God Stages an Ecological Intervention

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Photo credit: Pixabay

A male polar bear kills a cub despite the best efforts of its mother to protect it. A landslide wipes out another village in Guatemala, while a tsunami devastates coastal villages in Thailand. Refugees swarm borders in Europe as they flee carnage in Syria and Iraq. Can we really say that creation reflects a loving God? At best we can say, “only in part.” I think God would agree with this assessment. To my way of thinking, that’s why he staged an intervention.*

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Nature, Gratitude and Contemplation – a Recipe for Spiritual Growth

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Photo: Robin Gottfried

Here on the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee we all are grateful for the sun and the early spring flowers. We’ve had a long gray cold winter and the clear skies bring much appreciated relief. Nature has a talent for making us grateful. Not surprisingly, in the Christian monastic contemplative tradition nature has figured prominently. How do nature, gratitude and contemplation of nature work together?

Over the centuries Christian monastic practice in both the East and West has accorded contemplation of nature (natural contemplation) an important role in spiritual growth. The idea is this: Because God is in all things and because God is Love, then we encounter God to the extent that we learn to love all things.* Love consists of wholeheartedly giving oneself to others without reservation, and responding to others in like manner. We find God, then, by learning to relate to all things like God does – by being so fascinated with others that we forget about ourselves, by being totally open to everyone and everything. This everything includes nature.

To get to this point where we are totally open requires disciplined effort on our part. The monks traditionally have emphasized two aspects of this process. The first consists of learning how to approach life with an open, outwardly-focused disposition. This involves practicing attitudes such as patience toward, and reverence for, all things. The theory is that if we can develop a way of life that mimics that of Jesus and the holy people who have preceded us, we will grow more like God. To the extent we get ourselves out of the way, becoming more transparent, then God will shine through us and help others along their path. Similarly, when others grow more like God, the light shining through them will warm us, too, and help us grow. That is why the spiritual life really requires us to grow within a community of people striving to get closer to God. It’s difficult to be a Lone Ranger saint.

It turns out that one of the key attitudes upon which so many others depend is thankfulness. Br. David Steindl-Rast, a marvelous Benedictine monk and spiritual mentor, believes that gratefulness is the heart of prayer. Gratefulness requires, first of all, that we notice that someone is trying to give us something. That’s no small matter, particularly when our world is full of distractions both mental and emotional. Second, it’s hard to be grateful for something when we don’t appreciate it. Learning to see the good in something sometimes requires us to develop new ways of seeing so that we “have eyes that see.” When we then turn to give thanks, gratitude brings us into an awareness of the giver and a closer relationship with her.

Nonhuman creation provides us many opportunities for noticing, appreciating, and thanking. Many of us find it easier to do so in nature, perhaps because it helps us forget our “to do” lists, agendas, and preoccupations. When we start noticing, we often find things that lead us to ponder and wonder. It also can lead us into deeper experiences of God himself, those times when we sense a deep presence, peace or unity with all things. For this reason monastic tradition has stressed natural contemplation as the second important aspect of growth that prepares us to encounter God “face to face” without images, thoughts, or sounds. Some monks introduce natural contemplation after a person has progressed sufficiently in becoming more open and transparent. Others believe that seekers can profit from growing in their attitudes and in natural contemplation at the same time. The latter happens to be my experience.

For me the natural world provides a natural monastery where God can mentor us through everything we encounter. Running water can provide a joyful opportunity to give thanks. It also can provide a deeper lesson in gratitude when it is running through your tent or down your back. The apostle Paul admonishes us,

…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thes 5:18)

If we learn to give thanks for briars and mosquitoes out-of-doors, we then can do so when a colleague or friend is biting and sharp. If we are open to the Spirit’s subtle and, sometimes not so subtle, nudges, we can learn lessons among humans and apply them to nature, and vice-versa.

