Jan 29, 2008

Nature's Antidote for Worry

When Jesus instructed us to "consider the lilies of the field," he wasn't making the kind of moralistic point we find in the fable of the ant and the grasshopper. In that tale, the ant is praised for working hard all summer to store up provisions for the winter. The grasshopper sings away meanwhile and, at summer's end, has nothing to show for it.

The point is clear, but in case you missed it, Aesop spells it out: "The thrifty prepare today for the wants of tomorrow."

Jesus tells us to consider the lilies for just the opposite reason: the lilies are lazy. They occupy space amid the common field grasses for no reason other than that the glory of their beauty pleases God. The lilies "toil not, neither do they spin." We learn from lilies not to worry about tomorrow.

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard tells how meticulously she examined her surroundings in rural Virginia, from seeing the single-celled algae in her pond under a microscope to gazing at Alpha Centauri in the night sky. The trillions of stars and cells made her nervous. Why so many? Their Creator seemed a profligate wastrel. A typically ant-like response. But, like the lilies, our true business on earth is not anxious hoarding, but praise and exultation in God. God's creation gives us ready access to proper praise. What we call nature (flowers and trees and birds and bees, scorpions and hail and sharks) reveals some portion of the "nature" of its Creator. We know steadfastness because the physical universe proves so predictable. We know surprise because of sudden storms.

Dillard found the answer to anxiety in beauty and in the fact that we desire and seek beauty. "I've gone through this a million times; beauty is not a hoax," she testifies. "Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it." It takes attention, rapt attention, to keep that reality. Only by staying alert to the world can we carry out our proper task of giving thanks. Our attention span, unfortunately, is limited.

For decades, Andrew Wyeth painted his everyday rural surroundings showing us ordinary objects as if for the first time. He once told an interviewer, "I love to study the many things that grow below the corn stalks and bring them back into the studio to study the color. If one could only catch that true color of nature; the very thought of it drives me mad." Now that is considering the lilies. And when you pay that much attention to creation, you have nothing left to spend on anxiety.

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