Finding God in Nature.
I lift up my eyes to the hills. From whence does my help come? Psalm 121:1.
Fr. Anthony Ekpunobi, CM.
God is everywhere, but not everything radiates His presence. The psalmist looked up to the hills and wondered from where shall help come to him (121:1). Each time I look out of my window, from the parish rectory, seeing the tall residential buildings surrounding me, I hear less of God and think more of human activities and the fantasies of life. I imagine myself either owning or dwelling in one of such beautiful flats. Sometimes I see nothing at all, especially when my mind is flooded with thoughts and worries. There is nothing in the sight from my window that connects me to my thoughts and God. But each time I see trees and natural horizons as I travel by train through the villages, I feel a subtle presence of the divine. There is a longing in me to connect with what I see. It is like a reflection that comes back to me. Our natural environment remains a place of encounter with our worries and doubts. A place to communicate with our problems and with God.
The transfiguration of Jesus Christ according to the gospel of St. Luke (Luke 9:28-36), took place on the mountain. The context of the transfiguration was prayer (Luke 9:28). The reason was the enormous task of the journey to Jerusalem. The journey to Jerusalem will end on the cross of Calvary. William Barclay puts it this way: We must remember that he was just about to set out to Jerusalem and to the cross. … Jesus had gone there to seek the approval of God for the decisive step he was about to take. (Barclay William, The Daily Bible Study: The Gospel of Luke. Bangalore: Theological Publications in India, 2004:123). The setting was on a high mountain. Although the gospel did not mention the mountain, but a certain tradition alludes to Mount Tabor. William Barclay in his commentary refutes this and suggests Mount Hermon instead. According to him, ‘the top of mount tabor was an armed fortress and a great castle; it seems almost impossible that the transfiguration could have happened on a mountain which was a fortress. Much more likely the scene of the transfiguration was Mount Hermon. Hermon was fourteen miles from Caesarea Philippi. … 9,400 feet high, 11,000 feet above the level of the Jordan valley…’ (Barclay William, The Daily Bible Study: The Gospel of Matthew. Bangalore: Theological Publications in India, 2004: 157).
The high mountain of Hermon provided for Jesus an enabling environment and atmosphere for spiritual uplifting and transfiguration. According to Ernest E Larkin, a Carmelite monk, ‘An attractive pastoral setting calms the soul and provides the quiet that people need for facing the real issues of their life. God seems closer in pristine settings.’ (Larkin Ernest E. Desert Spirituality. Carmelnet. www.carmelnet.org/larkin/larkin024.pdf). The example of the mountain of transfiguration brings to us the experience that praying in nature attunes us to the will of God. The duo – Moses and Elijah – representing the law and the prophets according to biblical account, shall be for us a double catalyst of spiritual transformation. The law could be seen as the rule of life i.e. life experiences that leave deep impressions in us, while the prophecy is the wisdom of God flowing from his cross. Thus a Christian within the context of prayer in an enabling natural environment, is equipped with God’s wisdom and life experience in order to face current life challenges. Ernest E Larkin believes that, ‘Getting out in the country, breathing in the fresh air and fragrances of the meadows, walking around the lake or trudging along paths in hilly terrain, can be healthy physical exercise and spiritual refreshment’. (Larkin Ernest E. Desert Spirituality). The natural environment is a place where things are in their natural state.
Prayer, according to Tertullian, conquers God! (cf: Tertullian, Prayer. chapter 29). This statement is often mistaken by those who take it literarily. God cannot change! ‘Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change’ (James 1:17). Rather what prayer does is to transform us to accept the will of God. Tertullian asked the question: For what will God refuse to the prayer that comes to Him from the spirit and in truth, since this is the prayer He has exacted? (Tertullian, Prayer, chapter 29). What this implies is that in praying, we are transformed to the extent that our will align with God. This is what happened at Gethsemane. Jesus prayed; “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done.” (Matthew 26:42). Praying in the setting like that of the transfiguration facilitates attunement i.e. the opening of the self to God. The natural environment possess the capacity to do this. This openness is the very technique of prayer. The transformation that prayer needs to achieve its purpose in us is embedded in this openness. The transfiguration story has it that it was only when the disciples became fully aware that they saw the glory of God and the two men standing with Jesus (cf: Luke 9:32). Attunement is readily facilitated in the natural settings of our environment.
Our contemporary society puts a lot of burden on us. The economic and political climate of the country often make us less human. And when troubles set in, it muddles up our lives. Consulting a priest or mere knelling down to pray could be effective, but not as getting into nature to confront our lives. Sometimes problems don’t change, but our attitude to it can changes. We need an experience that can effect changes in our understanding of life and its worries. Daniel J. Siegel writes that, ‘experience can create structural changes in the brain’. (Siegel Daniel J. The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007: 31). Encountering the self in nature can be a great experience. Nature has its own way of connecting us with our lives. For Ernest Larkin, ‘some visit these “fierce landscapes” (Belden Lane) for excitement, others to deal with a crisis, a limit experience, a sorrow that overwhelms them. Perhaps unconsciously they are looking for an environment that mirrors their troubled soul’ (Larkin Ernest E. Desert Spirituality). Like a mirror, nature presents our lives apart from us in order to see as in a vision what went wrong. A new vision of life does not mean that our problems are over. But as Cherie Carter-Scott, puts it, ‘when you consider the hardships of life- the disappointments, hurts, losses, illnesses, all the tragedies you may suffer- and shift your perception to see them as opportunities for learning and growth, you become empowered’. (Carter-Scott Cherie, If Life Is A Game, These Are The Rules: Ten Rules For Being Human As Introduced In The Chicken Soup For The Soul. New York: Broadway books, 1998: 38). Nature gives us the opportunity to view our lives as in a mirror. When we combine this vision of our lives facilitated by the natural environment with prayer, we begin to see the bigger picture and therein are able to put the pieces back together.
Union with God is the goal of human life. Although secular ideologies attack this fact, but there was at a time as observed by Charles Taylor, when not believing in God was unthinkable. (Cf Taylor Charles, A Secular Age. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007: 25). The desert spirituality of the desert fathers employs the centering prayer as a means to attune to God’s presence. God is not seen but his presence is felt. In centering prayer silence is employed to reach to the depth of the soul where God dwells. The natural environment gives us the disposition to silence. ‘Silence is the best contact point with God, since God is always present, though beyond speech, images, and concepts. The desert (i.e. nature) fosters this silence, this emptiness, the letting go of everything that is not of God’. (Larkin Ernest E. Desert Spirituality). We definitely need our natural environments if we must retire in times of distress in order to retrace our steps. God is everywhere, but not everything radiates His presence.