Who could look at the night sky and not be filled with awe? From the scientist to the poet, everyone is dazzled by the sunset and sunrise, comets, meteors, the moon, and the endless dance of the stars across the sky. More than 2,500 years ago the writer of Psalm 19 captured this wonder for us, “The Heavens are telling the glory of God!”
Is it any surprise that God chose to put a new light in the sky to announce Jesus’ birth? Of course, over all the earth, some were so moved by the “star rising in the east,” that they left their home to follow it. Even though the destination was unclear, the call could not be ignored.
Both the story of the Magi and the Psalmist wish us to know that God is communicating with us through nature. When we start paying attention to nature in the Scriptures, it is easy to see Creation’s importance in our prayer life. For example, in the Christmas stories, Jesus is born among the animals in a stable. The angels appear in the night sky, surrounded by stars, to the shepherds and their flocks. The Magi see an unusual star and feel compelled to follow it.
If we truly believe the message of the Incarnation – that God is with us – then we have a great treasure trove of prayer opportunities in the natural world. This will not surprise many people. I regularly hear people talk about how close to God they feel in nature. Pope Francis echoes this notion in his encyclical letter, “Laudato Si’, on the Care of Our Common Home” saying, “The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.” (LS 84)
One way God talks to us in nature is simply through its soothing effect. Everyone who visits Cranaleith Spiritual Center, a ministry sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy in Northeast Philadelphia where I minister, says, “As I come down the drive, I eel my stress melting away.” Gaelic for “sanctuary of trees,” Cranaleith illustrates the work of God through the trees, gardens, grass, and waterfall.
Whenever I invite middle school students to lie in the grass and listen to the waterfall for five minutes, they sit up afterwards and say, “That was important.” What they experience is God’s voice in the water speaking to the voice of God within them (cf Ps 42:7). The water can bring forth the peace God constantly gives to each of us; we just need to notice it.
God also comes to us in nature’s beauty. What we think is beautiful may depend on our personality, but to notice it, we must move outside our mental world of self-set priorities and emotions and simply receive. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard wrote, “Unless all ages and races of [people] have been deluded by the same mass hypnotist (who?), there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous.”
This is God’s love taking physical shape for us. Whenever we can put ourselves in a position to notice, we become more of who we were made to be – receivers of the love of God.
Another possibility for prayer in nature is to be fully present in it. I find this requires three things. First, I pay attention to myself, how do the various parts of my body feel – achy, tight, healthy – and how do I feel inside? By bringing these things to awareness, they no longer “drive the bus” and I am freer to pay attention to the world around me.
Next, I ask God to help me experience God. As in most relationships, we need to let the other know we are up for a conversation. God is always ready.
Lastly, I try to be as present as I can to the world around me. What do I see, hear, smell, or feel on my skin? I do not do anything with what I sense, I just receive it. This may be a hard step. We are used to analyzing, judging, or questioning everything. Those are works of the head and they have their place. But, in prayer, we set them aside and simply be with what we sense. All of this takes practice and may only last a few minutes, but I find myself one with God and with the world.
Neurobiologist Dacher Keltner proposes that happiness comes from experiences of awe, the feeling that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Regular prayer time in nature can open us up to “something more,” what Christians call epiphanies. Are you ready to follow a star?
Bernadette Rudolph is the Director of Facilitation and Strategic Partnerships at Cranaleith Spiritual Center, a participating institute in EcoPhilly. EcoPhilly is the archdiocesan-wide creation care initiative.
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