"I'll give one tug on this free rope," said the priest, "when I wish you to stop. Two tugs for lowering me, three tugs for raising me. Are we ready?"
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"Yes, Father," said his young assistants, as wisps of sulfurous smoke rose from the earth nearby. They couldn't help musing about whether their master was about to descend into hell. The earth about them was gray and jagged, like sludge frozen into shards and knives, and it had cut the soles of their shoes badly. Rumbling came from below. But the master was like a boy sallying forth into an enchanted land. His weapons were his eyes and his mind, some measuring tools he had invented, and paper and pen to record his observations.
Athanasius Kircher, the Jesuit polymath, climbed into the wicker basket. He was in the prime of his life, tanned and muscular from his tireless travels and scientific investigations. "All right, boys," he said, "send me down." And his comrades lowered him into the ominous crater of Mount Vesuvius. But they were used to Father Kircher's eccentricities. He'd sailed to Sicily to inspect the towering and ever-roiling Mount Etna, and to the volcanic island of Stromboli, which had recently erupted. Then they felt a single tug on the rope, and they stopped lowering the basket, clinching the pulleys. "Nothing in God's world should escape our notice and our wonder," Father Kircher used to say, his eyes glittering like a child's. But for all the wealth of his learning — in ancient and Oriental languages, medicine, astronomy, philosophy, mathematics, optics, and geology — he had a simple piety. "Someday," he said, "I'll build a great shrine in honor of the Mother of God" — but that would not come to pass for many years.
Meanwhile, his fellow Jesuits sent him samples of plants and bones from all over the world, which he collected and analyzed, along with the bones of a mammoth he had himself found in Sicily. These things are still to be seen in the museum he founded at the Roman College.
All Creatures of Our God and King
It shouldn't surprise us that many of the most accomplished scientists in history, from Father Roger Bacon (the medieval chemist) to Father Gregor Mendel (the man whose humble botanical work earned him the right to be called the father of genetics) to Father George Lemaître (the astrophysicist to whom we owe the theory of the Big Bang) were associated with the Church. That it does surprise us is due not to the Church's suspicion of science, since she has always and energetically promoted the study of the natural world, but rather to bigotries spawned in the self-named Enlightenment and accepted even today by people who don't know their history and who sometimes despise the Church for reasons that have nothing to do with the sun and the other stars. The bone of the mastodon is a weapon ready to hand for dealing blows about the Church's head, and that's all.
But the deep reason why the Church has been a friend to natural science is to be found in Genesis and the Gospel of John. For God in the beginning created all things and declared them each to be good, and the whole of the world together, very good. The first created thing was not mud or something else unformed and despicable, but light — the most immaterial thing we know, wholly beautiful in itself and revealing the beauty of all other things. We might say that the first word of creation, "Let there be light," was like the first word given to Moses on Mount Sinai, "I am the Lord thy God." It's God, imparting a measure of his being to all things; his truth, and beauty, and goodness. Saint John understood it, and was inspired by the Holy Spirit to give us a fuller way to look upon creation:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was
with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him
was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the
darkness comprehended it not.
To study that creation in love is to give honor to the Word, the power of God and the wisdom of God, through whom all things were made. It is to seek the light.
I'd go so far as to say that without the Church, science as we know it would not have developed. It wasn't an accident. The Arabs were clever and made many contributions to medicine, mathematics, and astronomy, but those were under the temporary influence of what, for believers in the Koran, had to remain an essentially foreign Greek philosophy. They didn't believe in an ordered world, since Allah could call disorder order, or he could call evil good, and it would be so. Their contributions in the last eight hundred years have been minimal. The Chinese were clever, and they surely did believe in order; but it was a static order, cold and timeless. The world wasn't going anywhere; and that robbed them of the zest for making any great use of their discoveries. To study medicine was not to serve the gods, nor to tend to Jesus Christ in our brothers, but to serve an emperor or his officials. We might say, to stretch terms a little, that the Chinese invented dynamite and did nothing dynamic with it.
I'd go so far as to say that without the Church, science as we know it would not have developed. It wasn't an accident.
But the Jews and the Christians believed not only in an ordered and beautiful world, but in a providential world with a beginning and an end, a goal, in the mysterious Kingdom of God to which the prophets testify. Those prophets aren't Greek oracles, malevolently hiding under riddles their knowledge of what is going to happen to an Oedipus or a Croesus. They are spokesmen for the providential God, and so when they speak of times to come, they speak of repentance and turning back to God, and of a renewed world, a time beyond time, when all shall be transformed, as Saint Paul says, "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye."
The same prophets were often common men. They weren't philosophers who withdrew from manual labor to contemplate the heavens with their friends. Amos was a dresser of sycamore trees. Elisha was called by Elijah while he was plowing the fields. John the Baptist, clad in a camel pelt and living on wild honey and locusts, was a thundering voice in the wilderness. Our Lord himself was a carpenter. It is impossible to learn about the good world around us without getting your hands dirty. Scientific labor can be grueling. How can we raise better corn? How can we cure the diseases of cattle? How can we avert flooding on the deltas of the Po and the Rhine? That requires strenuous sacrifice. Why should we abase ourselves to do it, and for peasants? Because whatever we do for the least of these our brothers, says Jesus, we do also for him.
Which brings me to another basket. This one holds a tall and stout young man, so there's a lot of strain on the rope. He's running away from his ancestral home. He has a brilliant mind, and his ambitious father had destined him to be the abbot of the most prestigious monastery in the world, Monte Cassino. That would be a great victory for the family, and well deserved, since the lad was, after all, second cousin to the Emperor Frederick. And why should he balk at associating with Frederick? The emperor's court was famous for its poets and artists and men of intellect. Frederick himself was nicknamed Stupor Mundi, the Wonder of the World.
But the boy Thomas had other plans. He was put off by ambition. He sought to join the new order of Dominicans — beggars and ruffians, his father called them. He wanted to set his mind to study all things: God and man and Christ and the world. He was leaving to do just that.
Thomas Aquinas deserves far more than a paragraph or two here! But he illuminates for us why faith and reason are fast friends. He traveled all the way to Cologne, where he became the star pupil of Albert, called Albert the Great for his encyclopedic learning. Albert was, like Athanasius Kircher and like the pagan Aristotle whose works he embraced and learned from, a biologist, a collector, and analyzer of plants and animals from wherever he could acquire them. Many skittish theologians feared that Aristotle's emphasis on the world about us would blind us to the world beyond, but in their fear lurked a heretical deprecation of matter, and not the joyful wonder of Genesis. Thomas helped to save the world for the faith, and the faith for the world.
We should call him Saint Thomas of the Creation, said G.K. Chesterton. All scientists, whether they know it or not, are deeply indebted to him and to the Mother who fostered him.
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To read Professor Esolen's work each month in Magnificat, along with daily Mass texts, other fine essays, art commentaries, meditations, and daily prayers inspired by the Liturgy of the Hours, visit www.magnificat.com to subscribe or to request a complimentary copy.
Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity, Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2014 Magnificat
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