By Christopher Zehnder

When I was younger, perhaps purer, but certainly more impressionable, I read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. What I read deeply stirred me, particularly Thoreau’s reasons for retreating to the woods. “I went to the woods,” he wrote, “because I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreau said he “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” Though I could not fully articulate what it meant to “reduce life to its lowest terms,” I knew it was something I wanted to do. I wanted my small house on Walden Pond. I longed to hoe my patch of beans.

Though a sensualist, I have always been attracted at least to the idea of simplicity. Thoreau thus bespoke my soul with his quest for “life” – by which he meant earthly life; the life which is the “liquid fire” of growing things, the shimmering, crystalline purity of water, the bellowing might of Ocean, the teeming, but silent, fecundity of soil, the driving impetus of autumnal winds. In the waste of our own lives, in the hurry and bustle of the world of men, we miss Life, said Thoreau. “We live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men, it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness.”

It was my (secret) approval of Thoreau’ castigation of religion that gave me pause. I knew the words were, at least, near-blasphemous, but I gladly grudged the truth of  “most men” are “in a strange uncertainty” whether life is “of the devil or of God.” Such men, said Thoreau, have “somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.’” Like an impure image in the mind, which, though resisted, allures, this indictment of religion drew me even while I threw up every defense to impede it.

Thoreau in 1856

Yet, I could not shake it. Isn’t religion often a dour affair? I thought. Doesn’t religion forbid us the sweet things of earth? Doesn’t it make cowards of us all? I thought of those pious ones I had met who seemed to gut life of its power, hollow it out, extract its vital meat until only the thinnest façade remained. Though I castigated myself for this harsh judgment, I could not help but feel that, too often, religion is a watery, gruel-like affair, an attempt to hide from the intensity of life.

Moreover, I knew that I, myself, used religion as a mere comfort, a solace for the tragedy of life and its sharp, double-edged beauty. For beauty is often painful. It awakens in us longings too sweet to be endured. We would rather inhabit the twilight regions, for the darkness is too terrifying and the light of day too bright for our weak gaze. We love to hear Jesus when he says, “come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden,” but shrink from the rigor and keen joy of his call to perfection. It is the violent, he said, who take the Kingdom of Heaven by force. The violent are rarely at their ease.

I do not think we can escape Thoreau’s indictment of what often goes by the name of religion. It is pale. It is flaccid. It is palsied and weak. No wonder so many dismiss it with contempt, seeing how so many of us practice it. In using religion as an escape from life, we have betrayed life. What’s more, we have betrayed religion.

For the Catholic, faith is not an escape from life, even earthly life. During Advent and Christmastide the Church celebrates the mystery of that which lives at the core of our religion: the Incarnation. In becoming man, the Son of God pierced to the marrow of life. In embracing poverty, he “shaved it [life] close,” He entered into its “lowest terms.” In uniting life, with all its sordidness, to His purity, Christ drove “life into a corner,” and “put to rout all that was not life.” No aspect of life remains which the Man-God has not touched, and in touching, transformed. Even the natural world, from the lowest invertebrate to the most complex organism, finds its inclusion in the redemption of the sons of God.

This becomes all the more apparent when we look at the feasts of the Christmas season. On Christmas day, not only did God submit himself to the indignity of human birth, but allowed beasts to behold this incomprehensible event. (O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent dominum iacentem in praesepio! — “O great mystery and wondrous sacrament, that animals should see the Lord lying in a manger!”) Well should the beasts have broken into human speech on that night, for they stood in the court of heaven. Then, on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Our Lord permitted mere infants to participate in the shedding of blood that would purchase the world’s salvation. Here violence was not senseless slaughter, but a life-giving sacrament. The Feast of the Circumcision (Jan. 1 in the Eastern and old Roman calendars) not only commemorates God’s acceptance of suffering but his willingness to enter into a nation with all its benefits and responsibilities. He, Abraham’s creator, became Abraham’s son and bound himself to the laws by which he had bound Israel. At his baptism, Christ made mere water the vehicle for the transmission of divine life. And at the wedding feast of Cana, Christ not only consecrated marriage but blessed wine and merry making. When the steward said, “we have no more wine,” Our Lord did not respond, puritan-wise, “that that is just fine, you have had enough already!” No, He made more and better wine – wine, such as the psalmist says, God created to cheer the hearts of men.

The Nativity of Christ, from Notre Dame de Chartres

If Christ, God-made-Man, so united himself to life, may Christians (men-made-God) flee from it? Christ entered into creation, transformed it, and made it glad. Christ’s followers not only may, but should, rejoice in the world God made and renewed, for it bears his aspect. The beauties both of nature and of human art are not carnal temptations from which we must run to the safe haven of piety; though created things may be loved inordinately, it is not because of something perverse in their make-up. Though some or all of us, on account of some weakness or our vocation, may need to avoid certain natural goods (alcoholics, for instance, should not drink wine, and celibates should avoid frequent contact with the opposite sex), still, the essential vocation of the Christian is not defined by flight. We are not to flee all things, but to restore them in Christ.

