Of dinosaurs and discernment

“Every now and then it helps to step back and take the long view…”

Carnegie Natural History Museum (credit: http://www.carnegiemnh.org)


These are the opening lines of a reflection attributed to Salvadoran Archbishop (perhaps soon-to-be-saint) Oscar Romero. “The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision,” he goes on to say. What might it mean to take the long view?

Debbie Blue in her book Consider the Birds: a Provocative Guide to the Birds of the Bible, writes that “in 1973 a griffon vulture collided with an aircraft flying 37,900 feet.” That is over seven miles, the highest ever recorded altitude for a bird. Blue challenges us to find new ways of thinking about God as we reflect on creation – even or especially on those species considered less-than-majestic, like the vulture. Might even vultures – a species we normally consider unappealing if not downright ugly – reveal something of the Divine face to us in their ability to ride the air currents and take in all below them? Certainly if we seek to take the long view, the griffon vulture provides a powerful example from the natural world.

Another inspiration from the natural world came during a visit to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. It was a grey, cold December day, and I had a case of what I have come to term the “discernment blues.” I knew I needed a change in scenery and a break from wrestling with those big, thorny questions of call. So I drove to Pittsburgh and spent the day wandering among skeletons of tyrannosaurus rex, diplodocus, apatasauras, and many others. I walked through the Mesozoic era and learned about the slow evolution of various species long before mammals were part of the picture.

Throughout the exhibit, time is measured in mya (millions of years). The tour guide told us that dinosaurs walked the earth for 180 million years. In contrast, we human beings have been on the scene for 9 to 12 million. As the example of the griffin vulture invites me to “take the long view” in terms of space, reflecting on the Carnegie Museum’s dinosaurs invites me to “take the long view” in terms of time.

If all of world history could be condensed into twenty-four hours, homo sapiens sapiens (that’s us) would come on the scene at two seconds before midnight. To stretch even further back, dinosaurs only enter the world scene at 10:56 pm.   This serves as a humbling reminder that it is not all about us. That human beings – as beautiful and unique as we might be – aren’t, in fact, the focal point of life on this planet. That God’s creation starting with that initial flaring forth nearly 14 billion years ago is much vaster than I usually consider. This creation includes myriad species which came before us and – potentially – myriad others who will come after us. Human history is an eye blink of time if you start counting with the Big Bang. And, of course, the earth is one planet in one solar system in one galaxy out of an estimated 200 billion galaxies in this expanding universe.

You Are Here

(Credit: Pixshark.com)


Feeling small yet?

Beyond an invitation to humility, it’s also an invitation to awe and wonder – which as Catholics we name as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Awe and wonder at all that has come before us as well as that which may come in the future. Theologian John Haught speaks of “a universe still aborning” to describe the reality that nature is incomplete and subject to ongoing creativity.

I drove back to the motherhouse after my day contemplating dinosaurs with those big, thorny questions of call still alive within me. Yet somehow my time at the Carnegie did bring some consolation amid the discernment blues.

Geologian (no, that’s not a typo – it’s a combination of the words geologist and theologian!), scholar, teacher and Passionist priest Thomas Berry often repeated the phrase: “we are not a collection of objects, we are a communion of subjects.” I am only one of nearly seven billion human beings currently alive in the world. And human beings are only present in a tiny percentage of cosmic history. We are part of a communion of many, many subjects – past, present, and future. From quarks to quails, from amoeba to avaceratops, from vultures to vine maples – we humans are one strand in an enormous, complex, beautiful web of God’s creation.

Yet I as an individual and we as a species have a role to play with the Creator in the ongoing creation of this “universe still aborning.”   With humility, awe, and wonder we strive to “step back and take the long view.” We celebrate that we are simultaneously infinitely small and yet infinitely significant.


About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is currently a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.

I call you friends

“Dear Ellacu: For years, I’ve thought about what I’d be saying at the Mass of your martyrdom. I’ve had the same feeling as I had about Archbishop Romero. His martyrdom was inevitable, too, and yet I never wanted to admit to myself that it would finally come. But your death was so likely that it was simply impossible for me to get the idea out of my head.” –A Letter to Ignacio Ellacuria (1990) by Jon Sobrino, S.J.

“Friendship saves. Friendship liberates.” –Gustavo Gutierrez, O.P.

