The Freighter, the Great Lakes and God

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Spring is usually a longed-for season of the year. It represents the verge of warmer days, though just gradually.   At the same time it hints at the diminishment of snowfall, if not instantly and completely, at least slowly and partially. And it teases inhabitants of northern climes with little green shoots struggling up through the ground. All in all, it is the epitome of promise.

Promises, of course, are not always kept. Or, at least, not always kept promptly or completely. And, when that happens, it is often accompanied by the qualifying phrase: “What I meant by that promise was…”   With reference back to the weather system again, what the weather man or woman must often do is qualify the promise of spring with the cautionary remark: “…this is not how it OUGHT to be…”

Now, in addition to mother nature’s signs of spring’s arrival, there are other indications to fall back upon, depending on the part of the country in which one lives. One might be the reduction in size of the rocksalt piled up throughout the city by the Streets and Sanitation department, signaling that much of the winter has passed, since the salt used to cope with the snowfalls on the streets has already been reduced in size, suggesting that it’s unlikely to be needed in any significant way in the coming days. Or, bundled-up fishermen and women head out to the waterways in their part of the country to catch great amounts of small smelt fish in their nets, one of the reliable signs that, regardless of the cold, spring is at hand.

In the Midwest, one such waterway is the Great Lakes system forming borders of several states. The lakes are good, not just for smelt fishing. They’re also good for transporting: raw materials like iron ore and limestone from places like Duluth Minnesota to reprocessing plants in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. They can be large ships, as big as ocean-going vessels. They are a key component in the chain of plants representing various stages of the manufacturing process so central to the economy of a nation such as the U.S.

And it is interesting to note that they are a key element in another aspect of this interlocking system of heavy industry: the movement phase of raw material, from one part of the country, to another. Key components in heavy industry have to be transported from one part of the country to another, and much of this occurs on the waterways provided by the Great Lakes. And it is these large freighters that move these raw materials from one part of the lake system to the smelting and refining process found at another part of the Lake.

It is this background that provides another way of noting the arrival of spring, at least for those living in and around the Great Lakes. It is based on the inter-lake transport carried on by these large freighters as they ply their way from one part of this waterway system to another. For during the winter season these ore carriers, big and powerful as they are, are unable to make their way through this water system because of the freezing temperature conditions that prevail in the upper reaches of the Great Lakes. This results in a formidable sheet of thick ice covering the surface of the entire lake (Superior), preventing its usefulness as a waterway. Not even ice-breakers can make their way through this daunting ice mass, in effect ending any commerce on the lake(s) for the three/four months of the winter season.

The inhabitants living around these waterways grow accustomed, during this period of time, to nothing but ice sheets covering the surface of the lake(s) as far as the eye can see. There’s not much to be done but to accept it with more or less resignation.

But as their calendars, hanging on the kitchen walls, signal the move through February and onto March (definitely, into April) the hardy folk walking the footpaths around the lake begin to cast an eye toward the horizon enfolding the lake to see what is worth noting at this time of the year, and, eventually, the eye will blink once or twice to refocus its gaze on what begins to take shape on the lake’s surface: the silhouette of a giant slow-moving freighter several miles out in the waterway, making its ponderous way south, toward the elaborate system of factories dotting the far end of the lake system, that have been dormant for several months, waiting for the first arrival of hopefully many such ships hauling cargo to their destination point.

Thereby, for this part of the country, the first signs of spring have emerged. It’s not the song of a bird, or the sight of one with a straw in its beak, nor a blade of grass peeping from the unforgiving ground, nor the shape of a pod on the tree limb above the pathway, nor a bulb struggling out of the ground. None of these are as significant a sign of spring for this part of the country as the slow-moving massive shape of a freighter bearing down on the dock ahead. The good news is out that the waterway is open, for freight-transport is underway. The factories can fire up, the work force can gear up, for another productive manufacturing season.

There’s no need for the nest-building robin, or the budding tree, or the peeping blade of grass to provide an incontrovertible sign of spring so long as the prow of a massive lake freighter majestically overcoming the formidable ice obstruction left behind it as it makes its way toward a familiar port and docking berth to provide the raw material for starting the manufacturing cycle once again. Overcoming the ice mass is as much a sign of God in action as other indications of spring’s arrival.

Looking for Beauty

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Beauty, though desirable, is really unnecessary. It’s more like fluff on a solid substance: nice to behold, but not required. Beauty can be dismissed without any damage resulting, or any sense of loss or incompleteness. Life can be lived without an experience of the beautiful. There may be a sense of loss but no irreparable loss.

Beauty is more frequently thought of as a feminine asset than a masculine one. Strength is usually considered a masculine attribute rather than a feminine one. While the feminine form found frequent expression in ancient Greek sculpture, it was to exemplify beauty, while the masculine gained artistic expression for its display of strength. While beauty is appreciated, strength is irreplaceable.

What might be the downside of a loss of beauty? Can life go on without it?

Drabness might well express an experience lacking any beauty. Or might ugliness be the better way to express this? In either case, what would living a life described as ugly or drab be like? In either case, what would life be like if it provided nothing but the ugly and the drab? Could life go on in such circumstances?

Thinkers in the ancient world were not slow in recognizing it and assigning merit and significance to the beautiful. In fact, they frequently aligned it with such attributes as goodness and truthfulness and unity or oneness: the perfect is a combination of what is true, good, one or wholeness, and beauty. Despite this, beauty seldom gains the acclaim and the recognition that the others receive. Why is this?

