Sense and Nonsense: Rain

In “The Wasteland,” T . S. Eliot wrote:

There is not even silence in the mountain,
But dry, sterile thunder without rain.

Where we live, in large part, influences how we look at the natural phenomena which are so much an often unnoticed part of our daily lives — such things as wind, rain, floods, mountains, seashores, creeks, and plains. One of my very earliest memories was at my Uncle Tom Hart’s farm near Havelock, Iowa. Close by the house on farms in those days was a large earthen cellar, which served to store fruits and vegetables in the days before the refrigerator, but it doubled as a refuge from tornados, or cyclones, as we used to call them in Iowa. I can still recall the hush that suddenly came about the barn and the fields, the sky suddenly, ominously darkening, the order of Aunt Margaret for us kids to get into the cellar because Uncle Tom had seen a funnel dropping down in the distant sky. Then, suddenly sheets of rain would hit the farm.

The Old Testament, written in a normally parched area, is full of grateful references to rain, while the Gospel of Matthew recalls Our Lord’s words that the rain, however romantic or annoying, falls on the just and on the unjust. Psalm 147 tells us to “sing to Yahweh in gratitude, play the lyre for our God, who covers the heavens with clouds, to provide the earth with rain, to produce fresh grass on the hillsides and plants that are needed by men.” That “fresh grass on the hillsides” always reminds me of the winter and spring green on the Mount Hamilton range, so brown and purple during the dry months in San Jose.

St. Paul, stopping over on Malta, was rather less rhapsodic about the rain: “The inhabitants treated us with unusual kindness. They made us all welcome, and they lit a huge fire, because it started to rain and the weather was cold.” I never recollect being colder than in Naples or Palermo, not too far from Malta, during the early spring rains, so I can appreciate what he meant by the comfort of a huge fire.

No doubt, it is true that our interior life has mostly to do with our relationship to our family, our friends, and neighbors, to our self-control, to our awareness of the. St. Francis of Assisi seems to be the saint of nature — I remember being very cold and wet in Assisi too — but more of birds and animals. Yet, I think the Gospels are right to tell us to “see the lilies of the field, how they grow,” and my Uncle Tom would have liked what St. James said to the “farmer, how patiently he waits for the precious fruits of the ground until it has had the autumn rain and the spring rain.”

Both Augustine and Aquinas, in dealing with our very earliest acts, hint that how we see things, often, depends on us. If we think we are imprisoned in a niggardly planet, or cheated by our native turf, we are most likely annoyed by others who have discovered the kingdom of God beginning in these same places. I am, myself, probably more sympathetic to rain and snow than I am to dogs that bite (specifically, me), yet, as I watched my nephew’s little Golden Retriever — nee: Nutmeg — rush playfully all over the cliffs sniffing above the beautiful green ice plant, with the sand and the Pacific waves breaking below at Montara and Moss Landing a couple of days ago, I knew that Genesis and Aristotle were right about the orders of creation.

To me, the Prologue to the Gospel of John remains the center of our spiritual understanding of nature — of its elements, that all is reflective in its own way of the Word in which all things were created. We need not, I suppose, rush out into every thunderstorm declaring on 37th and “0” Street, just outside the gates at Georgetown, the praise of the Lord just because it is sprinkling. Yet, we are somehow dull if the thought never occurs to us.

Isaiah said, “Yes, as the rain and the snow come down from the heavens and do not return without watering the earth, making it yield and giving growth to provide seed for the sower and bread for the eating, so the word that goes from my mouth does not return to me empty without carrying out my will, and succeeding in what it was sent to do” (Is. 55:10).

The corners of this green earth, in which it rains or snows, in which the wind blows, and the Pauls of Tarsus are grateful to island friends for lighting fires to keep them warm cold rains, these are likewise places of Word-presence, of analogies of how God deals with us, of how we choose to accept his Word in regard to where and how we are. Ultimately, we reject or accept that even the rains and the snows are given to us in the warmth and gentleness of God. “Like Sun and Moon,” the Psalmist says of Yahweh, “he will endure, age after age, welcome as rain that falls on the pasture, and showers to thirsty soil” (Ps.72).

There is a sense, I think, in which our spirituality needs regularly this fresh input of nature, of knowing a pasture in the rain, or snow in the mountains that gives waters later in summer. We did not create any of this, yet there seems in all of it a word directed to our hearts, probably that of gratefulness is the best, of the fact that something given to us, which we indeed need to be, is also beautiful and gentle and awesome, like Yahweh.

Christianity is not a “nature” religion, but it is a religion in which nature is a sign, a vestige of the spirit in which we are created. I do not think any spiritual life is complete or even healthy that neglects the pastures and the sands, the thunders and the cyclones, the snows and rains of this world, made in the Word, which became flesh and noted the lilies and the sparrows, the rocks and the seas.

Author

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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