The New Journey to God
The granting of the Imprimatur means that there is nothing in this book contrary to Catholic teaching on faith and morals.
Originally published by NACF Publications, UK.
THIS STORY IS ABOUT A SAINT, a modern city, an average girl, and a book. The saint is the archangel Michael; the city is Toronto and the girl could be anyone. The book is St. Bonaventure's classic of Franciscan spirituality, The Mind's Journey to God. Like everything else, it is also about God.
The members of this unusual cast have more in common than one might think St. Michael, for instance, is the patron saint of Toronto, which also happens to be my home town. And that's how the idea for this story first took root. I suddenly got an image in my mind of the Archangel surveying the city from the top of the CN Tower and I wanted to see if I could do anything with the idea. I wanted to say something about the ways in which God can be known and loved in ordinary life, and this seemed to be a useful vehicle. The Second Vatican Council has emphasized that lay people can find God in the world, thus sanctifying the world and themselves, but I find that there is a lack of good books that explain in layman's terms how in fact the world lends itself to sanctification. To me, there has never been anything about the world to make this an obvious point.
Meanwhile, I was reading St. Bonaventure's The Mind's Journey to God, or the Itinerarium Mgntis in Deum, to give it its Latin title. The book fascinated me. Here, in sixty short pages was a complete summary of Medieval philosophy and spirituality. Here were the ideas, compact as the strands of DNA, that built our civilization. But as I studied the book further I realized that it also contained the theoretical answer to my questions about the layman's vocation. It was all there, step by step: how God is present in nature and in human society; the importance of doctrine, and its limitations; how God is present to the human mind, and what difference grace makes. But Bonaventure's real value lies in his belief that the way we experience the world depends on our spiritual progress, and can contribute to it. Thus to grow in prayer, we have to learn how to see nature, how to see man, and how to think about God. The secular, and how we live it, cannot be irrelevant to the sacred.
Luckily a writer is not required to be an original thinker; it suffices to be entertaining. Rather than coming up with ideas of my own, I decided to do a "remake" of the Itinerarium with the hope of making Bonaventure's thought more accessible to modern minds. I took his outline and most of his arguments, and reworked them into a series of dialogues with St. Michael, set in Toronto. Theology is easier to understand in dialogue form than in straight prose, because a dialogue makes room for all the dumb questions one would like to ask the theologian, but that seldom appear in academic texts.
Like much of Catholic publishing these days, this book is the result of a variety of grassroots ventures, relying more on strength of commitment than vastness of infrastructure. This project has been aided by financial and editorial support from my parents Ann and Alex Dalzell, by Gordon Gillick's wonderful illustrations, by Steven Abbott's assistance with the layout, and by Autotype International Ltd., who printed the book with their Omega polyester printing plate. They deserve and receive my deepest thanks. Special thanks are also due to Rev. Daniel Callam, CSB, for performing the office of censor with his usual editorial care and encouragement. And finally, I would like to thank my dear friend Helena, who taught me what Bonaventure meant about seeing God in the world.
June 26, 1995. Ottawa, Canada.
Chapter 1 To God through Nature
In which St. Michael recommends love as a cure for boredom, and shows that for man, the road to God must pass through nature.
Chapter 2 The Celestial Hierarchy at Work
In which St. Michael discusses the Celestial Hierarchy, comparing their work to that of men. He shows how God can be seen through mathematics and the human experience of nature. Catherine asks a question about quantum mechanics and divine providence.
Chapter 3 The Image of God
In which St. Michael views a modern representation of himself and reminisces about some of his campaigns on behalf of the Church. Catherine asks about the power of the human mind to discern truth, which leads to a discussion of the powers of the soul and what it means to be made in the image of God.
Chapter 4 The War in Heaven
In which St. Michael is asked about the fall of Satan and the war in Heaven. Catherine learns about a Franciscan venture and begins to read the Mind's Journey to God.
Chapter 5 The Existence of God
In which Catherine goes shopping and considers the nature of being. St. Michael offers a version of the ontological proof for the existence of God. St. Bonaventure is compared to certain modern authors.
