Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Springtime and Man’s Relationship with Nature

Missouri Botanical Garden, in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA - purple tulip

LENT, in the Northern Hemisphere, is associated with the lengthening of days (whence we get the name of this liturgical season), and is determined by the vernal equinox, which happens to be today. Of course, in the southern hemisphere, today marks the autumnal equinox. Today at the equator the sun at local noon is directly overhead, and were it not for atmospheric distortion and the large disk of the sun, it would be precisely 12 hours from sunrise to sundown worldwide.

[When I was a child, I had a public school textbook which illustrated the globe of the Earth: it properly showed that when it was summer in the northern hemisphere, it was winter in the southern. Absurdly, it also (falsely) showed that when it was spring in the western hemisphere, it was autumn in the eastern hemisphere.]

Nowadays, the equinox is around March 20th or the 21st, but it was not always so: in the ancient world it was on the 25th, coinciding with the Feast of the Annunciation. An imprecise calculation of leap years found in Julius Caesar’s reformed calendar caused a drift in the date. You can read more about this in the article The Vernal Equinox.

Meteorologists define the start of spring as the date of the Vernal Equinox, although this appears to be a bit late according to local weather patterns hereabouts. Older European traditions mark the start of spring on Saint Bridget’s Day or Candlemas, February 1st or 2nd.


Catholics, other Apostolic Christians, and the Jews have annual liturgical cycles that attempt to precisely coincide with the seasons of the year. These ancient faiths have a unique tie with nature that is usually not found in newer religious groups. Fundamentalist and liberal Christians will attack Catholicism because of this relationship, calling it pagan, although there are real pagans nowadays who ought to be of much more concern to these Christians.  Fundamentalist Christians inadvertently cut themselves off from sacred tradition when they attempt to divorce the faith from nature, ultimately leading to a gnostic-like attitude towards the material world, seeing it as evil; likewise, liberal Christians do the same when they fail to distinguish faith from nature, and slide towards pantheism.

The seasons of the year, controlled by the relationship between the earth and sun, are an undeniable influence on human life, even though technology and systems of control attempt to moderate these influences. But the seasons and natural cycles of the heavens make us, in many ways, what we are. What are we to make of it? Pagans worship these things as gods, while modernists consider them to be of little to no importance, who are more intent on imposing human will on nature.

Neo-pagans are usually passionate environmentalists, as is fitting for someone with a nature religion. Generally speaking, the environmentalist movement is highly anti-Christian, for many reasons. One particular claim is this biblical passage, Genesis 1:26 (NAB):
Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth.
They claim that this dominion of man over nature has lead to the ruination of nature, because of industrialization, strip-mining, pollution, etc. But what does dominion mean? Is their idea of dominion a totalitarian, absolutist State, led by an all-powerful great leader or by a vanguard political party? Do they think that property rights are absolute, that each individual is master of his own destiny? But these are all heresies. The Catholic idea of dominion is neither totalitarian nor is it radically individualistic. Catholic good government is rather humble and seeks harmony rather than overwhelming command and control. Dominion becomes tyranny as orthodoxy is lost, and we find this loss of orthodoxy in modern forms of Christianity, and in the forms of political governance preferred by these sects.

Rather, dominion is a fact, not a license. Man names and classifies each creature into individual, species, and genera, but no animals are scientists. Man can kill any animal he desires, and animals run in fear from him. Man eats whatever plant or animal he considers good, and is not limited to an instinctive diet. Plants and animals are limited to specific ecological niches, whereas man lives wherever he wants. Man’s dominion over nature does not necessarily imply what the environmentalists claim.

Catholicism sees the things of nature as fellow creatures, worthy of being treated well, being also made by God. This attitude did not start with Saint Francis of Assisi (seen in his Canticle of the Sun), but can be found in numerous places in the Old Testament; here is Psalm 148 (Douay):
1 Praise ye the Lord from the heavens: praise ye him in the high places.
2 Praise ye him , all his angels: praise ye him, all his hosts.
3 Praise ye him, O sun and moon: praise him, all ye stars and light.
4 Praise him, ye heavens of heavens: and let all the waters that are above the heavens
5 praise the name of the Lord. For he spoke, and they were made: he commanded, and they were created.
6 He hath established them for ever, and for ages of ages: he hath made a decree, and it shall not pass away.
7 Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons, and all ye deeps:
8 Fire, hail, snow, ice, stormy winds which fulfil his word:
9 Mountains and all hills, fruitful trees and all cedars:
10 Beasts and all cattle: serpents and feathered fowls:
11 Kings of the earth and all people: princes and all judges of the earth:
12 Young men and maidens: let the old with the younger, praise the name of the Lord:
13 for his name alone is exalted.
14 The praise of him is above heaven and earth: and he hath exalted the horn of his people. A hymn to all his saints: to the children of Israel, a people approaching to him. Alleluia.
We shouldn’t be surprised that many neo-pagans come from heterodox Christian groups, and found them lacking, perhaps since these groups had no notion of harmony with nature.

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