Fish Eaters: The Whys and Hows of Traditional Catholicism


``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D



The Book of Nature


  




Imagine being one of the early humans raised without memory of Eden and without exposure to the revelations given to men like Abraham and Moses. Then imagine how you would have experienced the natural world!  Death, birth, thunder, lightning, solar eclipses, the power of the seas -- these things must have inspired wonder, confusion, and, most importantly, awe. Early man attributed such phenomena to preternatural powers he thought he saw in them, sometimes seeing the phenomena themselves as gods and worshiping such things as the stars and fire as deities in their own right. His in-built religious impulse caused him to imagine gods -- many, many gods. Gods of thunder, of rain, of harvest -- an almost endless variety of gods populated the ancient world, and the stories told about them shaped cultures and, later, civilizations. The ancient Mesopotamians had their pantheons of gods, as did the Greeks and Romans that followed.

Then, around 600 years before Lord Christ was born, certain Greeks began speculating about the nature of nature in itself, as itself, as opposed to considering the natural world solely in terms of the random doings of their capricious gods. While still honoring those false gods, their questions changed in kind, going from the likes of "which gods move things?" to "of what are things made?" and "are there patterns to the way things change?"

Thales is the first individual known to history to have begun systemetizing such thought, thereby becoming the father of natural philosophy. Of him, St. Augustine wrote, in "City of God," Book VIII:

Thales was distinguished as an investigator into the nature of things; and, in order that he might have successors in his school, he committed his dissertations to writing. That, however, which especially rendered him eminent was his ability, by means of astronomical calculations, even to predict eclipses of the sun and moon. He thought, however, that water was the first principle of things, and that of it all the elements of the world, the world itself, and all things which are generated in it, ultimately consist.

St. Augustine goes on to describe the successor of Thales, a man called Anaximander, who "did not hold that all things spring from one principle, as Thales did, who held that principle to be water, but thought that each thing springs from its own proper principle. These principles of things he believed to be infinite in number, and thought that they generated innumerable worlds, and all the things which arise in them."

Then came Anaximenes, who thought all was made of "infinite air." He was followed by a line of thinkers who continued to theorize on the nature of things and which of the elements was primary: Anaxagoras, who, St. Augustine says, taught Diogenes, who taught Archelaus. Of their ideas, St. Basil wrote in his "On the Hexaemeron":

The philosophers of Greece have made much ado to explain nature, and not one of their systems has remained firm and unshaken, each being overturned by its successor. It is vain to refute them; they are sufficient in themselves to destroy one another.

Theirs was the problem of infinite regress, one that Fr. Joam Fenicio, S.J. wrote of many centuries later, after his encounter with a Hindu Brahmin in 1583 1:

[S]ome say that the earth rests upon the horn of a bull, while others (whose opinion is looked upon as a more probable one) say on the back of the cobra Ananta; and when I asked him: "Well, upon what does that cobra Ananta support itself?" he answered me: "On the back of a tortoise." "And, pray, upon what does that tortoise rest?"  He answered: "On top of eight elephants." "Well, and those eight elephants?" But then he smiled and told me not to ask any more, as he did not know how to answer.

The Greeks, though, found a way out of the so-called "turtles all the way down" problem of infinite regress: one of Archelaus's students was Socrates, who taught Plato, who taught Aristotle. These last three not only collectively formalized deductive reasoning, developed the Socratic method, and began to hypothesize about Forms, substance, essence, potential, etc., they, most importantly, finally discerned that there must be a transcendent First Cause, a Prime Mover that supercedes the natural world and brought it into being. They went beyond the physical to the metaphysical, and in all this, prepared the world for a deeper understanding of nature and of a concept the Greek philosophers honored: logos -- i.e., reason and divine order. St. Augustine says of the Platonic philosophers that they "recognized the true God as the Author of all things, the Source of the light of truth, and the bountiful bestower of all blessedness."

And in the meanwhile, as the great thinkers of Greece came to recognize the logical necessity of the Uncaused Cause, the Sibyls prophesied of the coming of His Son, Jesus Christ.

Then, in the year 1, God took on flesh and was born in Bethlehem. After the Babe became a man, suffered, was crucified, died, and conquered the tomb, St. John wrote of Him in his Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word [Logos] was with God, and the Word [Logos] was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him: and without Him was made nothing that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men... And the Word [Logos] was made flesh, and dwelt among us...

In the beginning -- when time itself began -- was the Divine Mind, and this Mind brought an orderly creation into being, ex nihilo. The notion that all that exists in the natural world reflects this truth is an approach that is momentous and unique to Christianity among the world's religions. Hinduism sees the world as illusion; Islam sees God as irrational and capricious; orthodox post-Temple Judaism is so self-focused that the natural world in itself is ignored; Buddhism sees our perception of reality as the false result of the belief that we are separate from other things. And on it goes. And none of these belief systems is conducive to science.

