On prophethood, predation, and the difference between nice and good.

There are no unsacred places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.

Wendell Berry

I am on retreat this week, and our preacher, Catherine Hilkert, OP, read this line from “How to Be a Poet” during Monday night’s sharing.

the prarie cactus

In the morning she reminded us that St. Francis had called sun and moon and water and mountains and all things of Creation our brothers and sisters. And she reminded us that Thomas Merton went further and called them saints. It is true and, it seems, to many people radical. Some find it unorthodox to apply the word “saint” to non-humans: fire, trees, wind, sun… I, on the other hand, will go further than Merton and say that they are prophets.

Sun and moon, mountains and wild flowers and all things of Creation are imbued with a message of God. Each thing and creature and moment of time are carrying a message of God. Creation is, after all, the Word of God become the universe, become flesh. In the non-time when eternity bubbled itself into the first bud of temporality, God spoke, and it was so. The world. The world IS the message, and we each have a piece of the message to give to each other and to put together into the Word of God that will sound again at the End Time when the world is as it is intended to be by its Sayer. When it will have been Said. When it will have been Spoken. We are speakers of God’s word in tiny sound bites. We are prophets.

I was watching some ants run around on the ground and some little grub worms nuzzle into mud near the ants, and they all looked busy with their own thing and even alike to me from my outside vantage point. But I rested my eyes on one of the ants and journeyed with him for a while, and his little path became different to me than any other: the obstacles he encountered, the way he chose around them… And we had a bond now, he and I, the bond he may not have been aware of at all. And I thought, This ant might be a great prophet to his people. The greatest prophet of his generation maybe.

I know nothing about him but the crossing of our paths in this time and place, and he may not know I exist, yet just by being in this time and place and being himself and doing what he does, he has directed my thoughts, opened my eyes, filled my soul, extended a connection to me one more to hold me fast and tenderly in the webbed hammock of life.

familyMy brother the ant is a saint and a prophet. So is my brother sun, my sister moon, my beloved mountains, forests, and prairies, my brother sea, my trees and grasses and wild field flowers, storm clouds and rain drops, and my much older brother the wind. And my sisters and brothers fishes and worms, spiders and dogs and birds and bull snakes. And bats that fly quiet and tigers that hunt and rabbits that graze and flies that bite. And frogs that sing and gazelles that run and alpacas that browse for greens..

Also, my brother house that shields and sister stove that cooks, my soft rug that cushions and my wonderful blanket that warms. My sister car that takes me through the fluid cathedral beauty of God’s dome to the places and people and things that I love.

They are saints in the purity of their essence, and they are prophets in the strength of their message. I walk through the world, and with every step I am prophesied to by everything that surrounds me. The universe sings and whispers and tries to help me understand what God is saying.

I too am a great prophet, and so are you. Probably you are. We are if we let ourselves.

We’ve been imbued with a message of God, and all we must do is let it flow forth from us. This is our nature, the way that we are, and all we have to do is be what we are, pure in our essence. In other words, it seems, to be God’s prophets, we have to be God’s saints. It’s just that easy.

wild flower

It’s not always easy, though, is it? The Word of God can be a heavy burden, a bitter taste, a prickly surface. Much of our essence is soaked in toxic juices of the world’s suffering – its violence, pain, and death. Some of our messages end in a dash.

Some twenty five hundred years ago, Jeremiah the priest and great prophet began to collapse under the weight of his dark preaching. Everywhere he looked, his prophecy was violence and destruction. And he wanted to quit, to lay down his burden, to stop speaking the bitter word and to rest – as all of us do. But not speaking the Word that is given to us is not being ourselves. Can an ant stop being an ant?

When we fight our prophecy, we fight our nature.

When we fight our prophecy, we fight our sainthood.

When we fight our prophecy, we fight ourselves.

When Jeremiah attempted to quit his preaching, the message he carried burned him from inside. “If I say, ‘I will not mention His word or speak anymore in His name,’” he cried, “His word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones” (20:9 NIV). He tried holding it in and could not, could not walk away from himself. Jeremiah was a saint, a prophet, and a victim of the world’s suffering.

This is a question with which I’ve started my writing and write about constantly, a question all of you think about, a question (I dare say) every human being has struggled with in the history of humanity: How do we reconcile our wonder and awe before the profound goodness of Creation and our sorrow, rage, and repulsion at the suffering, violence, and death inherent in Creation? It is a question that inevitably arises and that our preacher Cathy Hilkert ripped open decisively and strikingly with an image of a water bug seizing a frog, injecting its poison, and sucking out the liquefied organs of its victim. It is the question of agony and predation we rarely like to consider while singing the praises of the beauty of nature. But it is there, and it is true. And I think that I am coming to greater peace with it as I contemplate in further, nuanced detail the topic that often comes up between me and my friends in apparent levity but means more to me than they seem to realize: the difference between “nice” and “good.”

water bug eats frog

If you are my regular reader, you are not surprised at the recurrence of this, and you might recall my multiple stabs at the issue, most recently in “On Taking Up the Cross.” If you are a friend of mine, you are probably laughing, remembering the many times you called me a “nice person” and my vigorous rejections of the compliment.