In 1961 Thomas Merton, the great twentieth century contemplative and monastic, wrote that one of the biggest challenges facing his novices was the lack of natural contemplation. How much more that must be true now when so many of us spend most of our time inside staring at screens or in a car listening to music. Getting outside isn’t just an opportunity for recreation, it provides God the chance to reach and to teach us. It’s crucial for our spiritual growth and for the world. So, the next time you’re outside, even walking down the street, notice and appreciate the birds and the sun, or the blade of grass poking up from the sidewalk, and say thank-you to the giver of all good gifts.

*Because God exhibits both female and male characteristics, I will use both genders to refer to God.

Certificate in Contemplation and Creation Care
Center for Religion and Environment at Sewanee: The University of the South

Nature, Oneness, and the Ecology of God

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Photo credit: Pixabay

On a hot, dry day in northern New Mexico I was trying my best to keep the burro from pushing me off the side of the mountain. Tired and thirsty, I reached the top of the mountain and the world opened up. Time stood still as I felt one with everything. Has something like that ever happened to you? It has to many, whether at a multi-colored sunset, quiet brook side, or all-engrossing concert. What is it? For me, it’s the ecological nature of God.*

Have you ever noticed how everything about nature ultimately revolves around systems? We have the water cycle, nitrogen cycle, food chains, wolf/elk/cottonwood/riparian zone interrelations…the list goes on and on. If we take animals out of their usual habitats, they behave differently. Transplanted plants often die because the new soil lacks the proper micro-organisms for their survival. We all depend upon scores of others for our well-being. We live and die in the midst of webs of relationships they form and sustain us.

We often say that one can tell something about an artist by her works. In some way she incarnates part of herself in what she creates. In the same way the overwhelming importance of relationships in creation would seem to imply something about the nature or personality of God.

Christians in particular like to say God is Love. But what is love? One way of looking at it is to say that it consists of totally giving oneself to another without reservation. This then implies wholeheartedly responding to and receiving from the other without holding back. So, love consists of total openness and receptivity to someone else. If I knew someone like this, I would say that he is a Mad Lover. So, I guess that must describe God.

God passionately loves her creation. But if God depends upon us to express her love, then God must be pretty weak. I’m not sure most of us are interested in a co-dependent God. So, if God is love, which is perfect relating, then God’s relating must happen in-house. Because God can’t depend on us and still be God, God must perfectly relate within himself. So, God must in some way be at least a duo.

However, this, too, has its problems. It’s hard, at least for humans, to distinguish between things unless they can compare. If the only thing around me were trees – no streams, plants, animals, houses, or anything else at all – I would be hard-pressed to know what trees are because I’d have no means of comparison. I’d wouldn’t be able to say, “Hey, trees are things that aren’t shrubs” if there were no shrubs. Also, with just one other “person” to relate to, it’s easy for partners to lose perspective on each other and themselves. They can get lost in each other. That’s one reason why children can enrich a marriage greatly. They give the duo something else to focus on.

So, God must include at least three relators, or “persons.” That’s what Christian tradition has settled on.

God, then, is a community, a system, of “persons” who give and respond so wholeheartedly with one another that become like a tightly knit jazz trio or dance group. They act as a unit, with one person or another taking the lead at any time and the others responding. Given that they are so into relationships it’s in their nature to create more. So, this community reaches out, creating and sustaining us, whether plant, animal or mineral. And, funny thing, these creatures relate to each other, strongly influencing each other and, in many ways, making them what they are. They reflect the community of their Maker. And, because this community is a Mad Lover, it wants the same intimacy with us that they have with each other. This happened so much that they delegated one of them to become part of creation, a human being. When that happened, they swept creation up into their whirling, joyous dance of love.

So, what happens when all becomes one on top of a mountain or we unexpectedly experience an “opening up” at a multi-colored sunset? We experience God’s invitation to dance – we “see” the ecological face of God. The Spirit that pulses through all of creation gives us a glimpse of what the cosmos really is- a dynamic set of relationships infused and charged with the Spirit of God. Then we can agree with William Blake when he says,

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

 

Certificate in Contemplation and Creation Care
Center for Religion and Environment at Sewanee: The University of the South