Sunday, 29 November 2009

Empathy, attention and creation

At the risk of this becoming a mutual admiration society, I'm excited that Mary Colwell is using her blog to reflect on and develop some of the ideas we've shared about church, creation and empathy. I woke up this morning - the first Sunday of Advent - and realized how my thinking has changed over the years. First, there's been a shift away from an anthropocentric sense of the incarnation - Christ became human for humans - towards a more cosmic sense which sees the incarnation as a weaving of the divine life into the quarks and atoms of all that is, in order to gather everything in to participate in the dynamic love of God. Second, Mary has encouraged me to reflect upon the importance of an environmental awareness that is nurtured and sustained by beauty, joy and hope rather than by guilt, misery and despair.

So often, environmentalists are doom-mongers and purveyors of guilt and gloom. My response - am I alone in this? - is 'sod it, eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.' I had to travel up to Glasgow last week and decided to go by train instead of flying. On the return journey to Bristol, I had to change trains at Birmingham New Street - a modern purgatory of dark underground platforms, the stink of diesel and the continuous belch and roar of trains, and over it all the worst public announcement system I've ever heard, with a manufactured voice that emits a stream of Big Brother type announcements and warnings using the personal pronoun until I for one could throttle that non-existent 'I': 'I am sorry to announce that the 7.15 train to Bristol is 10 minutes late. Please listen for further announcements.' 'I am sorry to announce that the 7.15 train to Bristol is 20 minutes late. Please listen for further announcements.' 'Please do not leave baggage unattended in this station at any time.' 'I am sorry to announce that the 7.15 train to Bristol is 40 minutes late. Please listen for further announcements.' 'This is a reminder that this is a non-smoking station. Please do not smoke anywhere in this station.' 'I am sorry to announce that the 7.15 train to Bristol is 50 minutes late. Please listen for further announcements.' 'This is a platform alteration. The 7.15 train to Bristol which was due to leave from Platform 11 is now leaving from Platform 5.' 'I am sorry to announce that the 7.15 train to Bristol has been cancelled.' etc. etc. If the world is doomed anyway, who would want to squander these last precious moments of life at Birmingham New Street? Next time, I'll fly to Glasgow. Such are the thoughts of a reluctant and guilty environmentalist.

But we need to widen our horizons, so that our care for the environment is not a meagre and half-hearted response to guilt but a passion for life in all its vast mystery, extravagance and complexity, inspired by the wonder of this creation and our place within it. My conversations with Mary have coincided with my reading Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae and realizing how narrow and impoverished our modern understanding of God and creation has become, compared to the magnificence of that medieval vision which shows us a cosmos animated by desire, created and sustained in the dynamic love of its creator, and orientated in all its yearnings and movements towards the source and the destination of its being in God. Mary's idea of empathy feeds into that sense of a harmonious creation sustained by an organic life force that holds in being all that is, and that endows the human animal with a transcendent consciousness capable of imagination, of wonder, of empathy, of creativity.

Simone Weil wrote a wonderful essay called 'Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God'. She focuses on the quality of attention as a necessary prerequisite of study and prayer, and she writes that will power 'has practically no place in study. The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy.' She goes on to link the idea of attention to neighbourly love: 'The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him or her: “What are you going through?” It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labelled “unfortunate,” but as a human being, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction. For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensable, to know how to look at him or her in a certain way. This way of looking is first of all attentive. The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, in all that being's truth. Only one who is capable of attention can do this.'

This is surely that capacity for empathy to which Mary refers, and we can no longer confine it only to the human. We need to cultivate an attentive vision that can gaze deeply into creation until we learn to ask, 'What are you going through?', and that can hear the voice of wounded grace speaking to us in the rhythms and sounds and patterns of nature. In another essay called 'Love of the Order of the World', Weil writes, 'The beauty of the world is the co-operation of divine wisdom in creation. God created the universe and his Son, our first-born brother, created the beauty of it for us. The beauty of the world is Christ's tender smile for us coming through mattter.'

And so to Advent - to the wounded beauty that awaits our human response, to the tender smile of the newborn God.

Tonight he comes,
shining like starlight
through aeons of space,
singing like whale song
through oceans of time.

Tonight he comes,
surging and surfing
the wind and the tides,
leaping and dancing
through forests of flame.

Tonight he comes,
the lover, the baby,
the carpenter God,
sculpting his form
in the wood of the world.


  1. i like your blog - obviously your God/creation this-n-that is somewhat hopeless, interestingly tho it doesn't prevent you from coming frequently to sensible policy stances anyway. who would have imagined.

  2. Thw poem brought tears to my eyes. beautiful.

  3. Udo, I'm glad you like the blog. As it happens, I also like Carmina Burana, and I'm interested in ethics. Thank God (or not) for these paradoxes.

    And "Scriven" - you are very encouraging, thank you. I'm still anxious about blogging, but comments such as yours allay some of the anxieties.



Comments and contributions are welcome so long as they respect the rules of courtesy and respect, which is not to inhibit robust disagreement.