Chapter 6 De Trinitate
In which St. Raphael talks about his work with the youth and St. Gabriel gives an account of world history from the angelic perspective. A discourse on the Trinity.
Chapter 7 The Cross
In which the soul leaves nature behind it and finds peace in the Cross of Christ.
Map of downtown Toronto
To God through Nature
In which St. Michael recommends love as a cure for boredom, and shows that for man, the road to God must pass through nature.
There should be a statue of St. Michael at the top of the CN Tower
THERE SHOULD BE A STATUE OF ST. MICHAEL at the top of the CN Tower. And doubtless, had the world's tallest free-standing structure been built during the Middle Ages, the city's patron would have figured in the architect's design. The rising structures of the City of Man would have joined with the messenger sent down from the City of God, like a handshake, offered and received. But the twentieth-century builders of the Tower that has come to define Toronto had no such concerns. They placed an antenna at the top, built a revolving restaurant and an observation deck, and laid transparent elevators into the structure's outer walls. It was one of these elevators that I had just taken, and upon this observation deck that I was standing one early afternoon at the end of September.
It was the middle of the week. The tourists had left and the students were back in school; the employed were working. I was alone in the air-conditioned stillness, except for a very pale, young man in a blue trench coat, who was gazing out across the lake. I looked north, over the city, and thought of all the people down there who had useful things to do this afternoon.
It was the first fall since early childhood that I was not returning to the classroom. Long years of preparation were passed, years that had become such a habit, if not the very condition of existence, that I had almost forgotten that they were precisely that: years of preparation and not a final resting place. And now they had come to an end. I had a fresh degree in mathematics to add to the earlier ones. The university had indicated that the classroom had nothing more to teach me, unless I moved to the other side of the lectern. But I thought I would rather practice my profession for a time before teaching it to others. I made a few changes to my thesis, sent out my résumé, and lived off the remainder of my grant. But now money was getting low and I had no job.
At the same time, another course of preparation had come to a close, one whose seal is marked not on parchment, but on the lines of the soul. Childhood faith had given way to adolescent atheism; but this change, a definitive loss in some, had proved in my case to be only a period of hesitation between unthinking acceptance and conscious profession.
The return began as I was nearing the end of my studies. The plans I had made for myself had all worked out as I hoped; success was at hand, but ceased to attract as it neared attainment. Then there was that circle of friends, all of whose lives seemed to be governed by some purpose lacking in mine; there were the long talks over coffee; finally a set of doctrine classes, and confirmation the previous Easter. Somewhere in the diocesan records it states that I was confirmed as a soldier of Christ. But by now six months had passed and still no mobilization orders had come my way.
I looked down on the city that had been my home and that now seemed to have little use for me, in either a sacred or a secular function. It was not a lovely sight. A grid of streets covered what had once been a flat and featureless landscape. The city was built near the Lake and on account of the Lake, but not by the Lake. That privilege belonged to the railway. The city itself began north of King Street, and would lose nothing by being relocated a thousand miles from the nearest exposed body of water. The skyscrapers rise in clusters along Yonge Street. Each building is rectangular, regular, massive, and impressive only by virtue of the others. The Cathedral of St. Michael is barely visible, a Gothic dwarf, as outscaled by the skyscrapers, as are the skyscrapers by the Tower.
Recently a post-modernist school of architecture has demonstrated that worse things can be built than nineteen-sixties glass boxes. Facing the Tower there is a building like a gigantic glass waste-paper basket emerging from a purple crate. Perhaps it was designed by someone who liked to work up his sketches in the bar on the observation deck, since the architectural effect of a cylinder emerging from a box can only be appreciated from a great height. It is, in a word, a pointless skyline, and a graceless city, that not even the golden leaves and the purple clouds of autumn can rescue. At least so it appeared to me.
"How I love this city," declared a voice beside me. It belonged to the pale, young man. He was standing no more than an arm's length from me, and leaning his arms on the parapet, as if to be that much closer to the city stretched out below us. He might even have been addressing the city, rather than me.
