The Meeting Place of Our Heart – Br. Nicholas Bartoli

Br. Nicholas Bartoli

Genesis 1:20-2:4

While growing up, I was fascinated by questions like “What does it mean to be a human being? What makes us who we are? Why are we the way are?” I would read a lot of sociology, anthropology, psychology, and probably a few more “ologies” I can’t remember at the moment. And it was all very interesting, if ultimately not quite as enlightening as I had hoped. And I remember often encountering one particular sort of statement about human beings that would always give me pause, a doubtful, skeptical kind of pause. It was the kind of statement that would compare humans, usually very favorably, to other forms of life on our planet.

Typically, they would highlight our superior intelligence or some quality that seemed unique to us like consciousness, or perhaps our gifts of language or culture or art. But I was always suspicious of such statements, especially when used to justify placing the needs of our fellow creatures a very distant second to our own needs. In some cases, it isn’t even entirely clear we have much to support our argument for specialness. For example, many neuroscientists would admit that something like consciousness or even intelligence is very hard to define, especially nowadays while we’re trying to develop artificial varieties of those attributes.

So, you could imagine my reaction when I first encountered these words from Genesis, quoting God speaking to humans: “…be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Those words struck me as having a very “us vs them” quality about them, and it seemed to imply a one-sided relationship between us humans and the earth, and all that is in it. And worse still, it’s the kind of language that has been used to justify an uncaring and abusive attitude to the earth’s other inhabitants, whether creatures of land, sea, or air, or the land, sea, and air themselves. This has led to all sorts of problems like climate change, toxic pollution, habitat loss, accelerated extinctions, and a reduction in biodiversity, to name just a few. And these problems tie into other issues we need to wrestle with like energy use and production, food production and distribution, and how we obtain and use resources like timber and metals, not to mention, of course, the issue of over consumption in general.

Imploring us to address these problems, I often hear rallying cries speak to our sense of self-interest and preservation. An alarm bell is sounded, drawing our attention to the fact that our well-being is intimately tied to the health of the earth’s many ecosystems. And this is certainly true and compelling, but what I feel is most important in fostering a right relationship within the natural world is a mutuality recognizing the intrinsic beauty and worth of all concerned.

St. Francis looked at the world this way, and he would often describe this relationship with the earth and its creatures using intimate terms like mother, father, brother, or sister. Reflecting on this, Pope Francis, writes: “Such a conviction cannot be written off as naïve 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, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled…Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.”

Pope Francis’ urgent message is nothing less than a call for all of us into enter into this radical relationship modelled by Saint Francis. It’s a call to let ourselves fall in love with the mystery of creation, allowing the fruits of that love to shape how we view and interact with our reality. Of course, the question remains, how do we go about seeing the world this way, seeing the world through God’s eyes as St. Francis did. Well, Pope Francis did give us a clue when he said “… the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated…”

Christianity enjoys a rich and ancient tradition of the practice of contemplation, some form of which can be traced back to the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the third or fourth centuries, our monastic forbears who retreated into the solitude of the desert. In the sixth century, Saint Gregory the Great described contemplation as the knowledge of God that is impregnated with love, or just simply “resting in God.” And Thomas Merton, the twentieth-century Trappist monk wrote that contemplation is “a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant source,” and “Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that source.” Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest, was probably the most succinct — he simply called it “awareness.”

The contemplation of nature, in particular, was made popular by a fourth-century monk named Evagrius Ponticus, who gave us a number of different ways we might encounter and relate to ourselves, the world, and God along our spiritual journey. In relating to ourselves he outlined the practical matter of our repentance, turning to God for help in freeing ourselves from the passionate impulses keeping us trapped in the illusion of separation from God. He would sometimes describe this as the purifying of one’s heart. And it was in this context that Evagrius described how we may come into a  relationship with the world he called the contemplation of nature. Kallistos Ware, a priest and theologian, in his book The Orthodox Way, described the contemplation of nature as when Christians sharpen their “perception of the ‘isness’ of created things, and so discover the Creator present in everything.”

This perception of “isness” or suchness of all there is, is like an awareness purified of whatever may keep us from seeing as our Beloved God sees. In that sense, it’s related to Evagrius’ idea that we must purify ourselves of all sorts of distracting impulses, thoughts, and behaviors so that we may see ourselves and rest of the world more clearly, opening the door for our contemplation of nature, an experience of full communion with every blade of grass, each rock and stone, a flower or a tree, a rustle of leaves in the wind, a small sliver of sunlight, or a long and dusky shadow. When we ourselves become more transparent to Christ’s light we fall in love with love itself, and see the world through God’s eyes, recognizing the hidden light of Christ in all things.

Of this presence of God in creation, Pope Francis writes “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things. Saint Bonaventure teaches us that ‘contemplation deepens the more we feel the working of God’s grace within our hearts, and the better we learn to encounter God in creatures outside ourselves.”

