Sunday, April 24, 2016

On Natural Beauty

It is Spring, my favorite season of the year (along with Fall). Spring always reminds me that, after the cold, hardness of winter, is rebirth and resurrection. God has subtly reminding us of birth and life and death and rebirth throughout the year. He does the same through sunrise, noonday, evening, and night. Rising and setting. Inhaling and exhaling.

I love it when the daffodils bloom because it reminds me that Spring is near and, of course, gives me a chance to trot out my recitation of Wordsworth's poem. I love how this poem deals with nature and time in such simplicity as having the poet walking along the shores of a lake when he discovers the daffodils in glorious bloom. At that moment, the poet feels such unity. If you've never read this poem, read it and see if you don't think of its lines whenever you see a daffodil in bloom.

Springtime is one of the many ways that I find that I  "hunger after the beautiful and the good," as George Eliot puts it. Seeing dogwoods and azaleas in bloom, I discover that I am stopping more to savor and feast on beauty of my surroundings. Because of Cava, I notice the birds and the loveliness of their birdsong.  I stop to notice the baby Cardinal just outside its nest in one of our azalea bushes.

How fragile and small it was. This nestling has not yet found the glory of its deep, rich brilliantly red feathers yet. I could not wait until it did, as I love to see them in our yard as they remind me of my mother, whose favorite bird was the Cardinal.

One morning, as I was doing my centering prayer in silence, I heard their calls and it only reiterated the attribute of God that I was meditating on: joy.

Webster's defines joy as "a feeling of great pleasure or happiness." In the Greek, joy is a source or origin. It's also closely linked with grace and favor.

As I heard the trilling of the birds, I could not help but think of the laughter and pleasure of God who called such things "good." Yet if I had not been in that moment would I have noticed or made that connection? Too often I am so busy that I do not hold it within myself such beauty without hurriedly moving on.  How often do I let art or nature penetrate myself so that it effects me beyond just a cursory glance or moving quickly on to "more important things?"

The German poet Goethe wrote, "A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul."

Do I take time daily to do this?

Do I listen to the words of Christ who bids me, "Consider the lilies of the field?" Or the daffodils, or the irises, or the tulips, or the chrysanthemum? The word chrysanthemum comes from the Greek words "chrysos" (gold) and anthemon (flower). I cannot help but wonder if the streets of "gold" in heaven aren't flowers. I know I would prefer it to be so. It's easier to delight in them.

One of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, would have agreed. For her, the world was her garden. Nature revealed her theology of God and death and beauty.  One can see in her poetry her daily communing with flowers, birds, and even insects.

"Nature" is what we see - 
The hill - the Afternoon -
Squirrel - Eclipse - the Bumble bee -
Nay - nature is Heaven -
Nature is what we hear -
The Bobolink - the Sea -
Thunder -  the Cricket -
Nay - Nature is Harmony -
Nature is what we know -
Yet have no art to say -
So impotent our Wisdom is
To Her Simplicity.

Those who would read this poem might ask, "Why all the dashes?" There have been many theories on why she did this, but it causes one to pause in the reading and not hurry through, perhaps pausing with each dash instead of dashing on, as the words and the poet are so connected. The dashes give each part emphasis and ask us to reflect on them, as parts and parts of the whole. To her, all of these elements of nature are connected and she wants to illuminate each one. Each is holy. Each is sacred. Like Jesus, she is telling us, "Pay attention. Notice."

I love Emily Dickinson's poetry. Her faith and her doubt. Dashes: interruptions and connections. Like the dashes in her poetry, she moves between both, but ultimately settles on the beauty and belief.

The language of faith is the language of creation and in that is the ability to appreciate and hold beauty deep within ourselves because we understand that all of it was an act of divine love. I cannot gaze on our irises without seeing that "Christ-artist" William Blake spoke of. This iris, with it's rich plicata purple against  the white, with its lines and splatters makes me see the artistry of its beauty. This is the work of a God who delights in His creation: its variations and differences. When I take the time to notice it is then that I am truly being still, and noticing that He is God.

And this happens when I see a beautiful painting. One of my professors once told me that she was fortunate enough to be in the room of The Musée de l'Orangerie in which Monet's cycle of water lilies known are hung when no one else was. The eight paintings are hung in two large oval rooms so that the water lilies and the pond surround the visitor.  I envied that experience if being able to sit by oneself with these gorgeous images all around you, overwhelming the senses with their beauty. That is a moment of prayer. To be there in the silence with only those paintings. How could one not feel gratitude and appreciation for Monet's creation?

Monet once said of his gardens, "Every day I discover more and more beautiful things. It's enough to drive one mad. I have such a desire to do everything, my head is bursting with it." He was overwhelmed but the beauty of his garden that, like Dickinson, it became the world to him. "I would love to paint the way a bird sings,'' he stated and, listening to the joy of the birdsong during my prayer, made me more fully understand what he meant.

The artist Andy Goldsworthy also sees art in the natural world and takes objects that many would not stop to consider and makes them stop and reconsider them. Just look at what he did with small stones:

Or these leaves:

How many of us would stop to create such momentary and ephemeral art? 

Yet there is such beauty and grandeur in the natural world around us. Just look at these warm colors and amazing blues and purples from a fossilized tree? Those sea like rings are the growth rings of the tree. How did that happen? Water filled in the cracks and empty spaces of the fossil and, when the silica content of the water hardened, it turned into opal. This shows how, even in death, there is great beauty. 

Is there not wonder all around us? But to notice and appreciate it, we must stop, see it, meditate upon it, and allow it to transform us. When we do, we become grateful that God is a God who loves us enough to offer up such opportunities to catch glimpses of transcendence. When I look at creation, I see the splendid extravagance of God who delights in variations and richness of seasons, the beauty and love contained in creation flows from the veins of our Creator. 

Is it any wonder then that Julian of Norwich used to carry a hazelnut around with her? Most would consider this tiny brown nut to be insignificant, but she saw that this was the entire universe encapsulated and that it was nothing in comparison to the Creator. As she wrote in The Revelations of Divine Love, "It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it; and so everything has its beginning by the love of God."

How differently would we all view the world if we saw it as full of His eternal passion? How differently would we treat this world and nature if we did? 

When I encounter such beauty in nature I cannot help but be reminded of the book of James, "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father . . ." (1:17). Or of Romans 1:20, "From since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities  - his eternal and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made . . ."

I see nature as the seen of an unseen God. Why? Because all of these things give Him glory and are ways for us to do likewise. When we see the beauty of the natural world, I first thought should be a moment of holy gratitude. A simple prayer of "Thank you" should utter from our lips. 

But we have to show up and have a willingness to truly see the world. It must be more than a fast-food viewing  we so often give to all that comes at us in our hurried lives. We have to be present. For when we contemplate and reflect on the handiwork of God, we can also ponder and be in awe of His greatness, His wisdom, and the very reality of Him in all that is around us.

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