But the s
atisfaction of man's religious impulse and rational nature come together in the true Faith, and that Faith recognizes two "books" by which God can be known. The first is Sacred Scripture, a book that reveals truths about God that can only be known by divine revelation and which are accepted by faith on the authority of the Church; the second is the natural world, a "book" that reveals truths about God that can be known through the senses and reason. And never can there be any conflict between these two books if read correctly.

Sacred Scripture is full of verses that teach that there is, in essence, a second "book" for us to read. One of the most explicit of these is Wisdom 13:1-5:

But all men are vain, in whom there is not the knowledge of God: and who by these good things that are seen, could not understand Him that is, neither by attending to the works have acknowledged Who was the Workman: But have imagined either the fire, or the wind, or the swift air, or the circle of the stars, or the great water, or the sun and moon, to be the gods that rule the world. With whose beauty, if they, being delighted, took them to be gods: let them know how much the Lord of them is more beautiful than they: for the First Author of beauty made all those things. Or if they admired their power and their effects, let them understand by them, that He that made them, is mightier than they: For by the greatness of the beauty, and of the creature, the Creator of them may be seen, so as to be known thereby.

The writings of the Church Fathers and other early Christians are replete with this concept. Socrates Scholasticus, in Book IV of his Ecclesiastical History, recounts that St. Anthony of the Desert responded with these words to a philosopher who asked him how he can live without books:

My book, O philosopher, is the nature of things that are made, and it is present whenever I wish to read the words of God.

The theme is continued by St. Augustine, in a sermon on Matthew 11 (Sermon 68):

[Some], in order to find God, will read a book. Well, as a matter of fact there is a certain great big book, the book of created nature. Look carefully at it top and bottom, observe it, read it. God did not make letters of ink for you to recognize Him in; He set before your eyes all these things He has made. Why look for a louder voice? Heaven and earth cries out to you, "God made me." You can read what Moses wrote; in order to write it, what did Moses read, a man living in time? Observe heaven and earth in a religious spirit.

Origen, in the first Book of De Principiis, explains why this approach to God is appropriate to man:

Our eyes frequently cannot look upon the nature of the light itself — that is, upon the substance of the sun; but when we behold his splendour or his rays pouring in, perhaps, through windows or some small openings to admit the light, we can reflect how great is the supply and source of the light of the body. So, in like manner, the works of Divine Providence and the plan of this whole world are a sort of rays, as it were, of the nature of God, in comparison with His real substance and being. As, therefore, our understanding is unable of itself to behold God Himself as He is, it knows the Father of the world from the beauty of His works and the comeliness of His creatures.

Consider what this means with regard to the Beauty of God! The loveliness of nature is known to anyone with eyes, and it's so often truly -- quite literally -- breathtaking. But to move one's eyes from the gorgeousness of the sea's waves crashing on the shore; or from a Moon in a sky adorned by Taurus, Orion, and the Pleiades; or from a lush forest, thick with life -- to move the eyes from any of these to the Face of God Himself would be like looking away from a gentle ray of light streaming through your kitchen window, and then at the blazing Sun itself. What beauty is in store for the righteous! St. Robert Bellarmine captures this truth well in his "Mind's Ascent to God":

In this world then which comprehends the universality of things, there are many things which are altogether wonderful, but what doth more especially call for our admiration is their greatness, multitude, variety, efficaciousness, and beauty. All which being attentively weighed and considered (God enlightning the eyes of our understanding) will help us to a sight of a Greatness, Multitude, Variety, Power, and Beauty of such immensity that our souls will be ravished into transport and ecstasy in admiration of them, and when we shall sink to ourselves again, we shall look upon all things, but God, as mean and inconsiderable.







St. Augustine, in his Confessions, writes about how God's creation inspires virtue as well as knowledge. In particular for him, it is the book of the heavens that brings him to his knees in humility:

Let us look, O Lord, upon the heavens, the work of Your fingers; clear from our eyes that mist with which You have covered them. There is that testimony of Yours which gives wisdom unto the little ones. Perfect, O my God, Your praise out of the mouth of babes and sucklings. Nor have we known any other books so destructive to pride, so destructive to the enemy and the defender, who resists Your reconciliation in defense of his own sins. I know not, O Lord, I know not other such pure words which so persuade me to confession, and make my neck submissive to Your yoke, and invite me to serve You for nought. Let me understand these things, good Father. Grant this to me, placed under them; because You have established these things for those placed under them.

From the Book of Nature we can gain insight to the beauty and nature of God, and be inspired to goodness. So pay attention to His works, and praise Him through your gratitude for them. As St. Bonaventure tells us in his The Mind's Road to God:

He, therefore, who is not illumined by such great splendor of created things is blind; he who is not awakened by such great clamor is deaf; he who does not praise God because of all these effects is dumb; he who does not note the First Principle from such great signs is foolish. Open your eyes therefore, prick up your spiritual ears, open your lips, and apply your heart, that you may see your God in all creatures, may hear Him, praise Him, love and adore Him, magnify and honor Him, lest the whole world rise against you.

