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

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Author: Robert "Robin" Gottfried

Director, Center for Religion and Environment at Sewanee: The University of the South, and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Sewanee. Contemplative Christian, musician, blogger for the Huffington Post on religion and environment, and hiker living on the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee.

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