Ancient Answers


Thoreau’s Conscience

Every time I turn to the Journals of Henry David Thoreau, I always find the wisdom that I need in my life and is so sadly lacking in our world of experts and talking heads. Here is a sampling from my perusals today.

In his journal entry for August 18, 1854, he describes in great anatomical detail a Blanding’s turtle, Cistuda blandingii, and its movements. But then he concludes this journal entry with this paragraph:

I have just been through the process of killing the cistudo for the sake of science – but I cannot excuse myself for this murder, and see that such actions are inconsistent with the poetic perception, however they may serve science, and will affect the quality of my observations. I pray that I may walk more innocently and serenely through nature. No reasoning whatever reconciles me to this act. It affects my day injuriously. I have lost some self respect. I have a murderer’s experience in a degree.

This is how deeply Thoreau cared about the life around him – not just human life, but the life of all living beings in nature, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Every time I see magnificent animals in the wilds of Africa and Asia killed by poachers for profit and to satisfy the immoral desires of rich Americans and Chinese; every time I see images of wounded and abused animals here in our towns and neighborhoods; I wonder how horrible human beings are. Nothing of his troubled conscience troubles us, as we place the needs of our “lifestyle” above the survival of the very planet that is our home. No wonder Saint Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “I pray that I may walk more innocently and serenely through nature,” Thoreau wrote to himself. Who among us prays such a prayer?

On June 10, 1857, Thoreau observed a snake:

In Julius Smith’s yard a striped snake (so called) was running about this forenoon and in the afternoon it was found to have shed its slough – leaving it halfway out a hole, which probably it used to confine it in. It was about in its new skin. Many creatures – devil’s needles, etc., etc. – cast their sloughs. Can’t I?

Indeed, Why can’t I? Why can’t I cast off the old nature and put on the new? Isn’t that Christ’s teaching? Aren’t those the words we pray at the Sacrament of Baptism? Are they just words? Is baptism just a ritual, just a photo op for a baby and godparents and parents? Does anything still have meaning in what we do as a church? Why can’t I? Why can’t we cast off the old and put on the new? Are we really Christians? Or just pagans in church disguise?

And one more entry, this one for August 21, 1851. A beautiful philosophical reflection on our bond with nature and all life – though Thoreau sees it more in animals rather than human beings. How do we relate to the animals and plant life that we feed on?

It is remarkable that animals are often obviously manifestly related to the plants which they feed upon or live among – as caterpillars – butterflies – tree toads – partridges – chewinks – and this afternoon I noticed a yellow spider on a goldenrod. As if every condition might have its expression in some form of animated being.

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A Rainbow for All

What a relief! The church lectionary skips about ten chapters in the Book of Isaiah and we jump today to chapter 25, a wonderful pause from God’s apocalyptic threats. Here instead we find again the image of God as savior and provider for the poor and the suffering. It is the perfect companion to today’s reading in Genesis 9:8-17.


The Flood is followed by the rainbow as a covenant that God makes with the earth and all flesh. That covenant unfolds throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, taking on deeper meaning at each turn. Indeed, one of the most rewarding studies that one can make of the scriptures is precisely to follow the evolution of God’s covenant with humanity and its culmination with the story of Jesus the Christ. But surely one of the most beautiful places to stop in any examination of God’s covenants is in our Isaiah reading for today, 25:1-9.

God is “a refuge to the poor” and “to the needy in their distress.” And Isaiah aims for the poetic and spiritual heights when he writes:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
    a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
    of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
    the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
    the sheet that is spread over all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
    and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the Lord has spoken.

So much that we hear in the New Testament comes from right here. The images of the eschatological feast that Jesus so often used in his parables; the destruction of death; and the wiping away of all tears. Indeed, at the very end of the Christian bible, in Revelation 21:3-5, we hear:

“Behold, the dwelling of God is among men.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

And then: he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”

God is always doing something new; it is we humans who seem to prefer to be stuck in old ways. In Isaiah 43:18-19, too, we read:

“Remember not the former things,
    nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.

feedingthemultitudeFrom beginning to end, God does not cease to be creative; God does not cease to be ever and always ‘new’! Who knows what new things God will accomplish. Too bad for those people of faith who think that God is finished with us and all that remains is for us to “go home.” I’m not in a hurry to see the human race “go home.” This earth is too beautiful, the universe waits for us to discover it and travel in it. And closer to home – this home – God waits for us to eradicate poverty, to confront global climate change, and to ensure everyone has access to food and clean water, etc. Why is it that the people who wait for the “Rapture” or other tickets ‘home’ don’t seem to care about the problems of this world? Do they think that God will simply give us a free pass and allow us to destroy this planet with which he established an everlasting covenant and just take us ‘home’?

No, our job is not finished and God is not finished. Yes, there is “a new heaven and a new earth” promised (Revelation 21:1), but that promise is not a permission for us to ignore this heaven and earth. Let’s not forget that the same book of Revelation rewards the prophets and saints “for destroying the destroyers of the earth” (Rev 11:18), and the earth itself saves the woman from the dragon in chapter 12 (verse 16).

the-sign-of-the-covenantThe rainbow is for all flesh upon the earth – this earth – and the “feast of rich food” of Isaiah 25 is right here; not the leftovers and the crumbs that we give to charity. “The shroud that is cast over all people, the sheet that is spread over all nations” – is there a better description for the gloom and doom that pervades so much of the news we get from all quarters of the globe every day? Don’t these words judge our own actions and inactions? Tell me in all honesty. Is there any excuse for Christians to support the policies of the market and the insatiable drive for profit that defines the movement of money, food and resources in our modern world? Why do so many Bible-believing Christians (as they claim to be) feel right at home in the gluttony and exploitation of contemporary capitalism? Forget they myth of the “Rapture”, dear brothers and sisters. Aim instead to avoid being “destroyers of the earth”!

Our priorities should be the same as God’s priorities, especially as God revealed those priorities in the teaching and ministry of Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, God “will swallow up death forever” and “will wipe away the tears from all faces.” Yes, that is for God and God alone to do. We cannot eliminate death and it is impossible for us to wipe away all tears. But can we work to wipe away some of the tears that water this planet every day? The rainbow is for all. The covenant is not one-sided. We are coworkers with God (1 Corinthians 3:9). God will continue to do “a new thing” as long as there is life on this planet. Strive to be involved in the next “new thing” that God does. It could be something in your neighborhood. It could be something in the Middle East. It could be deep in your own heart. Hallelujah, for the Lord God reigneth!

A common meal on the walls of the Catacombs of St. Priscilla in Rome - a vision of the feast promised by God. May every eucharistic meeting in our churches be an image of this feast and its universal openness!

A common meal on the walls of the Catacombs of St. Priscilla in Rome (3rd century): A vision of the feast promised by God. May every eucharistic meeting in our churches be an image of this feast and its universal openness!