Jun 26 2016

Nature’s Saints

_DSC0843As noted a few weeks ago, recently I have been rereading a number of Thomas Merton books. Earlier this week I started reading New Seeds of Contemplation once again.  I soon came across a fascinating section where Merton talks at length about how created things give glory to God simply by doing what they were created to do.  Merton says, “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him.  It ‘consents,’ so to speak, to His creative love.  It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.” Later he adds, “…each particular being, in its individuality, its concrete nature and entity, with all its own characteristics and its private qualities and its own inviolable identity, gives glory to God by being precisely what He wants it to be here and now, in the circumstances ordained for it by His Love and His infinite Art. The forms of individual characters of living and growing things, of inanimate beings, of animals and flowers and all nature, constitute their holiness in the sight of God.”

_DSC1246In what follows Merton gives several examples of things in nature that give glory to God simply by being what they were created to be. He writes, “The pale flowers of the dogwood outside this widow are saints. The little yellow flowers that nobody notices on the edge of that road are saints looking up into the face of God.  This leaf has its own texture and its own pattern of veins and its own holy shape, and the bass and trout hiding in the deep pools of the river are canonized by their beauty and their strength.  The lakes hidden among the hills are saints, and the sea too is a saint who praises God without interruption in her majestic dance.  The great, gashed, half-naked mountain is another of God’s saints.  There is no other like him.  He is alone in his own character; nothing else in the world ever did or ever will imitate God in quite the same way.  That is his sanctity.”

Later in this chapter Merton goes on to talk about how humans are different from the rest of Creation. He says, “Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny. We are free beings and sons of God.”  He goes on to indicate that the secret of our identity is “hidden in the love and mercy of God.”

_DSC0755The uniqueness of humans makes for an interesting topic but that is not what I want to focus on here. Merton’s words about the rest of Creation proclaiming God’s glory, something David also said in Psalm 19:1, caused me to ponder why we don’t pay more attention to the “saints” all around us.  If the trees and their leaves bear witness to God why do we not sit and contemplate them more?  The lakes and sea, along with the fish that swim within, also offer God praise and reflect or imitates God’s glory.  If that be so, why do we not pause long enough to join in the chorus and soak in the glory of God?  I know we are supposed to seek God in others but as Merton wisely points out, humans offer an imperfect reflection of God’s glory.  Nature, however, lacking free will, offers that glory perfectly.  Realizing that makes me think I need to be paying even more attention to the glorious revelation found in Creation than I already do.  The witness of the “saints” is just waiting to be discovered by those willing to slow down and pay attention.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures shown above on a trip a few years ago to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.)


Jun 1 2016

Still Learning from Thomas Merton

_CES6986I have been a fan of the writings of Thomas Merton for almost forty years. I consider him one of my spiritual mentors even though I never met him.  Merton has been dead close to fifty years but through his many books he continues to speak to me.  Over the past few days I’ve come across two passages from his writings that have moved me deeply.  I am currently rereading Thoughts in Solitude and read this word on gratitude a few nights ago: “To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us–and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful man knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.”

_CES6979Although Merton does not speak specifically of nature in this passage it made me think of my experience of God through Creation. Over the years I have come to see “the Love of God” in everything that God has made.  All around us is the evidence of God’s love.  The air we breathe, the clouds that float by overhead, the trees waving their branches, the birds singing their songs…all of these are expressions of God’s love for you and me.  I appreciate Merton’s clarion call to be grateful for God’s overtures of love.  He is right; we should not take anything for granted, never be unresponsive to the divine gifts of love we receive, and live in complete wonder and awe of the goodness of God.  In many ways, but especially in nature, I have experienced the goodness and love of God “not by hearsay but by experience.” And, yes, “that is what makes all the difference.”

_CES6936The other passage by Merton I came across showed up on a Facebook page earlier today that features daily sayings of the late Trappist monk. This one originated in what is perhaps my favorite Merton book, No Man Is An Island.  Merton wrote: “Those who love their own noise are impatient of everything else. They constantly defile the silence of the forests and the mountains and the sea. They bore through silent nature in every direction with their machines, for fear that the calm world might accuse them of their own emptiness. The urgency of their swift movement seems to ignore the tranquility of nature by pretending to have a purpose. . . . It is the silence of the world that is real. Our noise, our business, our purposes, and all out fatuous statements about our purposes, our business, and our noise: these are the illusion.”

_CES6956In this passage I was convicted of the inner and outer noise in my life which keeps me from fully experiencing “the silence of the forests and the mountains and the sea.” I was convicted of my busyness—usually taking pictures—that frequently robs me of the peace and tranquility that God’s Creation is meant to give us.   I was convicted of my illogical need for speed even when outdoors and how important it is for me to slow down if I want to enjoy the “immense graces” God provides those who will “be still.”  (Psalm 46:10)  I was convicted of the fact that I’m guilty of thinking I know what’s going on around me when in reality that’s an illusion and I have so very much yet to learn.

I don’t know if you are a fan of Thomas Merton’s writings or not, but sometimes I think I’d be lost without them.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures used here on a visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani  in central Kentucky where Thomas Merton lived most of his adult life.)


