Thursday, August 20, 2009

What is it that places us above the animals in the order of creation?

"Dignity is worthless if we have not knowledge; knowledge without virtue only does us harm." - St Bernard of Clairvaux

Today we celebrate the feast day of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, considered the last of the Fathers of the Church and a Doctor of the Church. This quote comes from a reflection St. Bernard gave regarding the waste of the gifts we have been given or the opposite situation of glorifying those gifts given as our own and not coming from God.

Our dignity comes from the fact that we, as human beings, have been made in the image and likeness of God. We have been given an incredible gift of the intellect and the will. Animals and plants have been given no such gift. This fact puts us on a different playing field from other "earthly" creatures. We are able to think about a situation, judge the situation and act according to the good it will bring. An animal acts according to its nature, instinctually and out of habit. Our habits can be either virtuous, or become a vice which leads to sinfulness. St. Bernard warns in his reflection, "the creature, not knowing itself, distinquished by the gift of reason from the beasts confounds itself with them, not recognizing its peculiar glory, which must be formed within, gets led astray by sensible and outward things as a result of its own curiosity, and thus sinks to the level of the lower creatures." We must learn who we are as images of God. By coming to know ourselves as human beings and by practicing the virtues we rise above the animal instincts of a sensible nature. Sensible in that an animal uses sense instinct.

It is difficult to teach the concept of dignity to little children. Yet they do understand what it means to be respectful and that they too are worthy of respect. They might not be able to put humility in a sentence but they know when they have been embarassed or shamed. To be humbled can be a powerful lesson to learn. It takes our gift of intelligence to be able to discern this lesson of humility as a gift that comes from God and this too is not of our making. It is in ignorance that we "esteem ourselves" as less than what God has created us to be. I remind the children I teach to become what God created them to be, that is to be intelligent human beings, to rise above mere reaction and instinctual habitual behavior.

This teaching is lost on the secular world of today. In a world that promotes the teaching of a strict form of evolution or "intelligent design" there will not be the appreciation of a higher intellect that is a gift from a first cause. That first cause being God, Who created all in goodness and Who created mankind in His image and likeness. If we as a society are not taught to rise above the standard of animal, then animal we will be. Relativity, rationalism, materialism, and secularism all foster behaviors that dismiss the rewards granted by the practicing of virtues. Jesus ask in the parable "how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?". He refers to our faithfulness and living the life God created us to live once we enter the heavenly wedding banquet. Yes we need to be prepared but we would do well to teach those in our care what that preparation entails.

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