One of the most impactful books I read in the last 10 years was The Meaning of Blue: Recovering a Contemplative Spirit by Luke Bell, O.S.B. In that book our contemplative guide has set out for a difficult task: to get Christians to look at the world as if God made it. Very often, in some sort of deference to the physical sciences (or perhaps due to a fear of being “anti-science”), Christians have allowed the world to be explained by physical means alone. In this vein, science is not assisting knowledge in a formative way – as in a piece of a bigger picture – but in an absolute way, as if only the knowledge of the world that comes from the method and outcome of the scientific method (i.e. measurement and data) can inform us.
What Bell does is to remind us that not only does the color blue have an explanation according to the reflection of light on pigments, etc., but that it has a meaning. He finds it significant that space is a dark void, but in the day to look toward space is to look at a sprawling color blue (his connection to Mary is truly profound).
This seems trite and maybe esoteric, but when one wakes up to the truth that God has impregnated the entire world with meaning, we realize how much we are missing. We might even find ourselves in that odd experience of asking God to show us His goodness and glory but all we get is sunshine, babies, and the ridiculous and utterly un-utilitarian experience of being tickled. Sealed off in air-conditioned compartments (home, car, office) seems to dull us of what Bell calls “the spirit” of contemplation – we’re disinclined to notice what God has placed before us to notice. I believe my children have a better sense of this, since the other day they were utterly dismayed that the grocery store has misters that turn on to water the produce, which sprays along with a faux-storm and rain sound piped in through hidden speakers. Perhaps being annoyed by banal artificiality is a good sign of sanity.
I say all of this to point to another writer, Fr. Farrell, who in his excellent works on Thomas Aquinas has this philosophical reading of the makeup of man’s physical reality. Or, here’s why you’re a naked and upright creature with mannerly eating habits:
It is true that some animals have keener smell than men, others keener sight, and so on. But this was because man’s senses were ordered to his higher knowledge so that a nice balance was struck lest any one of his senses interfere with his reason; not many human ears are so keen that a man cannot think because of the racket made by a cat tramping over a rug. In the fundamental sense of touch, and in those internal senses which so immediately serve reason — imagination, memory, appreciation — man far excels the animals.
We have no horns, claws or covering of hair and, normally, our hides are not too thick; in other words, man is shorn of the weapons and coverings naturally given to other animals. He does not have even a speck of fur or just a few of the porcupine’s spikes. In place of these natural protections, man has his reason and his hands: by these he can prepare weapons for himself, provide himself with covering and the other necessities of life in an infinite variety. It is only the human female that does not have to wear the same coat of fur for a lifetime.
Man stands erect while the other animals normally go about on all fours; and for very good reasons. His senses are ordered primarily to intellectual delights, not to the search for sensible delights; he should not have his face to the ground as though concentrating on sensible things but rather high up where he can get a broad view of the sensible world, seeing it from all angles. To give his interior powers full play, it is right that his brain be placed above all the other parts of his body, that nothing might weigh heavy upon it and interfere with its operation. If man did not stand erect, he would have to use his hands for front feet, thereby seriously interfering with their usefulness; if he went about on all fours, he would have to take his foods with his lips and mouth, dispensing with all books of etiquette but at the same time thickening his lips, hardening them and roughening the tongue to the impediment of his powers of speech. Moreover, as the superior part of a creature is that by which nourishment is taken, the stature of man accurately places him in the world of creation: the plants have their superior part (the roots) pointed toward earth; the animals occupy a neutral position; while man points towards heaven.
May we be worthy of this strange creaturely make up by pointing to heaven more often.