If something is truly good, it’s better when it actually exists. I don’t think it’s controversial to say, then, that existence is good. Simple example: fried chicken, collard greens, and craft beer are good things, even if only in my mind, but it’s much better if they truly exist on the dinner table tonight.
Enjoying certain goods presupposes the existence of the one partaking in the good thing, so it seems that our individual act of existing can be the easiest good to take for granted. I posit that we learn to appreciate the fact that we’re alive only when we are given time to rest. In fact, I think that’s one reason among the many that God gave us the Sabbath in the first place: to quiet down and consider the value of simply being.
On a recent hiking trip near the Shenandoah Valley, the goodness of creation was made evident to me in its beauty. Although this wasn’t the most physically restful time I’ve had this year, the setting made it restful in its own proper sense. From the sunrises that drenched the sky above, the mountains around, and the valley below the cabin in innumerable shades of orange and red, to the waterfalls and outlooks that force hikers to break their trek in awe, to the embers of the campfire that died down under a heavy coat of stars surrounded by God-knows-what kind of animal noises in the woods, I was constantly reminded of how gorgeous the Blue Ridge Mountains are.
Billions of years ago, while the created universe was in its infancy, the Maker of space and time knew that at a given point, in one small solar system of a particular galaxy, on a small planet at an acceptable distance from its sun to sustain mass varieties of life, on a little trail tucked away in what would come to be known as Virginia, with blistered feet and mud-caked boots, one young, exhausted friar would have to stop on top of a giant rock in pure admiration of his surroundings. Struck by the beauty of creation, my uselessness to it, and its uselessness to me, no amount of time seemed appropriate to attempt to take it all in. No book, film, supper, or other more temporary good could compare with that view. With this, it hit me: without any personal responsibility for the matter, I was created. I was given the honor right then to enjoy creation in the simplest yet most profound way.
Of course, life reeks of absurdity if its purpose is just to be impressed by natural landscapes and then to die. Christ seems to have enjoyed the mountains, in a way, but He led His disciples up there to pray, not to serve as a trail guide. While restful moments on a mountaintop give all sorts of joy and calm to the heart, joy in its totality can never be attained, even if one were to have centuries to see the whole planet. (This isn’t even to mention man’s natural need for human community.) We crave beauty as we do happiness, peace, and anything that we naturally find good. Of course we want them to exist, and to exist in their fullest state on levels yet inexperienced, because we all crave infinite perfection. But since we are finite beings, unable to reach the infinite on our own, the infinite must come to us if this innate desire is to be satisfied.
St. Thomas shows in the fourth way how gradations of perfections refer themselves to the maximum perfection, i.e., God. Anything we see as more beautiful than something else is ultimately in reference to the ultimate beauty (and so on with any perfection: goodness, truth, nobility, etc., since all are contained in the One who contains all perfections of being since He is Being itself).
So my final end is not to stare at nature; it is to stare at God and have him stare at me, as it were. It’s all too easy to forget the loving act of God in allowing us to exist by getting caught up in smaller goods, present sorrows, or busy lives, as when a spoiled child is so accustomed to his toys and little treasures that he only takes notice of what he does not have. The Sunday rest, and more generally rest itself, gives us the opportune time to realize the incredible gift of being and to respond by loving the One who gave it.
Image: Ken Thomas, Rainy Blue Ridge