Beauty and Natural Disasters
There was an earthquake Thursday night. A pretty bad one from what I can gather. It occurred somewhere off the west coast of Mexico, just as Mexico’s east coast was stuck by Hurricane Katia. Much of Texas is still destroyed. Thousands, I gather, are homeless. Every now and then I will hear something or see something about the fires out West. Everything west of Denver might be on fire, I’m not sure. How many homes will simply be missing when the flames are extinguished? Hurricane Irma is about to scrub overtop of Florida like a scouring pad. When it is done will anything be left?
With all of this going on I want to offer a simple reminder. The natural world, the planet, the earth, the God created world we live on is a good place. The rock beneath our feet, the meadows and butterflies, the ponds, rivers, and lakes, just the right amount of air pressure and gravity. Our world isn’t too hot (yet) and it isn’t too cold. In our world, we have polar deserts and rainforests, coastal plains and mountain peaks. Every vista and passing cloudscape, the sands of the beach and the fallen pine cones of woodlands testifies to the beauty of our world.
But if this is so, what do we say to the people around Houston? What do say to the ones whose apartment buildings fell down in the middle of the night after the earth shook? What do we say to the family whose lives have been forever altered by fire? What do we say to the people who are hundreds of miles away from their homes, hunkered down in shelters, wondering if their neighborhoods are getting blown away by Irma?
I’m no expert in pastoral care, but I think Job’s friends got off to a good start. “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” It’s only when Job’s friends start talking that things get ugly. You don’t need the right words, just the right presence.
But what about it? What do we make of natural disaster? Do we call it evil and just ride out that word as a way of explaining why bad things happen to good people? “Well, you know,” we could say, “we live in a fallen world.” Such an answer not only seems callous, its lazy. Or do we call it a mystery? “Who can fathom God’s will.” But there again we’re back to callous and lazy. We could turn to science and understand how and why natural disasters happen. And this is a good turn, something everyone should know at least something about. But even here we won’t find what the storm or earthquake or fire means. It just is. Irma does not know that Florida is a very populated state or that people living on islands are especially vulnerable. Irma cannot care. It does not mean to destroy, but it cannot be called meaningless.
If you’re expecting a definitive answer on the meaning of natural disaster in a blog, I’d suggest a different research technique. That is to say, I’m going to disappoint you. But I do have a suggestion. Remember the beautiful.
There’s a little place behind my house called the Holly Shelter Game Land. I go hiking there frequently with my camera. I’m usually captured by the smallest things. The wispy, fuzzy grasses, the dancing, yellow butterflies, wild haired, purple flowers, Venus flytraps. Spiders’ webs are as tight as fishing line. Wind through the pine trees sounds like the hum of an engine and the crinkled-up leaves blowing around seem a perpetual October. There is an ambiance of chirpers and clickers, the insects tucked away between blades of grass, living in constant shade. It is a beautiful place.
But beauty isn’t a maudlin affair. It is also the tick I pulled out of my leg. The hornet that chased me back to my truck and then flew inside my truck. Beauty is the horse fly or biting fly, that creature the size of my thumb that landed on arm, and jabbed me with some surly pinchers. The spiders that snacked on my face and neck without my knowing, the mosquitos that buzzed in my ears, that unknown thing that managed to get in my boot and hiked around with me. It is a beautiful place.
Beauty isn’t just the agreeable or appealing; it isn’t some hedonistic kinship that only tickles our fancy. The swirling vortex of the storm that destroys houses, the tongues of flames burning down communities, the floating continents that suddenly crack and shake the land, yes, we can call these terrible things beautiful. They are beautiful in as much as they are a part of this good, God-created world: a regrettable, grievous beauty, every bit as hideous and every bit as beautiful as an innocent man slowly dying on a cross, which ended when “the earth shook, and the rocks split,” and, “the sun’s light failed.”
Saint John of the Cross taught that knowing God wasn’t an easy business. “The soul desiring to be possessed by this immense God…deliberately asks Him to show her His beauty, His divine essence, and to kill her.” “May the vision of your beauty be my death,” he writes. If chasing the beauty of God risks the safety of our physical life, how much more, then, does living in a beautiful world chance harm?
This isn’t a perfect answer for why we endure natural disasters. I’m not even sure it is an answer. And most importantly of all, it isn’t worth sharing with those asking, “Why did it happen to me?” But I know this: if we can come to see the natural world as beautiful, even the nasty storms, fires, and earthquakes, how much easier will it be to see the beauty of God, to endure the painful toll of the spiritual life? The beauty of the world is out to get you. “The soul that loves God derives a thousand displeasures and annoyances,” says Saint John of the Cross. But the beauty of God is out to destroy you. You cannot see my face and live, says God to Moses.
The world is beautiful and good, even the terrible, unwanted disasters that elevate humanity to our best. The beauty we see around us is a reflection of the beauty of God; for what piece of art doesn’t at least hint at the artist? And the closer we come to this Artists, the darker our world becomes. Again, Saint John of the Cross: “She is drawing nearer to Him, and so she has greater experience within herself of the void of God, of very heavy darkness…He is intolerable darkness to her when He is spiritually near her.”