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Earth, Air, Fire, and Water: Great and Yet Terrifying Blessings

September 8, 2017

Given the terrible storm that has devastated parts of the Caribbean and is bearing down on Florida as I write, it is possible that questions come to mind. There is certainly a violent component to life on this planet. We might even play on the words of an ancient hymn Dies Irae, dies illa. Yet what we experience as violent in one region can usher in blessings for the wider planet. Among other things, severe storms help to moderate the large difference in temperature between the equator and the poles. Regardless of any positive impacts, though, the local effects can be devastating.

Still, we ought to consider that some of God’s gifts come in strange and terrifying packages. The book of Job says,

The earth, though out of it comes forth bread,
is in fiery upheaval underneath (Job 28:2).

Yes, we live just above a fiery cauldron, separated from us by a thin membrane of earthly crust rife with cracks through which fire routinely flares, a crust that is always shifting and even shaking violently in earthquakes.

Yet were it not for this violent cauldron beneath us, it seems unlikely that we would have life here at all. Volcanoes and other tectonic activity keep our soil rich and recycled. In this fiery cauldron are brewed some of our most useful minerals and beautiful gems. Whole island chains and land masses are formed by eruptions and geothermal energy is a resource we have only just begun to tap. Many scientists think that volcanoes had a profound influence on the formation of an atmosphere in the early Earth period and that the molten core of the earth has an important influence on the Van Allen belt, a magnetic field that keeps the harmful portion of the sun’s radiation away from the earth’s surface.

Job had it right: some of God’s gifts come strange packages. The earth’s capacity to bring forth bread is directly connected to the fact that it is on fire beneath. Yet what a strange and terrifying package this gift comes in! Volcanoes and other seismic activity have claimed an enormous number of lives and a huge amount of property.

Water, such a rich source of life and blessing, can turn in a moment to utterly destroy life in huge numbers. Floods and tsunamis can sweep away vast areas in a flash.

Yet who can deny that without water, life would be impossible? Ah, water; nothing more life-giving and nothing more deadly. Yes, some of God’s gifts come in strange and terrifying packages.

I have often wondered why so many cities throughout the world are built on or near floodplains and along the “ring of fire,” with its volcanoes and fault lines. Of course the answer is plain enough: it is in these very areas that some of the richest soil and the greatest resources are to be found.

God’s and nature’s most life-giving gifts are but a few degrees separated from disaster and instant death. We live on the edge of an abyss because that is where life is found.

It’s such a thin line, really. Mors et vita duello, conflixere mirando! (Death and life compete in a stupendous conflict!)  To live is to cheat death.

All of the basic elements and forces: earth, air, water, and fire, are so death-dealing and yet so life-giving; somehow they are all part of the great cycle of living and dying that God intends.

Only God is existence itself; the rest of us are contingent beings and part of a cycle. Only in union with Christ, who said, I am the life, will we ever cheat death. As Bishop Fulton Sheen once said, “Christ gave the earth the only serious wound it ever received, the wound of an empty tomb.” With Christ—and only with Christ—will we one day give the earth that same wound.

For now, we live above the cauldron upon a thin crust; beneath us burns a tremendous fire. Somehow, mysteriously, it is the source of our bread.

The earth, though out of it comes forth bread,
is in fiery upheaval underneath (Job 28:2).

Yes, some of God’s greatest gifts come in strange and terrifying packages.

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