Sep 11 2015

Nature and Prayer Revisited

_CES2962I have a personal library of about 18,000 books. If I had to eliminate all but two I know which ones I would choose—a Bible and a hymnal. Hymns have played a vital role in my spiritual development and I’d be lost without them. Yesterday I was flipping through the hymnal my church uses (the Chalice Hymnal) and discovered a hymn I don’t remember seeing before. It is called God, Who Touches Earth with Beauty. This hymn, written by Mary S. Edgar, does a beautiful job of joining the themes of God, Creation and prayer together.  Here are the words: “God who touches earth with beauty, make my heart anew. With your Spirit recreate me pure and strong and true. Like your springs and running waters, make me crystal pure. Like your rocks of towering grandeur, make me strong and sure. Like your dancing waves in sunlight, make me glad and free. Like the straightness of the pine trees let me upright be. Like the arching of the heavens, lift my thoughts above. Turn my dreams to noble action, ministries of love.”

I think Edgar’s hymn can serve as a useful guide for “seeing Creation.” Throughout nature she finds things that direct her thoughts to God and she uses these images to inform and structure her prayers. Springs, running water, rocks, waves, and trees are all seen as visual aids for prayer.  In this hymn Edgar views God as someone who not only creates beauty but has the power to make our hearts anew.   She petitions the Creator to recreate her “pure and strong and true.” This is certainly a noble prayer. She also seeks greater purity and strength, an upright life and more lofty thoughts. I especially like her plea that God would turn her dreams to “noble action, ministries of love.”

_DSC9559Even though I’ve written about using nature as an aid to prayer before, I want to encourage you to consider once again how doing so can be beneficial. Recently I’ve been walking a couple of miles each day in the woods at our local state park. The trail I walk runs through a beautiful dense forest; there are trees everywhere.  A couple of days ago I found myself contemplating the trees.  I thought about how trees filter the air for us and provide shade.  Some produce food for us, others offer lumber or firewood. I can’t think of too many things that are more useful than a tree. Thinking about that, I asked God to make me useful too.

I also thought about the root systems of trees as I walked through the forest. Some trees send their roots deep into the ground while others spread them wide in more shallow soil. The trees that survive wind storms best are those with roots that run deep. Thinking about this I asked God to help me develop deep roots, or a strong foundation, that will enable me to endure the storms of life.

_DSC1366No matter where you live there are natural objects that can assist you in your prayer life if you will just pay close attention and listen for the Spirit’s promptings. This can happen as you drive your vehicle, take a walk, look out your window at home, or sit in a park. I’ve never encountered anyone who said they were satisfied with where they are in their prayer life. Perhaps this is what prompted Thomas Merton to once say when it comes to prayer we are all beginners. If you would like to strengthen or enhance your prayer life, let me suggest you consider intentionally using God’s Creation as a visual or audio aid. I have a sneaky suspicion this has been God’s intention for us all along.  And while you’re at it, make sure to offer thanks to the God who “touches earth with beauty.”

–Chuck

(I took the first image in the Ozarks and the bottom two in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.)


Jan 30 2015

A Winter Lesson on Prayer

Zion NP 106Last week my friend, Lon Oliver, gave me a copy of Song of the Sparrow which is a collection of meditations and poems to pray by Murray Bodo.  While flipping through its pages I noticed there was a section on winter called “Grey Days.”  Since we have had more than our fair share of grey days lately in western Kentucky I decided to start reading there.  I’m glad I did because I immediately found the following meditation on snow and prayer.

Arches South Arch 086“There’s something about snow on the landscape, something clean and protective, that insulates the heart and makes you feel secure.  You don’t notice the cold because usually you are inside a house or car looking out.  And in a world of snow quiet subtly seeps into the heart.  The atmosphere for prayer is something like this experience.  There must be silence outside, and the outside world must be somehow removed for the time of your watching.  You then see your world from a new perspective.  And even if it is cold and barren, you view it from the inner warmth of your own heart in union with God, and it looks white and beautiful again. Then you are ready to walk into the white snow made beautiful and warm by your new vision.”

I appreciate Bodo’s words but have to admit that putting them into practice is easier said than done for me.  I find it difficult to “remove” the outside world.  When I attempt to pray I am often so distracted by the outside world that the noise becomes deafening.  I know this is a common experience for many others and that gives me a bit of comfort.

Bryce Canyon 810The exterior world definitely has a way of dominating our interior world.  This keeps us from experiencing true quiet and peace.  It also affects the way we look at things.  Bodo is certainly correct; it should work the other way around.  Our interior world, or spiritual life, should ideally be influencing how we see the outside world.

Thomas Merton, who was born one hundred years ago tomorrow, once said when it comes to prayer we are all beginners.  After all these years I often do, in fact, feel like a beginner.  I realize however, that the approach Bodo writes about is possible and that with time and practice even I can come to the point where though it is cold and barren I see things from the inner warmth of my own heart in union with God.  I hope and pray I get there someday.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures used above while on a winter trip to Utah a number of years ago.)


