The Lord took Abram outside and said: “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be.”Genesis 15:5
Early this morning a young couple who are very dear friends gave birth to their first child. I awoke, from a fairly restless and anxious night, to a video of their newborn daughter. The video of the infant is only a few seconds long, but I can’t keep from dwelling with it. If there is ever a moment when we are drawn into the Mystery of life and transcendence, it is such a one as this. I pray for and think about all that this child will bring to and ask of her parents: of the exultation, pride, and sense of joyful gratitude she will bring as well as the fears, anxieties, sufferings, and frustrations that will also arise. It is striking to ponder how, from this moment, the life and world of these parents is forever altered.
Yet, I also ponder how the birth of this child, as the birth of every child, changes the life and world of all of us, those who are close to her by virtue of blood and friendship, but also those who do not even know of her existence. And then, I think of how this is true for me. I reflect on the admixture of awe, gratitude, joy, and concern that I feel for her and become aware that every birth in every place calls me to the same, to an experience of the human family that is a call and responsibility, even at my own advanced age.
The Lord asks Abram, who is also at an advanced age, to come outside with him and to count the stars. So many, uncountable, shall your descendants be, says the Lord. It is not, however, merely a numerical lesson that the Lord is teaching Abram. It seems that he is deliberately bringing him out into the midst of the cosmic mystery. The Lord seems to say to Abram, “As these stars, so also shall your descendants be, not only uncountable but unfathomable.” To see this little infant, not yet reflectively conscious, is to experience what feels like unfathomable possibility. And, at the very moment of her birth, countless other lives are coming into the world, as countless lives are leaving it. Those of us at various stages of our own lives find ourselves presented with a question evoked by every newborn, which Pope Francis raises in his Encyclical Laudato Si: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us?”
My own “record” of responsibility in the course of my life is, typically, a pretty mixed one. At times I have been awake enough to incarnate my aspirations to serve deeper life in others and so contribute to a better environment for those coming after me, and at other times I have depleted others by taking from them without mutuality and reciprocity, as from the earth itself. So many days I live unaware of the miracle and the mystery that I witness this morning.
Pope Francis says that “Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us.” A new birth challenges me to take seriously my responsibility for the possibilities and the quality of life of this and every child. Although a truly formative human environment has many aspects and levels, they are all intimately related. A loving environment must also be a healthy environment. A safe environment must also be a challenging and growthful environment. A close familial environment must also be one that is open to the local and global social environment.
Beyond thoughts and words, I sense this new and so important human presence in the world, and I long to act responsibly on her behalf. In every aspect of life as well as in direct contact with her, I long to live and to act in such a way as to fulfill my responsibility to her — and so to every child. In what I do, and say, and consume, and offer and in what I refuse to do, and say, and consume, and offer, I aspire to leave a better world to those who come after me.
Pope Francis says that the planet we leave to others “has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.” All children are our children. The ultimate meaningfulness of our own lives depends on the way we live responsibly in their regard. At least for me, I am sometimes responsible, in this deepest sense, but often not. The ultimate meaningfulness of our lives is not about our personal goodness or virtue; it is not measured by our successes or failures or by the positions of power and respect we attain. It is finally only a matter of our “being responsible” to our children.
To think we are “a star,” even though one of so many is quite exalted. Perhaps it is closer to see ourselves as but a grain of sand on the seashore. Yet, in truth, the life of each of us, as of this and every child born today, is significant beyond measure. As these new parents are so filled with joy, love, and delight in their new daughter, so is God with each of us. We are each and every one loved uniquely, but with “a love common to all.” That common love shows itself in our responsibility to and for each other, and for the common home that we bequeath to our children through every generation.
What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? This question not only concerns the environment in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal. When we ask ourselves what kind of world we want to leave behind, we think in the first place of its general direction, its meaning and its values. Unless we struggle with these deeper issues, I do not believe that our concern for ecology will produce significant results. But if these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.Pope Francis, Laudato Si: On Care For Our Common Home, #160