Crucible of the Spirit

I try to make sure I spend a little time each day outside.  It was easy when I was growing up on a farm.  Much of that life was spent outside.  In those days even the time on the tractor was outside---exposed to nature.  I know that is probably not good, given the health issues.  I can appreciate modern tractors and combines with their cabs, radios, etc.  As a boy, I leaned to “read nature.”

I learned things like prevailing winds and the clouds that would bring rain and clouds that did not.  I learned to smell the rain and deal with the snow.  I appreciated the seasons.  In an odd way I liked learning from the tough times that nature could deliver---wet springs, dry summers, cold winters.  Extreme and excess can teach us a great deal.  Life is easy when things are going well and there are no hardships. 

As life unfolded for me, I chose things that kept me inside much of the time.  That continues even to this day.  There are rare occasions that call for me to do my profession outside.  Most of my time is spent in controlled environments.  When it is cold, my building and house are heated.  When it is hot, the process is reversed and I am cooled.  All of this is good---it is modern, as we call it.  I am not asking for the good old days!

I try to make sure I spend some time each day outside, because I don’t want to lose the connection with nature.  I wonder if most young people have much connection with nature?  Most of them have spent their lifetimes in controlled environments.  I hope they have learned to appreciate the changing of the seasons.  I hope their can learn to do more than simply whine if the weather is not perfect. 

A couple days ago when I was outside and the weather was not perfect, I realized that it had not occurred to me to return to the inside, which clearly was more perfect.  I realized that my farm background and my involvement in sports had taught me there are times you are going to be outside and that’s the way it is.  There is no reason to whine---at least if you want to do what needs to be done.  And then I had another, deeper realization.

I had the profound experience that my life is pure gift.  There was no way I could sustain my life if nature were not providing the air to breathe.  If nature were to withdraw the oxygen from the air, I would be dead in minutes.  I was in the midst of nature and I was in the bosom of an incredible Giver whose minute-by-minute generosity was sustaining me and the other seven billion souls on this earth.  I did nothing to create it or to deserve it.

Most of the time I am not even aware of it.  Blithely I take it for granted.  Merrily, I go along thinking I am pretty independent and assuming I can do whatever I want to do.  At one level that is true.  But the truth of that depends on the incredible Giver continuing to grace us all with the necessities of life.

I really like the fact that all the classical languages have the same word for “breath,” “air” and “spirit.”  My life depends on breathing and that is nothing other than spirit.  Without the spirit, I am dead.  And I cannot be so bold as to assume it is my spirit.  That is why I capitalize it: “Spirit.”  There is a Spirit bigger than I am and external to me upon which I am dependent.

I took one more step to realize that nature is the crucible of the Spirit.  My spirit is sustained and nurtured by that Spirit and in that Spirit.  The only way out is death.  Otherwise, we are all in the crucible.  Our choice is to be aware or to be unaware.  If I am aware, then I can live with a level of appreciation and thankfulness.  That is what being outside teaches me.  I am more aware.

That leads me to think about the recent words about integral ecology, which Pope Francis borrows from Saint Francis.  He shows how Saint Francis models this awareness of nature and its gifts.  “His (Saint Francis) response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists.”

The Pope calls for us to live with the same kind of conviction that nature is the crucible of the Spirit that Saint Francis had.  The Pope says, “Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behavior. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters…”

I try to make sure I spend a little time each day outside to cultivate the openness to awe and wonder.  I want to continue to learn the language of fraternity with God’s creation and creatures.  I want to see, appreciate and share the beauty of the world.  I want to be a grateful participant in the crucible of the Spirit.

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