Jan 7 2015

Divine Lessons From a Tree

e_DSC0863Many years ago while in seminary I took a class called The Classics of Christian Devotion.  It turned out to be one of my favorite classes of my entire graduate school experience.  Over the course of the semester the professor, Glenn Hinson, introduced us to many of the true “classics” of Christian literature.  We read and studied works by people like Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Thomas a’ Kempis, William Law, John Bunyan, Thomas Merton and Thomas Kelly.  One of the books that inspired me the most was Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the presence of God.  Brother Lawrence was a seventeenth century monk who earnestly desired an intimate relationship with God and developed a method whereby he disciplined himself to “practice” being aware of God’s presence every possible moment.  He said this eventually enabled him to feel God’s presence just as keenly while he was washing dishes in the monastery as when he shared Holy Communion.

e_DSC5134Earlier today I learned something I did not know about Brother Lawrence.  My friend Michael Boone shared on his Facebook page “R120” a passage from the book 131 Christians Everyone Should Know that tells how a tree played an instrumental role in Brother Lawrence’s spiritual development:  “In the deep of winter, Herman (his name before he was a monk) looked at a barren tree, stripped of leaves and fruit, waiting silently and patiently for the sure hope of summer abundance. Gazing at the tree, Herman grasped for the first time the extravagance of God’s grace and the unfailing sovereignty of divine providence. Like the tree, he himself was seemingly dead, but God had life waiting for him, and the turn of seasons would bring fullness. At that moment, he said, that leafless tree ‘first flashed in upon my soul the fact of God,’ and a love for God that never after ceased to burn.”

I find this to be a fascinating story and also yet one more reminder of how Creation serves as God’s “other Book.”  From the very beginning God has used the world of nature to speak to us.  Creation has many divine lessons to teach us but in order for us to learn these lessons we have to be open to instruction and also careful observers of God’s handiwork.

e_CES0370It is interesting that Brother Lawrence’s experience occurred in “the deep of winter.”  We are in that season now.  As you look around you this time of year what do you see in the natural world that might be offering you divine lessons?  The lesson Brother Lawrence received was a great one indeed but there are many others just as wonderful waiting to be discovered by those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.  We would all be wise to start paying more attention.

–Chuck

(I took the top image in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the middle image at the Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, and the bottom image at John James Audubon State Park.)


Oct 20 2013

Learning to See God in Creation

_CES9205This past weekend I had the privilege of leading the fall photo workshop at Pennyrile Forest State Park in western Kentucky.  It was a fun event and there were lots of great people on hand.  One of the things that I found exciting was how many children participated in the workshop.  These kids were quite enthusiastic about their photography and were eager to learn.  There were a number of adults who, likewise, seemed eager to learn.  Several of them had purchased nice digital cameras but weren’t sure how to use the features that came on them.  I did what I could to help them grasp a better understanding of how their cameras worked and what they could do with them.

_CES9264Doing the workshop caused me to reflect on my own learning experience with photography.  I purchased my first camera as a teenager and enjoyed taking pictures from the start.  I did not, however, bother back then learning how my camera worked.  Today it seems a miracle I ever got a decent image.  Twenty-one years ago I decided I wanted to become a serious photographer and quickly discovered I had a lot to learn.  There was much to learn about the mechanics of the camera.  There was also a great deal to learn about composition and taking pictures.  Some things could be learned in a book.   Other things required experience or perhaps even a teacher.  I stuck with it and eventually got to the point where I could consistently take good quality images.  I’ll be the first to admit, though, that I still have a lot to learn.  As long as I continue to take photographs I hope I will also continue to grow in my skills and craft.

_CES9218Everyone who wants to learn how to photograph has to start with the basics.  I think the same thing is true with seeing God in Creation.   For me those basics are the recognition that God is the Creator of this world and that God seeks to make Himself known through it.  And just as I believe anyone can learn to take good pictures I believe anyone can learn to see God in Creation.  Like with photography, some will learn how to do so quickly, for others it may take more time, but anyone who truly wants to see and experience God in nature can learn to do so.  Here, too, there are books that can serve as instructional guides.  Reading about seeing God in Creation second hand, however, will only take you so far.  You will also want to get out and gain experience yourself.  Take what you’ve learned in the books you’ve read, or perhaps even on this blog, and then go out and allow God’s Spirit to lead you into your own rich and rewarding experiences.

_CES9320Thomas Merton once said that when it comes to prayer we are always beginners.  I suspect the same thing is true when it comes to seeing God in Creation.  There probably are no “experts” in the field, but we can all grow, over time, to learn and see more and more.  Having good eyes and ears will certainly help but in the end it is the eyes and ears of the heart that matter the most.  I believe God will honor the desire of all those who earnestly seek Him.  The prophet Jeremiah heard God say, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (29:13)  If we persist in our efforts to see God in His Creation, and do so with all our heart, we can count on having many wonderful experiences and revelations down the road.  That’s not my promise, it’s His.  In the end we will discover that God Himself will be our teacher and that He will make sure to show us the paths that will lead us into His presence.  How cool is that?

–Chuck

(The pictures shown above are some samples of what I took while at Pennyrile Forest State Park this weekend.)