Jesuit liberation theologian Jon Sobrino, aged seventy-four, is not someone you immediately notice when he walks into a room. On Monday, the slight, gray-headed man in the unseasonable blue sweater tentatively crept through our classroom door. He almost whispered his “hi,” adding offhandedly that “my name is Jon.” It took me several seconds before I got it.

Sobrino is at Boston College to teach his summer course on “The Crucified People.” He warned us that his health was bad. He might get exhausted and have to leave early some days. It’s already happened a couple times. He sits at his desk, speaking softly and simply, but very intensely, while reflecting theologically on the 20th century martyrs of Latin America. To a great extent, he had to invent that theological reflection. No one before him had done it.

He keeps asking us if we understand what he is saying. We do. Sometimes he feels he does not have the right English words. So he speaks in Spanish to his co-teacher, Barry University theologian James Nickoloff, who translates for him. The first morning, someone brought Sobrino a styrofoam cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Sobrino, a Salvadoran Jesuit whose lifestyle steers clear of many consumer conveniences, looked mystified as he tried to locate the tab on a rather elaborate lid.

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Unless a grain of wheat shall fall

On a hazy, hot July morning several years ago, I sat in a comparatively frosty classroom at Boston College, auditing a summer course. Gustavo Gutierrez, the father of liberation theology, was our teacher.

The frail 82-year-old Peruvian priest, who sweated profusely despite the air conditioning (his lungs were stressed by the local air, and he habitually carried an extra shirt in a plastic bag), described his last conversation with his friend Oscar Romero. He had called Romero from an airport.

Gutierrez had only a few minutes before his flight, but he wanted to check in with the embattled archbishop. For several years, Romero had witnessed on behalf of the abused, terrorized Salvadoran poor. And it was now clear that the death squads, backed by the powerful interests they served, no longer wished to endure this meddlesome priest.

Gutierrez told Romero, “Take care of yourself.” There was a pause on the other end of the line.

“If I wanted to take care of myself, I’d have to leave the country,” Romero said.

A couple of weeks later, presiding at evening Mass on March 24, 1980, Romero preached from the text in John about how the grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die if it would ever become more than a grain of wheat. As he finished, a sniper stepped out from behind a pillar and pulled the trigger. The grain of wheat fell to the ground and died.

The thirty-third anniversary of Romero’s martyrdom, March 24, 2013, coincided with Palm Sunday. I am appreciative of this double observance. Deeply appreciative.

You see, we tend to shroud Jesus’ Passion in an incense-scented mist. We cull from the Gospels, from the prophets and the epistles, from later traditions like Veronica and her face wipe and Longinus and his spear, mixing and matching. We construct a Greek play where the chorus and the actors all strut their proper roles and chant their honed responses. We watch from a distance while the blood saves us from our sins. The main characters either mysteriously understand the cosmic transaction, knowing they are on a mission from God, or giddily refuse to grasp the obvious significance, happy to serve their father the Devil.

We easily forget this is also an earthy, brass-tacks narrative, its protagonist a mouthy upstart from the edge of acceptable society, who stood up for inconvenient outsiders and their inconvenient lives. He finally became a traitor to the state and its authorized religion, both of which did business in a corrupt, self-aggrandizing way he loudly rejected. Therefore the state disposed of him alongside the other criminals, who to their executioners were an undifferentiated glob of undesirables, all equally destined for the garbage disposal: thieves, murderers, prophets, messiahs.

We seem to need martyrs like Oscar Romero, who lived a very similar story in our own time, to sharply remind us that as it was for them, so it was for Jesus Christ.

And many of us really don’t like to hear it. We resist. We do not want the Passion narrative to be too readily accessible to us as everyday human beings, as people who have daily opportunities to reject injustice and incur the cost, or accept injustice and swallow our shame.

We know deep down that if this week is more than just a memorial of salvation history, more than just a time to gratefully celebrate what somebody else did, then we are obliged to find some way of embodying the Passion narrative ourselves. And, in so doing, we will incur responsibilities greater than pious acts and ritual observances. We will have to focus on things much bigger than our interior devotion or personal purity. We will have to accept, as both Jesus and Romero did, some way of dying so that others around us might live.

At the Last Supper, Jesus said: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). So much easier to limit ourselves to thanking the first person who showed up with soap and a bucket, isn’t it? I know it is for me.

Oscar Romero, pray for us. Happy Holy Week.