Waiting With Creation - Advent Retreat 1
An op-ed in the New York Times this week argues that emotional and psychological discomfort should not always and primarily be treated as mind-related but instead through paying greater attention to our body. This, of course, is a well-known principle, but the angle adopted by this article is intriguing. It makes this point by using the image of “body budgeting”: we can function properly thanks to a variety of more or less unconscious processes whereby our body’s needs are predicted before they arise (technically this process is called ‘allostasis’). “Consider -says the author- what happens when you’re thirsty and drink a glass of water. The water takes about 20 minutes to reach your bloodstream, but you feel less thirsty within mere seconds. What relieves your thirst so quickly? Your brain does. … It has learned from past experience that water is a deposit to your body budget that will hydrate you, so your brain quenches your thirst long before the water has any direct effect on your blood”. This means that our brain is constantly busy catering for our body and, conversely, that any hiccup in the body budgeting process has an impact on our moods, and more generally on our self-perception.
Whenever I am dealing with negative thoughts or feelings of anger, anxiety, and sadness, I am right to engage in some thinking in the search of objectivity. These thoughts and feelings, however, are also part of the ways in which our brain calculates, “anticipates and budgets [our] metabolic needs”. A negative emotional spiral can simply mean that I have not paid sufficient attention to my body budgeting, neglected or over-indulged it. The author of this article argues that our “burden may feel lighter if [we] understand [our psychological and emotional] discomfort as something physical. When an unpleasant 3 thought pops into your head, like ‘I can’t take this craziness anymore’, ask yourself body-budgeting questions. ‘Did I get enough sleep last night? Am I dehydrated? Should I take a walk? Call a friend? Because I could use a deposit or two in my body budget”.
This idea of body budgeting has wider implications. Every atom of our organism comes from our environment and is given back to it, not just once when we are born and when we die, but throughout our life, through breathing, eating, drinking and in countless other ways. Up to 60% of our body is made up of water, we get D vitamin from the sun, receive warmth from fire, eat the produce of the earth, inhale oxygen from the air – the list is long. We do not just need these elements to be alive, they are part of what or, better, who we are. We constantly borrow and give back water, earth, fire, and air to blend them in the make-up of our body until, at one point, we ourselves dissolve and blend in the greater body constituted by our environment and become part of other people, animals, fish, birds, planets, stars. The whole universe is one single body of which we are part and, as long as we are alive, the universe is part of our own body. Life in the modern world however does not help us to be aware of this connection.
I grew up in a rural village in the South of Italy where we were accustomed to pick fresh fruits directly from plant and trees. I vividly remember this middle aged city woman visiting whom I took for a walk in our orchard. She picked a peach from a tree and ate it in awe saying to me that this was the first time she had done this in her whole life. She knew that fruits come from trees, but having always lived in a city, she had never had the occasion to marvel at the miracle of earth, water, sun and air becoming the produce that gave her sustenance, life, and delight. She took them for granted, they came to her as the result of a purely transactional activity: if you want something to eat you just buy it! Our modern mindset has shaped our perception of ourselves as ‘subjects’, that is mentally autonomous entities floating over a field made of ‘objects’ at our disposal which we take and discard without any sense of belonging, accountability and especially gratitude.
Having lost this connection with our greater body, with nature, it is no surprise that we should be so careless with it, rapidly squandering and polluting it and thus compromising our own chances of survival. If water is poisoned, the balance of seasons altered, plants and animals extinct, if my larger body is compromised, my individual body budgeting is threatened. Just as I care about my teeth, my skin and make sure that I cater for the needs of my organism so I should attend to my larger body of rivers, woods, forests, mountains, seas, and any of the living creatures that inhabit them.
How unable we have become to share St Francis’ sense that the sun is our brother, since he “brings the day, gives us light, beautiful and radiant in all his splendour” – the moon our sister, the wind our brother, the water “our sister [too], which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste”, the fire our “playful and robust and strong” brother, the earth our “mother, who sustains us and governs us and who produces varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs”. We think this is all very poetic, but cannot retrieve the same sense of kinship with nature that inspired the verses of his Canticle of the Creatures.
