Two weeks ago, a small group of my friends decided to explore the writings of the famous naturalist John Muir. Though born in Scotland and known most for his writings about conserving the Yosemite, his family immigrated to Wisconsin, giving us Wisconsinites a good enough reason to explore Muir’s thought. Raised in a stern (abusive by today’s standards), Calvinist farm family, it’s clear that Muir lived in tension between strict discipline, hard work, and a longing for the natural world. Though Muir’s zeal for the redwoods in the everglades is common knowledge, his memoir reveals that every aspect of creation fascinated him. For obvious reasons, I found great joy reading Muir’s recollection of Wisconsin’s starry nights and northern lights.
The winter stars far surpassed those of our stormy Scotland in brightness, and we gazed and gazed as though we had never seen stars before. Oftentimes the heavens were made still more glorious by auroras, the long lance rays, called “Merry Dancers” in Scotland, streaming with startling tremulous motion to the zenith. Usually the electric auroral light is white or pale yellow, but in the third or fourth of our Wisconsin winters there was a magnificently colored aurora that was seen and admired over nearly all the continent. The whole sky was draped in gracious purple and crimson folds glorious beyond description. Father called us out into the yard in front of the house where he had a wide view, crying, “Come! Come, mother! Come, bairns! and see the glory of God. All the sky is clad in a robe of red light. Look straight up to the crown where the folds are gathered. Hush and wonder and adore, for surely this is the clothing of the Lord Himself, and perhaps He will even now appear looking down from his high heaven.” This celestial show was far more glorious than anything we had ever yet beheld, and throughout that wonderful winter hardly anything else was spoken of. (John Muir: Natural Writings. Edited by William Cronon. p.99-100)
A child who was encouraged by his father to look into the night sky and see in the natural world beauty that reflected the glory of God. In many ways, I find this moment to be very telling of why John Muir resonates so deeply in my spiritual life. As I shared with you in my sabbatical reflections, one of the great gifts of exploring contemplative prayer in the desert tradition was that mysticism was not something “other-worldly,” radically detaching me from the natural world. Rather, it was through being profoundly attentive to the natural world that I was able to reconnect with God. Mysticism suddenly became “not-so-otherworldly” and far more accessible than how I approached the topic before sabbatical.
Stepping away from my sabbatical experience and analyzing it theologically, the not-so-otherworldly mysticism of John Muir is actually far more consistent with a Catholic worldview that some may think. One of the earliest threats to Christianity was the gnostic movement, which approached spirituality as an escapism from the natural world, deeming the physical world as corrupt and sinful. It was through affirming the fundamental goodness of creation by early Christians that, in part, was key to refuting this heresy. This fundamental goodness also is echoed in our Sacramental life, seeing in the material substance of water, oil, bread, and wine the necessary means for God’s presence to be made manifest to us. Of course, we need to avoid the pantheist over correction of falsely seeing the world as God, which contains its own set of spiritual issues. Still, I can’t help but be humbled by the fact that, in my own spiritual life, I realized I was slipping into one of the most foundational errors in the Church’s history: Detaching the wonder of the created world from my experience of God in prayer.
Another aspect of Muir’s life that caught my attention was his inner struggle between the modernist, industrial movement of his time and an inner calling to conserve the natural treasures of our world. Though finding both of great interest, Muir chose the path of conservation. While describing his time as a student at the University of Wisconsin, Muir explained the inventions he made and how he greatly enjoyed using his love and curiosity of the sciences to build machines. Yet, what spoke most deeply to Muir was the conservation of the natural world. This tension and calling was beautifully depicted by Muir when he explained his decision to leave the University.
Although I was four years at the University, I did not take regular course of studies, but instead picked out what I thought would be most useful to me, particularly chemistry, which opened a new world, and mathematics and physics, a little Greek and Latin, botany and geology. I was far from satisfied with what I have learned, and should have stayed longer. Anyhow I wandered away on a glorious botanical and geological excursion, which has lasted nearly fifty years and is not yet completed, always happy and free, poor and rich, without thought of a diploma or the making of a name, urged on and on through endless, inspiring, Godful beauty.
From the top of a hill on the north side of Lake Mendota I gained a last wistful, lingering view of the beautiful University grounds and buildings where I had spent so many hungry and happy and hopeful days. There with streaming eyes I bade my blessed Alma Mater farewell. But I was only leaving one University for another, the Wisconsin University for the University of the Wilderness. (Ibid. 141-142)
When reading these words, I couldn’t help but think of Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’. Yes, there is much to be said about the environment and ecology in the encyclical, but at the heart of his work is the ongoing reflection Catholic Social Teaching provides us in regard to the Industrial Revolution. For example, Rerum Novarum, the encyclical penned by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, is rightly heralded as one of the most forward looking documents of its time to support workers rights. What is often lost in those reflections is the main reason Leo needed to call for these rights. The run away nature of the Industrial Revolution at that time in history was creating a cultural obsession with productivity. This obsession led emerging industries to demand so much time and effort from workers that is was becoming toxic for family life and human dignity. Humanity was becoming a cog in the machine, prompting the Church to make one of its boldest refections on the relationship between people and emerging economies: The human person is not meant to serve the economy, but the economy is meant to serve the person.