"What is there to love about it?" I said.
"There is God to love about it!" By way of explanation,
the voice continued to address the scene below us like someone chanting a hymn: "... and in it, and
Then suddenly I knew. I recognized the question and the one who bears it as a name: Michael, which in Hebrew means "who is like God?" And I recognized also what was not standing there beside me. There is a certain quality to the human presence, a mobility of attention that we share with the animals, the alert guard against material danger that centuries of civilization have not expunged, the many traces of a life measured out in heart beats and a succession of breaths. All that was absent here. This was no rational animal, neither son nor daughter of Adam, but a pure and passionate intent unmoved by the passage of time and unaltered either by growth or by decay.
I should have been afraid. But if the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, perhaps to fear his messengers also demands some grasp of the supernatural truth that I yet had to attain.
"You are Michael," I said, as in a dream.
"Yes," he said.
I gestured at the city below. "You can see God in that?" And then, as the gaping futility of the recent weeks suddenly opened before me, I added with more bitterness than I intended, "You must see clearer than I."
He turned to look at me, and his face lit up like the September sun, a light clear as ice, and golden, to bring joy even as the air grows cold.
"If you have faith," he said, "is vision so important? Were you not told that nothing at all exists anywhere and at any time that is neither God himself, nor something that resembles him?"
"Yes. They told us that in doctrine class. But it's just an article of faith. Everything still looks the same."
"Did you not expect them to look different when you returned to the Church?"
I turned away. This was a painful point. I had indeed expected it, and at first things did seem different. Very different. My anxiety, my constant need to apologize for everything, countless ill-specified hatreds and fears, these left me. For a few months I was in love. Then routine set in; new worries arrived to replace the old; there was my future to think of. The same habits of virtue that I had begun to develop and that should have brought me closer to God, seemed instead to have dulled my need for him. The success of my conversion was in danger of causing its defeat.
I turned to face the archangel. "Yes," I said. "I expected things to change. I thought I had found peace at last, but instead ... I don't know. On one side there's my life, and then somewhere else — who knows where — there's God. But there seems to be very little to connect them. I need something like ..."
"A ladder," finished Michael, "like the ladder of Jacob's vision, the stairs reaching from Heaven to Earth, with angels ascending and descending."
"That was only a vision," I pointed out.
A shadow of difficulty crossed his face.
"It is precisely because it was a vision that it is true. In any case, we will find you a ladder, one that even you can climb."
"Well," I said, understanding nothing of this, "it will have to be a long ladder indeed if it is to stretch from the city of Toronto all the way to Heaven."
"It is, and wide and deep, since it is nothing less than the entire universe." He leaned over the rail towards the city again, and we seemed to have returned to where the conversation began.
Where are you going?" he asked suddenly.
I thought about this for a moment, as a number of possible destinations flashed through my mind and were as quickly rejected. Unable to think of anything worthy, I settled for the truth and offered my original intention.
"I was thinking of going shopping. There was something I wanted to pick up on Queen Street." Shopping! I thought with sudden disgust: the final refuge of the restless.
"Let's go then," he said, and headed for the elevator.
"Are you coming with me?" For some reason, I had assumed that the archangel was rooted to the top of the Tower. He paused at the control panel.
"I understood that you invoked my aid."
I stared uncomprehending.
"You lit a candle before my statue at the Cathedral," he said. "You asked to know God, to the extent that he can be known in this life, that you might have peace."
Suddenly I remembered, and a small window of hope opened at the back of my mind. I usually worship at the Cathedral on Sundays, seated on the left. There, at the front, is a statue of the warrior archangel, winged and armed, sword bared against the serpent at his feet. A rack of prayer candles stands between the pews and the statue, and after each Mass a line forms before it. They are poor people, for the most part, leaving small bunches of flowers. And then there are the parents, instructing their children, who light their candles with trembling care. These are the friends of the archangel and the petitioners of his prayers. This little company I had joined, less perhaps in faith than in defiance against materialism. I had lit my candle, recited the prayer, and taken a holy card for my purse.
