Spirituality of Nature
No doubt, one of the best things that happened to me when I went to college was my narrow provincialism began to be challenged and changed. Provincialism is not inherently bad; it is just limited. To be provincial is to be limited to one’s single province. My growing up province was a rural Indiana farm community. It was a great place to grow up---wonderful people and the values they held to, like hard work, honesty, etc. I have been forever grateful for this nurturing culture. But it also was provincial.
It was provincial for me because it limited my view of the world---my sense of the incredible diversity and complexity of the world. Provincialism is a form of limited ignorance. Very smart people can be provincial. Smart people can be ignorant! I was one! I didn’t know what I didn’t know. College began to change that and I have endeavored to keep growing ever since. I have become more worldly and wiser.
As I grew, I discovered multiple religious groups and dimensions I never knew existed. I found a diversity within Christianity about whom I knew almost nothing. Even large groups, like Roman Catholics, were basically unknown to me. The more I learned from books and from the adherents to these religious traditions, the more thrilling it became. I was not put off; rather, I was pulled into the richness of traditions.
When I went to graduate school, I was provided an incredible learning environment. For two years I lived next door to the university’s Center for the Study of World Religions. That meant I had Jews and Buddhists in my back yard. I felt like I began to share all the major religious holidays with a host of new friends. I would join the Hindus in their celebration of the festival of lights---Divali. That would happen in the same autumn season as the Jewish celebration of Sukkot, the occasion when Jews build a sukkah or booth, to indicate their precarious living situation in the time in the wilderness after their deliverance from the slavery of Egypt. In my back yard I witnessed these rather small little tent-like structures being erected.
Throughout my education there was one major religious tradition I caught glimpses of, but don’t think I ever recognized it or took it seriously. That tradition I would now call nature spirituality. Of course, that was ironic, since I had spent so much time in nature when I was growing up on that Indiana farm. Sometimes we are too close to things to recognize them. Such was the case with nature and me.
It was Annie Dillard who began teaching me something about the spirituality of nature. I often return to her 1970s book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. That book nearly blew my mind when I first read it. It opened my eyes---which is exactly what it was supposed to do. There is a rather long quotation at the end of the book that is a reflection on both life and death. Let me share it with you to get a taste of the spirituality of nature.
“I think that the dying pray at the last not ‘please,’ but ‘thank you,’ as a guest thanks his host at the door. Falling from airplanes the people are crying thank you, thank you, all down the air; and the cold carriages draw up for them on the rocks. Divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knew precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.”
There is so much in this paragraph that could be unpacked and analyzed. A couple things stand out to me. First, I would fondly hope that I can grow spiritually enough to be able to recognize the naturalness and inevitability of my own death and be ok with that. I want to be one of those dying folks who at the end can pray “thank you.” I am sure I can get to this place by attending to my daily walk and make that as deeply spiritual as I can.
Secondly, I want to know that Maker of the universe whom, I’m sure, is some form of Absolute Love. I would like to think I am a product of Love and you, too, have been produced by that same Love. A corollary of that awareness is that I must become a producer of love in my life and within my world. And I expect the same from you. If my life can be dedicated to this kind of love expression, then I am confident I can come to the end of my earthly life and say “thank you.”
The spirituality of nature pulls me into my natural world, asking that I open my eyes and see. It shows me a world that is not fantasyland, but is both gracious and demanding. That sounds a great deal about life. My vow is to use this day as the first day in the classroom of nature.