God’s Big Book of Creation
When my kids were little, they were big fans of Richard Scary’s Best Word Book Ever, which we called simply, “The Big Book.” Weighing in at 1.5 pounds and 70 pages (an incredible size for a book written for 3- to 7-year-olds), the detailed illustrations in this hefty tome would keep them occupied for, well, if not literally hours, long periods for preschoolers! But today I want to talk about a different Big Book.
You may have noticed that in my writing, I often go to nature for inspiration, as in the series I just finished based on The Blessing of the Trees. That poem was itself inspired by a contemplative walk I took in August 2020. Wait, hold on. What is a contemplative walk?
When I walk for exercise, I’m going at a brisk pace. I probably have ear buds in my ears, and I’m listening either to an audiobook or peppy music that will help me keep up my speed. This is the way I most often see other people walking: talking on the phone or whatever, but usually totally distracted from the nature around them. Our minds and lives are so busy that we seem addicted to distraction!
By contrast, a contemplative walk is one that is not done primarily for exercise, though of course, fresh air and exercise are side benefits. When I walk contemplatively, I slow down and become fully present to where I am. I pay attention with all my senses: I listen to the birds calls, the rustle of the wind in the trees, the background hum of traffic, a jet flying overhead. I take a deep breath and smell the grass, the muddy scent of the bayou. I feel the warmth of the sun on my face or the bite of a cold wind.
Earth’s crammed with heaven,Elizabeth Barrett Browning
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes…
I let my eyes roam and notice whatever attracts my attention: a feather on the grass, a spiderweb shining with dew, a single leaf clinging to the dark, naked limbs of a tree as it traces a network of veins against the sky. It doesn’t have to be what we would normally consider beautiful, the kind of scene that would make it onto a postcard, with blue skies and sunshine. It’s more about noticing the beauty in whatever IS. Right here, right now. I may honor the scene, large or small, with a photograph to return to later. Or just take it in, letting it imprint itself on my heart and memory. Out of such a walk may come photos, a poem or some journaling, some thoughtful reflection. I don’t necessarily go to nature to be taught my Lesson for the Day. But I often seem to get one anyway!
Some people might object to the “lessons” I draw from nature. Take that Blessing of the Trees series, particularly the one about the playfulness of trees. “Give me a break,” I can hear someone groan. “Enough with the anthropomorphizing! How can a tree be playful!? A tree is a tree. It grows. That’s pretty much all it does.” OK. Point taken. I admit that I’m waxing poetic. But there’s something to be said for having a spiritual imagination. I’ve got an ally in this notion, coming from no less than Sir Francis Bacon, the author of the scientific method:
“God has, in fact, written two books, not just one. Of course, we are all familiar with the first book he wrote, namely Scripture. But he has written a second book called creation.”― Sir Francis Bacon
Interestingly, Sir Francis (1561-1626) was actually expounding on an idea expressed by the Ninth Century Irish theologian, John Scotus Eriugena, who taught that God’s primary means of self-revelation are the Bible and nature. We can think of them as the little book of Scripture and the big book of Creation. And I hate to quibble with Sir Francis, who calls creation the second book, but which came first? Creation. By quite a long time!
The “little” book of scripture actually supports the notion of nature as teacher. The Book of Proverbs is full of illustrations from God’s creatures, such as this: “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!” (Proverbs 6:6)
Or this: “But ask the animals, and they will teach you,” says Job. “Or the birds of the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you.” (Job 12:7-8)
Jesus himself apparently taught from the book of creation. “Consider the birds of the air,” he exhorted. “Consider the lilies of the field.” (Matthew 6:26-30) It didn’t seem to bother him that he was waxing poetic, talking about how the flowers teach us to not worry about clothing, because God clothes them in apparel more splendid that the royal robes of King Solomon without any effort on their part. Therefore, I don’t apologize for calling a tree playful, ha!
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