Reflections on a Creation Spirituality Retreat – Liam O’Kelly OFM
A couple of years back, I participated in a retreat in Ibricken Lodge, Spanish Point, Co Clare. Outside, the Atlantic’s waves tumbled onto the shore, majestic and alluring. Inside, like a group of budding scientists, we peered through microscopes at tiny, delicate wild flowers, which we had picked earlier, on a walk to the sea. It was a retreat with a difference, directed by Dr John Feehan and Fr Hugh O’Donnell SMA. We explored the insights of the recent Papal Encyclical, Laudato Si’, as we connected in a ‘hands on’ way with the environment.
Magnify the Lord… and creation!
I was the youngest participant, but age is no obstacle to wonder and there was wonder a-plenty as we looked through the microscopes to see the humble Daisy, the Tufted Vetch, the Great Hairy Willow Herb and the Scarlet Pimpernel in magnified splendour. Indeed, I was inspired to see how many of the participants, who had retired from decades of ministry and apostolic work, were quickly returned to giddy youthful enthusiasm as they looked at nature through the magnifying lens. Natura in minima, maxime miranda (Nature is most to be marvelled at in its smallest examples). This was the insight of the scientists of the early modern age. Having achieved the means to examine the tiniest creatures, flora and fauna, with magnifying glasses and microscopes, they marvelled at the variety, the diversity and the sheer beauty of the smallest and most unseen creatures. The centuries which have followed have added to our knowledge, tens of thousands of new species have been discovered, many tens of thousands are still unknown. Sadly, the creation is revealing its treasures and its hidden beauty at the same moment in history when we are doing those same species so much harm.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, speaking at Our Lady’s Shrine in Walsingham, explored the meaning of the Magnificat. Acknowledging that the term to magnify is not one in common use, outside of the celebration of Evening Prayer, Dr Williams wondered what the term could mean. To magnify, in a liturgical context, is to praise, and when we praise someone we usually step back to allow them space, space to shine, to be acknowledged and noticed. This is the only way we can speak of magnifying the Lord, for we cannot make God any greater than God is. Mary consciously steps back to make the Lord greater in her soul. In this, she is not diminished, but filled with joy and wonder. This interpretation of the Magnificat came to me as I peered through the microscope in Spanish Point. Seeing the tiniest, humblest little flowers magnified into colours and textures, patterns and symmetries should make us step back in wonder, making space for these magnificent creatures which we walk on and walk by each day. Mary’s soul magnified the Lord; the perfect human response to grace. My eyes were magnifying the Rag Wort and the Sea Chamomile with the aid of a microscope, and my reaction was one of wonder and humility.
Science helping us to wonder
For believers, that sense of wonder is accompanied with praise and thanksgiving to the Creator. Our Judeo Christian tradition speaks frequently about the unity within God’s creation, reminding us that we share a common home with all creatures, creatures who, in their simplicity and diversity, have much to teach us: ‘Ask the animals and they will teach you, or the birds of the sky and they will tell you. Or speak to the earth and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea declare to you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this, in whose hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all the human race?’ (Job 12:7-10).
We are the beneficiaries of centuries of laborious, dedicated scientific investigation; distant galaxies are brought into view and microscopic life is exposed to us in startling detail. In a few short days, Dr John Feehan had made eager botanists and amateur geologists out of us all. His encyclopaedic knowledge was helping us to name and appreciate the rich flora and fauna which was all around us, while furnished with new insights into geology, astronomy and botany, we were compelled to conceive of God as passionately interested in life, a God who delights in a seemingly endless array of species, from the microscopic to the gigantic, a God who delights in diversity, adaptations and peculiarities. A brief reflection on the variety and diversity of nature through the lens of 21st century science may quickly convince you that your idea of God is too small!
The advance of the natural sciences has given science and scientists an almost cultic character in modern society. The phrase ‘science has shown’ is enough to end any argument today. But what we call ‘science’ first stirred in the same environment of wonder and intrigue which gave rise to philosophy and theology. Science began with observations and puzzles about the world and how it functions. It began with inquisitive people like Eratosthenes of Alexandria, the man who measured the circumference of the world with a stick! Today, the sciences claim that nature is the result not of a single system, but of many systems, e.g. the biosphere and ecosystems. Nature also bears the effects of history, culture, languages, human relations, etc. To resolve current issues concerning nature, we need to ask questions that not only concern the environment in isolation; we cannot afford a piecemeal approach (cf. Laudato Si’ 160). It is a characteristic of the sciences today that on the one hand they are clearly warning us of the delicate balance in nature, the risks to species and the requirements of sustainability, while on the other hand, science, funded by multinationals, is pushing forward the short term goals of big business and economies. The sciences have the capacity to lead us into wonder and awe. The images from the Hubble telescope are beyond our capacity to describe; they invite wonder and silent reflection, indeed prayer.
Our Place in the Universe
When, back in 13th century Umbria, St Francis of Assisi wrote the Canticle of Brother Sun, he may have been excused as an incurable romantic. Certainly, the 18th and 19th centuries tended to characterise St Francis as just that – the religious equivalent of the romantic nature poet. But his intuition was far from sentiment or romance; it was deeply theological. By magnifying the Lord of creation, and in turn magnifying his brother and sister creatures, St Francis was capable of stepping back and creating space for creation to be. In allowing creation to be, without desiring to control and manipulate it to my advantage, I enter into a new relationship with created things. I learn to live simply, overcoming the temptation to possess things, as though they were actually mine and not the gift of God. Most importantly, perhaps, I learn to wonder, notice and enjoy. Science can affirm that, even more than St Francis realised, we are ‘brother and sister’ to other creatures, sharing genetic relationships, connected in multiple ways to creatures and systems which have evolved in a remarkable manner over millions of years. Earth is our common home and creation is a family. It is important to listen to the voices in science and in faith traditions which help us to magnify, appreciate and care for our cosmic family. In the Hassidic Jewish tradition, it was taught that when we meet God in the next life God will ask us just one question: ‘Did you enjoy my creation?’
Liam O’Kelly OFM Franciscan Friary, Friary Lane, Athlone, Co Westmeath.
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