"But that was not what I asked for." I said. "I prayed for guidance, to know what I should do with my life."
"That is what you should do; it is what God wants you to do: to love him kjwith all your mind, with all your heart, with all your strength and with all your soul." He pressed the button to summon the elevator.
IT TAKES 58 SECONDS, travelling at 15 mph to descend from the observation deck to ground level. The operator explained this on the way up. Going down is the same, except that the view expands instead of retreating. It is strange what happens. For most of the trip the view is aerial. The roof tops draw near, but you feel that you are observing them from a great height. Then suddenly the perspective changes. You sink down between the buildings, and come to rest on the lobby floor. The buildings surround you now, as they reach high above your head. The city returns to being landscape, sky and horizon; no more an object to be observed.
We left the complex in silence, crossed the walkway over the railway tracks and began to walk north on John Street. The street must have been lovely at one time, when it served mainly as a carriageway to the Grange House at the upper end. The balanced facade still overlooks the length of the street from a small rise. But since the time of its construction, due perhaps to the influence of the Tower, the emphasis of the street had shifted vertically, and the new buildings have been designed to be seen from the air. One might even say that the air was their place of business, since there are two television studios and a radio station in the vicinity. There were few cars, and no pedestrians other than ourselves.
We walked on. It was a glorious day for walking, one of those autumn days where the light is all purple and gold, and where the wind pulls at your coat like a summons to distant and glorious things. Michael walked beside me, on the curbside of the pavement, quiet as a shaft of light, and as we continued up the street, the stillness of his personality began to take effect. It had been a while since I had really noticed the textures and the colours of the things around me.
The day was cool by comparison with the summer just ended, but warm for the time of year, with that dry and stirring warmth of late September, edged with ice, and when the air is made of light. It was a day made for seeing, when earth and air have spent their summer power for life, and nature seems for a moment to stand briefly in the graceful shapes her former growth has made. I too seemed more to be resting in that light than moving my feet along the street, my eyes wide to the clarity about me. My strange companion walked in luminous peace beside me, and when at last he spoke, his words seemed somehow to filter the silence rather than to break it, like a prism that gathers light and scatters colour.
"Peace," he said into the afternoon, "you were always meant to know peace, and the one who sends it. It is in your nature to long for it." I agreed and said nothing.
We walked on for a few steps, and then he said "Peace; not unlike war, you know; something to fight for, and to win with a struggle." The wind drove an eddy of dust down the centre of the street before streaming through my hair and rising between the buildings and towards the sky. As it passed, it seemed to bear some distant yet clear sounding call to battle.
Finally Michael said, "It is a gift from God, given to those who pray unceasingly for it, and not the work of creatures, for who is like God?"
This marked the end of his utterance. His three statements gathered themselves together and arranged themselves in my memory, like the three sides of a triangle. There, poised in conjunction for an impossible moment, they made sense and then fell apart, as I struggled to put them together again.
"I can't do it," I said. "They won't fit. You have just said that peace is a part of our nature, that it requires struggle and that it is a gift from God. How can these three be one?"
Michael smiled sadly. "It is hard for your race," he said. "Nothing works in your case, and nature is turned against nature."
I must have looked perplexed. "Have you not read the Scriptures?" he asked. "Everything is there: the creation of the world, of man, of the world for man, and the peace of the garden that the world was then, because the Lord was next to their hearts; and then disaster: sin, death and exile. These," he said, taking in the city around us, "these are merely fragments of reconstruction, built more often than not in ignorance and disorder, as you try, because you have no choice, to be yourselves."
I thought of his earlier praise of the city. "Surely it cannot be as hopeless as that," I said. "I thought you loved this city."
"I love God in this city," he corrected. "But where he is absent human works become a parody of themselves; and no," he added to forestall my dismay, "it is far from hopeless. You are redeemed. That changes evetything. Were that not the case, I would not be serving on the frontier."
"What is the frontier?" I asked.
"This," he pointed, again taking in much of what I could see. "The material world."
"Do you call it that because it is far from God?"
