Originally published at Covenant, May 10, 2016.
One of my favorite places to visit in the spring is a creek running through a farm at the precise point where geology has dictated that man should stop growing cotton and start ranching cattle, where the Ozan formation abuts the Austin chalk and the West truly begins. The natural elements of this geologic border are something to behold. The creek is clear and cold, with a limestone bottom, and hemmed in by virgin hardwoods. Around the periphery native bluestems and switchgrass riot with the wildflowers amid stands of post oaks and the occasional bois d’arc.
Man has an innate propensity to seek and to test his limits and the limits of his world. Yet some boundaries simply cannot be crossed. Wittgenstein urged his readers to consider the eye’s relation to the visual field:
Where in the world is a metaphysical subject to be noted? You say that this case is altogether like that of the eye and the field of sight. But you do not really see the eye. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 5.633)
And death, the absolute limit of life, is like that: “Death is not an event of life. … Our life is endless in the way that our visual field is without limit” (6.4311).
We grope our way in the darkness toward, one hopes, the light and the life. As odd as it seems, it is hard for me to see a prairie after spring rain without thinking of the great liturgical scholar Aidan Kavanagh’s poignant description of a baptismal liturgy of the fourth century. He describes an aged bishop leading the newly baptized from the semi-darkness of the baptistery to the church door:
There he bangs on the closed doors with his cane: they are flung open, the endless vigil is halted, and the baptismal party enters as all take up the hymn, “Christ is risen …,” which is all but drowned out by the ovations that greet Christ truly risen in his newly-born ones. As they enter, the fragrance of chrism fills the church: it is the Easter-smell, God’s grace olfactorally incarnate. The pious struggle to get near the newly baptized to touch their chrismed hair and rub its fragrance on their own faces.
Vaclav Havel, the liberal activist under Soviet rule and the first president of Czechoslovakia, described the experience of walking to school as a child, in a 1984 essay (“Politics and Conscience”):
As a boy, I lived for some time in the country and I clearly remember an experience from those days: I used to walk to school in a nearby village along a cart track through the fields and, on the way, see on the horizon a huge smokestack of some hurriedly built factory, in all likelihood in the service of war. It spewed dense brown smoke and scattered it across the sky. Each time I saw it, I had an intense sense of something profoundly wrong, of humans soiling the heavens.
I have been struck by the etymology of the word Lent ever since I first encountered it. It comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for the spring season — lencten — and is related to the word long, having to do with the “lengthening” of the daylight hours after the winter solstice. Light and warmth return to the world, and as Prudentius wrote of the dawn, so we may say of the spring:
Earth’s gloom flees broken and dispersed,
By the sun’s piercing shafts coerced:
The daystar’s eyes rain influence bright
And colors glimmer back to sight.
We tend to think of Lent as a time of fasting and self-denial, and so it is. But it is appropriately accompanied by an expectant, spiritual joy, because it is oriented toward the full flowering of Easter dawn, and even during Lent the soul rightly revels in its expectation. Such considerations led George Herbert to welcome the “deare feast of Lent” (“Lent” in The Temple).
The vernal continuum of Lent-Easter is the corporate living out of the Lord’s words to his disciples: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). And the natural order, being the most primordial of God’s temporal utterances, responds and corresponds.
O Lord my God, great are the wondrous works which thou hast done, like as be also thy thoughts, which are to us-ward —Ps. 40:5
Seeds that have fallen into the soil begin to sprout and grow, and the face of the earth is renewed by the manifold glories of the flowering plants. “The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear” (Mark 4:28).
Biblical commentators down the centuries have made much of Easter being on the “eighth day,” and thus fulfilling God’s purposes in creation, when he said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, upon the earth” (Gen. 1:11).
In its broadest construal, time, itself a created reality, underwrites the orientation of all things toward their destinies, what in the unfashionable terms of Aristotelian metaphysics are called “final causes.” “Moreover, the seed is potentially that which will spring from it, and the relation of potentiality to actuality we know” (On the Parts of Animals I.1).
Late winter’s dormant destinies are disclosed by the spring. The margins and medians of Texas highways, and the little “prairie remnants” accidentally preserved on the edges of cultivated or developed land, or by the establishment of rights-of-way for railroad tracks or power lines, are all redolent of resurrection at Easter. All bear witness that “if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40). Mother Nature sings her Te Deum at the resurrection of her Lord. “The glorious company of the angiosperms praise Thee!”
The ubiquitous bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, pink evening primrose, prairie verbena, asters in their myriads, glimmer back to sight. It delights me to see this vast army of witnesses each spring, and I find myself seeking wild and semi-wild places to watch the wakeful glimmering.
There is something compelling about borders, something evocative of life and movement. Nor ought we to forget that movement is a sign of life. Seeds must, in the process of their sprouting and growth, transgress the border of the ground from underneath, feeling their way in the darkness toward the light, and so attain their prescribed statures. Yet the Lord sets boundaries for his creatures, great and small. His words to the seas are apt: “Thus far shall you come, and no farther” (Job 38:11).
The earth herself enacts the baptismal liturgy in prototype each spring. My piety leads me to get near and to see, to absorb the fragrance of renewal, mindful of Paul’s admonition that our failure to heed the lessons of nature leaves us without excuse (Rom. 1). The lessons seem to me to be especially urgent given the gathering late winter darkness of our time and place. As Vaclav Havel said:
We must draw our standards from our natural world, heedless of ridicule, and reaffirm its denied validity. We must honor with the humility of the wise the limits of that natural world and the mystery which lies beyond them, admitting that there is something in the order of being which evidently exceeds all our competence.