The sky is low, the clouds are mean,
A travelling flake of snow
Across a barn or through a rut
Debates if it will go.
A narrow wind complains all day
How some one treated him;
Nature, like us, is sometimes caught
Without her diadem.
It's amazing how easy it is for us to believe in our own goodness. It's equally amazing how easy it is for us to believe the worst of our fellow men. Perhaps the most amazing thing of all is how hard it is for us to accept those of our own worst impulses, motivations, tendencies, habits, and the like that are so readily apparent to those around us, especially those we love most.
The poem above by Emily Dickinson is, to me, a subtle look at both this problem and its solution. The first six lines describe one of those nasty winter days that can't make up its mind to be winter at all, but are fully prepared to wreak a particularly vicious sort of cold dry misery in place of the honest bluster of a whirling snowstorm or the majestic clear iciness of a bright December day. The last two lines contain the observation that Nature, just like us, has days when the crown of greatness slips from her high pale forehead, showing her to be no less subject to the temptation to be small, mean, petty, violent, cruel, vindictive and rotten than we are.
Of course, there's a bit of irony there. Nature, as forces go, is generally a greater force than the greatest human beings who have ever lived. Nature has rained on Napoleon and Victoria, thundered over the thrones of kings and princes, snowed on cardinals and bishops, and subjected every legend of myth, story, or sports to days that were uncomfortably hot or uncomfortably cold. Even in our era whimsical weather can wreak havoc on a Pope's attire and pour down on the hopes of a long-forgotten (we wish) presidential candidate.
But in one sense, the comparison is a very apt one. Nature, like us, is flawed, and has been since the Fall of Man. The creatures who were to be our friends and companions became our adversaries, the sun that shone on Eden no longer provided a stream of always-gentle warmth, the rains that watered the earth could still sometimes be refreshing--or they could form a flood of wrath, and nothing of what was created retained its true character, unstained, untainted.
Just as the aspect of nature Emily Dickinson describes shows a face that is low, mean, narrow, and complaining, so, sometimes, do we. We are not the wise and gentle people we were destined from all eternity to be; only a handful of people on this earth have ever attained enough of that destiny to show us what might have been, and only one, "our tainted nature's solitary boast," can illustrate to us not only how we should have been, but how we may become, when the heavens and the earth are no more, if we can persevere in this life and join her amid the courts of heaven.
But it is amazing, as I said above, how often we can wear that low, mean, narrow, complaining face and not see it on ourselves, not if we were surrounded by endless walls of shining mirrors, or encircled by a silver sphere whose polished surface gave us nowhere to hide. We are the heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven; but we let fall the diadem of grace so frequently that we might as well realize that seldom do we present ourselves in the benignant and royal vesture which should have been our birthright. Only one of us, in all of creation, was never seen without her diadem.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of death. Amen.