Understanding sometimes comes while I’m walking a tabby cat, a golden retriever and a Cavalier spaniel on a quiet street under a full moon, with the jingle of a collar to accompany the counting of my blessings.
Al Pacino and Sophia nose along on leashes while Walter trots nearby. Often we are shadowed by a black cat that follows from a distance like a scout escorting a wagon train.
On walks with the family pets, I find it easy to remember how one person can bless another without even knowing it.
Jennifer Fulwiler is one of the people who have blessed me unawares. In blogging about her journey from atheism to the Catholic faith, Jennifer has strewn my own path with presents in the same way that crushed glass mixed with asphalt makes a moonlit road look paved with glitter. Moreover, thanks to her straightforward style, Jennifer never forces her readers to become Riders of the Purple Page.
The essay “Special Yet Small” describes her first attempts to come to grips with the night sky. It was written as a look back on her own thought to a time when she had accepted the possibility of God as Creator, but not yet as Father. The question of scale was a sticking point. What Jennifer wanted to know, she writes, is “if mankind has such a huge role to play in all of creation, then what’s up with all these other stars and planets?”
In other words, in a playground the size of the universe, why would God bother with us? Why do we live on what Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards call “The Privileged Planet“?
Biologists and astronomers point out that our whole solar system seems uniquely structured to protect Earth and help people learn about the nature of the cosmos. One visitor to Jennifer’s blog raised the stakes even higher by remarking that in order for us to exist, the whole universe has to be the size that it is, because “If it were smaller it would blow apart before having time to create the second-generation stars that we need to be the sun for us, [and] if it were bigger it would have collapsed into a black hole before becoming big enough for us.” As intriguing as such observations are, they go no further than science itself can.
How then to account for the Incarnation, for a God whom Jesus told us to pray to as “Daddy,” or for the life and mission of Christ as summarized in scripture verses like John 3:16?
That Jesus would do what he did for us is an immensely humbling thought. What I have slowly come to realize is that even the people close to Jesus are worthy of admiration.
Start with the small stuff: I can’t keep my retriever from lunging after a tennis ball, much less tame a wolf the way Saint Francis did, befriend a lion (per Saint Jerome), or cajole a bear into carrying a backpack as Saint Corbinian is reputed to have done, in an exploit that would have been forgotten outside Bavaria had it not found its way onto the papal coat of arms.
Remember Pope Benedict’s visit to America? The pundit Spengler was so impressed by what Benedict said then that he borrowed a scriptural image to describe the papal message as “I’ve got a mustard seed and I’m not afraid to use it.” Confidence like that can only be found where little people embrace, and are embraced by, big truths.
It was Benedict, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who first schooled me on the cosmic implications of the liturgical calendar kept by the Church. Without him, I’d have missed the significance of celebrating the birthday of John the Baptist as the days begin to shorten, and the birthday of Jesus six months later, as the days begin to lengthen. Benedict explained John’s “He must increase, but I must decrease” in a way that tied Jesus and John to us and to what the ancients called the “music of the spheres.” In so doing, he taught me to hear reverberations I had never heard before.
That is rarefied air, however, and on dog walks I think more about blog posts than about books. Interestingly, what Jennifer asked about our place in the scheme of things has the same tone of puzzled awe that Elizabeth had when greeting Mary (in Luke 1:43) with the exclamation “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
People are not the only recipients of providential care. The sun rises on the evil and the good; the rain falls on the just and on the unjust, and every dog has his day. Re-frame Jennifer’s question, and it is still possible to ask why so many lilies of the field outshine even King Solomon in all his glory.
The answer has to do with God’s out-sized generosity. What we often regard as extravagance is better understood as love.
Consider the insights of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, who like other songwriters can sometimes be sublime theologians. When I hear “So much love to make up, everywhere you turn, love we have wasted on the way; so much water moving underneath the bridge, let the water come and carry us away,” I can’t help but think in terms of what sounds like joyful abandonment to baptismal imagery. There is no such thing as wasted love, only wasted opportunity. But surrender of the kind implied in that song is the kind of thing that can only be offered after you walk through a dark night.
We are perhaps closer to answering Jennifer’s question, although it boggles the mind to think that the creator of the universe also delights in being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not to mention the God of Cathleen, Leslie, Chuck, Suzanne, and countless other people.
Trying to understand why God loves us as He does, I went back to scripture via the pope, and found this: “The true God is, of his own nature, being-for (Father), being-from (Son), and being-with (Holy Spirit),” Benedict wrote in Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions. Moreover, “Man is in the image of God precisely because the being for, from, and with constitute the basic anthropological shape.”
That insight is yet another blessing, and another reason to continue walking pets past the orange halos of street lights through deepening gradations of blue while Ursa Major patrols the night sky, a big bear as enduring as the faithful dog that followed Tobias and the archangel Raphael in the Book of Tobit.