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Sunday, January 23, 2011

The invitations of the heavens

I drove my mom this afternoon to visit a very sick relative, and waited in the car to give everyone their privacy. After a few minutes, I looked through my Forester’s sun roof and watched a silent unfolding of grace.

Above me was an arctic high-pressure air system; it offered a fantastic, wintery view to infinity, laced with roiling strands of clouds, similar to the video above.

It was mesmerizing.

For about twenty minutes I watched as the laws of physics—the interaction of sunlight, gusty air and ice crystals—soothed me. It was a slow, sometimes chaotic evolution and dissolution of clouds that came and went and made amazing or funny or stunning shapes. There was order there, for sure.

Watching clouds is lot like faith. You don’t have to be a meteorologist to appreciate the sky, and you don’t have to be a theologian to love God.

In fact, those two studies of the heavens have some relation. There has always been a discussion in Christian theology about what that natural world can teach us, what it can tell us about the Creator, without access to Revelation—that is, without Scripture or the Church’s Tradition.

St. Bonaventure provided ways to bring meaning to experiences of awe, like when our senses take in nature’s stirrings—the dramatic ones or the quite ones—and our minds respond as if to an invitation. His most famous work on this topic is his Itinerarium Mentis ad Deum, or The Journey of the Mind to God. In it, he says this:

By praying thus, one is enlightened about the knowledge of the stages in the ascension to God. For since, relative to our life on earth, the world is itself a ladder for ascending to God, we find here certain traces [of His hand], certain images, some corporeal, some spiritual, some temporal, some aeviternal; consequently some outside us, some inside. That we may arrive at an understanding of the First Principle, which is most spiritual and eternal and above us, we ought to proceed through the traces which are corporeal and temporal and outside us, and this is to be led into the way of God. We ought next to enter into our minds, which are the eternal image of God, spiritual and internal; and this is to walk in the truth of God. We ought finally to pass over into that which is eternal, most spiritual, and above us, looking to the First Principle; and this is to rejoice in the knowledge of God and in the reverence of His majesty.

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