In Scripture, this sense of kinship with nature is even deeper. Even though our Bibles start with the book of Genesis and with the story of how God created heaven and earth, the people of Israel first experienced Yahweh as the God who called them to enter into a personal relationship with him, that is in a covenant, and only progressively helped them to understand that he also was the creator. First they discovered him as father and then as maker, as the book of Isaiah aptly says: “O Lord, you are our Father, we are the clay and you are the potter, we are the work of your hands” (Is 64.8).
Seen as nature, the universe is essential for our body budgeting. When we learn to see it as creation, that is as the work of the hands of a loving Father, then it becomes essential also for our “soul budgeting”, so to speak. The fire that “kindles brushwood and causes water to boil” makes God’s name known. The quaking of mountains is the sign of God’s presence. We share the destiny of fading leaves taken away by the wind. (Is 64.1,3). We are taught valuable lessons by the fig tree: when “its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves” it alerts us to look for the signs of God’s coming. (Mk 13.28).
Relation with creation is not optional. We cannot say that the book of Scripture is enough, because Scripture itself constantly sends us back to the book of creation: these two books have to be interpreted in the light of each other and are both indispensable “for the revealing of the daughters and sons of God” (Rm 8.19), as Paul says. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is the human being that you are mindful of them, and the children of human beings that you care for them?” (Psalm 8.3-4). We need the spiritual guidance of creation to learn who we are and what our destiny is.
God’s “Advent”, that is his “coming to be with us” (ad-venio), happens in many ways and at many levels. One way is through the unfolding of creation, which Scripture sees as a process of growing manifestation of the glory of God and simultaneously of our own true identity.
We should think of creation, and our own body within it, not as a work completed in an initial and self-contained act, but rather as a trajectory, a process, something that will become what was meant to be only at the end, when God will be all in all (1 Cor 15.28). If we listen intently and pay attention, we will discover that we are caught in the “eager longing” and “groaning” of the creative process, we are part of a universal gestation: “for we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pain of childbirth until now” (Rm 8.19-22).
The ‘advent’ of God through creation can seem so much bigger than us, too far beyond our reach, something of which we are not likely to see the completion in our life time. And yet, for our own good, for the sake of our “body budgeting’ and even more so of our “soul budgeting”, we are invited to welcome this advent. Just as “creation waits with eager longing for” this revelation, so we too are encouraged to hope for it, and “wait for it with patience” (Rm 8.19.25).
This waiting with creation is not a passive activity, on the contrary. It is comparable to what Jesus describes in the parable of the seed growing: “The kingdom of God is as if someone should scatter seed on the ground. They sleep and rise night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; they know not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear” (Mk 4.26-29). Crucially, farmers do not just sleep, but also keep rising, day in, day out.
This means that while we let creation do its work, we wait by attending to it, marvelling at it, protecting, exploring, loving, and respecting it. And one of the ways in which we expectantly and actively wait with creation is scientific endeavour, that is everything we ascertain through our deeper knowledge of our environment.
This is critical. We are right to say that there is a natural order, although more often than not this principle is weaponized by fundamentalist Christians who think they know what ‘nature’ is independently from science or even in contradiction with it and use this caricature to prop their beliefs, especially in the field of ethics.
Indeed, our understanding of nature, life, and ourselves, our sexuality included, is part of the natural order, not however according to archaic and rudimentary scientific knowledge of thousands of years ago, but according to the constantly evolving knowledge resulting from our attending to creation, of our active waiting with creation for the unfolding of our identity. Just as nobody will argue any more that the sun turns around the earth because Scripture seems to imply it, so, for example, we must not be afraid to listen to what science says about human sexuality today even when it seems to contradict what Scripture says. Again, Scripture and creation (and our evolving understanding of latter) have to be read together.
This is the responsible way of waiting with creation and of welcoming God’s advent.
 Lisa Feldman Barrett, “Your Brain Is Not for Thinking”, The New York Times November 23, 2020 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/23/opinion/brain-neuroscience-stress.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage