May 26 2020

Earth as the Original Spiritual Directors

One of the benefits of being retired is having more time to read the books I want to read.  One I recently completed is called Earth, Our Original Monastery by Christine Valters Paintner.  The subtitle of the book is “Cultivating Wonder and Gratitude Through Intimacy With Nature.”  In this delightful book Paintner speaks of Earth as the original cathedral, the original Scriptures, the original saints, the original spiritual directors, the original icon, the original sacrament, and the original liturgy.  I learned something from her chapters on each of these, but was particularly intrigued by her discussion of Earth as the original spiritual directors.

I have never had what most would technically consider a “spiritual director.”  Needless to say I have had many influence my spiritual journey but I never pursued a personal spiritual director to help me out.  I suspect I would have benefited had I done so.  But Paintner argues that not all spiritual directors are human.  The Earth—plants, animals, rocks, the seasons, etc.—has always been there to offer us spiritual guidance.  She quotes the Irish monk St. Columbanus, “If you want to know the Creator, understand created things.”  The more contemporary monk, Thomas Merton said “How necessary it is for monks to work in the fields, in the sun, in the mud, in the clay, in the wind: these are our spiritual directors and our novice-masters.”  Paintner says “Merton knew that the true mentor of the soul was nature itself.  The fields, sun, mud, clay, wind, forests, sky, earth, and water are all companions for our own inner journeys.  The elements of water, wind, earth, and fire offer us wisdom and guidance.  They are the original soul friends.  Air is the gift of breath we receive each moment, the rhythm of life that sustains us.  Fire is the gift of life force and energy, and we might call to mind St. John of the Cross’s image of God as the living flame of love that burns in each of our hearts.  Water is the gift of renewal and replenishment, and we might call to mind the ritual of baptism as a call to claim our full gifts, or the blood that flows through our veins.  Earth is the gift of groundedness and nourishment.”

Reflecting on the teaching of Teilhard de Chardin Paintner says, “Through every rock, every bird, every flower, and every creature, God enters into intimacy and communion with us.  This is how God’s wisdom is revealed, and we would do well to listen for their spiritual direction.”  I am convinced that Paintner is on to something here.  All of us have been graciously given a variety of spiritual directors in nature.  The question is, are we paying attention to these directors?  If this whole concept sounds strange to you, perhaps it will help to remember that Solomon encouraged us to pay attention to the ants (Proverbs 6:6-8) and Jesus said we should consider the birds and lilies (Matthew 6:26, 28).  The Bible itself points us to nature as a spiritual director.

If we can accept the truth that God is speaking to us through nature, hopefully it will cause us to begin paying more attention to the world around us.  I have no doubt that I have missed many lessons over the years because I was not paying attention.  At this point in my life I am trying to be more attentive.  What does this entail?  Paintner says “Cultivating contemplative presence to the natural world means growing in intimacy with creation so that the intimacy becomes a way of mutuality, in which we recognize that nature is not just there for our benefit but has intrinsic value apart from us and our needs.  Mutuality means that we listen to what nature has to say to us.  We allow our hearts to be opened by encounters there.”

I encourage you, and myself, to listen more carefully to what the Creator has to say to us through the Creation.  In doing so, may our hearts be more fully opened to the wonder and mystery of God.  Let us all take advantage of the spiritual directors God has given us.  What fools we will be if we don’t.


Nov 20 2011

The Air That We Breathe

Today I’m still thinking about air and how it can play a role in our spiritual lives. In my last post I noted that in both Greek and Hebrew the word for wind also means spirit.  To make things even more interesting, the same words that mean wind and spirit also mean breath.  This, too, has spiritual implications.  In the Genesis 2 account of Creation it says, “the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (v. 7)  Apart from the giving of God’s breath (spirit, wind) there was no life.  The first man may have had a body prior to this but not life.  It is God who imparts life and that life was given in God’s breath.  

Everyone knows that we must have air to breathe in order to live.  Without air we suffocate and die.  Air is an essential element for life.  Those who affirm God as the Creator of the earth can easily see how the air we breathe and that sustains us may be viewed as a metaphor for God.  Through His breath God gives us life.  Through His breath we are sustained.  As we breathe air into our lungs we receive life from God, we take in His very Spirit.

It is certainly worth noting that the same air that gives life to and sustains humans also gives life to and sustains the rest of Creation.  The animals that inhabit this planet with us breathe the same air we do.  The plants, likewise, take in and benefit from the very same air.  This is not only a reminder of our commonality with all other living things but also of the fact that all life comes from God and is sustained by Him.

After being told that the world is still being created, and that is it Christ who is reaching his fulfillment in it, Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “When I heard and understood that saying, I looked around and saw, as though in an ecstasy, that through all nature I was immersed in God.  God is everywhere…  Every breath that passes through me, envelops me, or captivates me, emanates, without any doubt, from the heart of God; like a subtle and essential energy, it transmits the pulsations of God’s will.”

We should be thankful for every breath we take.  Each gulp of air is a gift from God and an extension of God.  Every breath is a reminder that God desires for us to enjoy life and to enjoy Him.  I cannot help but believe that this has been His intention from the beginning.  The wind we feel and the air we breathe are perpetual reminders of God’s goodness and love.  For these ongoing reminders let us all give thanks. 

Understanding the connection between God and air might also serve as a motivator for us all to work harder for clean air standards.  It is obvious from Scripture that air is meant to give life, not harm it.  We have theological as well as health reasons for working hard to curtail air pollution and its harmful effects.  It is painful to think that something that is associated with God and life has come to be so polluted.  That is certainly not what God intended.  God’s breath, God’s air, is meant to be life giving, just as it was for the first human long ago in the Garden of Eden.


(I photographed the sandhill crane at Bosque del Apache in New Mexico.  I captured the middle image at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado.  I took the bottom image at Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia.)