The Prophetic Vision of Samuel Coleridge

by Father John O'Brien, OFM Profiles in Catholicism


Edward Lorenz is a scientist who studied weather

patterns. Even as a boy he was fascinated by the

weather. He was intrigued by weather prediction.

With the advent of computers he saw the chance to

combine mathematics and meteorology. By the early

1960s he was able to construct a mathematical model

of a weather system. The system was reasonably

successful. In 1961 one of his programs ran awry. He

checked his figures and there was no major mistake.

There were, however, small mistakes. These mistakes

were minor but they caused the read-outs to be out of

sync. Small changes can affect weather patterns. In

popular culture this became known as the “Butterfly

Effect”.

In reading Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

I see how prophetic his poem is. He wrote the poem

in 1797 and it was published in ‘Lyrical Ballads’, along

with works by William Wordsworth. The poem was

originally called “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

Coleridge wanted to use archaic language to give a

feel of an ancient tale. The poem recounts the

experiences of a sailor (the mariner) who has returned

from a long voyage. The mariner stops a man who is

on his way to a wedding ceremony and begins to tell

his story. The wedding guest becomes fascinated as

the story progresses.

The tale begins with his ship departing on its journey.

Despite initial good fortune, the ship is driven south

by a storm and reaches the icy waters of the Antarctic.

An albatross appears and leads the ship to safety.

Then the wedding guest notices a change as the

Mariner continues his story. The mariner tells him

that he killed the albatross.

“God save thee, ancient Mariner!

From the fiends that plague thee thus!–

Why look’st thou so?” – With my cross-bow

I shot the Albatross.”

The ancient Mariner inhospitably killeth the

pious bird of good omen.

The rest of the poem goes on to explore the profound

spiritual and material consequences of this random

violent act. He has disturbed a delicate balance of

nature. The poem goes on to tell of the death of the

other sailors and of the survival of the mariner. He

describes the situation thus:

“Alone, alone, all, all alone,

Alone on a wide wide sea!

And never a saint took pity on

My soul in agony.”

The story of the killing of the Albatross is something

we have seen in our time. Chris Jordan is a

photographic artist and cultural activist. He says that

in order for people to really become inspired about

cleaning up the planet we must first grieve over what

we have lost (Scientific American, November, 2009).

He photographed the dead albatross slain on Midway

Island in the Pacific ocean. The seas of the world, even

those remote southern waters, have been filled and

polluted with the throwaway plastic garbage of our

consumer society – empty bottles and containers and

so forth. The Albatross would fish these waters and

they would mistake the plastic for food and feed it to

their young. The young birds would find that their

stomachs were so full that they had no room for real

food. Thousands of them died. Jordan photographed

the remains of the dead birds. The gratuitous killing

of the albatross is repeated again. In 2017 Jordan

made a film about this devastation simply called

‘Albatross’. Jordan says:

“For me, kneeling over their carcasses is like

looking into a macabre mirror. These birds

reflect back an appallingly emblematic result of

the collective trance of our consumerism and

runaway industrial growth.

Like the albatross, we first-world humans find

ourselves lacking the ability to discern anymore

what is nourishing from what is toxic to our lives

and our spirits. Choked to death on our waste,

the mythical albatross calls upon us to recognise

that our greatest challenge lies not out there,

but in here.”

Lorenz saw how small changes can affect climate

change. The death of the albatrosses show us how we

can destroy life. The killing of the Albatross is a kind

of metaphor about how we can destroy each other and

the planet.

The Mariner can only be saved when he realises that

he is guilty and must take responsibility for his creme.

He begins to pray. The first stage of his recovery

begins, as so often with people recovering from

trauma, with the return of sleep. He says:

“Oh sleep! it is a gentle thing,

Beloved from pole to pole!

To Mary Queen the praise be given!

She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven,

That slid into my soul.”

(Lines 292-6)

Mary had already been invoked in the poem in the

brief prayer “Heaven’s Mother send us grace”. Later

on in lines 297-300 we are told “by the grace of the

Holy Mother, the ancient Mariner is refreshed with

rain.” Eventually he comes to safety and confesses his

sin. We too need to turn again to God and confess our

sin – take responsibility for ourselves and our world.

Pope Francis tells us in the encyclical “Laudato Si”:

1. “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you,

my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint

Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home

is like a sister with whom we share our life and a

beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.

“Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister,

Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who

produces various fruit with coloured flowers and

herbs”.

2. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm

we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and

abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.

We have come to see ourselves as her lords and

masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence

present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected

in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the

water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why

the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among

the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she

“groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that

we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our

very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe

her air and we receive life and refreshment from her

waters.

Nothing in this world is indifferent to us

3. More than fifty years ago, with the world teetering

on the brink of nuclear crisis, Pope Saint John XXIII

wrote an Encyclical which not only rejected war but

offered a proposal for peace. He addressed his

message Pacem in Terris to the entire “Catholic

world” and indeed “to all men and women of good

will”. Now, faced as we are with global environmental

deterioration, I wish to address every person living on

this planet. In my Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii

Gaudium, I wrote to all the members of the Church

with the aim of encouraging ongoing missionary

renewal. In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into

dialogue with all people about our common home.

– Laudato Si