Once, in botany class, I conducted a memorable experiment. After planting a number of beans, I placed half of the young sprouts in a greenhouse and half in a dark cupboard. Each day, I would water the young plants and observe their growth. The difference was quite striking. Those raised in the sunlight grew tall, robust, and green. They put out new branches and leaves and eventually bore fruit. Those kept in the dark, however, exerted every erg of energy and every scrap of material in a vain search for light. They overextended themselves, collapsing under their own weight, and then the frail, emaciated stalks—easily torn at the slightest pressure—continued to creep along the ground. Their leaves turned yellow and their bodies blanched as every inessential molecule was consumed to fuel further growth. Eventually, the sprouts kept in the dark withered and died.
However, I also transferred some of the light-deprived plants into the greenhouse. The transformation was remarkable. As pale and wan as they were, within a few days their color returned and their stalks thickened. Although the stalks that had collapsed under their own weight remained on the ground, they sprouted leaves and their ends began to grow upward again. Within a week, they were perfectly sound, though their elongated, creeping stems bore witness to their juvenile trauma.
We, too, are made to live in the light. And not just the sunlight, which allows us to produce vitamin D. We also need the light of God to enliven us. St. Augustine once remarked, addressing God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (Confessions I.1). In every human heart is a longing only God can satisfy, just as in every plant, there is a desire for nourishment that only light can satisfy. And just as plants, deprived of the light, overextend themselves, becoming grotesque parodies of themselves in their quest for sustenance, so men, in the absence of God, can pervert and overstretch their natural gifts in misdirected attempts to find happiness. How often we are shut up in the cupboard of our sins! How often we become misguided—even those of us with the gift of faith and ready access to God’s sacraments—wrenching our gazes from God and pursuing instead wealth or reputation, health or pleasure, or even our own stubborn willfulness! While all of these objectives can be good in moderation, they are not life-giving. Without God, their unrestrained pursuit enervates man, saps him of his vitality. Such immoderate desire, such grasping at created goods in search of what only their transcendent creator can provide, strips human life of its color, causing us to become creeping and fragile. This is why those who give themselves wholeheartedly to the things of this world are ultimately unattractive, crabbed, and petty.
Thankfully, God’s grace can transform our lives, healing us of our misguided tendencies and restoring our lofty aspirations for eternity and immortality. With time, the graced soul will put forth many branches and bear much fruit. The saints, in particular, enlivened by God’s grace, stand out as vibrant examples of human life lived robustly. Yet the trauma of our original fall takes a long time to heal. We must often be reminded to put God at the center of our lives. Thus, every year, as snow blankets the ground and plants wait patiently for the return of the sun, the liturgical season of Advent reminds us of our own need to await expectantly God’s initiative in our lives. Let us, therefore, invite Christ into our hearts, to illumine our lives and restore their verdure. Let us join the Church, who on this day every year throughout the long centuries since Christ’s Ascension has prayed in her liturgy:
splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Morning Star,
splendor of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
Come, Lord Jesus.
Image by Christian Joudrey