Bishop: Sowing Seeds of Science and Faith

by Bishop Joensen | February 22, 2023

Bishop William Joensen

In February we mark both Black History Month and the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 22. 

I was struck recently by the correspondence of science and faith in the lives of two men from very different historical periods and backgrounds: George Washington Carver and St. Francis de Sales.  Both of them can inspire us to integrate head and heart in more graceful fashion, and to go deeper in our respective vocations as disciples of Jesus who witness to his saving truth during Lent and beyond.

Professor Carver, the famous agricultural scientist and environmentalist, was a staunch advocate for use of crops other than cotton to prevent soil depletion—particularly peanuts and sweet potatoes.  Born a slave in Missouri in 1864, he eventually gained his freedom and attended school in Kansas before moving to our Diocese when he matriculated to Simpson College in Indianola, majoring in piano and art.  A teacher there encouraged him to study botany at Iowa State Agricultural College in Ames, where he earned a master’s degree and became the first black member of the faculty; Carver Hall is named after this pioneer researcher.  Most of his academic career was then spent heading agricultural research at the Tuskegee Institute.

Much revered, Albert Einstein once remarked, “I should appreciate it very much if the memory of the great scientist George W. Carver would be honored.”  Carver was not a Catholic but was a man of deep Christian faith; he observed, “A personal relationship with the Great Creator of all things is the only foundation for the abundant life.  The farther we get away from self, the greater life will be.”  He embraced a rule of life that involved both rigor and self-renunciation in the quest for truth and the desire to mentor young people.  He helped them realize their professional passion and he sought to benefit both people living at a subsistence level and the planet in the same spirit championed by Pope Francis in his encyclical, Laudato Si’/On Care for our Common Home.  And he continued to behold the beauty of creation in his painting.

We can take note of Carver’s personal connection with some of the young people he mentored such as Jim Hardwick, a student at Virginia Tech whom Carver met at a Blue Ridge YMCA conference.  The poet Marilyn Nelson recounts their exchange in a letter entitled, “My Dear Spiritual Boy”—which might make us cringe at the term ‘boy’ employed in 1923, though it comes from a black man addressing a white student-athlete and not vice versa.  Carver reflects, “My friend, I love you both for what you are and what you hope through Christ to be.  I am by no means as good as you believe me.  I am sorely tried so often, and must hide away with God for strength to overcome.  I have suffered to do the job he’s given me in trust to do.  But now he’s given you to me to give me strength, when I needed you most, confirming my faith in humanity.”

How wonderfully Carver captures the vocation of a teacher, and offers what we hope would be a prime model for relations with young people as he sowed seeds of science and faith.  With slight modification, he also reflects the relationship between Jesus and his disciples: tired so often, suffering to carry out the mission entrusted to him, but drawing strength both from personal faith and prayer with God, AND from those followers who “get it” through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Together, they help confirm our faith in human endeavors such as science, in humanity itself, and in God, the source of abundant life when we slip beyond ourselves.

Turning to St. Francis de Sales, I will be much briefer. Pope Francis marked the 400th anniversary of de Sales’ death at the end of this past December with his apostolic letter, Totum Amoris Est/Everything Pertains to Love.  This seventeenth century humanist, trained in both civil and canon law, was an apologist for the faith in the wake of the Catholic Counter-Reformation and served as spiritual director to so many souls, including St. Jeanne de Chantal, with whom he co-founded the Visitation Order.  He was not a scientist in the customary sense, though his own critical mind and theological erudition fueled his penetrating and sometimes poetic insights into the mystery of God’s Love, and the devotion and charity that are to compose our response to love’s invitation.  

This “Doctor of Divine Love” drew from the more modest botanical knowledge of his day to describe the spiritual cultivation of our own hearts that underlies the Lenten summons to close our doors and pray, fast, and give alms in stealth and in secret.  To one of his directees, Francis de Sales writes:

“Men engaged in horticulture tell us that if a word is written on a sound almond seed and it is placed again in its shell, carefully wrapped up and planted, whatever fruit the tree bears will have the same written word stamped on it.   For myself. . . I cannot approve the methods of those who try to reform a person by beginning with external things, such as bearings, dress or hair.  On the contrary, it seems to me that we should begin inside. ‘Be converted to me with your  whole heart’, God said.  ‘My child, give me your heart’.
“For this reason. . . I have wished above all else to engrave and inscribe on your heart this holy, sacred maxim, LIVE JESUS!  I am sure that your life, which comes from the heart just as the almond tree comes from its seed, will after that produce all its actions—which are its fruit—inscribed and engraved with this sacred word of salvation.” 

May we offer the Lord Jesus the chance to inscribe his personal word on our hidden hearts this Lent.  May his call to turn from ourselves in more deeply devoted prayer, in personal sacrifice translated to alms supporting others and fasting from frivolous wastes of time and energy, inspire us to adopt a more disciplined and devoted rule of life adapted to our own vocational demands.  Then, come Easter, may our integrated spiritual hybrid of head and heart help confirm some and attract others to the faith, and bear great fruit for those in our circle of life, our parishes and Diocese!

Bishop Joensen

The Most Reverend William Joensen is the current bishop for the Diocese of Des Moines, having been ordained and installed in 2019.