The terms “ugly” and “drab” were used above to draw attention to the absence of beauty in life. To give body to these descriptions, we might think of them in terms of a prison cell. We readily acknowledge a jail cell as lacking any vestige of the beautiful. Is this because ugliness is the most suitable way of enhancing the punishment that we associate with imprisonment? Prison seems to be synonymous with the drab and the ugly.

The mass housing ventures erected in our urban centers, not too many decades ago, for the poor and impoverished often gave off strong indications of much the same thing: the ugly and the drab. That is why city governments in recent times have leveled them to the ground, replacing them with more livable arrangements.

There is an interplay between the lack of beauty and the absence of goodness (or the presence of evil).

Evil, once recognized for what it is, clearly emerges as something ugly and distorted. Perhaps that is why our prisons were designed to be ugly, because they housed those who were criminals, that is, those who engaged in evil. And that is undoubtedly why civic minded persons also agitated to level mass housing for the poor, because it gave off the message that poverty and evil were aligned.

And so we come to God. God is the epitome of both strength and beauty. We don’t differentiate between a God of Beauty and a God of Strength. They are aligned within the God we have come to know, love and worship. In fact, He is the summation of all that is true, good, beautiful and One (or unified), even while, in our Christian tradition, we profess Him as a Trinitarian God. We can say that of no one else, or nothing else.

But this recognition sends us on a search to discover what, other than God, might best encapsulate or house what we acknowledge as the epitome of beauty. Would it be something in mother nature: the sea, a mountain, a valley, a flower or garden? Would it be the heavens: a sunrise or sunset, a waning moon, a multitude of stars? Would it be a form of bird life, or a creature of the sea, or a land animal?

Or might it be a product of our human genius: something that we see, or something that we hear: a painting, a sculpture, a building? A symphony, a motet, a ballet? A play, a poem, a novel?

Whatever we call beautiful is something that enjoys symmetry, proportion, color, balance, shape. It borders on what emerged from the hand of God on the sixth day of creation: the garden of Eden, which we were able to enjoy for so short a period of time. Our hope is to enjoy it again—in the future.


Seeing God


by James Paulin

Throughout time mankind has sought to have personal encounters with God. Every age and culture has looked to find favor with the powers they imagined that controlled their existence. Many thought they would find God in nature, some in spirits of great powers and some in forces of good and evil. High priests of various populations practiced ceremonies of sacrifice, including humans, which were intended to appease the gods and gain favorable circumstance. The God of the Israelites choose to reveal an identity that was both visible and interactive.

First came the knowledge that no person would be able to bear looking upon the face of God and continue to exist. Then God appeared in the form of a burning bush that was not consumed and spoke to Moses. The next appearance was made in the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night that guided the chosen people out of the land of Egypt. These were spectacular images to the human experience but were merely all a person could absorb at that moment.

God is unimaginable. There is a wonderful insight into the spirit of God in the way Jesus is presented to us. Just try to imagine, the entity from which all things exists that are both known and unknown, taking a role as a newborn baby to experience our frail humanity. Communication with humans has to be with a common understanding. We all were defenseless babies and were nurtured by our mother and father so God comes to us wrapped in an infant blanket, totally dependant upon the love of Mary. This breaks all barriers between deity and mortal in a manner that permits individual choice to believe or ignore God through the approachable, welcoming, open arms of Jesus who tells us that those who have seen him have also seen the Father who sent him. What a way for God to show His face and yet let us decide if we wish to look and live or turn away.

Another View of Success

The Good Samaritan

How does each one of us find value to our lives? Is it as simple as how much pleasure we manage to enjoy? Is it a matter of how long we live? Is it a question of how much good we have accomplished or what status in business we have risen to? All these things are the way many people recognize success and fulfillment. But is that all there is?

“You can’t take it with you” is a popular slogan and it is true enough. Material possessions can become a burden that robs us of time better spent on more important things, we might realize in retrospect. Henry David Thoreau once wrote about how to live as simply as possible when he authored his classic book, “On Walden Pond”. He must have seemed impractical and anti-social even when he experienced his withdrawal in 1845-1847. He took two years to think, write, do without and decided what was important in life. A transcendentalist, he believed in the inherent goodness of people and nature. At the end of his long retreat he became an activist as an abolitionist and environmentalist. He converted thinking, believing and verbalizing into actions. When we take away all the distractions that divide our attention and focus just on what is most important, clarity may come with wisdom. What do we take with us into the great beyond if anything, or better yet, what do we leave behind?

Humans have an inclination to believe in an afterlife. They certainly have a sense of legacy as a primary motive. Both of these add meaning and purpose to life as things that will persist after death. It is natural to think of ourselves as spiritual with souls that supersede our bodies but what becomes of them? People would ask Jesus questions like that a lot. “What must I do to gain eternal life?” he was asked one day. “What do God’s laws say?” he replied. “You must love God with your entire mind and heart and your neighbor as yourself”, the man said. Then the man asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told a story about a robbery of a socially inferior man whom no one would help until another man, out of compassion, stopped and cared for him. Compassion overruled prejudice and love was given, as to oneself. The letter of the law, which some strictly adhere to confines, while the spirit of God frees us to all manner of kindness.

Life’s significance comes not with egotism but with altruism. Consider the spiritual realm for a moment as the only eternal reality. The idea is not so far fetched if one believes in heaven or miracles or intangibles of almost any nature. There remains only positive and negative force when all we perceive as material is removed. God loves and cannot be contained, for love has to be shared. Conversely, lack of love sucks energy inward, like a black hole with no escape. Legacy for eternity or oblivion is worth considering. If this is the case, you can take it with you but you have to give it away first.