And if we happened to still be interested in what it is that makes human beings special, we could probably do worse than to consider this kind of awareness, this bridging of the material and spiritual, earth and heaven, that homo sapiens seems blessed with. It’s true, we often forget amidst all our distractions, but we read in Genesis, in the same passage where it talks about our dominion over all things, that God says “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; … So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them;” Being made in God’s image means we are children of God as Jesus was, inheriting Jesus’ ministry of reflecting and recognizing the light of Christ in the world. And by this simple act of recognition it becomes perfectly natural that in God’s Kingdom, our kingdom, our dominion is one of relating to all of creation as intimately as mother, father, brother, sister.

Kallistos Ware describes our unique role this way: “[We stand] at the heart of God’s creation. Participating as [we do] in both the noetic and the material realms, [we are] an image or mirror of the whole creation, imago mundi, a ‘little universe’ or microcosm. All created things have their meeting-place in [the human heart].”

So how do we encourage this recognition, this awareness of who we are as God’s image, mirror, and meeting-place. Well, it probably helps to give ourselves over completely to the Holy One and let God live through us as people of prayer. Offering God our real presence leaves us open to the grace of awareness, of seeing ourselves and the world as God sees them. And what we see is infinitely beautiful and precious beyond words, a place where earth and heaven meet, where peace and joy meet, where the light of Christ and Spirit of Love meet.

At this point, I could offer some suggestions on potentially useful prayer practices, but we can start with something much more simple. Whenever you happen to remember, just notice the presence of a humble tree, or feel your weight patiently supported by a generous ground; stop and listen to what the wind says, or gently gaze upon the beauty of the moon; delight before the glory of a flower, or spend some time with a few flirtatious clouds; taste the rain as it falls from the sky, or pause for a moment and consider a stone at rest; slowly relish the warmth of sunlight kissing your face, or see your own reflection shimmering in a pool of still water. Because, you never know who you might meet.

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  1. Jeanne DeFazio on February 8, 2019 at 09:44

    Brother Nicholas, I will never forget going to Assisi and climbing up the hill from the train station to the town at night in full view of the Moon and recalling St Francis beautiful Canticle on Nature and our kinship with the Sun Moon and the Stars. Thanks for reminding me today that we are part of the universe and our love and respect for nature is part of understanding of that spiritual reality.

    God bless you!

  2. Sally Baynton on February 8, 2019 at 08:54

    Every Tuesday, I take a dear friend for her chemotherapy. This is her second bout of Ovarian Cancer. I remember when she first found out about her cancer, she immediately wondered, “Why did God give me this disease?” I was quick to tell her that God did NOT give her the disease. Our precious Earth has been wounded so badly, that this is the infection from those wounds. I am 68-years-old…my parents’ friends did NOT die of these cancers, Sure, many died of lung disease from smoking all their lives. But, the diseases we face today are new and they come as, I humbly believe, a direct result of our abuse of everything in this world. This is only going to get worse until we decide to love our planet and all that is on it. When I work in the yard, I thank the trees for their shade, I thank the animals for their delight, and I make sure to contemplate the God who put all these things within our grasp. Thank you, Br. Nicholas, for this precious homily!

  3. Patricia Betts on July 11, 2018 at 00:35

    Thank you, Brother. My plan is to become more contemplative and this homily was an

  4. Claudia Booth on July 10, 2018 at 21:40

    Brother Nicholas,
    That was a beautiful sermon, very helpful as I prepare to teach on prayer. Glad to have affirmation of things I have learned over many years.

  5. rev. carol carlson on July 9, 2018 at 12:24

    I don’t ever expect, like Paul in this week’s Epistle, to be caught up to the third heaven and hear things not to be told, but when I go out with the dogs on an early morning in the mountains, everything around me on our tiny ‘farm’ speaks, in its own language, of both its own perfection and the glory and the nearness of God. Just standing or sitting there in the midst of such richness, clarity and beauty is an exercise in contemplation and humility. As we contemplate, too, the nearness of our own destruction, in a world where madmen have their fingers on the nuclear trigger, such moments are sometimes all that sustains the possibility of hope – we may destroy ourselves, but perhaps the trees will survive to give the Creator the praise we refused….. Thank you, Br. Nicholas.

  6. Janeen Barnett on July 9, 2018 at 07:47

    Love all of it.

  7. Polly Chatfield on July 9, 2018 at 06:57

    Dear Nicolas, thank you for the poem which is your last paragraph. In every way our world supports us. How can we not be grateful every breathing minute!

  8. Ruth West on February 20, 2017 at 11:44

    Br. Nicholas, it is so obvious by reading this homily that you are a deep thinker. There is so much evidence of searching, digging deeply into the creation, and concluding with truths in this. Thanks.
    I love the Psalms whose authors are so aware of God as the creator. Psalm 96 is a great example:
    “Let the heavens rejoice; let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy…”
    But in all that praise of those wonderful created things, we must, as you have said, remember the Light of Christ, the love He is and gives. St. Paul in Corinthians 13 tells us that even if we have all knowledge, it will pass away. Love is the key, love for God, for one another, and for all that He has made. Praise be His Holy Name!

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