"In part, although it is far from God only in the sense that it is very unlike him. If by distant you mean a position from which direct influence is diminished or impossible, then matter is very close to God. Otherwise it would cease to exist.
"But it is distant from itself. Everything stands apart from everything else. It's a frontier in the social sense: isolated settlements, barely connected one to another, and detached from their place of origin. See those two buildings for instance; they stand side by side, and yet neither knows of the other's existence. Each is itself and nothing else; where one is, the other is not, and vice versa. Either/or, push/pull, action/reaction: they might almost exist in separate worlds but for the minimal exchanges of light and gravity taking place between them."
I laughed at this. "You make it sound as if the buildings were lonely," I said, "like stupid, great giants of steel, dying of broken hearts. I suppose if they were alive, if they knew who they were, and that they were locked into those glass cases of theirs ..." I stopped in sudden realization, as the thought of my own condition crossed my mind.
"That is death," replied Michael to my unspoken question, "and you are right to fear it, because it is the result of sin. You can see what happens. Where love is absent, men come to live like these stones and to think like them. They apply the same rules to themselves, principles that should apply only to matter. When a stone gives itself, it ceases to be what it was. You could dismantle one of these buildings and use the components somewhere else, but then the old building would be gone and a new one would have taken its place. Where one is, the other is not. They have only one thing to say, which is the form of their presence, and nothing to will except the continuance of what they are.
"It is the glory of matter to exist in this way, to be scattered and divided, but for man it is disaster to be so limited. And yet, is this not the pattern of human evil? What is the source of your greed and your pride, if not the imitation of matter? You try to live as if you were dead things, where the good of one exists at the expense of the other. You know, this city is full of people terrified of poverty, terrified of illness and terrified of being alone. Can you imagine? Surrounded by four million people, and they fear as if they had been dropped in the desert somewhere to fend for themselves."
"Perhaps they have," I said. The prospect of lacking a foothold in human society pressed vividly among my daily concerns.
"How rich should be the ways of love among those God has made in his image, who can serve without loss, and know the one that they serve!" Michael continued. "You and I are so much closer to each other than those two buildings standing side by side, and so much further. Further, because your spirit cannot be dismantled and reconstructed as part of something else; a spirit is not a part of anything, but a whole. And closer because by being closer to God, you are closer to all of his creatures. Closer, of course, in a relative sense, since only God is at the heart of all things, since he makes them and guides them to their end."
He brought his speech to a close in the usual way, on the gulf between creature and Creator. But I was held by the nearness of God and what this meant, I to whom that gulf had for so long been a cause not of humility but of despair.
"Do you mean that I am close to the world because I love God?" I asked. And then, as tears formed in my eyes, "Do I love God after all? I often wonder."
"Of course you love God," he said kindly. "It all works, you know. Grace, repentance, the sacraments: they all work. The spark has been lit; it remains for us to fan the flames." Then he turned to me as we walked further and said with greater energy, "The love that loves God, and which is God, lives in your soul. You are not trapped in yourself any longer. You have the heart to love him above all other loves, and your neighbour as yourself. Love is there and the beloved is not far. Make his words your own: 'I will rise now and go about the city in the streets, and in the broad ways I will seek him whom my soul loveth.'"
For a moment, I matched his stride and walked toward that glory, and then I remembered how the verse ends. "I sought him and I found him not."
"I AM VERY FOND OF THIS NEIGHBOURHOOD," said Michael, conversationally. "I spent a lot of time here when it was the old Jewish district; and before that as well, when many Irish lived here. Then the towers moved in and the people moved out. For a while it was hard to find a living soul at ground level."
"I would not have thought that would be much of a limitation for you. Surely you could find them fifty stories up just as easily as on the ground."
"Yes, I can, but it is not where one expects to find the children of men. One expects them to be spread out where they can meet each other, and not stacked vertically in giant cartons. It is not for nothing that you say of a sensible person that he has both feet on the ground. At any rate, the neighbourhood seems to be opening up again."
"But since I have you here," he said, "there is something I want to ask you, as a member of the human race."
"What is it?" I asked.
