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From the Chapel — June 4: The forest and the trees

Our Sunday Visitor chapel. Scott Richert photo

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“From the Chapel” is a series of short, daily reflections on life and faith in a time of uncertainty. As people across the world cope with the effects of the coronavirus — including the social isolation necessary to combat its spread — these reflections remind us of the hope that lies at the heart of the Gospel.

Over the last few months, I’ve watched three different French mystery series on Netflix. Each was rather different from the others, but they all had one thing in common: the Ardennes forest.

Someday, when travel once again becomes a reasonable proposition, I hope to visit the Ardennes. My wife thinks I’m crazy, because, if these French shows are to be believed, nothing good ever happens there. Murder, magic, myth: Those seem to be the chief realities of the Ardennes, and the preoccupations of those who live within, or on the edge of, this ancient forest, parts of which are essentially untouched from the time of the Celts.

I’m not much on murder or magic, and my knowledge of Celtic myths is pretty limited. What I find irresistible is the sheer size of the forest, the terrain within and the history given living form in towering, ageless pines. Every episode of each of these shows features a drone shot tracking a car on a road through the forest, with the tips of the pines rising up to the bottoms of the clouds.

We often say about someone who is detail oriented that he can’t see the forest for the trees. The bigger problem of the modern world, though, is that we spend most of our time seeing only the forest, and forgetting that it is made up not only of trees, but of streams and ravines and flora and fauna that can change greatly in the space of a few hundred yards, where temperatures might vary as much as 15 or 20 degrees because of the landscape and the vegetation. It’s the endless diversity of the forest that fascinates me, not the seeming sameness of that overhead shot.

A forest of any size — and certainly one as massive as the Ardennes — is an abstraction. We can only really get to know it when we breach its borders, walk among the trees, pay attention to the deer and the hare and the hawk and the fungus and the fern and the fish of its streams.

That’s what I’d like to do: not fly over the Ardennes but walk in it. By getting to know a part of it, I’ll have a better sense of the whole, in a way that isn’t true in reverse.

But even after I get to know part of it on a trip of a few days, I’ll still not know it as well as I could. Who would you trust to make better decisions about what’s best for the forest — me, who has only seen it in three shows on Netflix, or those who live in it or on its edge?

That’s the reality expressed in the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. Those closest to a problem should be tasked with solving it, because they’re the ones most likely to understand all that it entails. And they’re the ones most likely to care, just as a husband should care more about his wife, and a mother about her children, than some random man or woman in the next town over does, let alone one in the next state or in Washington, D.C.

Standing among the trees, we can see the life of the forest from within. Looking down upon a forest that we have never visited, it’s hard enough just to see the trees.

Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.

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