Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Coming and Passing of Things

I wanted a blog title that would cover just about any topic I might choose to pontificate on, and the phrase from St. Augustine's commentary on Genesis ought to serve nicely.

But beyond that, I've always loved the insight St. Augustine brings, in the passage quoted in my banner, to one particular riddle of creation: If the world God created is "good" (as God Himself declared it to be), then why doesn't it last forever? Why does anything good have to come to an end? To get right to the real point, why does my own earthly life, why do the earthly lives of people I love, have to come to an end? Why would God bestow existence on good things and then withdraw the gift?

I think St. Augustine offers a workable answer to this hard question. Some good things do last forever -- the things that are closest to God Himself, and we human beings are among those things. To the extent to which we draw close to God in this life, we will "abide in the most exalted holiness next to God" forever. But temporal things, as we can see all around us, abide only "according to the determinations of their time." This evening's beautiful sunset, the flowers in the garden, my dog Nellie, Chartres Cathedral, the Rocky Mountains -- all exist only for a determined time, and God allows them to do so (if I understand St. Augustine correctly) in order that we will have some understanding of what eternity is. The ageless beauty of God Himself, that beauty "ever ancient, ever new" that so transformed Augustine's own life, would not be even remotely comprehensible to us unless we had, as an object lesson before our eyes daily, the unfolding of a lesser beauty -- "the beauty of the ages."

For the most part, we see that beauty unfolding only up close and partially, in the events of our own everyday lives. And, frankly, it doesn't always look all that beautiful. The beauty of the ages is more like a crazy quilt of big events and small, some obviously meaningful, most seemingly meaningless, and we seldom have the time or perspective to sort out whatever meaning there may be in them. The Brueghel painting I chose as the emblem for this blog makes the point beautifully. It's called The Census at Bethlehem, and unless you know the title, you could stare at it for a long time, perhaps even admiringly, without knowing exactly what it depicts. The canvas pulls together several whirlwinds of activity: some children are having a snowball fight, merchants load their carts, women carry firewood, a man butchers a pig, travellers crowd toward an inn. You have to look closely amid all the confusion, knowing what you're looking for, to notice the man carrying a saw and leading a donkey upon which sits a woman in a blue cloak. They pass anonymously through the crowd.

Isn't that exactly what life is like? Men, women, children scurrying here and there like ants, each singlemindedly about his own business. What does it all mean? To the Christian, it will often look as confused -- and confusing -- as it does to anyone else. But the Christian also knows that amid the crowding events of daily life, if he watches attentively and knows what he is looking for, he will see Jesus.

So that's what I'm going to do with this blog. I'm going to watch the coming and passing of things, using some of those things as pegs to hang my convictions and prejudices on, but trying not to miss St. Augustine's beauty of the ages as it unfolds, and looking always for that figure from Bethlehem in the crowd.


  1. This looks absolutely fantastic. I'm envious I'm not blogging here.

  2. Thanks, Vehige. (Leading you into one of the seven deadly sins was my real motive in striking out on my own.)

  3. I'm so happy to see this. I haven't looked at Thursday Night Gumbo for a long time and just happily happened to check it the night after you started this blog. I love the Brueghel.

    "To get right to the real point, why does my own earthly life, why do the earthly lives of people I love, have to come to an end? Why would God bestow existence on good things and then withdraw the gift?"

    For some reason this theme seems to be tugging on my sleeve from every direction. I bought a little pamphlet that addresses this question weekend before last when I was on retreat. And today, I saw the name of a book, "Before We Say Goodbye," on the shelf of my boss's office and just the title almost brought me to tears. This is very strange because I don't really worry about death, my own or anyone else's. I've gotten to the point in my life when all my children are grown and I figure all I have to do is get old and die, and I'm not to attached to the getting old part. ;-)

    Anyway, glad to see you here.

    AMDG, Janet

  4. And I'm happy to see you, Janet. I honestly didn't know if anybody would follow me over here.

    Is the retreat pamphlet anything you care to recommend?

  5. I haven't really had time to give the pamphlet the attention it deserves, but when I do, I'll let you know.