It was a beautiful fall morning. The sun had just ascended the southern peaks of the Bridger mountains, bathing the Gallatin and Madison ranges in golden hues and breathing on the frosty valley its warmth. The steam from my hot tea sparkled in the sun’s rays as I stood watching several house sparrows flutter about in a small, Christmas tree-sized pine. And I was suddenly struck with a sense, an intuition, of depth. This was not simply the experience of beauty. It was not simply rapture in the grandeur of nature, which from time to time unveils its pleasing splendor—though it was not less than that. This was something more. It was a sense of profundity, of excess, of deep intelligibility. It was as if the tree, the birds, the light were all in their own voice beckoning me to know them to their roots and through their roots to know the depth of their soil.
The Deep Cries Out
Walt Whitman tried to capture somewhat of this experience: “Syllables are not the earth’s words, / Beauty, reality, manhood, time, life—the realities / of such as these are the earth’s words” (Poem of The Sayers of The Words of The Earth). The earth speaks, the heavens declare. But they do not speak in the conventional language of humankind. They speak in a more ancient tongue: beauty, reality, time, life. And yet, Whitman’s words don’t go deep enough. Beauty, reality, life, are indeed deeper than human language; deeper even than sun rays and pine trees themselves. But these in their turn point yet deeper still. The experience of these point yet deeper still.
I was reminded that morning of that beautiful conversation recorded in Norman McLain’s A River Run’s Through It. Norman’s father, John, tells him that he used to think the waters came first. “But,” he says, “if you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water.” John points Norman to the Scriptures where the words of God precede the creation of the world. Underneath trees, birds, and light, underneath reality, life, and time are the words of God. Here is the depth. Here the excess. Here the inexhaustible soil of all that comes to be.
As the creation story of Genesis so vividly depicts, God’s words are not descriptions but creative and sustaining acts. And, as St. Thomas Aquinas has shown, God’s creation and preservation of each creature and all creation just is His deep and abiding presence with the same (see, e.g., Summa Theologiae I, q8).
Nature Confesses: ‘He Made Us’
What we are experiencing in, and underneath, and all around the things of nature is God. This is why so many are tempted to think that nature is in itself, well, beyond itself: supernatural. We all experience in nature those moments not only of beauty—which moments are wonderful and compelling in their own way—but of depth. We experience God. But here we must heed John Maclean’s advice and listen very carefully. We are not experiencing God as nature. Listening carefully, we hear the same answer St. Augustine heard all those years ago:
I asked the earth, but it said to me, ‘I am not it.’ And of all the things in the earth I asked the same, and they confessed the same. I asked the sea and deeps, even the creeping things, and they all responded, ‘we are not your God; seek that which is beyond us.” So I interrogated the heavens, the sun and moon and stars: ‘neither are we the God you seek,’ was their call. And so I cried to them all… ‘tell me concerning my God, who you are all not, tell me anything about him!’ And they exclaimed with great voice: ‘he made us!’ (Conf. X.vi.9)
As deeply compelling as the presence of God in nature is, nature ultimately points us away from itself to something beyond it. It gets us to cry out “tell me concerning my God!” and replies that we need to seek another. It speaks to us in the creative and sustaining words of God that we need to learn the language of the Word of God. God’s presence in nature welcomes us to His presence in Grace.
The Word Among Us
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). This is not to say that in Christ God becomes present to us where prior to Christ He hadn’t been. “Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD” (Jer. 23:24). Rather, His dwelling amongst us in Christ is His presence in a new way. “From his fullness we have received grace upon grace” (John 1:17). Christ reveals not the inexhaustible depths underneath nature, He reveals the Father, whom no one has ever seen. He teaches us by His Spirit to cry out no longer “tell me concerning my God!” but rather “Abba, Father.”
So, this Christmas season, go out and enjoy the falling snow, the smell of pine, the whispering wind. Pause and ponder the depths. And listen to a Christmas hymn and wonder at that most wondrous of names, Immanuel, God with us.