This column first ran in The Tablet in May 2016
When Pope Francis issued his groundbreaking encyclical, Laudato Sì, the Italian publishing house Elledici took the moment to reissue a book written in the 1960s by the Italian scientist Enrico Medi: Canitco di Frate Sole, a meditation on the Franciscan poem that gave Pope Francis his title. At that time, they asked me as the “Pope’s astronomer” to write an introduction for the book. On first anniversary of the Pope’s encyclical, in 2016, I was invited to Medi’s home town of Senigalia, on the Adriatic coast, to celebrate the publication of this book.
I’d never heard of Medi; but I discovered that he was the spokesperson of his generation in Italy on faith and science. Reading his words, even with my poor Italian, I can see why.
For example, in one chapter Medi begins with our scientific understanding of water as a marvelous molecule, but he arrives at finding in water a hymn of praise for the virtues of humility and chastity. I was reminded of G. K. Chesterton, who once wrote in Orthodoxy: “To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.” Who cannot think of the ripple of a little waterfall or the mist of a seaside evening without recognizing the dancing and the laughter?
And yet, consider what Francis is saying here: we are family with that experience. That waterfall is our sister.
What does it mean to say that water is our sister, that the sun is our brother, the moon is our sister? The sun is a large pile of hot gas, the moon a smaller pile of cold gray rock. Are they alive? Of course not.Yet I confess there are times when I act like a pile of hot gas or cold gray rock. Yet even when I am feeling lifeless, or too full of myself, and I feel that I barely deserve to be treated as human, nonetheless I am brother to the universe. And like a brother, I am loved.
And likewise, to abuse the universe is to abuse a family member.
St. Francis chose to write a poem about nature to communicate his love and joy in the Creator whom he had experienced in creation. Francis wished to communicate… but to whom? I’m sure he never expected his words would be the subject of a conference, much less an encyclical. When he, or any of us, gives praise to God, why are we doing this? God does not need our praise. God did not create His universe just to make for Himself a chorus of sycophants.
Medi gave a startling answer this question. Words, he tells us, are like a mother’s gentle hand; words are the way we caress ideas, enjoy them, and show how much we love them. That’s why words are so important; that’s why finding the correct word is so important.
It is through us humans that the rest of the universe, the piles of hot gas and cold gray rock, becomes self-aware. It is through us that the universe can understand itself. It is through us that the universe can find the words to give praise to our Creator; for, of all the universe, only we can speak.
Why must we speak? Why must the universe speak? In expressing our love, we create the space where love can exist. By expressing our joy, we are creating joy. We invite God, our Father, into the dance that we share with our sisters and brothers. We speak, we dance, we sing; indeed, how can we keep from singing?