End Notes: If Winter Comes

We are sometimes surprised by an unimpeded view of the moon in the night sky. The appropriate reaction is to stand and stare. Wonder is the beginning of philosophy, the ancients said, but there are two kinds of wonder. The first kind is replaceable by understanding, as Astronomy 101 can answer questions about the moon. The other kind of wonder sticks around after explanations are had. This can give rise to what the Greeks called theoria and the medievals contemplatio.

Is the universe an explosion in process, galaxies hurtling ever outward pell-mell? Maybe. But for most of our history, talk of the universe was governed by what is visible in the night sky. The solar system was taken to be identical with the universe. There were quarrels in the neighborhood, and about it. Did everything revolve around the earth or around the sun? That is no longer a cosmic question. It is not just that we are all heliocentrists now; it scarcely seems to matter in an expanding universe that leaves the Milky Way to curdle in its wake.

But there is a false humility about our little system, as there is about our species. If Earth is a speck in an all but infinite universe, what is man but a speck upon a speck?

The fast answer is that man thinks the thoughts expressed in sentences like that. Some speck. The limitations of space exploration are clear when the distance to Mars is brought home to us. But the mind had been to Mars long before any probes were sent. And probes are instruments of the mind, the human mind, which was created in order to understand, to wonder, to contemplate. Aristotle said that it was lunar and solar eclipses that most spurred wonder and led on to that quest for God called philosophy. Only earthbound human persons do that. No one else. Only to them did God come as one of them with the message that our destiny lies far beyond our few decades in time.

Given the friends and relatives we have, it is not always easy to wax eloquent about the human person. And there are always mirrors, alas. For all that, there are good reasons why the Holy Father has made the person the leitmotiv of his papacy. Man, this poor forked animal, as Swift called him, has a destiny that dwarfs the universe.

Most of us have had a memorable winter this year, and the poet has provided cold comfort. “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” Now that spring is finally here our trust in poets returns. But of course spring will give way to summer and summer to fall and so on and on. The mark of our solar system is regularity and recurrence. But spring is special.

Graves that lay under a foot of snow are visible once more. Spring is the season of Easter, and it is the Resurrection that lifts our hearts again. If Christ is not risen, our faith is in vain. Spring is a metaphor of that hope, and the rebirth of the natural world under the warming sun is a sign of our destiny. But the promise resides in the risen Christ himself.

How improbable it seems that all the dead will rise, that in a promised future our span of life will seem the merest prelude to our full existence. We get used to the Faith, as we get used to the universe. In the Paradiso, Dante uses the planets of our system as stages in the soul’s ascent to the mystical rose of heaven. Natural wonders were metaphors of supernatural ones. In a reverse of Hamlet’s uncle, our thoughts fly up, our words remain below. Our reach exceeds our grasp.

Ma or convien che mio seguir desista
piu dietro a sua bellezza, poetando,
come all’ultimo suo ciascuno artista.

[Now in her beauty’s wake my song can thrust
In following flight no farther: I give o’er
As at his art’s end, every artist must. (Paradiso, XXX.31-3)]

Recovering a sense of the dignity of the human person is a prerequisite for Christianity. Recovering a sense of the natural is a prerequisite of the supernatural. And a celebration of our seasons undergirds our grasp of the all-but-incredible promise of faith. I suppose that is the answer to Christ’s rhetorical question, “If salt lose its savor, wherewith will it be salted?” By appeal to the seasons? Especially spring.

Ralph McInerny


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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