The beauty and complexity of the world is meant to continuously point humanity to our Creator. We are surrounded by trees, mountains, oceans, rivers, lakes, and clouds, and within these things much vibrant life is found, full of color and intricacies that are meant to leave us in awe and wonder. With its incredible and incomprehensible depth this beauty cannot be measured and yet allows us to grasp aspects of the nature of the Great Artist who created it. However, with people spending more time inside and away from nature, is human interaction with the natural world being attacked in order to diminish this grasping at God through it?
With this beautiful creation, God has left us a living story to narrate to us aspects of Himself. It is a via pulchritudinis, a way of beauty, not meant to only be confined to a few sentences of a definition, or even a few books, but a multitude of richness and diverse living and non-living entities delivering slight glances into a small part of God’s Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. St. Augustine, who purified his love of beauty, noted this as he attested,
“Some people, to discover God, read books. but there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead, He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?”
We think to use clever analogies to explain notions to others, like the great coach, Vince Lombardi, using football to explain how to have a winning life with the words, “Football is like life — it requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication and respect for authority,” or to communicate difficult teachings about God, like St. Patrick’s famous use of the shamrock. So too does God give us many metaphors to understand the untold amount of facets of Himself. However, more than words on a page, His analogies are realities that make up our existence, which we encounter each day with our minds and senses.
In these real-life metaphors, we see the Ocean reflecting His Power, His Greatness, and the truth that within Him there is an abundance of Life both knowable and yet greatly mysterious. We find a similar vibrancy of life in the trees of the forests, each one in a beautiful exchange with oxygen breathing creatures as the trees take in the carbon dioxide that we exhale and give to us the breath we need for our lungs, which is an amazing image of the gifts we can offer to God and the great and many gifts we receive from Him, including Life itself. Furthermore, we see the vast mystery of space, we share a slight experience of God’s view of us when we watch ants scatter across the ground, we see the Sun defeat the darkness morning after morning, and we can experience the love shared between ourselves and others, at times a great metaphor and at times not, in that we can actually share God’s actual life-giving Love with each other.
In this way, we can look out to the beauty of nature as a window to the Life of God and therefore grow closer to Him. St. Bernard of Clairvaux affirms this as he said, “Believe one who knows: You will find something greater in woods than in the books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from masters”. And St. John Demascus notes, “The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God”. Both of these quotes indicate the powerful effect of coming to know God by contemplating His marvelous Creation.
Every created thing shows us an aspect of God’s nature and so, due to His infinitude, we can understand the reason for His creating so much life over the span of many years. Keeping this in mind, we can come to know God through spending time in nature. We find help in understanding Him and our relationship with Him by being crushed by the immensity of the humongous ocean at the beach, we see His great love for us as we ponder the incredible colors of the Spring (only a good and loving God would place us in such beauty), we recognize His tender and caring role of providing for us by picking an apple from a tree. We can search the globe and find His goodness, truth and beauty in all the created things we come across.
We recognize that the deep connection we nourish with God through prayer is by all means greater than walking through the thick pine-wooded forest of North Georgia, but we can have a great aid in such a walk to come to see what God is like. Furthermore, we could reason that God made Nature as such so that we are able to have such a reflection, an “icon of the face of God.” We want to know God more in our hearts, but is what surrounds our hearts in this world meant to condition man for such contemplation?
If so, then is there a correlation between humans fearing God less and avoiding the natural world more? Is the decreasing number of stars visible in the skies over the cities we live in, and where humans are most known to replace God with their own pride and ego, a poetic sign of society sinking away from the contemplation of God? Are there so few stars visible in the suburbs and cities of modernity because we are sinking away from seeing His Glory through the powerful visage of the star-speckled night sky?
Even if there is not a general correlation for all, I believe that more belief in God can come through time spent within the Beauty of His Creation for many. Furthermore, we can all fall more in love with God through encountering it as St. John Chrysostom tells us, “From the creation, learn to admire the Lord! Indeed the magnitude and beauty of creation display a God who is the artificer of the universe. He has made the mode of creation to be our best teacher.” Because of this I think that being in touch with nature is something I need more of in my life.