Seeing Things: A Summer Idyll

Summer always puts me in a special mood about God and nature. Especially for those of us in northern climes who endure winters largely indoors, summer seems like an expansion of the world and our place in it. In the sunshine and full foliage it’s easier to forget about the getting and spending, the political and religious struggles of the rest of the year. We feel close to something effortlessly festive, youthful, inexhaustible, maybe even eternal.

I had an early reminder of this during the spring in Guatemala, one of the most lovely and unjustly overlooked countries in the world. Guatemala appears in the news only when there are stories about political murder and torture. These are serious issues, but when I was there, the whole question of summer and nature as a kind of timeless promise presented itself to me in a new way.

Our religious notions of death and rebirth have been influenced by our definite seasons. Some things appear to die and, miraculously, later come back to life. In the tropics, the seasons are variations of summer: cool, wet, dry, hot summers. And that, too, has affected religious thought.

In Guatemala, I visited one of the centers of the Quiche Mayas, Chichicastenango. There around 1700 a Franciscan copied what is now the only surviving copy of the Mayan creation myth, Popol Vuh. The Mayas possessed one of the most accurate calendars ever invented and had a sense of time that appears less tied to seasons than to the regularities and changes they observed quite closely in the sky.

Yet there are similarities between their view of creation and our Western views. Contrary to widespread belief, the Mayas believed in a natural hierarchy. Their gods make several attempts—the first few unsuccessful—to create human beings. In the first attempt, they only succeed in producing animals. When they see what they have done, they look at one another and say: These beings can only grunt and twitter. We need beings who can talk, worship us, and, above all, create the calendar that reflects the creation. Then they turn to the animals and apologize: “Just accept your service; just let your flesh be eaten.

“So now let’s try to make a giver of praise, giver of respect, provider, nurturer.” The next two times they try to make humans out of wood and then clay. The wooden humans are too stiff, and the clay humans dissolve in the rain. After long mythological episodes where hubris is duly punished and other universal human values reinforced, real human beings emerge who can speak, worship, and mark out cosmic time.

In the cultural controversies that pit the supposedly rapacious West against the supposedly egalitarian views of other peoples, we forget that virtually all cultures place a high value on the distinctively human, especially in its relationship with the divine. Some special link exists, it seems, between the human ability to speak and the capacity to worship.

An old Brazilian friend who was also in Guatemala holds the slightly heretical view that our ability to think arises when we must choose between good and evil. In his reading of Genesis, God let Satan tempt us, not because he desired evil, but because human beings could come to their full dignity as moral agents in no other way. My friend is a native of Rio de Janeiro, though, and perhaps that climate has influenced him in complicated ways.

In our northern summer or in places like Guatemala, we intuit that, whatever the right theory, the world could have been different: easier, more abundant, lush, various—and entirely inherited through no merit of our own. I am grateful for what many generations of human ingenuity and effort created. But I still yearn for some lost childhood of the world. Summer, more than the holidays we now celebrate, seems to offer the possibility of ease and festivity more than any other natural occurrence.

In his great essay In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, Josef Pieper notes the deep reasons for such intuitions:

The core and source of festivity itself remains inviolably present in the midst of society. . . . It remains in the form of the praise given in ritual worship, which is literally performed at every hour of the day. . . . because the festive occasion pure and simple, the divine guarantee of the world and of human salvation, exists and remains true continuously, we may say that in essence one single everlasting festival is being celebrated—so that the distinction between holiday and work-day appears to be quite erased.

Quiché Mayas and Catholics meet entirely on this. As we head off for our summer vacations, it is something worth reflecting on—and trying to live out better.

Robert Royal

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Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of TheCatholicThing.org, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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