"We are almost there. Look!" he said, pointing to a strip of landscaped grass, attached in some way to the building in the next block. We stopped at the intersection and I followed the direction of his index finger.
We were looking at a group of sculptured figures ...
We were looking at a group of sculptured figures, each about the size of a large dog. There must have been around twenty of them: four-legged, long-eared, and grouped on the lawn attached to the skyscraper behind them. Some seemed to be nibbling at the grass; others looked up in confusion. An object like a frame draped with a cloth had been placed near the wall behind the strange creatures and formed part of the ensemble.
We crossed the street and I read the plaque erected to identity the project: "Remembered Sustenance" by Cynthia Short.
"What do you think?" asked Michael.
"I don't know," I said at first. And then, I think it's horrible. And the more I look at it, the worse it gets."
"That's what I thought," he said, "but I couldn't be sure. What do you think is wrong with it."
I had to think about this for a moment. There was something brutal and destructive about it. An abstract would have been less horrible. At least then you would know that it meant nothing. This group of vague creatures seemed actually to deny the animality it pretended to represent.
"We don't know what species they belong to." I said. "They might be donkeys, or they could be sheep. The heads are almost rabbit-like. But real animals are more precise. You always know what they are. It makes a difference whether something is a donkey or a sheep; at least it should."
I was suddenly reminded of brightly illustrated nursery books, where the child's first arsenal of psychological metaphor is drawn from the stubbornness of the donkey, the simplicity of the lamb, and the speed of the rabbit. None of this remained in the figures decorating the expensive lawn before us. They were nothing, and they meant nothing.
"Is it a lie for an artist to be vague?" I asked.
"It can be. It certainly suggests a lack of love for God."
"It shows little love for the creature being portrayed," I said. "If you cared about sheep, you would want your sculpture to look like one, or whatever it is."
"It amounts to the same thing, since it is God seen through them that you admire. God spoke his Word to them, and the clarity of nature they possess is a participation in the light of his wisdom. They stand out like the figures in a stained glass window when the light shines through them, and from the image you know the light."
I was not convinced and began counting the figures on the lawn. They were not all identical, but neither were they all different. I tried to pick out the distinct models that had been used, anything to read some pattern into the work.
"You are not convinced," said Michael, "but only consider your reaction. You find them horrible. Why horrible? Because their vagueness is like a cry to heaven in opposition to the heart of reality itself. A fundamental law of nature has been violated. In denying what you know to be true of herbivores, the artist is denying what you know to be true of God. If art can be a lie, it is because creation is a truth, and being a truth, it speaks about GOO.
"Perhaps," he pursued, "St. Francis would have explained it more clearly than I can. Now there was a man who lived life with the passion of the seraphim! He saw the divine origin of all creatures with the same clarity of vision that he saw the creatures themselves; it was for this that his heart overflowed with love for them, and that they in their turn would do anything for him. Watching him one could see nature being restored in its love for man to the Creator's intention. That is where your modern science began, in the heart of that little man; and now look at what happens when that heart is absent." And he gestured towards the offending herd before us.
"In any case," I added, "real animals are never confused. They may be content, or inquisitive, or afraid. Instinct would never leave them to figure something out for themselves. But with these, their intentions are as vague as their species."
"Well observed!" said the archangel. "To exist in the light of God's wisdom is also to move in the course of his providence."
WE CROSSED THE STREET and left the strange sculptures to their perpetual grazing. Soon, however, we came upon another example of industrial art, this time in a lobby, visible through a glass frontage. The work consisted of a number of small ladders, like rope ladders, made from metal and coloured plastic. There were at least a dozen of the things, almost on a realistic scale Small signs were attached to the rungs, bearing the names of certain virtues: diligence, for example, and integrity. The ladders did not lead anywhere in particular, nor were they sufficiently sturdy to support a man's weight. We paused for a moment before this strange display of pointless moralism.
I wondered if Michael was going to solicit a human reaction to this work as well, but it turned out that he had already formed an opinion of his own.
