Reaching for Radiance
Close to where I live, a narrow footpath divides two divergent worlds: the open water of Long Island Sound and the congested interstate highway. As I walk, I turn my head to view the beauty of the tidal water and the coastal birds wading in it. I turn the other way and see the drifting garbage and fastmoving cars on an enormous traffic interchange. I am a pedestrian in a perilous place, walking an edge, looking into the thick, layered turbulence of human making.
As Christians waking up to the crisis of the earth, it can be easy to miss what is essential and most sustaining. Even while recognizing the calamities unfolding around us, we might not see as we are called to see. Whether we are working on a solution or uncertain of where to begin, the temptation is to divide our field of vision in two. We see what is beautiful, perhaps a pristine landscape, and what is not beautiful, such as a degraded wasteland. Alarmed by the contrast, we rush into action. We plan. We conserve. We recycle. Yet our vision remains divided, and burdened.
Does divine beauty shimmer only on one side, I wonder, as I look back over the water. Isn’t it also part of the built environment? What if I can embrace the beautiful and, in the same instant, its opposite also, through my faith? Am I not called through Christ, the One in whom all things hold together (Col 1:17), to see a radiance that includes the world’s wholeness and its fragmentation, its beauty along with its devastation? And compelled to imagine its potential healing? In Hymn of the Universe, Teilhard de Chardin describes the divine milieu as a place of inexhaustible potential where all matter is instilled with spiritual power.
The radiance of the resurrected life in Jesus Christ is more than an ephemeral experience of divine love. It is accessible in my daily, disconnected, wayward life. It regards the highway, supermarket, landfill, smokestack, and still sees beauty. It envelops the ugliness of my degradation of the planet and the suffering I have caused. It insists on my direct confrontation with God’s love and presence in all things, no matter how much my ignorance and self-interest have despoiled it. The good news of redemption reaches everywhere.
This is a vision radiant and practical: I see where I am and what I can do. I realize that the smallest of my actions matter. I uncover unexpected, concrete outcomes amid the vast scale of the ecological crisis. Turning off lights, avoiding disposable utensils, riding my bike – things I was doing before – take on greater clarity. I discover with zeal ever more things to conserve and limit.
Admittedly, in a society that values large-scale achievement, seeing in this way does not appear to solve anything. It seems inconsequential, as if I am just beholding, losing precious time. This practice of radiance, however, shifts my attention to the things in my reach. Waking up to them, I see that lesser actions, those overlooked in my hurried, perfectionist, more desperate efforts, become deeply significant. I become alert to the footprint I am making, especially to the distinctions between what is necessary, such as physical and spiritual nourishment, and what are the choices of a privileged lifestyle, such as the comfort of temperature control or the ease of auto transport.
Without this pursuit of radiance, I behave as if my visionary potential is depleted, my capacities are fixed, and my developmental journey is over. I feel a bit like the disciple Peter who, after Jesus describes how hard it is to attain the kingdom of God, complains that the disciples have already tried everything: “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” (Mark 10:28) I think I am doing all I can.
As followers of the Christ, we dare to see the larger cosmic radiance in all places. We witness something immediate and intimate beneath the rushed and cursory way of seeing. Alongside a congested highway, there is a pathway into luminous terrain. Beneath the layers of industrial ruin and human habitation, there is ancestral bedrock infused with God’s spirit. Amid the rumble of our world, there are deeper melodies. We are pilgrims in a civilization made of concrete, roadways, and human industry, immersed in our institutions of learning and productivity. Yet the light of Christ is rising up through the ravaged earth, offering us the vision to heal ourselves and our world in the smallest of ways.
The Rev. Catherine Amy Kropp, recently ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church in Maine, will graduate this year with a Master of Sacred Theology degree, focusing on the theme of the cosmic Christ and its applications for parish ministry.