I encourage Catholics to go out into nature and to be mindful of it, to observe it, and to glorify God for it -- i.e., to be grateful to the One Who made it. And I more than encourage Catholics with children or grandchildren to take those kids with them when they do. Because most children are being raised in urban settings and with an inordinate level of attention-grabbing digital technology, the lessons from the Book of Nature are being ignored. Gone, too, are the health benefits -- physical, intellectual, and psychological -- from spending time in nature. This is a tragedy.

The more you know about something, the more you can appreciate it,2 so learn about what you see when you go outside. Get field guides to the flora, rocks and minerals, birds, reptiles, insects, and other animals of your area. Learn about the lives of the living creatures, which of the flora are edible, how to track the animals, etc. Teach your children to notice and know the names of the Winds, at least the cardinal ones; to tell time from the position of the Sun; to be able to orient themselves in space according to the Sun and stars3; to observe and understand the Moon's phases and the way the stars move.4 Trace with them the routes the creeks and rivers near you take on their way to the ocean.5 Teach them about the modern elements and the classical elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air). Even better, perhaps before outright teaching them certain things -- for ex., about the Moon's phases -- you can have them look and record their own observations, as if they're early natural philosophers determining for themselves the patterns they see over time.6

Just help your children and granchildren receive and retain the gift of wonder and the ability to marvel at the complexity, beauty, and order of the created world. Above all, help them acquire the virtue of gratitude to God for all He's given to us.


See also:

These pages:
These books from this site's Catholic Libary (pdf format):




Footnotes:

1 A Treatise on Hindu Cosmography from the Seventeenth Century, Jarl Charpentier, Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, University of London Vol. 3, No. 2 (1924), pp. 317-342. Online:  https://www.jstor.org/stable/607131

2 I'll share a personal anecdote about this: I'd always been squeamish about spiders. They gave me the heebie-jeebies. But then one year, I noticed a spider outside my window, and I started to really look at it. She'd come at the same time every night, almost to the minute, and build her web just on the other side of the glass. I started to become rather fascinated, to the point I'd actually anticipate her arrival. Then one day, she was gone, and I was really surprised at how sad I was. I did some research and learned she was an orb-weaver. I read all about them, watched videos about them, etc., and developed a real respect for the creatures. The next Summer, I found one on my porch, and watched again. I'd leave the porch light on just so it'd help attract bugs to her web, which I'd watch her build at night and take down in the morning. I even named her. When she went away to lay her eggs and die, it was almost like losing a pet. The next year, I had three spiders on my porch (perhaps last year's spider's children), living out their little spider lives, and all three got names. I saw them build, hunt, re-build, and even mate. Over time, the animals that used to freak me out became not only objects of fascination for me, but friends of sorts. My fear of them was gone, and my appreciation for their place in nature grew enormously. (I still don't want to touch one, mind you, or worse, have one touch me, but they're welcome on my porch anytime. Most welcome.)

3 To find North during the daytime when the Sun is out, drive a straight stick into smooth, even ground so it's as upright as possible. Follow the shadow of the stick out to the very end of the shadow, and place a marker -- e.g., a very small rock, a small twig stuck in the ground -- at the exact point the shadow ends. This point will mark West. Wait a while until the shadow moves. When it does, mark the very tip of the new shadow in the same way you did before. This point will mark East. Draw a straight line in the dirt to connect the two markers you made. That line marks out the East-West axis. From there, you can find the other two directions: with East at your right side, stand with your toes against the line that marks the East-West axis. Directly in front of you is North; behind you is South. The only trick to this is remembering that the first shadow marker will mark West; to remember this, remember "The West is the best," and, so, comes first. Of course, you can use any already existing slim shadow of an upright object to orient yourself in this way, but to have a Boy Scout-like method is nice.

See this site's section on the Zodiac.

5 Using Google Maps can help you trace rivers in this way. It really is interesting how the smallest of rivers almost always find their way to the sea. For ex., the route of the creek I grew up near in Indianapolis, Indiana has this path: Fall Creek flows into the White River, the White flows into the Wabash River, the Wabash flows into the Ohio River, the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi River, and the Mississippi flows into the sea at the Gulf of Mexico.

6 For teaching your children about the phases of the Moon, one idea is to provide them with sheets on which are placed 31 circles per month (some of which won't be used, of course). Over the course of three months (maybe during Summer vacation), have them go outside each night, observe, and color in the Moon with a pencil according to the phase it's in. I provide a pdf of three months' worth of "Moon circles" for you to use: moonphases.pdf.



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