Discovering Divinity in the Woods and Sky

Mick Turner

A vital aspect of connecting with the Divine Source is to recognize that God reveals himself through the created world and does so with great power and clarity. I tend to view the natural order as Sacred Scripture, for that is exactly what it is. In our technologically advanced society we have become quite removed from the intricate choreography that is evident in the dance of creation. Whenever we allow ourselves to get away from our usual fast-paced, stress-driven lifestyles and force ourselves to slow the pace down to a reasonable level, the Spirit can and does speak to us through things like trees, rivers, flowers, boulders, and even bugs. We, however, have to have eyes to see and ears to hear if we want to establish, maintain, and especially deepen our contact with God through nature. Mark Scandrette, in his great book entitled, Soul Graffiti, tells us:


In the hurried and technological society in which we live, we may have to be more intentional about practices that help us recognize the goodness of God revealed in creation. Many of us live and work in contexts that are divorced from the rhythms of the natural world. We have lost our connection to the soil, our food sources, and the skill of making things with our hands. We rarely notice the rising or the setting of the sun. We gulp food without tasting. We rarely pause to look at the flowers or into the eyes of a child. Our pace of life affects our capacity to appreciate the goodness of the bounty that surrounds us. The demands of a hurried life and the dominance of technology cloud our awareness. Slowing down and learning to pay attention to the moment may be a path to affirming God’s essential goodness and presence.


I believe attentiveness is truly a spiritual discipline, just like meditation, solitude, prayer, fasting, celebration, and all the others. Mindfulness, so much a central part of Buddhism, is basically unheard of in Christian circles. St. Francis and Brother Lawrence seem to come closer than most, but both of these saints have long since passed on. As followers of Christ, we should be ever grateful to God for revealing himself to us through the scriptures of nature and further, we should express thankfulness for those contemporary voices that are now speaking of the significance of these matters. Keep this pair of words before you my friends:


Mindfulness and the Discipline of Noticing


The more mindful we are of what is happening around us, the more sensitive we will become to what Erwin Raphael McManus calls “divine moments.” The more we practice “noticing,” the more we will know about the God we worship and follow.


As mentioned earlier, our contemporary environment, especially in the cities and suburbs, removes us from the natural rhythms of life and the natural world. As a result, we often miss divine messages that come our way. Rarely do we take the time to “consider the birds of the air or the lilies of the field.” It is our loss but it is something that can be regained. Further, God is able to speak to us through the created world in spite of our hectic schedules and artificial lifestyles. Wayne Teasdale, a contemporary Catholic mystic, speaks of these divine moments and their importance to our spiritual formation.


Most of us can probably point to such moments in the inner geography of our development, moments in which the universe, the earth, or the natural world have communicated to us something of their numinous quality. Such experiences are common; everyone has them sooner or later whether we realize it or not.


Although we are conceptually unaware of it at the time, natural mysticism is often our first true and valid experience of the divine side of things. I personally believe we have this capacity as a necessary part of our natural endowment at birth. As children, we are able to “see” things more directly and more clearly, rather than filtering our raw experience through a maze of conceptual explanations. In a very real sense, we can see the world through “eyes of radical wonder.” Unfortunately, our culture soon educates this blessed talent out of us before we are ten years of age. As a result, our world becomes less magical and equally less real. We end up inhabiting a world consisting of the interpretations of experience rather than the experience itself. All of this happens in the name of something called “our own good.”


Fortunately, this trend has been changing over the past two decades as people become more aware of the sacred nature of creation and the fact that humankind is an integral part of created order. This new, healthier view of things is increasingly based on the realization that all of the natural world is like on giant hologram in which all the parts are interconnected and contain a perfect image of the whole. Along with advances in ecological studies, biology, and quantum physics, this paradigm shift is seen as part of the emerging Interspiritual Age. Teasdale continues:


The Interspiritual Age is witnessing a new flowering of natural mysticism and natural contemplation. It welcomes natural mysticism’s role in a universal understanding of mysticism itself. It realizes that natural mysticism is an important part of spirituality, and that spirituality – indeed, interspirituality – would be incomplete without the inclusion of mystical wisdom that comes to us through the natural world and the cosmos.


There have always been those who sensed a special kinship with the natural world and those of us who have been fortunate enough to have encountered one of these blessed saints should be forever grateful. I have had the privilege of knowing several such individuals and benefited greatly from their presence in my life in general and from their teaching in particular. I wrote of two of these special people on the LifeBrook International blog. One was my grandfather and another was “Old Ben,” a Native American man who lived near my childhood home. Both taught me a great reverence for the created order and each, in his own way, imparted a special sense that allowed me to hear the heartbeat of God in the Pine and Palmetto woods of Southwest Florida and in the forests, streams, and mountains of Northeast Alabama.


Always an avid reader, another influence on my nature mysticism was Jewish scholar and author Abraham Heschel. Heschel’s writings showed me the importance of experiencing a sense of “awe” and “radical amazement” when encountering God’s handiwork in the natural world. I recommend Heschel’s work highly.


My favorite writer in this genre, however, is without question Annie Dillard. Reading A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was an epiphany for me. I have read it five times now, and still find nuances I had not seen before. Dillard has that rare ability to describe nature with a prose style all her own and, at the same time, share her faith in an unobtrusive and inoffensive way.


And of course, any mention of influential writers in this area has to include Thomas Berry, a farmer, a mystic, and an environmentalist of the first degree. Another is John Muir, whose descriptions and work in the Redwood forests of Northern California are classic.


As the near future unfolds, I will gradually be writing more about the importance of the mysticism of nature and the concepts of mindfulness and the “Discipline of Noticing.” During my quiet time over the past month or so, I have felt a gentle nudging of the Holy Spirit to take up this project. I have found that if I ignore these leadings of the Spirit, after awhile they are not so gentle. Further, if I even then refuse to follow, sadly, they disappear.


I have no intention of letting that happen.


© L.D. Turner 2009/All Rights Reserved.


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