Finding holiness in natureBy: Nancy de Flon
When American poet William Cullen Bryant declared that “the groves were God’s first temples,” he was pointing out that human beings, from time immemorial, recognized the sacredness of the created world by worshiping God in the open, especially among the trees.
Many ancient religions claimed their sacred tree. In Christianity this tree is the cross on which Jesus was crucified. A traditional Latin hymn addresses it as “O faithful cross, O noblest tree.”
Ninth-century Byzantine theologian Theodore the Studite movingly described how the trees of the forest exult on Good Friday to see one of their own “being honored with kisses and embraces.”
Mountains, too, have been significant places of encounter with the divine. Ancient peoples believed that the gods lived on mountaintops. It was on Mount Sinai that Moses had his intimate encounters with the living God. Jerusalem, holy city of Israel, stood on a height; the psalms offer vivid descriptions of the people wending their way up to Jerusalem for the big feasts. Jesus was transfigured before his friends Peter, James, and John on a high mountain.
From the “still waters” near which the Lord leads me in Psalm 23 to the waters that have “raised its pounding waves” (Psalm 93), water is another significant natural element in our religious tradition. Jesus walked on water to show his power over the forces of nature; in water we die with Christ in baptism.
Our Christian tradition clearly regards nature as holy. But aside from having these tidbits of information at our fingertips, how can we actually experience that holiness?
“Our Christian tradition clearly regards nature as holy.”
First: Don’t try too hard. If you’re out walking or hiking, enjoy it for its own sake. Stop now and then to enjoy a view or to stoop down and look closely at a little flower.
Avoid the “achievement” mode: “I must walk so many miles,” “I must make it to the very top.” It’s not about what you can boast about to your friends later; it’s about being open to God’s presence.
If you don’t live near forests, walking trails, hills, or mountains, try your own garden or a local park.
Also, don’t imagine that you must consciously think explicitly “religious” thoughts while out enjoying nature. That’s not the Catholic way. Our sacramental imagination perceives the beauty of God reflected in the beauty of nature–the invisible in the visible.
The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said it best: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Natural beauty isn’t something upon which a religious character must be externally imposed; you don’t need a religious excuse to enjoy it.
The Scottish-American conservationist John Muir invites us to “climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” Those good tidings are the Lord’s peace and joy.
Whether in “lofty mountain grandeur” or a red maple in the fall, a tall stately sunflower or tender young buds in springtime, a delicate butterfly or the squirrel that persistently invades your bird feeders, holiness is there. Be open to it, and it will make itself known to you.
De Flon is an editor at Paulist Press and the author of The Joy of Praying the Psalms.