The dawn came gently. After several days of 100-degree weather, Alice and I decided to pass the night on our backyard lawn under the stars. I awoke the next morning at 5:00 AM to see Mt. McLaughlin and the Cascade foothills silhouetted with an iridescent glow. Then the sky slowly brightened and the new day opened with a flutter of activity.
High overhead, groups of crows flew eastward in small formations. For fifteen minutes, one group after another passed into view, each moving purposely in the same direction. A short time later, a burst of starlings in scattergun formation came flitting over the trees. Fluffy grosbeaks, paddled through the air. Small birds appeared on the fringes of the trees, and hundreds of feet above a hawk gracefully flicked its wingtips. A rooster crowed and a plump robin perched on a nearby branch.
The morning came to life with each family of creatures celebrating its own distinctive liturgy. There were offspring to be fed, insects to be devoured, and fruit to be nibbled. In the sky and in the trees and bushes, birds of all kinds went about their daily business.
In the early 1960’s, radios across America hummed to the music of Peter, Paul, and Mary asking: “How many years must a man look up, before he can see the sky?” This is a still a worthwhile question. For most of my life, the experience of morning has been little more than an interlude between the kitchen door and the carport. In my windowless, air-conditioned office, I often do not know whether the sun is shining or if it is raining. I rely on the weatherman to tell me about the outside world. I try to convince myself that it really does not whether I witness a thousand mornings take birth or none at all. Yet it does
As modern men and women, we struggle hard to believe in a future life. In doing so, however, we hesitate to invoke either the imagery or experience of nature. We go to extreme lengths to show concern for the state of the environment and the health of the planet, even as we discount the presence of the sacred in the natural world. Compared to previous generations, we pause far less often to smell the daisies. We fail to see the morning. Because of this, we are lessened as human beings.
In the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church celebrates a Heavenly Father “who covers the heavens with clouds, who provides rain for the earth, who makes the grass sprout on the mountain.” In Francis of Assisi’s magnificent “Canticle to the Sun”, written shortly before death, he prayed: “Praised be you O Lord with all your creatures…all weather’s moods by which you cherish all that you have made.” The Christian community’s prayers of praise have instinctively seen God’s hand in the wonders of nature.
For our ancestors in faith, talk of the afterlife did not seem possible without reference to the world about us. In the Old Testament, “paradise,” was understood as a royal park, planted with trees and grass, watered by natural streams, and abounding in fish and birds. Such was the “paradise” that Jesus, on the cross, promised the thief dying at his side. To this same “paradise,” Mother Church in her funeral prayer asks the angels to bear us. The flowers on the altar have always been understood as symbols of Christ’s new creation.
Life, to be sure, is more than glorious dawns. In a world racked by sin and violence, each of us is called to bear his or her burden through the heat of the noonday sun – a time when the birds no longer entertain and the features of the landscape flatten. This we accept in faith. But belief also tells us that because Christ has left his footprints upon our earth, an Eden lies before us. And that when our life’s work is finally consummated, it is in such a garden that we will walk with our Heavenly Father in the cool breezes of the evening.
Larry Mullaly, July 2006