There Will Be Signs

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Jesus said to his disciples: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.

Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.

Luke 21: 25-28, 34

We have now entered into the Season of Advent. In the northern hemisphere, all signs of the past summer and the glorious beauty and color of autumn have disappeared, and we have entered the darkest and starkest time of the year. Given that in the developed world we live largely within environments of our own making, we live increasingly without awareness of the natural world that is our home and in which, consciously or not, we participate and our lives are formed. Because our lives are somewhat hermetically sealed from the environment, we can readily forget who and what we really are and the natural cycles in which we participate. It is only in our experienced as mortal and vulnerable creatures that the Word of God can truly be heard and received by us. It is in our smallness, from our place in the valley of humility, that we can recognize how great is the gift of God’s love and the promise of God’s light.

This morning I received from my cousin the following description of a solitary trip he made last Saturday:

Drove out to Sky Meadows State Park in the Blue Ridge for a long hike in the drizzle on Saturday. Dead air, lowering sky, lifeless woods. If we hadn’t seen it so many times before, if we didn’t have a common name for it, and if we weren’t confident it was only temporary, we would be more frightened by the catastrophe of winter.

Living our lives in heated and artificially lighted houses and offices, moving about in automobiles, spending our leisure time watching images of our own creation, we are, for the most part, sheltered, both physically and consciously from the life cycles and the changes, minor and catastrophic, of the natural world. We who live a privileged existence of significant wealth and physical comfort have become “drowsy” through our separation and distance from the cosmic life in which we live. Is it possible to recognize the loving gift of the returning light when we don’t experience at least something of the fearfulness of the expanding darkness? Is it possible to realize the birth of new life and the glory of resurrection if we have not felt the “deadening air” and entered into the “lifeless woods”?

In a typical day, many of us now spend very little time out of doors, while most of our attention is devoted to words and images of our own making. We read and hear and see so many bits of information and data. We relate to our natural environments largely through meteorological predictions that enhance our illusion of control over it. So, in our hyperactive relationship of inverted awe to the world we inhabit, we find ourselves now in a very dangerous — and truly potentially catastrophic — illusion of control of our environment. We have forgotten that what it means to be creatures is to allow life and world to constantly teach us.

“If we hadn’t seen it so many times before, if we didn’t have a common name for it, and if we weren’t confident it was only temporary, we would be more frightened by the catastrophe of winter.” There is a fear that we must experience if we are to grow in wisdom. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). Of course, we should not be paralyzed by the fear of winter. But, we should be “put in our place” by it. The light and life shall return, but we must learn to wait in patience and to respect its actual pace. We must put aside our arrogant belief that we must have what we want when we want it. We must experience the cold to appreciate the warmth, the lowering sky to cherish the brightness, the lifeless woods to recognize the first new buds of the spring.

Wherever on earth we find ourselves on this day of the global summit on climate change in Paris, may we awaken from the drowsiness of our illusions of management and control and remember our true place in God’s creation and allow its rhythms and ways to teach us if we are to “stand erect and raise our heads” as we await our redemption.

Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that “less is more.” A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfillment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures.

Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full. In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the lookout for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 222-223

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