Of these duties, the following bind the proletarian and the worker: fully and faithfully to perform the work which has been freely and equitably agreed upon; never to injure the property, nor to outrage the person, of an employer; never to resort to violence in defending their own cause, nor to engage in riot or disorder; and to have nothing to do with men of evil principles, who work upon the people with artful promises of great results, and excite foolish hopes which usually end in useless regrets and grievous loss. The following duties bind the wealthy owner and the employer: not to look upon their work people as their bondsmen, but to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character. They are reminded that, according to natural reason and Christian philosophy, working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honorable livelihood; but to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers – that is truly shameful and inhuman. Again justice demands that, in dealing with the working man, religion and the good of his soul must be kept in mind. Hence, the employer is bound to see that the worker has time for his religious duties; that he be not exposed to corrupting influences and dangerous occasions; and that he be not led away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings. Furthermore, the employer must never tax his work people beyond their strength, or employ them in work unsuited to their sex and age. His great and principal duty is to give every one what is just. Doubtless, before deciding whether wages axe fair, many things have to be considered; but wealthy owners and all masters of labor should be mindful of this – that to exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain, and to gather one’s profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine. To defraud any one of wages that are his due is a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven. “Behold, the hire of the laborers… which by fraud has been kept back by you, crieth; and the cry of them hath entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.” Lastly, the rich must religiously refrain from cutting down the workmen’s earnings, whether by force, by fraud, or by usurious dealing; and with all the greater reason because the laboring man is, as a rule, weak and unprotected, and because his slender means should in proportion to their scantiness be accounted sacred. Were these precepts carefully obeyed and followed out, would they not be sufficient of themselves to keep under all strife and all its causes? (Rerum Novarum, Paragraph 20)
Laudato Si’ becomes an extension of this insight, seeing that the runaway consumption and consumerism of our day has not only done damage to human dignity, but now threatens the stability of our natural world. The “production-lust” that has overtaken many modern societies comes with a price: The denigration of the created world around us for the purpose of financial gain. Pope Francis reflects eloquently on this subject when reflecting on what he identifies as “The technocratic paradigm.”
The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy. The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration. Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth. They are less concerned with certain economic theories which today scarcely anybody dares defend, than with their actual operation in the functioning of the economy. They may not affirm such theories with words, but nonetheless support them with their deeds by showing no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations. Their behaviour shows that for them maximizing profits is enough. Yet by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion. At the same time, we have “a sort of ‘superdevelopment’ of a wasteful and consumerist kind which forms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation”, while we are all too slow in developing economic institutions and social initiatives which can give the poor regular access to basic resources. We fail to see the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth. (Laudato Si’. 32-33)
Similar to Muir, Pope Francis calls for a heart that first seeks to conserve, protecting the treasure of God’s creation. This call to a more simple, basic lifestyle seems so similar to the depiction of John Muir gazing at the University of Wisconsin before his departure, seeking to resolve an inner tension: Do you I embrace the technocratic paradigm or do I embrace conservation? When seeing these clear connections between Muir and Catholic Social Teaching, it has sparked many moments of, “John Muir was Catholic in his thought and didn’t realize it!” Sadly, we live in a world that seeks to embrace the technocratic paradigm blindly and without reasonable modification, rejecting not only Muir, but Pope Francis’ call for a more simple lifestyle. Let us pray that all of us experience, one day, the ecological conversion of heart that grasped John Muir and Pope Francis calls for in Laudato Si’.
“The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast”. For this reason, the ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion. It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an “ecological conversion”, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience. (Laudato Si’. 217)
This ecological change of heart called for by Pope Francis takes us back to the beginning of this post: Seeing in John Muir’s writing An odd co-mingling of God, nature, and humanity’s longing to understand both through encountering the world around us. Put more simply, life gains far more richness when we embrace the jumbled mess that is the human person, the created world around us, and God’s presence shining through both.
Spiritual Exercise: Amid this pandemic in which time is in abundance (for some), what can you do to safely go out into the natural world and engage in some “not-so-otherworldly” mystical prayer? How can you find a sense of connection with our natural world that doesn’t replace God, but draws us into God’s love and mercy through beholding the beauty of creation? And do we need to take some time to reflect on how we’ve damaged our common home, denigrating the gift God has given to us? Pray with that today and, in the spirit of John Muir and Pope Francis, lose yourself in the jumbled mess that is creation and God’s presence to us through this wondrous gift of our common home.