"You know," he said, "if I were going to build a representation of the exercise of human virtue, I would include some snakes among the ladders. Wouldn't you?"
"We had a game like that when I was a child." I said. "I never liked landing on the snakes, but I suppose it wouldn't be much of a game if they weren't there."
"This isn't about a game. An artist that understood the human soul would know that virtue is about struggle."
"I see what you mean. These ladders are made from the same stuff as the grazing creatures. An animal should have a species; a ladder should lead somewhere, and be rigid enough to hold you when you climb it; virtue is a struggle and the enemy should be shown. It denies what it portrays."
"Purpose is another name for God," said the archangel, "because it is another name for good." And he turned away from the window, dismissing the curious production behind the glass.
THIS SET A NEW TRAIN OF THOUGHT going in my mind, as I tried to chart the vectors of progress in the structures around us. I told myself that each building we passed had been minutely planned, regarding both its design and the purpose it was to fulfil. I tried to marshal a list of the engineering tasks required for an edifice of this kind, and another list of the political hurdles. I tried to reason God into it, but it was no use. For a brief instant I thought I saw something change, as if the lines of force exhibited with classic simplicity in the physics texts had come to life in the world around me — that they were there, that they were all, and that all the apparent solidity around me was straining and plunging through space as the fact of its presence here.
The moment passed. Indeed, the more I struggled to see a world in motion around me, the more I found myself thinking of stability and the silence of unmoving things. We reached Adelaide Street, and looking West, I saw the graceful, Gothic form of St. Mary's Church, rising against the end of the street which, more recent, must detour around it. It crossed my mind to wonder why the Gothic style, however derivative in concept, and overdone in execution, always looks genuine, while the glass tower, a structure that screams "function" from every girder, should seem irrelevant to the site it occupies. St. Mary's looks stronger than the ground upon which it rests, while the towers — the more I looked, the flimsier they seemed. When you think about it, as regards shape, they are no different from a set of children's blocks. Then I found myself imagining that in the evening they are replaced in a box and stored until morning on the Island.
"Perhaps," said Michael to my wandering imagination, "The towers were designed by men that do not see the presence of God through the existence of things, and that is why they look much lighter than the church. In the past your race built to imitate the eternity of God, and some trace of that power can be seen even through such insubstantial materials as stone and steel."
Michael acknowledged the church with a slight bow, and we continued North in silence. Above me the wind continued to drive the autumn clouds across the sky like a mad shepherd driving a herd far wilder than the one we had just passed. And just as the shepherd sends his dogs on either side to round up the lost and the wandering, so did the wind send down its scudding gusts to search the city streets and call men out and up, from concrete gullies to his broad and unmarked plain.
And as we walked, tilted against the wind, the archangel continued to speak about the presence of God, visible through the mirror of nature. But his thoughts seemed to follow the wind, faster and higher than I could grasp, as if the plodding sequence of human demonstration were too constraining for the diversity of his subject.
"It is not only the specificity of creatures that is a trace of the divine, not only the web of instinct, nor the fact of their existence, but the astounding variety of living things is a constant reminder of the richness of God." A cataract of creatures poured through my imagination as he said this, many of which I did not know. I saw a sequence of entities: horses and parrots, bright minerals and dramatic cliffs, small flowers and smaller insects. Then, alternating with these, were the patterns of things that can't be seen, or that exist no longer. Some he said were of things subsisting below the scale of the atom, others were symbols of the universe when it was the size of a hand, and still others seemed to refer to the hierarchy of the angels; but these I could not even begin to understand.
At first I thought I was only seeing the pages of a catalogue, but then I realized that the images were connected, and that he was trying to convey the purpose of each thing, not only in securing its own survival, but the benefit it accrues to other beings, seemingly unrelated except through the common lines of the universe, willed by God.
