“The beauty of creation reflects the infinite beauty of the Creator and ought to inspire the respect and submission of man’s intellect and will.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 341)
Our five senses are windows that help us see more keenly the influx of God in His creation. Our concern here, first of all, is the alienation and despiritualizaion that takes place when we are separated – however unconsciously – from the beauty and rejuvenating power of God’s playground – the natural world. Our second concern is to learn how to contemplate in a more profound manner this beautiful world of nature created for our enjoyment and fascination.
A very accomplished spiritual writer, Dr. Susan Muto, defines contemplation as being “in the temple of the living God, sensing, believing, and experiencing that we are actually in his presence, that he is in us and we are in him.” Now one such temple of the living God is the natural world he created, where God is present, as theologians say, by His universal presence – that is, by His power, presence and essence. God’s presence in a baptized soul by sanctifying grace is a deeper, far more intimate presence, but in this note we are concentrating on His infallible presence in nature.
A great Catholic theologian, Father Edward Leen, expresses in one of his books just how intimate God’s presence is in nature: “God’s power is put forth in every pulse of organic and inorganic being, in repose and movement, in every slightest change. Since every being and every aspect of being is the effect of God’s creative or conservative action, God’s power and exercise of that power is present to and in everything to the very depths of its reality. Where anything, therefore, is, God must be. God, therefore envelops all reality, since he himself is the source of all that is real….” (The Holy Spirit, p.112, as edited).
Another great Catholic theologian, F.W. Faber, commenting on God’s universal presence, says: “[We can view God] by His unspeakable eminence in power, in wisdom, and in goodness. For we are never really outside of God nor He outside of us. He as it were flows into us….He distinctively permits and actually concurs with every exercise of thinking, loving, or acting. This influx and concourse of God, as theologians style it, ought to give to us all our lives long the sensation of being in an awful sanctuary, where every sight and sound is one of worship. Everything is penetrated with God….” (The Creator and the Creature, pp. 75-76, as edited).
And the great Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, states: “The part played by the senses in the perception of beauty is even rendered enormous in us, and well nigh-indispensable…only sense knowledge possesses perfectly in man the intuitiveness required for the perception of the beautiful.” Father Thomas Dubay adds: “Creation is a book proclaiming the Creator. It is a book of beauty that our intellect reads, but through the passageways of our five senses.” Dubay laments that “if healthy infants begin life with an inquisitive interest in their surroundings and then grow to delight in attractive sights and sounds and experiences, how does existential boredom come about.”
The practice of contemplating nature is therefore of critical importance because it bonds us closer to God, the source of true goodness and happiness. But contemplation is an art, an acquired skill, which teaches us how to simply stop and smell the rose and encounter its created magnificence, wherein, like the poet, we are led to a deep appreciation of beauty and become even immersed in praise: “Glory be to God for dappled things/For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow…./He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:Praise Him” (Gerard Manley Hopkins).
HOW DO I CONTEMPLATE NATURE?
The deep contemplation of nature begins with a deep appreciation of God’s presence in nature (as discussed above). But the actual practice of this contemplation involves the profound application of your senses to the majestic presence of God’s creation, wherein through attention and repose, there is a heightened receptivity between you and the object being contemplated. Dietrich von Hilderbrand states: “Contemplation implies an inward penetration of the object, a communing therewith in awareness of everything it means, as though the object turned its full face to us. Again, contemplation represents a specifically restful attitude, in which we, free from the circumscribing function of acting as agent, actualize our entire being.” Von Hilderbrand adds: “The contemplative attitude – such as the contemplation of an object of great beauty and the pure, restful joy it yields – is free from that dynamic tension towards the future: it implies, not a hastening forward but a dwelling in the present” (Transformation in Christ, Chapter 6).
Contemplation, says Von Hilderbrand, “is ruled entirely by the thematicity of the object as such. The aspect of realization through my action is absent; the object acquires full thematic value.” When we are caught up in the transformative beauty of nature, which one may call an “intense spiritual activity” involving the “fullest actualization of the person,” the depth of this experience is greatly enhanced when we realize that what we are loving – God’s beautiful creation – is capable of returning our love in the Creator himself who is the source of the gifted experience.
It is said of Saint John of the Cross, the Church’s greatest mystical theologian, that he beheld “in creation a trace of the divine beauty, power, and loving wisdom, [so that he] could not easily resist the enchantment of nature.” It is known that he “would take the friars out to the mountains, … so that each might pass the day alone there ‘in solitary prayer’.” At “Segovia he had his favorite grotto, hollowed out by nature, high up on the back bluff overlooking a marvelous stretch of sky, river, and landscape. He grew to love this silent grotto and spent all the time he could spare there” (from The Collected Works of Saint John of the Cross).
There is, says Father Dubay, a profound relationship between beauty and ecstasy. Perhaps it was in the beautiful mountains of Spain that John of the Cross glimpsed in ecstasy what the pure vision of God in Heaven would be like, stating:
“Let us rejoice, O my Beloved, Let us go forth to see ourselves in Your beauty, To the mountain and the hill, Where the pure water flows: Let us enter into the heart of the thicket.
Let us so act, that, by the practice of this love, we may come to see ourselves in Your beauty in everlasting life.” That is: “Let me be so transformed in Your beauty, that, being alike in beauty, we may see ourselves both in Your beauty; having Your beauty, so that, one beholding the other, each may see his own beauty in the other, the beauty of both being Yours only, and mine absorbed in it. And thus I shall see You in Your beauty, and myself in Your beauty, and You shall see me in Your beauty; and I shall see myself in You in Your beauty, and You Yourself in me in Your beauty; so shall I seem to be Yourself in Your beauty, and You myself in Your beauty; my beauty shall be Yours, Yours shall be mine, and I shall be You in it, and You myself in Your own beauty; for Your beauty will be my beauty, and so we shall see, each the other, in Your beauty” (from The Spiritual Canticle).
Tom Mulcahy, M.A.
References: As already mentioned. The quotes from Father Dubay are from his book, The Evidential Power of Beauty, and he is the one who led me to the quote by Saint John of the Cross.
For practical tips on how to contemplate nature, see my post:
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