«For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.»
In a recent talk on salvation, Bishop Kallistos Ware spoke of four aspects of salvation: personal, organic, communal, and cosmic. In speaking of the cosmic dimension of salvation he quoted from a prayer at the time of earthquakes: «The earth, although without words, yet groans and cries aloud, ‘Why all you people, do you pollute me with so many evils?'» His Grace went on to give a definition of man as «the one who can give thanks.» A Christian is a person who gives thanks, whose mode of being is that of being thankful. It is this attitude of thankfulness that enables us to be transformed from a polluter of the earth to one who takes care of the earth. It is not possible for one with a eucharistic attitude to treat poorly the gifts one has been given.
What is the internal mechanism that inspires a sense of thankfulness? It is, I believe, a sense of wonder. In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus is presented in the temple and is given into the arms of Simeon, Simeon cries out, «Now, Master, let your servant depart in peace.» The text is familiar to Orthodox as the opening line of the Song of Simeon sung at Vespers each night. In a hymn at Vespers of the feast of the Meeting of the Lord, celebrated on February 2, the liturgical tradition of the Church offers us an expansion of that idea, a different view, a way of responding to our own growing awareness of the presence of Christ whether or not we are as old as Simeon. In that text Simeon is given to say: «Let your servant depart from the bonds of this flesh to the life filled with wonder.»
We shouldn’t focus too closely on these words as the release of an old man now ready to die. As so often, the Church gives us these words as a way to enlighten our way no matter what our age or condition. They are meant for all of us. We are all meant to pray that we may exchange the bonds of this flesh for a life of wonder.
What are the «bonds of this flesh» from which we are to depart? This does not refer to the body. The body, a temple filled with the Holy Spirit, is not anything from which we wish to depart. No, it is the limited vision, blindness even, created by the presence of sin that constitutes the bonds of this flesh. What Simeon cries out for here is the exchange of one condition, that of blindness, for another condition, that of wonder, made possible by the incarnation of Christ.
What is the basis of this «life of wonder»? At the very root of it all is the wonder that anything exists at all. We exist, everything exists, as a manifestation of the love of God. All of creation, every single atom of it, and each being that the single atoms join together to form, is an energy of God, the fullness of God totally present without the slightest diminishment. How is it possible that we humans, we Christians, defined by our ability to thank, are not constantly on our knees giving thanks for this extraordinary gift? Are not unceasingly in awe, raising our hands in praise? Are not uninterruptedly enthralled, dancing before the Ark of this creation? It is this sense of wonder, this awe, this enthrallment that, when realized, makes it impossible to «pollute the earth with so many evils.»
It is all too easy for us to divide the creation into convenient repositories. Some portions of it we see as wonderful places of beauty worthy of being preserved, or places close to where we live which should be kept clean. In these we place our sense of reverence, awe, and care. But there are other places that carry the opposite value in our minds. These are the places far away, or not fitting some standard of beauty that we have, which for lack of care, reverence and awe can serve as dumping grounds for the pollution our spiritual blindness has created.
As Christians we cannot make such divisions. God is one. If the energies of His love constitute the very nature of all reality as well as of every part, there is not place on earth, not a single drop, that does not fully embody His love. So, to drop a gum wrapper on the street of an inner city denies the presence of God as much as filling the Grand Canyon with toxic waste. There is no place that escapes the love of God. Not one. Every place is deserving of our wonder. Every place bears God. Again, Simeon comes to mind. In the Orthodox Church he is given the title of «God-bearer.» Simeon is a type for all of creation. It is all God-bearing. We are all God-bearing.
The physical sense called to mind most often in developing a sense of wonder is the sense of sight. Others are involved but most often sight is called into play. Once more we are reminded of Simeon. He says: «…for mine eyes have seen your salvation.» Our eyes also need to see with wonder. Simeon had spent his life waiting for the Light to the Gentiles. He prayed for it daily. So do we need to pray for the sight of wonder. And along with praying we need to engage in the daily conversion of life, metanoia, daily changing our way of seeing, opening our eyes in wonder. And with the gift from God of wondrous sight, we will be enabled to perform the God given, human task of giving words to the groans and loud cries of earth, and together our words, and the groans and cries of earth will join together by the power of the Spirit and the call will not be able to go unheeded. Bishop Kallistos reminds us that we are saved with creation, not in spite of it. We, with or sense of wonder, offer creation to God. «Your own of Your own we offer to You, on behalf of all and for all.»
By Robert Flanagan
[Robert Flanagan, head librarian at the Camden County Library, Voorhees, NJ, is a member of the Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross, Medford, NJ.