by Peter Kreeft
Professor Peter Kreeft joined the Boston College philosophy faculty in 1965 and is the author of more than seventy books. He is a widely sought-after speaker on Catholic apologetics, and he specializes in the philosophy of religion as well as the thought of C.S. Lewis.
It is the last week in October here in New England, and it is called “Indian summer.” I sit in my backyard catching the last warmth of the sun before the winter cold sets in. The colors of the foliage are as crisp as the breath of the morning air and the corresponding breath of my spirit. The trees are singing in color. The red leaves are drops of blood, the yellow leaves are suns, and the orange leaves are fires.
I cannot imagine living in any place without four seasons, especially autumn. Its beauty is a sweet sadness, as unique as death. Beauty’s vocation is to break our hearts, and “good-bye” breaks
hearts more powerfully than “hello.” Our most beautiful plays are tragedies, and our most beautiful music is in the minor key. There will not be another day this summery in six more months.
Because our summers here are so short, we love them with a Scandinavian passion. (I cannot think of any other sentence that justifies that phrase!)
God has a strategy in giving us such days. He is giving us an easy and delightful lesson in holiness. Our ultimate end and purpose here on earth is to be holy, to be saints; and the easiest road to sanctity is simply sanity, seeing what-is, seeing God everywhere (since He is everywhere). This is the core of authentic Jesuit spirituality, “the practice of the presence of God,” to use Brother Lawrence’s inspired title. The Beatific Vision will make us saints with unstoppable light in Heaven; and our training for this vision is the practice of the presence of God here in the shadowlands where we see the same light “through a glass, darkly,” where the light is stoppable and therefore sanctity is not easy. But wherever the light shines, the darkness vanishes. Most sins shrivel and die like vampires in the light of prayer or of imminent death.
It is easy to be holy today because it is easy to see God today. I cannot get the following image out of my head. God is my Very Big Daddy and I am His tiny infant; and He is holding me up in His right hand, here in my proper place, in my backyard on my little lounge chair; and He is holding the sun in His left hand, placed in its proper place, here in its tiny little galaxy; and He is commanding His sun to shine just for me. If I had been the only person He ever created, He would have done the same work for me that He did for everyone during the last 13.7 billion years since the Big Bang. Today He is a doting father who has made a marvelous toy for his baby boy, and His eyes twinkle when He sees mine twinkle at His twinkling toy sun. The three twinkles circulate. The twinkles in His two hands are mirrors of the twinkle in His eyes. And He says “See!” to me and “Shine!” to the sun, and “Be!” to both, and we are a family of circulating, circumincessing delight.
I reflect on the metaphysics of this moment. He is the eternal Creator. He is not in time; all time is in Him. For Him, each moment of time is present, not past or future. He is creating both me and the sun right now, at this present moment. His act of creation is the giving of being, which is the single syllable command to Everything to “Be!” He is banging out the Big Bang right here, right now, for His “Be” is His command not just to the first event but to all events, including what is happening here and now to me. He does not create in time. When we think that way, we are thinking inside out. His creation is not in time; time is in His creation, time is co-created. Only He is absolute; time is relative, not absolute. (Newton’s “absolute time” is a kind of idolatry.) Today I am present at the creation of the world. He has broken Nothingness into pieces and one of the pieces is this autumn morning, which has broken like the first morning even though it will be the last summery morning for me for six wintery months.
God’s presence in this present moment is being presented to me as a present, a gift, a grace, addressed not to “Dear Occupant” but to me. My name is inscribed on every photon of light that enters my optic nerve from the sun because my name is inscribed in blood on the hands of the One who created the sun.
One of His names is Being. Creation is the gift of being. You can’t give what you don’t have, and that’s why only God can create, because only God has being from within His own nature, without having received it from any source. That is the theological foundation for “the practice of the presence of God” in the presence of everything that has being.
Gilson finds this theology in St. Thomas Aquinas, and he calls it “the great syllogism.” Its major premise is that at the heart of every being, at the heart of every thing-that-is, is the act of be-ing, that “turns on” or makes actual everything in that thing: its essence, its properties, its accidents, its actions, its relations. Its minor premise is that God does not have but is the act of being; He is infinite be-ing itself. Conclusion: If be-ing is at the heart of every being, and if God is be-ing, then God is at the heart of every being.
This may sound terribly abstract but there is an example of how it makes a terribly concrete difference to life. I am haunted by a prison memoir whose source I have forgotten—Dostoyevsky? Solzhenitsyn? Valladares? The prisoner was put into a lightless, lifeless cell by the tyrant who demanded to dominate and break his mind as well as his body. (That is the difference between ancient tyranny, which was merely brutal, and modern, totalitarian tyranny, which is demonic) He was denied all human communication. Even contacting other prisoners by tapping on walls was made impossible by removing him to an isolated hut. He kept his sanity by making friends with the only other living thing in his cell, a little spider. When guards discovered this, they killed the spider. He wrote that this would have brought him over the brink into insanity but for the providential fall of a loose stone from the wall of his cell. He addressed the stone: “You are real. You exist. You are God’s gospel to me, the good news that I am not alone. I know you are not a person; you do not even have an image and likeness of the intelligence of God that we call human reason, as I do; and I know you do not even have an image of the life of God, as the spider had; but you have real existence, you have what God is. So you are my Bible, my Word of God. You cannot hear me but you speak to me, and I am comforted. I am Moses and you are the burning bush and from you I hear the sacred words I AM.”
I hear that Voice singing the same sacred word from the great and glorious sun, here in this free and open space—the same word that poor prisoner heard whispered from his humble little rock in his little, lightless prison cell. For there is only one divine Voice, and it speaks only that one word, for in that word it speaks everything. After hearing it, I echo this word of God to me. Like God, I too say “Be!” to the sun. And in doing so I say “Thy will be done” and “Amen,” which is the essence of sanctity. It will not always be as easy and delightful as it is today, but saying it to the sun is at least a start, a practice for saying it to every little rock that falls into my life.