‘Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes…’
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
‘The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures.’
Pope Francis in his encyclical ‘Laudato Si’
This post contains a spiritual health warning! If theology (thinking about God) isn’t your thing then you might find this a bit outside your comfort zone. But if you’re really open to encountering God in a new way, then read on!
Turfed out of the house
I’ve always been a great lover of the outdoors. Many of my earliest memories are of adventures in the woods and fields around our farm in Suffolk.
I only found out a while ago one the reasons we spent so much time outside.
My wife was having a chat with my mother about how difficult it is to get space from our kids and how did she cope with the 5 of us? She replied that her solution was to kick us all outside as soon as we’d finished a meal so we could expend all our excess energy climbing trees and roaming the fields. Now I’ve got my own kids I realise what a relief that must have been for my mother! If only we lived on a farm!
The God of Surprises
Recently I have found my relationship with both God and the natural world shifting in a new direction.
I’ve always had a sense of God’s presence as I’ve stepped outside. It’s rather like stepping into a vast cathedral- a place of awe, reverence and worship where the experience of beauty, light and space lifts my mind and heart heavenwards.
Despite this consciousness of the Divine Presence I’ve always seen nature itself as something peripheral. The real action has always been between me and God- creation provides the atmosphere and context- lights, staging and orchestra- but doesn’t participate in the play itself.
However, the biblical writers often speak of creation as vibrantly active in the divine drama. The hills rejoice, the earth grieves, trees clap their hands and the heavens bow their heads.
So it’s been a great surprise and delight to begin to experience the natural world not merely as impressive scenery but as something far more personal and God-full.
Two extremes to avoid
In trying to understand how God can be encountered in the created world we have to avoid two pitfalls.
We can either understand creation through just a scientific lens with God not actively involved or present OR we can lurch to the other extreme and confuse the creator with his creation, as in pantheism or in new age thinking.
My own experience has been of the former. My limited Christian understanding has restricted the activity of God to the human-divine axis; creation is not involved and is actually destined for destruction. In this thinking the only part of the old creation that makes it into the new is redeemed humanity.
This has resulted in indifference and even abuse from the church towards the natural world- it’s all ours to use or abuse and has no great significance in the divine drama.
Seeing things clearly- some theological reflections
I have found Pope Francis’ recent encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ incredibly helpful in laying out a Christian framework that gives a more adequate emphasis on how God relates to his world. Here are some of his reflections:
- Seeing the world as a ‘sacrament of communion’. ‘The divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet’.
- God’s book. ‘Nature is a ‘magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness’.
- Intrinsic value. ‘In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the word “creation” has a broader meaning than “nature”, for it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance’. All created things have an intrinsic value which does not depend on their usefulness to man i.e. being precedes being useful.
- Reflecting God’s nature. ‘Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection… Each… reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness’.
- Christ’s presence. ‘The risen One is mysteriously holding (all things) to himself and directing them towards fullness as their end. The very flowers of the field and the birds which his human eyes contemplated and admired are now imbued with his radiant presence’.
- It’s all about love. ‘Creation is of the order of love. God’s love is the fundamental moving force in all created things’.
- Creation is on going. ‘The Spirit of God has filled the universe with possibilities and therefore, from the very heart of things, something new can always emerge’.
- Inter-connectivity. ‘Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other.’
- Together for ever. ‘Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give…’ It’s a ‘new creation’ that is in view, not just a new humanity. ‘Behold I make all things new!”
Some practical steps
With this elevated understanding of Gods universe in mind, how can we begin to connect with God through His creation? Here are some things that I’ve found helpful:
- Articulating praise. Sometimes I just sit somewhere quiet and look around. Appreciation and wonder need to be expressed so I might say “Lord I thank you for: The stillness of the woods; the sun reflecting on the silver birch; the endless variety of shape and colour of clouds floating by; the wonder of life bursting out of barren earth…’ Not Shakespeare but God doesn’t seem to mind!
- Welcoming Gods presence. Wherever I find myself, I welcome God’s Spirit. I want to see things as He does. I then speak blessing upon what catches my eye or imagination. This connects me to what I see and, in a mysterious way, I seem to receive as much blessing as I give.
- Asking God to speak. When I go for a walk on our local common I often ask God to speak to me. “Lord- what are the woods saying to me today? Father- show me your glory as I spend time in your presence’. I am often surprised just how eager God is to speak to me through his world. I’ve found, however, that it can’t be hurried and I need to take time to become aware of his company and to feel his affection.
- Receiving from God. As I sit in the sunlight, I ask for God to touch me with his love. As I stand before him in a roaring gale I ask that his power that I feel in the wind flow through me to others. As I listen to the birds I ask that his joy and pleasure will fill my heart and those whom I love. As I place my feet upon the earth I ask for his deep peace to flood my heart and those whom I name in prayer. And so on…
- Baptised in beauty. In contemplation, the beauty, creativity and wonder that we experience in creation can help connect us to its Source. Believing that he is hidden within everything he has made inspires us to pursue him both within ourselves but also within all that surrounds us.
- Full immersion. It’s important that we all find ways of being immersed in the pure physicality and exhilaration of Gods world. Swimmers can plunge into a river or pool; others love to walk in the driving rain or get swept up in a swirling snowstorm. Mountains, jungles, seas and waterfalls are an invitation from God to overwhelm us. For some, just a walk in the dark on a starry night is enough. All of these experiences and many more besides can become something more than simply exhilarating. They can become a doorway into Gods presence when we approach with faith and a heart hungry for our Maker.
- Exuberance. In the Psalms the whole of creation gets excited about its Maker: Creation sings for joy, shouts loudly and rejoices in the Lord with abandon. Getting caught up in this exuberance by expressing praise in a natural setting and not just in church can be a truly awesome experience as we catch something of the joy that pulses through every created thing.