A study published this week offers startling facts about the behaviour of 62 mammal species – from opossums to elephants. Because of fear of humans, more and more animals are shifting their activity to nighttime in order to avoid encounters with humans. In parts of Africa, antelopes are more active at night – even though they’re more likely to be attacked by lions at night! So they’re more afraid of humans than they are of lions. And it’s not just human hunters that animals are afraid of. They increasingly seek to avoid contact with normal human activities!
Many people, even Christians, find the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading to be naive and irrelevant to our lives. Really? Jesus really expects us to be like birds of the air and lilies of the field, caring not for tomorrow, trusting that God will provide?
Perhaps the words are naive if they are taken literally. People who take everything in the Bible literally often end up seeming ridiculous to their friends and associates. Jesus is not telling us to be irresponsible and lazy. Have you ever really observed birds and animals? How hard they work to provide their basic needs? Birds, animals, insects, and yes, flowers of the field, work. Jesus’ message is not about waiting for handouts. Jesus’ message is about anxiety. Don’t be anxious. Work, take care of your responsibilities to the best of your talent and physical ability. But never lose hope, no matter how bad things appear. Don’t be anxious. Anxiety kills the spirit. Anxiety destroys your strength. Anxiety easily leads to depression and despair. Anxiety kills!
The animals that shift their essential activities to nighttime show us the wisdom of avoiding conflict, stress, anxiety. They become teachers to us of the same message Jesus preached. There is wisdom in nature. There is strength in nature. Environmentalists have been mocked as “tree huggers.” Every time you mock someone or something you may be missing at an opportunity to learn a means to harmony. Perhaps hugging a tree is more therapeutic than 20 sessions with a therapist at $200 a session. Or one of those empowering weekends that baby boomers spend thousands of dollars attending in the hope of enlightenment and stress relief. Learn from the birds and the flowers and the trees, Jesus tells us. And it will cost you nothing.
Two of the most enlightened men that this country has produced are Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Merton. Both lived in close contact with nature, and their brilliant books are filled with the wisdom of nature. Thoreau lived by Walden Pond and there wrote his most famous book. He traveled the forests of Maine, the rivers of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. He preferred the solitude of the wild to being around humans. Merton was a monk. And he was as much an observer of nature as Thoreau. These two men represent the best of America, in my opinion.
To go out to walk silently in this wood—this is a more important and significant means to understanding…than a lot of analysis and a lot of reporting on the things “of the spirit.”
Questions of liturgy, questions of psychology, questions of history. Are they the right questions? In the woods there are other questions and other answers, for in the woods the whole world is naked and directly present, with no monastery to veil it.
Why do I live alone? I don’t know.…I cannot have enough of the hours of silence when nothing happens. When the clouds go by. When the trees say nothing. When the birds sing. I am completely addicted to the realisation that just being there is enough, and to add something else is to mess it all up… I can only desire this absurd business of trees that say nothing, of birds that sing, of a field in which nothing ever happens (except perhaps that a fox comes and plays, or a deer passes by). This is crazy. It is lamentable. I am flawed, I am nuts. I can’t help it. Here I am, now,…happy as a coot. The whole business of saying I am flawed is a lie. I am happy. I cannot explain it.…Freedom… This is what the woods mean to me. I am free, free, a wild being, and that is all that I ever can really be. I am dedicated to it, addicted to it, sworn to it, and sold to it. It is the freedom in me that loves you.…
I am telling you: this life in the woods is IT. It is the only way. It is the way everybody has lost.…It is life, this thing in the woods.
It is life, this thing in the woods – for Merton, but maybe not for you or me. We must every one of us find what life is for each of us. Don’t be quick to reject or overlook the wisdom that God has planted in all the unexpected places. Don’t be quick to call Jesus naive. He didn’t speak as a philosopher, or a scientist, or a theologian. He was wisdom incarnate. Wisdom in the flesh. Don’t be anxious. Don’t complicate things with big fancy words of theology. There is a deeper wisdom in each of us, if we could only take a break from our anxious, busy, gadget-filled lives.