Contemplation, Appreciation, and the Book of Nature

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Photo credit: Pixabay

Today was an amazing day. After a week of sultry summer weather this morning broke clear, cool and crisp. The light radiated joy as it dappled through the leaves of the trees around the house. Today I learned a bit more about thanksgiving, appreciation, wonder and praise.

These attitudes, or approaches to life, all form part of natural contemplation, the contemplation of nature. In Christian spirituality the monks and sisters taught for centuries that one must develop one’s personal character and one’s ability to encounter God in nature in order to experience God fully.

The monastics considered natural contemplation a crucial aspect of their prayer life because the Hebrews and Christians (who flowed out of the Jewish faith) understood that God reveals himself not only in scriptures but in “the work of his hands.” As a result Christians came to understand that nature comprised a book that also contained the “words” of God. Accordingly, to truly understand God one had to read God’s word both in the Bible and in nature. They felt one couldn’t really understand scripture if one hadn’t learned to read “the Book of Nature.” Similarly, one needed to be immersed in scripture to truly hear God’s voice speaking through her creation.

Reading the Book of Nature requires getting in tune with it by spending time outdoors and by developing attitudes and approaches to life that facilitate communicating with other creatures and hearing and seeing God in her works. Some basic, but not always easy to learn, practices include learning to appreciate everything one encounters.

Appreciating a rose or sunset takes little effort. Learning to appreciate briars and mosquitoes, on the other hand, is quite another enterprise. Yet, these, too, form part of God’s creation and call us to appreciate them for what they are and for their part in the web of life. Developing the ability to appreciate all creatures leads us into wonder, into marveling at the wonders of the world around us. Wonder leads us to give thanks for the marvelous works that surround us on every side. When we give thanks, we become aware of the generous and awesome God who has made the fascinating world we live in. And the more we see, appreciate, and marvel, the more thanksgiving leads to praise for such a creative, surprising and wondrous God.

This morning as I explored the fields, woods, and streams behind our house my exploration itself turned into an occasion of wonder and thanksgiving. Normally when I contemplate nature I focus on one thing at a time – a leaf, rock, or tree. This time the entire scene animated my spirit. I was filled with wonder and delight from just being outside and participating in what was going on. Praise and thanksgiving flowed naturally from deep within. Appreciation, wonder, thanksgiving and praise all worked together, moving back and forth from one to another, forming a dynamic resonant whole. No wonder saints of so many traditions, both Christian and nonchristian, urge us to spend time outside. Today brought me a powerful reminder of that truth.

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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