Nature & Spirituality

Nature & Spirituality March 18, 2016

By Gregory

The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
– Gerard Manley Hopkins

The focus of my spirituality has shifted, incrementally, but steadily, over the past several years. I once sent my prayers heavenward, into the skies, believing that meaning was “up there” beyond the firmament. I practiced a predominantly vertical spirituality. Now, my gaze is outward, but not necessarily up – and in nature I sense a subtle presence – which I attribute to God (however fuzzy my thinking on the Divine may be). I encounter this presence here in this world – my spiritual attention has switched to a horizontal focus.

I’m in good company – the scriptures are full of examples of God’s presence manifesting through nature. Moses at the burning bush, the Israelites being led by God as a pillar of cloud, Elijah finding God in the gentle whispers of the breeze, are just some examples. In the New Testament, Jesus’ birth is heralded by the appearance of a star and throughout his ministry he uses mud, bread, wine, and fish, and his teachings repeatedly reference the harvest, agriculture, fields, and flowers. The Jewish and Christian scriptures are overflowing with references of theophany via natural means.

A particular weakness of our contemporary culture, and sadly, most forms of contemporary spirituality, is its neglect of nature. Many Jews and Christians forget our inherent connection to the natural world. From nature we emerge, our life supported and enmeshed in the ecosystem, and at the end of our life, we (or at least our bodies) return to nature. We are fully rooted in the ever-changing web of nature – interconnected to all things. Our well-being ultimately depends on protecting and preserving nature and the well-being of others. Interconnected/Interdependent on one another, kindness and social cooperation make sense morally, spiritually and also from a practical, evolutionary point of view.

Many Christians and Jews could benefit from borrowing some of the insights of my Neopagan friends, whose spirituality is much more engaged with nature. As far as I can tell, none of these friends worship nature – rather they find the source of their spirituality rooted in the world around them and locate their understanding of the Divine here in this world.

I’m not arguing for a spirituality of pure immanence – my encounter with the Divine is simultaneously immanent and transcendent – my understanding of God is one in which the Divine is enmeshed in the natural world and yet goes beyond its immediacy. Such an emphasis on this world is justified theologically from both a Jewish and Christian perspective – we understand the Divine as the creative principle in the universe, the shaper of the material world who pronounces it “good”, and the One who continually engages it’s unfolding. The Christian theological doctrine of the Incarnation takes such insights even further, implying that God becomes matter, intimately embracing nature so as to become nature.

How can we practically apply these insights into our spirituality? I am advocating more than the occasional walk in the woods or meditating in the garden.

First, I believe we must overcome unnecessary dualisms that leave us with the impression that human beings are not somehow part of nature. We’ve become so separated from our natural environs, and technology has provided us with much mastery over nature, that we forget that we breathe with the trees, eat what emerges from the soil, and that our own bodies are of the same stuff as the world around us. Those who accept a position of Original Sin need not denigrate the beauty, goodness, and divinely infused quality of the natural world – its original goodness must also be incorporated into our doctrinal thinking.

Second, we must renew our contact with nature – but with our spiritual eyes open, ready to observe nature’s subtleties as well as God’s action within. Getting outdoors, in nature itself, is a vital spiritual practice – engage whatever sort of natural vistas are available in your area. Part of the experience of immersing yourself in nature is also observing nature – learning its sounds, movements, colors, and moods. Pray and meditate outside. Encourage outdoor worship services when possible. Do what you can to take your spiritual practice outside the four walls of our usual dwellings.

Third, bring to the forefront the natural dimensions of our religious holidays. Nearly every Jewish holiday originates in an agricultural event – celebrating the harvest, the sowing, or some other seasonal ingathering. Spiritual practice should include focusing on and celebrating the seasonal and agricultural cycles, drawing out their existential applications and meanings. Celebrating the rhythms of nature can be grounding, reconnecting us to our place in the ecosystem and serving as a powerful tool for personal transformation. Our lives revolve around and reflect these natural cycles.

Most of us living at start of the twenty-first century no longer appreciate the natural aspects of our Holy Days. Become conscious that Christmas happens near the Winter Solstice, Easter in the spring time, Rosh Hashanah in autumn – these are just a few examples. We need to recapture the direct sense of participation in the cyclic energies of the Earth. Let me be clear, I am not interested in reducing the meaning of these holidays to merely their natural meanings – for example, Christmas is infused with rich layers of meaning – all revolving around notions of light, rebirth, new beginnings – themes that resonate both with Jesus’ birth as well as the Winter Solstice – meditating and referring to both is holistic and proper.

My own spirituality finds much meaning at the liminal points in the turning of the seasons – those moments in between – when one season fades and slowly transforms itself into the next. Again, our Neopagan friends can teach us something here with their cyclical calendar that many of them call “the Wheel of the Year” – each holiday coinciding with the liminal moments of our seasonal progressions. Halloween is a great example – for most of us in the Northern Hemisphere, this is a time when the shorter days become fully evident, when we can sense winter’s approach, when nature slips into dormancy – no wonder our psyches naturally turn to thoughts of harvest, death, finality, and closure – themes reflected even in our children’s trick o’ treating.

God’s presence is not limited to the burning bush – the whole world is aflame with it. I encourage you to reflect on what role nature plays in your spirituality. And I invite you to share your thoughts here with us.

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