We restore all things in Christ, in part, by reasserting to ourselves and others the basic goodness of created life. In Genesis, God looks upon His creation and declares it good. We respond to God’s gift of the world by a measured enjoyment of it. Song, dance, festival, drinking deeply are all re-assertions and celebrations of the world’s intrinsic goodness. When, by practicing arts, whether carpentry, or farming, or music making, we strive to perfect nature, we tacitly declare its worthiness and, at the same time, participate in the increase of its goodness. When, through study, we seek to understand the nature of the world, we unite ourselves with it and conform our minds to the Divine Mind that has stamped the world with his likeness.

We who live in the modern world, though, suffer a disability; we live uprooted, disconnected from the natural world. The seasons have become merely a meaningless succession of months to us, some warmer, some colder. The soil is only so much inert matter – we do not understand its life, or how our life derives from it. We tread haughtily upon the natural world, thinking we have overcome it together with our own human nature. We must again become convinced that, despite our technology and our power, we are what we always have been – creatures born of heaven and earth. To reconnect ourselves to the life of nature we may need, as Thoreau said, to reduce life to its essentials – plant and hoe our bean rows; knead our own dough; learn to hew and build. To rediscover the mystery of earth, we need to once again become involved with earth. By so doing, we shall restore an important aspect of our own humanity.

Such involvement in, and understanding of, the natural world is the necessary prerequisite to the next step in the Christian vocation – the sanctification of all life. The elevation of natural things always follows their interior logic. Water is used in baptism only because it washes; bread and wine, in the Eucharist, because they nourish. The Church has chosen the Winter Solstice for the celebration of Christmas because, just as, after the solstice, the days begin to lengthen, so at the birth of Christ, the darkness of sin began to recede. Easter always follows the first day of spring, the season of new life. Even the feast of the birth of John the Baptist occurs on the Summer Solstice, for, said John of Christ, “he must increase while I must decrease.” By using the fruits and elements of the earth, by giving new significance to times and seasons, the Church enters into life, and, understanding its inner meaning, elevates it to a deeper mystery.

The Charity of St. Nicholas, by Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Catholic faithful, by attending to the Church year, do not participate in some gutting of the real significance of nature, but participate more intensely in its life. This can be done, certainly, by attending Mass or by reciting the Divine Office; but the participation in the Church’s liturgical cycle can also be enhanced by adopting many of the folk customs that have arisen around the feasts. For instance, on St. Nicholas’ day (Dec. 6), it has been the custom in some countries for children to leave out their shoes in the hope that the bishop of Myra would leave some toy or sweet in them. In our family, the children leave out a carrot (for St. Nicholas’ donkey) and a beer (for St. Nicholas). The next morning, they find the carrot nearly devoured and the beer duly consumed – and if they have been good, they discover some toys and candy in their shoes. Such customs, though simple, have meaning. In this case, they reflect the love for children characteristic of St. Nicholas. A similar custom is the German one of the Christkind – “Christ Child” – who comes secretly on Christmas Eve to decorate the Christmas tree – signifying that, through His incarnation, Christ has adorned our souls with beauty.

A Christian’s participation in life, though, involves not only joy, but suffering and sorrow. We are called to suffer for one another, to bear each other’s burdens. The Christian lives in the life of a larger community, a mystical body called the Church. As part of this body, his concern cannot be solely for himself but for the other members as well; for if one suffers, all suffer. As the Church potentially includes all mankind, the Catholic must be ready to do good to all, to pray for all, and to lay down his life for all. The Christian life is not some pietistic, individualistic, “just Jesus and me” journey; it is not some comforting haven from the sorrows of mankind; it is, rather, union with the Crucified One who, lifted up from the earth, draws all men unto himself.

It is this “communitarian” aspect of the Christian life, I think, that shows up the meanness of Thoreau’s attempts to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” Finally, Thoreau is an individualist, a man turned in on himself, seeking a good for himself that does not necessarily include the good of his fellows. In the Faith, no man can seek only his own good, for this good implies the good of the Body of which he is a member. Even the hermit prays for others and, from his scanty means gives alms; indeed, for his own sanctification, he is enjoined to do so. Just as every living thing depends on every other living thing in that complex of life we call the cosmos, so every Christian, if he would truly live, depends on and serves in that complexity we call the Body of Christ. Only in the Church do we find life, for only in the Church do we find Christ, the source of life, who laid down His life as a ransom for many.