Saturday, September 14, 2013

Spirituality and Nature

I have read widely the literature on spirituality both for my seminary concentration in spiritual formation and for personal interest. I had found little mention of nature as part of our spirituality until I encountered Celtic spirituality.

This is why I was caught up short while reading Henri Nouwen’s recently published book on discernment (Nouwen, 2013, published posthumously from lectures and unpublished notes on the subject). He has a whole chapter on reading the “book of nature” as part of discernment. I had never read anything about nature in any of his previous books (and I have read most of them), and he never struck me as a nature lover from his writings or from his bookish, professorial persona. He seemed more at ease in a library, a lecture hall or in a monk’s cell than on a forest path.

Another writer of spirituality that has influenced me greatly is Ronald Rolheiser. I have become a huge fan of his “four nonnegotiable essentials of a healthy spirituality” found in his book, The Holy Longing (Rolheiser, 2009). Those essentials are, 1) a deep personal relationship and experience of God along with personal morality; 2) participation in a community of faith; 3) peacemaking and social justice; and 4) mellowness of heart. I was so fascinated by the balance in this paradigm that I am writing a book on mellowness of heart—the least explained of Rolheiser’s concepts.

However, there is nothing mentioned about nature in Rolheiser’s scheme. It has taken Celtic sensibility and the writings of Philip Newell for me come to an understanding of the importance of nature in a healthy spirituality. Creation “ex deo,” out of the very essence of God, instead of the traditional teaching of “ex nihilo,” out of nothing, gives a reverential respect for nature rather than a materialistic, exploitative view. Reference to the “big book,” the cosmos, along with the “little book” (in size) of the Holy Scriptures, elevates the teachings of nature to the same level as the Bible in Celtic spirituality—it’s where we see and experience the essence of God (creation ex deo).

This understanding of nature as essential to a healthy spirituality has led me to exploring traditional native spiritualties (see blog posts “I want to be a pagan” and “Amish Spirituality”), especially as I had experienced them from my reading and from my experience with the Q’eqchi’ Mennonites in rural Guatemala. In simplistic terms, they exhibit a reverence for nature and the sense of being part of nature rather than lording over it. This helps them to read the “big book,” or as Nouwen called it, the “book of nature,” in a way that allows them to feel the “heartbeat of God” (Newell, 1997), or the heartbeat of the cosmos.

I suspect that if I went back over my readings of the early Christian writers of spirituality, before the bias of the modern scientific era and my own blinders from that bias, I would find lots of references to nature as part of spirituality. That we have created so many works on spirituality without reference to nature shows all too well how we have become alienated from our own creation. In my own thinking, I will alter Rolheiser’s four essentials to five so that nature can be included, even though it throws out of kilter native spirituality’s symbol of four as wholeness.

Because of environmental devastation, there seems to be a heightened interest throughout Christianity in returning to more respect for nature and including it as part of our spirituality. Someone recently asked in a discussion why there seemed to be a close affinity between Mennonites and Celtic spirituality. I think it has historical roots in Anabaptist beliefs—a subject for another post. However, regarding nature, I think 400 years of farming is still “bred in the bone” of most ethnic Mennonites no matter how far we have strayed, and as such we feel a close kinship with our Amish cousins and their respect and care for nature.


  1. Have you not read Emerson, Thoreau, even Paine?
    "For the eye is fastened on the life, and slights the circumstance. Every chemical substance, every plant, every animal in its growth, teaches the unity of cause, the variety of experience." --Ralph Waldo Emerson
    "The creation speaks a universal language, independently of human speech or human language, multiplied, and various as they may be. It is an everlasting original, which every man can read. It cannot be forged; it cannot be counterfeited; it cannot be lost; it cannot be altered; it cannot be suppressed. It does not depend upon the will of men whether it shall be published or not; it publishes itself from one end of the earth to another. It preaches to all nations and to all worlds; and this word of God reveals to man all that is necessary for man to know God."---Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

  2. Thanks for the reminder that spirituality is not limited to "spiritual" writers. And the language of nature is universal and the "heartbeat of God" is felt by people throughout the ages. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.