Regis Martin, S.T.D., is a professor of theology and a faculty associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.
I leave to the experts an exact inventory, but by my reckoning there are over 90 references to creation in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), only six of which are less than glowing. And these, testifying as they do to the disorders into which we have fallen, remind us of a good thing gone bad, that the evil we do is not the fault of anything God made, but rather our perverse and sinful misuse of it. “Lilies that fester,” as Shakespeare would say, smell worse than weeds.”
The point is, when God first made man in his image and likeness, he was the loveliest lily of them all. But sin, in its festering stench, has left its smell upon him, and the result, owing to so malodorous an influence, has made him worse than any weed. But if one were to draw upon the content of the Church’s faith, what used to be called her depositum fidei, the evidence would prove overwhelming on the score of the world’s basic and abiding goodness. A goodness, moreover, whose source could only have been God himself, the Supreme Good.
“And God saw that it was good,” we are repeatedly told in the Book of Genesis. Which he intended as pure gift, entrusting to us all that he made, both to rejoice in and to care for.
Indeed, it is the great and enduring truth on which the whole of Sacred Scripture opens. That the world we inhabit is a created place, thus chockful of meaning and purpose. Not a single particle of which, by the way, does the world give to itself; instead, it receives all from Another, from God.
Everything speaks to us of God. Not only does Dante speak to us of God, as the English essayist and craftsman Eric Gill was fond of saying, “so do the daises, the dew drops and the dung.” The world is thus a kind of sacrament, whose material configuration points to, signifies, the presence of Another, of the very One who both brought it all into being and, from moment to moment, sustains it all effortlessly above an abyss of absolute nothingness. “We are,” writes Frank Sheed, founder and guiding spirit of the Catholic Evidence Guild, “so many examples of nothingness brought into being — held in being — by Omnipotence.” Who, at every turn along the great wheel of existence, summons us to take pleasure in, indeed to bask, amid so many good and beautiful things. “All things counter, original, spare, strange,” to recall those lovely lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins, set down in “Pied Beauty”:
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change;
It is our task, therefore, to acknowledge this primal work of God, the Supreme Artist, whose signature is splayed upon a canvas left not in the least bit empty, but teeming everywhere with unmistakable signs and wonders of his grandeur. Thus we are privileged to live in a world where all that exists will, for anyone with eyes to see, “flame out,” in Fr. Hopkins’ exultant phrase, “like shining from shook foil; / It gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil / Crushed.”
And why does the world not implode? What keeps it from a final shipwreck? Given the essential fragility of the thing, why doesn’t it self-destruct? Because, for all the depredations of wicked men, for all that we persist in profaning so precious and fragile a creation, there yet lives, as Hopkins reminds us, “the dearest freshness deep down things:”
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
If the world can only exist, only keep its tenuous hold on being, due to the ministrations of the Holy Ghost, who not only hovers above but penetrates deep within the created universe, then surely the primary obligation we have is that of giving thanks, of gratitude to God for a gift we could never ourselves give. To be thankful to God for the inestimable privilege of being alive. Can there ever be any percentage in being dead? What on earth has mere extinction to commend?
“When it comes to life,” Chesterton tells us, “the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” That is the essential distinction, it seems to me, the affirmation that guarantees everything. That there is a God — the great I AM WHO AM of Exodus 3 — who positively delights in making beings be. So that even in our brokenness we are able to see, looking through the lens of the world with God’s own eyes, that this most delicate creation remains his handiwork and that, until the final trumps, it is the very best possible place to be. Praise him.