After going on (as many psalms of divine enthronement also do) about the grandeur of creation from sky to sea to animals large and small and weather of every sort, and about God as the active agent making possible all the wonders of creation, Sirach says:
“Worship YHWH as well as you are able, knowing that YHWH is above all praise. Gather your strength to glorify YHWH; let your praise be unceasing, though God is beyond all your power to praise” (43:30).
I don’t often hear a scriptural word say that we may praise God “as we are able.” This is comforting, is it not? It’s all right if we sometimes drift towards sleep during lectio, even if we’re reading about God using hail to break clouds into pieces and snowflakes being compared to locusts. Perhaps the author of Sirach even came upon these images in a dream about praising God while panoramically surveying creation.
“Gather your strength” — as if praise involves trying to avoid falling off the very cliff on which we’re viewing creation’s splendor! Or beginning a marathon through all the contours of creation from pole to equator!
And I cannot help but think of my friend Eric, an evolutionary plant biologist, one of those holy souls who is stunned by the wonder of creation and diligently works to protect it (organizing hordes of students to tackle invasive species; writing grants for windmills). He is agnostic, so wonder about creation for him does not turn to praise of a Creator whose existence is dubious to him at best and morally problematic at worst. (Why so many extinctions? he asks.)
I tell him that many of the psalms were surely written by people with sensitivities to the natural world like his own. But what do you think: Why do some of us share the psalmist’s penchant for connecting the idea of God with our wonder at creation’s myriad forms (with billions of planets that may also have life, I heard today)?
Does God in places like Sirach 43 become a name for the mystery of the weather and a diverse and populated landscape that outlives our individual creaturely lives?
Is God the name for that which breathes Yes to existence — a name for the feeling that somehow there is something rather than nothing — a world, a dazzling array of worlds, instead of no material world at all?
Is God that which gives purpose and direction to creation, and a sense of it all being held in God’s love? Yet — so often the psalmists do as Sirach here has done (and Job does more fiercely still), by speaking of God’s majesty shining in all these things, but not of God’s love. There is a beholding of all, not in this contemplation an intimate holding of all. Indeed, God is playing in and with creation and the energy in unpredictable weather: “sprinkling frost like salt across the land,” then “scorch[ing] the mountains and deserts” as “the desert flowers wilt in the heat,” only to send “clouds to rejuvenate them.” (And just today I sent my young niece the book Cloudette, a small cloud who does just that for a frog whose pond has dried up.)
Praise of God stretches us beyond our comfort zones, beyond our own small particular lives (though they are part of the myriads). No wonder we can only do it as we are able, and must gather our strength for a praise that is not only demanding, but unceasing.
Like breathing, which yoga is teaching me is not so easy to do well and deeply either. We can forget to breathe well, forget to praise at all.
“We have only seen a fraction of God’s work, and there are still many mysteries that are far greater” (Sirach 43:32).
Being dazzled is a form of praise, perhaps an especially good form of praise in an environmentally and stellarly aware age. And while for some the majesty of creation may be itself the register of the divine (as I suspect it was for some biblical writers themselves), for others God is that which may be even more shiver-evoking: associated not only with the universe-wide minutiae of creation, but also that which expresses a conscious awareness like (and vaster than) our own human mind’s workings. Or as Paul Tillich put it, “God is not less than person-like.”
Praise is the language of our sheer awareness of the gift of creation and its hidden author, one of whose far greater works (alluded to by Sirach) is the mystery of Christ, of God coming to us in a particular face and body and walking in the vastness of Wisdom’s own creation.