David Russell Mosley
30 August 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire
Several times now have I mentioned an impending letter discussing Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’. The idea, as well as the start of the title of this letter, were given to me by Jessica Mesman Griffith over at Sick Pilgrim. Well, today, I am happy to say that I am finally sitting down to begin writing on this topic. I hope to do at least two letters on this issue. In this, the first, I will focus my attention on how Pope Francis presents creation to us. Specifically, I will suggest that Pope Francis has something of a faeriean outlook on creation. In the second letter, I hope to focus on the relationship of the sacraments to the rest of creation.
So, to begin: The Encyclical, often called On Care for Our Common Home, but officially titled Laudato Si’ is meant to call to our minds the poem of the same name by St. Francis of Assisi. In that poem, St. Francis encourages us to view all of creation as related to us as brothers and sisters. We are not totally separate or distinct from trees and oceans and birds and bears. We are all part of the same family, creation. However, the Pope’s purpose is not merely to tell us how we are in fact related to creation, but how that relationship has been broken and why and how it needs to be fixed.
Pope Francis tells us that:
“As Christians, we are also called ‘to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbors on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the least speck of dust on our planet.'”1 He goes on to say that “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.”2
Instead, Pope Francis wants us to see creation as existing in an integral unity, a network of relationships, “a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.”3 This line in particular reminds me of my letter from Sunday where David Bentley Hart, commenting on Robert Kirk, “that the ability of any of us to view the world with some sort of contemplative rationality rests upon the capacity we possessed as children to see in everything a kind of articulate mystery, and to believe in far more than what ordinary vision discloses to us […]” (Hart, 27). In essence, it seems to me anyway, that Pope Francis wants us to look at creation and see Elfland, not simply nature.
“Nature,” writes Pope Francis, “is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion.”4 What Pope Francis rightly calls creation we could also call Faërie or Elfland, insofar as those terms are seen to mean this integral, even enchanted––by God’s presence––connectivity in the world (and not only in the world as means the earth, but in the very movements of the cosmos as a whole). Pope Francis notes this connectivity not only of plants and animals in “nature” to one another, but of human society to the rest of creation. He is not explicit, but the Pope sees the relationship between humanity and the rest of creation as priestly. He writes, “Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator.”5
“When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.”7
This “reading” of creation shows it be one large network whereby human relations, society, etc., are part of “nature.” To this extent there is no distinction between nature and culture. Culture is part of nature. And this connectivity reminds us that we are bound not only to one another but to every tree, rock, opossum, and more that we meet.
Creation is also a mystery that is to be contemplated. Pope Francis writes, “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dew drop, in a poor person’s face.”8 This too smacks of Elfland, the Perilous Realm. Tolkien writes:
Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays; and besides dwarves, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted (Tolkien, 38).
For Tolkien, as it seems for Pope Francis, all of reality is bound up in Elfland because all of reality is bound up in God. God gives to every aspect of creation its perfection and we must retrieve that contemplative rationality about which Hart wrote, if we want to have a clearer picture of what a single leaf, a single rock, a single man might mean. After all, every person you meet on the road is intended for deification, whether or not they know it. Each person is intended for the Beatific Vision, though many fight against it. And while human beings are the preeminent example of this we do well to remember that we are microcosms and that everything from the highest seraphim to the lowest quark participates in God and can tell us something about him. And now, all of those things are bound to God in a new way in the person of Jesus Christ who united humanity, and thus all of creation, to Divinity in his person.
Pope Francis never talks about elves and fairies, or Elfland and Faërie. Yet it is clear to me that he walks in those woods. His understanding of our common home shows that he understands, even if he would not (and at least since he did not) use the terminology, creation as Elfland. Creation is interconnected, it is a mystery to be contemplated, it is contained by Elfland, which is to say that it is suspended from God. Pope Francis has reminded us in this encyclical to see the world with fresh eyes, eyes that see beyond the ordinary, and into something deeper. That something I have called Elfland.
1 Praef. 9. Global Responsibility and Ecological Sustainability closing Remarks, Halki Summit I, Istanbul (20 June 2012).
2 Praef 15.
3 Praef. 15.