“I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.”
I cherish these words from the ancient prayer that we know as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” What would it be like to arise every morning experiencing that sort of kinship with the natural world?
Waking up with a visceral and grateful awareness of the living world may sound strange to us, even quaint. Most of the world’s citizens now live in cities, and many of us spend hardly any time outdoors – in fact, I read somewhere that the average North American spends 4% of a typical day outside, including time spent in a car. Many of us are more captivated by virtual reality and by staring at a screen than we are by contemplating light of sun or radiance of moon, stability of earth or firmness of rock. Besides, isn’t paying too much attention to the natural world a rather suspect practice for Christians? Aren’t Christians supposed to be focused on “otherworldly” things like heaven and the salvation of our disembodied souls? Some Christians scoff at people who emphasize the value of nature, charging that this is some kind of foolish New Age fantasy. Christians who care about the Earth must be naïve and sentimental “tree-huggers” or “pagans.”
Yet as Christians we belong to a tradition that proclaims the basic goodness of the natural world: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Jesus certainly lived in kinship with the natural world. He spent a lot of time outdoors, walking from place to place. In the Bible we meet him on hillsides and mountaintops, beside lakes and in deserted places. He speaks of seeds and harvest, of fig trees, vines, and weeds, of clouds and storms, sheep and hens. He teaches about God in elemental terms, using images of fire, wind, water, and stones. Jesus knew that the birds of the air and the lilies of the field could teach us about our relationship with God (Matthew 6:25-33). And he gave us bread and wine as an ongoing sign of his living presence with us.
Christian Scripture even dares to claim that Christ’s crucified and risen presence fills all things and redeems all things. In Christ, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:19-20).
Experiencing the sacredness of the natural world is neither an outworn heresy nor a newfangled fantasy. It is essential to Christian faith. Our great Roman Catholic forebear, Thomas Aquinas, declared: “Revelation comes in two volumes – the Bible and nature.” And our great Protestant forebear, Martin Luther, proclaimed: “God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and the flowers and the clouds and stars.”
What this means is that the living Word of God is speaking to us not only in the pages of Scripture, but right outside the window and under our feet! The divine Mystery is addressing us in wind and rock, sparrows and grass. Indeed, the Book of Nature is where human beings have always encountered the sacred mystery of God. As St. Paul puts it, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things [God] has made” (Romans 1:20).
That is why instinctively we go outside when we need to connect with something greater than ourselves. When we’re stressed or anxious, saddened or afraid, many of us head for a place in nature – maybe a hilltop with a good long view, or a particular bend in the Connecticut River, or a certain oak tree in a city park. We want to feel the wind on our face again and to feel the good earth under our feet. We want to hear birdsong again and to notice how the sun is casting light across a field. Renewing our connection with the natural world restores us to our senses and to a felt sense of God. To adapt a line from Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Peace of Wild Things”: “for a time [we] rest in the grace of the world, and [are] free.”
In leading retreats, I often invite people to spend some time bringing to mind a place in nature that they love. It might be a place that they knew as a child or a place that is dear to them now; it might be a place that they’ve visited only once or a place to which they return again and again. I invite everyone to dwell imaginatively for a time in that special place – to notice what season it is and what time of day, to savor again the smells, sights, and sounds. “How does it feel to be there?” I ask everyone. “Let yourself rest in this place. Let your affection for this place become very clear to you.”
A hush falls over the room, and when the meditation is over, people speak with glowing eyes. One man recalls the beloved bush under which he often hid when he was a child; a woman remembers a curving stream, filled with sparkling light; someone else recalls how a forest smells, or the sound of waves beside the sea at night.
How much affection has been released in the room! What power these natural places have – even in memory – to heal the heart! My hope is that after meditating on nature like this, all of us will be drawn outdoors, for in a stressed-out, fast-paced, wired world, we need more than ever to reclaim our God-given relationship with the natural world. Study after study shows that exposure to nature contributes to physical and emotional wellbeing, and it certainly heals the soul. The more we contemplate the beauty and intricacy of nature, the more we see what the psalmist saw and want to join the universal cry of praise: “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1).
Here is a suggestion. Step outside today for a contemplative walk. Walk slowly and in silence, letting each step draw you into the present moment. Notice smells, sounds, textures, and colors. Bless the ground with each step. Feel the wind. Breathe. If you like, invite Jesus to walk beside you. What do you experience together?
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
–Wendell Berry, Openings (1968)
Copyright © 2014 Margaret Bullitt-Jonas