Why Are We Here? Ask the Roses

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
– Mary Oliver
My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature,
to know God’s lurking places, to attend all the oratorios, the operas…in nature.
– John Muir
Love all of God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it.
Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants,
love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things.
– Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Scientists suggest that our planet Earth burst into life somewhere between 4 and 3 billion years ago. According to some scientists, life began on our planet when simple molecules joined together and organized themselves into more complex molecules (http://www.usnews.com/science/articles/2008/07/24/how-did-life-on-earth-get-started). From that point on, things continued to develop in scope and complexity.

According to Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, who have written the story of the evolution of our Universe, the pattern of transformation from simple to complex in the ongoing development of life on Earth continued right on up until to the point when a cluster of molecules got up and started walking. Eventually their offspring, as homo sapiens, spread to nearly every habitable spot on the planet. In other words, as part of the activity of our Universe, everything seems to evolve from lesser to greater complexity, and we humans are a part of that process. Everything that lives gets more complicated as it develops. This is true on a species level and also on the individual level.

For example, I am reminded of this fundamental law of our Universe when I stop to think about my eating habits. As a child, I grew up eating what my Irish-American mother cooked, which most often was simple meals of meat and potatoes. My school lunches were pretty ordinary and regular fare as well. In fact, I ate so many bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches in my early school days that now I cannot stand even the thought of one.

Eventually, though, my life experiences (starting with a father who delighted in eating a broader menu) introduced me to other ethnic foods. I found I enjoyed certain Italian dishes, some Mexican foods, and now can even say there are a few Puerto Rican, Kenyan and Indian dishes that I can appreciate. I realize that my taste in eating, and consequently the issue of making a decision about what I will eat, has evolved from the simple to the complex.

In our culture, the industrialists have sold us on the idea that their products and our modern way of life have made human life simpler. But many of us are coming to believe that is not true, and yearn for simpler days.

The creative capacity within our Universe is within us as well. We keep coming up with new activities, new adventures, new demands on ourselves. So, despite all the “modern conveniences” our lives have become so full of activity, that there now is very little time for what Berry and Swimme suggest is the primary reason for our existence as conscious, self-reflective beings: to observe and celebrate what we experience around us.

All of which leads me to ask: is it possible for the degree of complexity to move beyond the capacity of the individual organism to cope?

The poet Mary Oliver, the naturalist John Muir, and the novelist Dostoyevsky hint at an answer to this. Our purpose in being here – and the thing from which we seem to derive the most pleasure and satisfaction in living – is to let go of all the complexity and get back to the simple; to stop and pay attention to what is around us, right here, in the present moment; to enter deeply into observation of who and what shares this planet with us.

Oliver, Muir and Dostoyevsky also hint that to slow down and make it simple enriches our inner, spiritual life. Unless we intentionally stop and pay attention, we will not be astonished at the miracle of life on display in every moment, at every turn. Our lives, though outwardly appearing busy, full and complex, will be inwardly empty and much less rich.

I had such an experience of astonishment the other afternoon. I was attending an eco-spirituality liturgy at a nearby chapel. We were listening to the priest offer words of reflection on the readings for the day in the context of the story of our evolving Universe and the incredible diversity of life on our planet. Perhaps it was due to his context, and in part to the spaciousness of the chapel with its very high, vaulted ceiling and skylights, but at one point as I sat listening intently to the priest speak, I suddenly felt my awareness shift. I began to image myself – almost to feel myself – sitting on board our planet traveling through space around our Sun. In the midst of that experience, I felt both my own insignificance in the vastness of that measure of distance between Earth and Sun, and at the same time a deep sense of joy at the wonder of it. As I think back on the feeling, the words that come to mind are from a younger generation:  “How cool is that?” It’s an expression that somewhat captures how I felt. Yes, it is cool – “way cool.” I want to remember that sensation, and to feel it again and again.

I have a sense that to gain more such experiences requires that I live more simply, and also to cultivate an attitude  like the rose Oliver (2006) describes in another of her poems, When the Roses Speak, I Pay Attention:

As long as we are able to be extravagant we will be hugely and damply extravagant. Then we will drop foil by foil to the ground. This is our unalterable task, and we do it joyfully” (p. 9).

I want more and more to be less complex; to be busy, yes, but busy simply paying attention, being astonished, and writing about it, extravagantly contributing my gift to the world.


Oliver, M. (2006) Thirst. Boston, MA: Beacon.

Oliver. M. (2008). Sometimes. In Red Bird. Boston, MA: Beacon.

Muir, J. (1993). As cited in Scharper, S.B. and Cunnigham, H. (Eds.), The green bible (p. 63). New York, NY: Orbis.

Dostoyevsky. F. (1991). As cited in Berry, T., CP. (with Thomas Clarke, SJ.). Befriending the Earth: A theology of reconciliation between humans and the Earth. (p. 1). Mystic, CT: Twenty-third Publications.

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