way to connect with God, in a pure, clean, provable way. The God we created didn't know us personally, or care what we did or what we were made for; he was instead a Power beyond our understanding. He certainly seemed big and mysterious enough to be God.

Although I loved the power of my college-aged mind (didn't we all?) I had a little itch in there that this might not be the whole story. My friends and I enjoyed continued filling in the details and proofs of our Energy God, but at home, I started reading Thomas Merton, finding him by picking up a book with an attractive picture of a monk on the cover. Setting aside his curmudgeonly anti-war liberality, which I was a bit too young to understand, I was transfixed by his descriptions of Love beyond understanding, Understanding beyond knowledge, Knowledge beyond words. I read some of his books over and over, especially New Seeds of Contemplation.

Then God guided me to this exact verse. I realized what my friends and I had done; we confused God's Creation with God Himself. The beauty of His Creation is only a mirror of His own Beauty. While I was pondering all of this one day, God showed Himself to my mind and heart and I KNEW...

Any of you who have received the blessing of the sense of God's Presence can finish the story from that point. I'm sorry to say that my continuing conversion was stalled for many years after that, while I was busy sinning.

I'd like to have the opportunity some day to show this verse to some eager acolyte of Science, and leave it to them to think over. I hope if you haven't read the Book of Wisdom, that you spend a little time with it. It's like Proverbs, but with more warmth and less of a "helpful hints" feeling to it.


Julie D. said...

Great story. This also makes me think of Augustine saying, "In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all." All too common a trap for all of us to fall into.

Therese Z said...

Thanks Julie for the Augustine quote! I have a feeling that Pascal cried out along these lines, too. Gotta go dig around on the Internet.....

CowPi said...

Wow! What timing. I just read the Principle and Foundation of St. Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises this weekend and it talks about the very same thing.

The human person is created to praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord, and by doing so, to save his or her soul.

All other things on the face of the earth are created for human beings in order to help them pursue the end for which they are created.

It follows from this that one must use other created things, in so far as they help towards one's end, and free oneself from them, in so far as they are obstacles to one's end.

To do this, we need to make ourselves indifferent to all created things, provided the matter is subject to our free choice and there is no other prohibition.

Thus, as far as we are concerned, we should not want health more than illness, wealth more than poverty, fame more than disgrace, a long life more than a short one, and similarly for all the rest, but we should desire and choose only what helps us more towards the end for which we are created.

Therese Z said...

Thanks, Mark. I'm kind of afraid of St. Ignatius (and St. Thomas Aquinas, they're theologically daunting), so it was nice of you to pull this out for us.



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