Nature and the Soul
Most of us dwell in urban or suburban areas of the country. It’s no surprise since these are the places that offer the glut of opportunities: jobs, schools, markets and shops, homes, and apartments. I’ve always lived in a big city or suburb. I grew up in a suburb in Southern California, went to college in L.A. and now live and work in San Diego. I’ve always been surrounded by people and traffic, cement and asphalt, track homes and apartment buildings. There are of course aspects of city life that I enjoy—the rich culture and sense of community, the easy access to diverse restaurants, attractions, and people. But there is something strangely compelling about a bucolic life of simplicity.
From God’s directive to “subdue” the earth, we come to understand that by caring for creation and building up a society in this material world we are responding to God. We are sculpting the rough marble of our physical and spiritual lives into something beautiful—our life’s oeuvre offered to God as a gift. If we believe this, then we see all of creation as a gift for our sanctification and holiness. “For by Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him” (Colossians 1:16).
Since all things were created for Christ, we are therefore obligated by love to take care of them. God has bestowed creation upon us in good faith, which Pope Francis illuminates in his encyclical, Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home). But there is more to it than simply taking care of creation because God has tasked us with such a commandment. By caring for creation, we also care for our own souls. Meditating upon the beauty of the natural world can heal our mind, body, and spirit, as well as nurture within us the seeds of wisdom and truth. The beauty buried within every corner of the natural world has a lesson for us along the journey to becoming the souls God has destined us to be—holy and without blemish. We can choose to let nature teach us and sustain us, and bless it. Conversely, we can ignore it and use it as we can use people, ultimately destroying our souls while gratifying our egos.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote much about the role of the natural world and the material in God’s plan of salvation. The material world, like the firm fingers of a potter against clay, impress upon us in order to form us into saints. Every single aspect of creation, Teilhard de Chardin writes, can be used to draw us into that divine embrace:
“Through every cleft the world we perceive floods us with its riches—food for the body, nourishment for the eyes, harmony of sounds and fullness of the heart, unknown phenomena and new truths, all these treasures, all these stimuli, all these calls, coming to us from the four corners of the world, cross our consciousness at every moment...They will merge into the most intimate life of our soul and either develop it or poison it.” (The Divine Milieu)
In fact, he states the necessity of the perceptible world quite plainly for our spiritual development: “Nevertheless it does no more than express an incontrovertible natural fact–which is that our spiritual being is continually nourished by the countless energies of the perceptible world.”
We should heed this understanding that the natural world has something to reveal to us about our own purpose and destiny. Of course, this can be difficult since many of us can get caught in the flow of our daily lives in urban, man-made environments. Pope Francis sternly reminds us that we were not meant to be circumscribed by the iron fruit of man’s labor. As he explains:
“We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature...In some places, rural and urban alike, the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty. In others, “ecological” neighbourhoods have been created which are closed to outsiders in order to ensure an artificial tranquillity.” (On Care for Our Common Home)
The Holy Father calls us to seek refuge at times within the natural world. This may come in obvious ways, like spending time outside hiking, camping, or on retreat. Or it may be less pronounced, such as walking in a park or wandering through a garden once or twice a week. Often by immersing ourselves in the natural world and meditating on its beauty, the Holy Spirit will prompt us into deeper, more reflective prayer. However, if we don’t take the time to see and appreciate the good of creation, then we risk not being able to properly worship God. Gratitude should always be a first response to God in our prayer, and by taking time to intentionally expose ourselves to the natural world and the gift of beauty it has for us, we allow this response to come more readily.
Nature also serves as a wise and loving teacher. Christ was partial to using parables and metaphors derived from the natural world, from the planting of seeds of faith to the gathering of God’s lost children like chicks. Many saints have relied on examples plucked from the natural world to reveal aspects of God’s love and the spiritual life. St. Francis de Sales’ curiosity and love for nature granted him many divine insights. As a gifted spiritual writer and priest, he drew upon the examples of the material world to highlight the realities of the immaterial one. In his beloved Treatise on the Love of God, he uses many such examples. In one example, he compares locusts feeding on plants to meditative prayer, where the goal of such isn’t to ameliorate intellectual curiosity, but to foster appreciation and love. As he writes, “Rather than satisfying an intellectual hunger, meditation visits the flowers of holy mysteries to gather divine love’s honey.”
We are invited to become students of creation. In doing so, we learn patience through the gradual changing of the seasons, the slow sprouting of new life in our gardens. We learn the value of suffering a plaintive winter so that spring may be all the more fruitful. We learn from the dappled hues of a rich garden that, like each flower, each one of us has our own uniqueness that complements the grandeur of the body of Christ. We learn that God will continue to take care of us as he does the sparrows that streak the sky searching for hearth and rest. And we learn from all the creatures of the earth that exist simply for the pleasure of God that we too are called only to exist as our authentic selves for the sheer pleasure and goodness of God.
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.”