I can't imagine popes ever read letters from the masses but here is one for the new pope, whoever that may be.
When the first astronauts went into space and looked down on the earth they were overcome by the sight of our planet whirling in a vast blackness.
“If somebody had said before the flight, ‘are you going to get carried away looking at the earth from the moon?’ I would have said, ‘no, no way.’ But yet when I first looked back at the earth, standing on the moon, I cried.” Alan Shepherd.
“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye and my thumb blotted out the planet earth. I didn’t feel like a giant, I felt very, very small.” Neil Armstrong.
“As we got further away the earth diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing that has to change a man.” James E Irwin
“My view of our planet was simply a glimpse of divinity.” Edgar Mitchell.
In more fanciful moments I like to imagine that if those astronauts had opened the window of the space ship and listened they may have heard the planet as well as seen its beauty, a planet that sings 24/7. All of life sings; human voices merge with those of birds, mammals, amphibians, insects and fish to produce a cacophony set against a backdrop of wind, water and storm. Songs of praise to the author of the universe are mingled in there too, constantly chanted by the faithful round the globe; their songs are focussed directly at God and we instinctively raise our faces to the heavens to voice our praises. As far as we know, and we know very little, we are the only singing planet in a universe so vast we cannot describe it.
It is hard however to keep these observations in mind when there is so much to take us away from the stars and so many problems that press in with such urgency. Inevitably the day to day-ness of life takes precedence. For me that is one of the reasons for prayer, all Christians must keep their feet on the ground but have their head in the stars if they are to maintain a sense of the wonder of God as well as care for those immediately around them. As you take office and survey the Catholic world over which you have the onerous role of leader, I wonder if the miracle of a singing planet will blend colour into the many decisions that lie ahead?
No one of any learning can fail to be aware of the litany of huge problems this bright jewel in space faces; struggling to supply the needs and wants of 7 billion people - rising to 9 billion soon. If we are all to live with dignity and without hardship (perhaps even face death) then these problems are not only pressing, they are of paramount importance. But it is not to these that I want to highlight, it is to the small, ordinariness of life, the little things, the humdrum life on earth that I would like you to remember every single day in your communion with God.
A great leader must keep their eyes on the distant horizon and see the path many miles ahead. Their job is not stumble on the immediate obstacles that are strewn over the ground and that easily trip up those with less vision, but to negotiate them with skill, whilst always journeying onwards. Great leaders however must have acute peripheral vision too, they must be aware of what is happening on the edge of the mainstream, small things that often go unnoticed in the clamour all around. It is important to notice that bright butterflies no longer bedeck the bushes in the garden, that swifts no longer soar in great numbers overhead in June, that roadside verges are less colourful that they used to be. These are seemingly small, inconsequential matters that pale into trivia compared to the changing state of the atmosphere or world poverty, yet they represent a slow but relentless diminishing of the face of God on earth. Abundance is disappearing from this singing planet and its song is softer these days, still beautiful, still exuberant, but quieter. The creatures and the plants that supply the joy of the ordinary day are slowly but surely getting thinner on the ground and along with them our ability to daily rejoice.
Anna Frank understood this all too well: “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature.” Whilst her incarceration in a drab world was imposed, we seem intent on re-creating her prison outside by allowing the colour, the sound and the diversity of life on earth to eek away. This planet does not have the character of smooth paper written over with a steady, careful hand, it is more a Jackson Pollock, a riot for the senses and a source of joy, wisdom and mystery. Daily another blob of colour is removed.
There is a malady that affects us all, says Michael McCarthy, “a great thinning we cannot quite name,” that is “far subtler than the hacking down of rainforests... a profound change to the very fabric of life.” The fact that there is a great deal less of everything may seem a shame, but it is more than that, it is a tragedy on every level. Not only are we degrading the gift of life on earth, the face of God in the very stuff of life, we are observing cracks appearing in the dam wall. At first a few are irrelevant to the ability of the wall to hold fast against increasing pressure building up behind, but as the cracks appear more frequently the dam can suffer a catastrophic failure. If this does happen then the earth will not be able to pollinate enough crops for us to grow, supply enough fresh water for us to drink, and the soils will be as unproductive as sand on the shore.
Christ taught us that it is in the everydayness where God is to be found, in the quiet, holy routine of day-to-day life. The natural world is suffering greatly, not necessarily only the spectacular and impressive like tigers and polar bears, but the ordinary, common things that make up the palette of daily life. Remember them in your prayers, prove that they matter in your words and actions and help us to protect all of life on earth by bringing the holiness of the living world to the fore. If it remains a sideshow, a matter of inconsequence, then species after magnificent species will slip quietly into oblivion and we will find that the rich, miraculous carpet we ride on through space will fade and then fail to support us. God will surely hold us to account.