Have you ever worked hard to learn or accomplish something, with no success, and then one day while you least expect it, have it all come together (seemingly) effortlessly? Well, that happened to me at the end of October, when the solution to a creative project I’d been struggling with unsuccessfully for over ten years suddenly presented itself to me.
I had been trying to design and draw an illuminated book combining the text of Benedicite, the great canticle of praise calling on all of creation to bless the Lord (Daniel 3:33-66), and illustrations. In the Liturgy of the Hours, the Benedicite is the canticle for Sunday morning prayer on the first and third weeks of the four-week cycle of the psalmody of the Divine Office. It is also a traditional prayer of thanksgiving after receiving the Eucharist.
Praying the Benedicite for over four decades, I have come to love the idea central to the prayer, in which the entire creation is invited to ‘bless the Lord’ and ‘praise and exalt him forever.’ In a prayer that the sun and moon, clouds and lightning, frost and cold, beasts and birds, even sea monsters bless the Lord, it would seem that a design would be obvious and straightforward.
But that wasn’t the case, despite my best efforts. After more than a decade, all I had to show for my work was a file drawer full of designs and layouts of text and illustrations that had gone nowhere. Then one afternoon, to my complete amazement, the solution came to me. I’d like to take credit for that, but instead, I know that the solution was given to me (no doubt it was being offered to me all along).
The difference that day was I was receptive to the solution in a way I hadn’t been (or hadn’t been capable of) until that moment. And then the design all fell into place (or I’d like to think so). In a process that I can’t really explain but have experienced repeatedly, inspiration is real. Still, you can’t just wait around waiting for it to happen, it requires preparation, patience and receptivity.
This experience of inspiration around this project has reminded me of these words by the liturgical theologian Fr. Adrian Nocent, OSB about Advent:
“No hope is possible unless we turn to the Lord and wait for him to come to us. This is a theme frequently found in the Gospel readings for Advent as well as in the Old Testament. In the conversion that makes hope possible, we can distinguish three elements: conversion, watchfulness and God’s initiative.”(p.35 The Liturgical Year: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany)
In my preparation for the coming of Christ this Christmas, I’m inspired as well to ponder more deeply the prayer of the Benedicite as I work to illuminate it and ask for the grace to turn to the Lord in search of conversion, watchfulness and openness to God’s initiative.
As this season of preparation begins, I need to remember that the Benedicite is embedded in a larger story, that of the three young men in the fiery furnace. They were cast into the furnace because they refused to prostrate themselves before the golden idol set up by the king of Babylon. As they called on all creation to witness with them the sovereignty of the Lord and “praise and exalt Him forever,” they were delivered from the fire and the king. His subjects were delivered from the madness of worshipping anyone or anything other than the living God.
In our moment in time, we find our planet and all of its living creatures cast headlong into the fiery furnace of the climate emergency as atmospheric temperatures steadily rise, and we continue to add fuel to the blaze. On the horizon is the threat of world-wide destruction of ecosystems on land and oceans. The mass extinction of hundreds of thousands of animals and plants, as well as the cost to human communities, already being disproportionately borne by the poor and the powerless.
During Advent, it occurs to me that the path to conversion, that is, the change of heart necessary to act on behalf of this world that God has entrusted to our descendants and us, might be to ask for a more profound and more heartfelt love of creation for its own sake.
A recurring temptation has been, I think, to understand the world and all that it contains in a narrowly instrumental way, that is, valuing the creation based on how we perceive it satisfies our needs and preoccupations. For example, the argument against the destruction of the Amazon rainforest is often couched in terms of how, by losing its great biodiversity, humanity might miss out on some plant or animal that contains within it compounds that could cure cancer. But does this mean that if a plant or animal has no conceivable economic or other human benefits, that it can be freely dispensed? No, not at all.
No plant or animal should have to justify its existence to us. Every creature in the world has intrinsic value as God’s marvelous handiwork.
As the Catechism the Church states so beautifully:
339 Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection. For each one of the works of the “six days” it is said: “And God saw that it was good.” “By the very nature of creation, material being is endowed with its own stability, truth and excellence, its own order and laws.” (Lumen Gentium 36.1) Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness.
Thus, everything in creation, by nature of its being, is an expression “of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness.” Therefore, everything in the cosmos (including ourselves) belongs to God, the creator, and exist to praise and exalt him in accordance with their being and nature. While we have been given the right to use the plants and animals and the land, air, and the water for our benefit, we are not entitled to drive living creatures to extinction or pollute and contaminate the waters, the land and the air. The destruction of the natural world through human greed and indifference is what Pope Francis has denounced as our “throwaway culture.” It is, first and foremost, an act of sacrilege against the creator, even as it threatens our lives and the lives of the creatures we share the planet.
Our Holy Father, Francis, writing in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si, makes this point when he writes:
The created things of this world are not free of ownership: “For they are yours, O Lord, who love the living” (Wisdom 11:26). This is the basis of our conviction that, as part of the universe, called into being by one Father, all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect.
For me, the Benedicite invites us to praise and thank God for the gifts He has lavished on us in the creation. Advent points us towards the fulfillment of all that is celebrated in the Benedicite in the incarnation of Jesus, who was born to redeem and save the people and the world God loves so much.
In this beautiful hymn that Eastern Christians sing on Christmas Eve, all creation celebrates the gift of Christ’s birth by offering him a gift in return.
What shall we offer you You, O Christ,
Who for our sake has appeared on the earth as a man?
Every creature which You have made offers You thanks.
The angels offer You a song.
The heavens a star.
The wise men their gifts.
The shepherds their wonder.
The earth, its cave.
The wilderness, the manger.
And we offer You a Virgin Mother.
O Pre-eternal God, have mercy on us.
May we, in “sublime communion” with all of creation, be inspired to welcome the word-made-flesh into this world and our hearts.