What is my problem with “nice”? None at all, if it knows its place. “Nice” has many features of peace and welcome, after all. “Nice” is warm, inoffensive, and conflict-free. And there are times when “nice” is important: it makes people feel safe. In a dangerous world, safety is a great gift to give. “Nice” is not a bad thing to be called. Just not the best thing to be called. Because “nice” is not the same as “good.”

“Good” too is peace and welcome; safety is profoundly good, so are justice and beauty. But “good” will stand for those things till the last breath, long after “nice” has dissolved in the smoke of gunfire and clouds of tear gas. Good is not always nice, and nice is not always good.

It isn’t nice to shout and scream and call people names, not nice to turn over vendors’ tables – but he did that and more, the one I love, the one in whose footsteps billions of people around the planet claim to want to follow above all else. He was not always nice but was always, always good.

BeethovenHow many other heroes of yours can you name who were not nice at all? Gruff or bitter or stoic, they laid themselves down for someone, for something, for all things – soldiers and revolutionaries who stood against invasion or oppression, artists who shocked us into a new vision, teachers who provoked deeper questions, fathers who worked their hands to the bone…

Can one be too nice? I say, yes. If nicety keeps us docile or quiet when action demands itself, then “nice” is not good. There are times when love demands conflict, confrontation, painful truth. Holding fast to the last line of defense. And there are times when love and good allow death and violence simply as a matter of natural circle of life. Because the water bug is not nice to the frog. And I am not nice to the carrot I eat. And the mosquito is not nice to me.

This fact of all-permeating suffering – or rather my awareness of it – used to plunge me into the deepest depression, into hopelessness, until the difference between “good” and “nice” began to dawn its importance upon me. The world on the whole, full of beauty and of terror, full of ecstasy and agony, is not nice, but it doesn’t mean the world is not good. The world cannot be nice, for suffering is an absolutely inevitable, necessary predicate of temporality. A temporal universe could be all kinds of ways, maybe, but one way or another, it would have suffering, because it must by definition. In temporality, passing away is inherent, and that is death. In temporality, movement is inherent, and that is function. In function that passes away, dysfunction is inherent, and the signal of dysfunction is pain. Often we are grateful for the pain, or we wouldn’t know to attend to our dysfunctions, and the result would be death every time. With death comes loss. The signal of loss is fear. The memory of loss is grief. These are just forms and terms and words and perceptions of the basic structure of a temporal world. They are difficult; that’s their purpose. That they “feel bad” has nothing to do with the world’s ontological goodness.

8-it's kugelLike pain that, physiologically speaking, must feel bad enough to draw our attention to a bodily dysfunction, all of the world’s suffering is testament to its imperfection, nothing more, and imperfection of the world is news to no one. The universe is still baking, still in the process of Creation, but it doesn’t make it bad any more than a pie is bad because it is still in the oven.

“Good” is the nature of God and in that the fabric of reality. Love is the temporal form of the Good, its outpouring that actively flows through the universe, making it what it is: love is the unifying fabric of temporal reality. Suffering is part of the nature of our universe, temporally simpler than God and thus requiring beginning and ending of things. That is good, therefore, which moves toward and acts according with the nature of God and in sync with the fabric of reality called Love. That is good which lives its true nature fully and authentically, joy and suffering and all. Embrace and hunt. Self-sacrifice and predation. That is bad which ignores its nature, lets dysfunction take over one way or another in an extreme of intentional violence or self-inflicted guilt, arrogant disposal of resources or hopeless withdrawal from the fight for the life of the Earth.

This is the sainthood and the prophethood of the ant, of the mountain, and of the carrot. This is not the only but today’s, perhaps, message from God delivered by the frog and the water bug: Creation is good, good truly, good indeed, for it is to its tiniest drop permeated with the nature of God, and toward the Kingdom of God it is growing and blossoming, creating itself. But if you stand before a creation as if outside of it, watching it as if looking at a picture, expecting it to be nice, it will shock you and hurt you and plunge you into a deep depression. Because Love demands that it tell you the truth.

I feel loss of my sister the frog, and I miss her already. I can’t even imagine the journey she’s on right now. And I feel her within me, a minute addition to the Kingdom of God. And I walk toward the time when it will be my turn.

toady friend


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