A few days ago I searched online for a new book on baseball, the young season having enchanted my love for the game again this year. I’ve bypassed Roger Angell’s baseball prose much too long, so I placed Game Time: A Baseball Companion in my Amazon cart. Then I had a faint memory—I remember the look of that spine! Where did I see it? Is that book on my bookshelf or did I see this elsewhere? To the bookshelves I go and there, hiding on a bottom shelf in a far corner I spotted Angell’s book. I promptly emptied by Amazon cart. Hello mid-40s! No matter, I was just happy that I owned the book, even if it was overlooked these many years.
The Book of Creation has been long overlooked in the Christian life. It’s a treasured book Christians possess that has been hidden in the stacks of other devotional materials. For centuries Christians have sought communion with God in the Book of Scriptures and the Book of Creation in that order. The Scriptures hold a preeminent place in our faith and rightly so. Without the revelation of God’s Word, one would collapse into idolatry when adoring the beauty of the skies. But a high view of Scripture does not require dismissing the mystery of creation. The Book of Scripture teaches us to read the Book of Creation, but the Book of Creation remains an unread book for most. Creation leads me back to Scripture; Scripture back to Creation. Together they lead me to worship Christ with a heart of thankfulness and wonder.
From at least the 4th century (and perhaps earlier), church fathers sought Christ in the natural world for the sake of worship and communion. St. Antony, Evagrius Ponticus, Origen, St. Basil the Great, St Maximus the Confessor—all these fathers sought the wisdom and wonder of God in the nature of created things. Theirs was a continual and deep meditation, whether of the heavens, plant life, animal life, mountains, rivers, or seas. They read the natural world closely and deeply.
The Difference Between a Glance and a Gaze
Sure, creation inspires awe and wonder in our daily lives. Worshipping the Lord is the only fitting response when your eyes behold a stunning sunset. But when the splendor of the natural world moves your soul, how long do you linger?
There’s a great difference between a passing glance and gazing into a mystery. Seeing the surface of things is not the same thing as looking into the depth of things. Skimming cannot be considered good reading.
Natural Contemplation in the Spiritual Life
Natural contemplation is a spiritual discipline that has been practiced for millennia in the Church. Natural contemplation looks upon the created order in all its variety, its detail, its relationships with one another and searches for spiritual qualities within physical realities. Natural contemplation is a close reading and a personal interaction with Christ, reading the Book of Creation wherever your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and feet take you.
In the next month I’ll be looking for honeysuckle bushes, hopefully with my kids nearby. We’ll gently tug on the blossom’s calyx and taste that drop of nectar, savoring the sweetness. I’m also awaiting the first blackberries to fruit near our new home.
The sweetness of a single honeysuckle blossom or a single blackberry reveals to me the goodness and wisdom within small portions of scripture—a proverb, an aphorism, a sentence prayer. God’s wisdom is meant to be savored. The honeysuckle and the blackberry teaches me this wisdom in a wordless way.
Natural contemplation is like other spiritual disciplines, such as silence. You might experience some immediate benefits when beginning, but soon you’ll discover this discipline requires patient endurance. Even the growth pattern of a white oak tree teaches me how to grow in this spiritual discipline: slow and patient growth yields stability and strength.
Natural contemplation is a skill. Because it is a skill, it requires one to seek elders and teachers who exhibit the virtues one wishes to acquire. Poet-theologians are some of the best teachers to learn how to read the Book of Creation. I’ve apprenticed myself to Gerard Manley Hopkins (among others), reading and re-reading his poetry to learn watchfulness in the natural world. I want to love God in the unique beauty of east Tennessee the way Hopkins adored Christ in Wales:
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me; for that I came.1
Hopkins teaches me the enjoyment of closely gazing on living things in his poem, Pied Beauty
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
A Novice at Natural Contemplation
When I was younger I didn’t care about the names of trees, flowers, and birds. Then sometime in my late 30s, I heard Adam’s naming of animals in Genesis 2 in a new light and that new light stirred a new longing. The naming of living things is deeply human. I was missing a mystery, a holy gift, I was made to enjoy. Learning the names of living things; learning the nature of things—their colors, shapes, changes, and movements—these are mysteries deeply rooted in the image of God we all bear.
I’m embarrassed that in my 42nd year I can’t identify the Tennessee state tree, the Tulip Poplar, without help. Yet a novice has to begin somewhere. A novice must embrace the beginner’s condition. So, I accept my ignorance, acknowledge I’m a novice of natural things, and I ask questions.
My mother has been unable to identify a flower or shrub by name once or twice in my life—that’s all. Now I ask her the names of plants all the time when we’re near gardens or hiking. I want to know their names so I can praise God for these living things by name. Names reveal nature and nature reveals the glory of God.
In my novitiate of natural contemplation, I’ve purchased Sibley’s Birds of Eastern North America Flash Cards. I’ve begun buying field guides for trees. I’m learning the names of these plants and animals with my children. I’m never going to be a naturalist for its own sake. I’m learning to read the Book of Creation because I believe, adore, and love God the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth.
Christ the Alpha and Omega of Creation
Reading the Book of Creation can be akin to the Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah 53, the story of the suffering servant, without understanding the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Acts 8, the Apostle Philip found the Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah’s scroll and asked him, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” The Ethiopian eunuch replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
As it goes with the Book of Scripture, so it goes with the Book of Creation. The seeker needs trustworthy guides. And trustworthy guides are those who profess that Christ is the firstborn of all creation and the firstborn of the dead. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega. “By him all things were made…he is before all things and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1.16-17)
In upcoming posts, I’ll be sharing my experiences as a novice reader of the Book of Creation. I’ll introduce you to more elders and teachers who help me seek and enjoy Christ in the natural world. If you’re a novice and enchanted with the splendor of God’s world, too, let’s learn how to read the Book fo Creation together for the sake of worship and joy.