He spoke of the individual persistence of things, how each imitates God in the preservation of its being; he spoke of the order and proportion of things, of the structure that makes them what they are, and the structure whereby each participates in the whole, and how this shows forth the wisdom of God, since order exists only where a mind has ordained it to be; and he spoke of the movement of each thing; how nothing moves without purpose; and that no purpose can exist without an intelligent vial to guide it; that the instincts of the beasts are proof of the Providence of the Creator; he spoke of the depth and height of creation, its size and diversity, which however great and varied could never match the infinity of God; and last he spoke of the beauty of creation — but here words left him entirely — and it was in some celestial music of his own that he tried to convey the beauty that haunts the shadows of this world.
And through it all ran, diverse and changing, one common, fervent and luminous intent, like the will of someone pressing on through the night, driving until morning to reach home, as if nothing that he showed me was the end of what he said.
"Stop!" I cried. "It's too much. I can't retain it, and I can't see it."
THE SONG OF THE ARCHANGEL came to a close, and he turned to me with a look of kind surprise. "Can you not see him in everything where he is not? Everything is saying, 'I am not complete; I am not for myself; I am not my reason and I am not my cause; not my source and not my goal; I am the one who is not, but who has received all.' Since we are not God, God must exist."
"I'll try," I said weakly, and wrinkled my face in concentration at the urban landscape around me. And then, "The things you were trying to explain to me: were they proofs for the existence of God, were they a manner of experiencing the world, or something to be taken on faith?"
Michael considered this for a moment. "What difference do you see between those three possibilities?" he asked.
"A proof is a sequence of logical steps taken from an obvious premise to a conclusion that is less obvious until you get used to it," I said, fresh from my mathematics degree. "Experience is something you know because you see it, and something known by faith is something you can't see or prove, only you know it is true because you have been told by someone you trust."
"But the result is the same, since in all three cases you have the knowledge," he said.
"I know. But it feels different."
"Yes, I suppose it would. I want you to perceive two things together, which you tend to place apart as if they were two separate beings: God and creation. Or rather, I want you to understand one of these, creation, in the other, God, since without God creation would neither exist, nor act, nor make any sense at all. And this is not a fact pasted onto the world as an afterthought. To be created is the first name of all of us.
"You think that you understand the structure of matter when you read what the physicists have discovered about it. But they are only scratching the surface. Why do the particles they study retain their properties long enough to be analysed? Why are their actions reliable? What moves the forces that move everything else? Why does anything exist at all, when manifestly none of the things you see or know can answer for themselves where they come from, how they came to be that way, and by what power they continue to exist?
"The world is a collection of such questions, and never pretend that a huge heap of questions will ever, of itself, add up to a single answer, or that fifty million contingent things can ever, as a group, create themselves. You might as well say that one can jump over Lake Ontario, provided one does so in many small hops.
"No. You know creation when you know God, and you see creation when you see it in God, since it is only in God that it exists at all. That is why a man like Francis understood nature so well.
"Now you could approach this insight from a number of angles. From the testimony of Scripture, you know that God created the world, that it has a beginning, a history and will someday have an end in his glory. So you know that the world exists to proclaim the glory of God, and for no other reason.
"Alternatively, you could start from what you readily see in the world around you and follow the path of logical necessity to God. The proofs for the existence of God arise in this way. In each, you observe some characteristic that is intrinsic to the world around you, like its motion, its existence or its order, a characteristic essential to existence, and yet which the things you know cannot supply for themselves. They move, but are not the source of movement itself; clearly, since energy is conserved by the operations you know, it cannot be created by them.
"But finally, if the intellectual path moves from creation to God, the psychological path leads from God back to creation, as the soul purified from sin learns to seek the Lord where he may be found, which is everywhere. He could not fail to leave some trace of his personality on the things he has made, so you can learn to recognize the Father in the fact that things are, the Son in that they have a form and structure, and the Spirit in that they move with a purpose. And each of these three properties in a sense determines the whole. There is no part of any object that does not exist; there is no part that is without structure, and there is no part that is without energy.
"God exists," Michael concluded, "and we exist in him." I looked up at the archangel, and then at last I was afraid.
This book is reproduced with the author's permission.
Copyright © Catherine Dalzell 1995, 2009
All rights reserved
Illustrations Copyright © Gordon Gillick 1995
Version: 22nd April 2010