While growing up, I was fascinated by questions like “What does it mean to be a human being? What makes us who we are? Why are we the way are?” I would read a lot of sociology, anthropology, psychology, and probably a few more “ologies” I can’t remember at the moment. And it was all very interesting, if ultimately not quite as enlightening as I had hoped. And I remember often encountering one particular sort of statement about human beings that would always give me pause, a doubtful, skeptical kind of pause. It was the kind of statement that would compare humans, usually very favorably, to other forms of life on our planet.
Typically, they would highlight our superior intelligence or some quality that seemed unique to us like consciousness, or perhaps our gifts of language or culture or art. But I was always suspicious of such statements, especially when used to justify placing the needs of our fellow creatures a very distant second to our own needs. In some cases, it isn’t even entirely clear we have much to support our argument for specialness. For example, many neuroscientists would admit that something like consciousness or even intelligence is very hard to define, especially nowadays while we’re trying to develop artificial varieties of those attributes.
So, you could imagine my reaction when I first encountered these words from Genesis, quoting God speaking to humans: “…be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Those words struck me as having a very “us vs them” quality about them, and it seemed to imply a one-sided relationship between us humans and the earth, and all that is in it. And worse still, it’s the kind of language that has been used to justify an uncaring and abusive attitude to the earth’s other inhabitants, whether creatures of land, sea, or air, or the land, sea, and air themselves. This has led to all sorts of problems like climate change, toxic pollution, habitat loss, accelerated extinctions, and a reduction in biodiversity, to name just a few. And these problems tie into other issues we need to wrestle with like energy use and production, food production and distribution, and how we obtain and use resources like timber and metals, not to mention, of course, the issue of over consumption in general.
Imploring us to address these problems, I often hear rallying cries speak to our sense of self-interest and preservation. An alarm bell is sounded, drawing our attention to the fact that our well-being is intimately tied to the health of the earth’s many ecosystems. And this is certainly true and compelling, but what I feel is most important in fostering a right relationship within the natural world is a mutuality recognizing the intrinsic beauty and worth of all concerned.
St. Francis looked at the world this way, and he would often describe this relationship with the earth and its creatures using intimate terms like mother, father, brother, or sister. Reflecting on this, Pope Francis, writes: “Such a conviction cannot be written off as naïve romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behavior. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled…Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.”
Pope Francis’ urgent message is nothing less than a call for all of us into enter into this radical relationship modelled by Saint Francis. It’s a call to let ourselves fall in love with the mystery of creation, allowing the fruits of that love to shape how we view and interact with our reality. Of course, the question remains, how do we go about seeing the world this way, seeing the world through God’s eyes as St. Francis did. Well, Pope Francis did give us a clue when he said “… the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated…”
Christianity enjoys a rich and ancient tradition of the practice of contemplation, some form of which can be traced back to the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the third or fourth centuries, our monastic forbears who retreated into the solitude of the desert. In the sixth century, Saint Gregory the Great described contemplation as the knowledge of God that is impregnated with love, or just simply “resting in God.” And Thomas Merton, the twentieth-century Trappist monk wrote that contemplation is “a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant source,” and “Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that source.” Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest, was probably the most succinct — he simply called it “awareness.”
The contemplation of nature, in particular, was made popular by a fourth-century monk named Evagrius Ponticus, who gave us a number of different ways we might encounter and relate to ourselves, the world, and God along our spiritual journey. In relating to ourselves he outlined the practical matter of our repentance, turning to God for help in freeing ourselves from the passionate impulses keeping us trapped in the illusion of separation from God. He would sometimes describe this as the purifying of one’s heart. And it was in this context that Evagrius described how we may come into a relationship with the world he called the contemplation of nature. Kallistos Ware, a priest and theologian, in his book The Orthodox Way, described the contemplation of nature as when Christians sharpen their “perception of the ‘isness’ of created things, and so discover the Creator present in everything.”
This perception of “isness” or suchness of all there is, is like an awareness purified of whatever may keep us from seeing as our Beloved God sees. In that sense, it’s related to Evagrius’ idea that we must purify ourselves of all sorts of distracting impulses, thoughts, and behaviors so that we may see ourselves and rest of the world more clearly, opening the door for our contemplation of nature, an experience of full communion with every blade of grass, each rock and stone, a flower or a tree, a rustle of leaves in the wind, a small sliver of sunlight, or a long and dusky shadow. When we ourselves become more transparent to Christ’s light we fall in love with love itself, and see the world through God’s eyes, recognizing the hidden light of Christ in all things.
Of this presence of God in creation, Pope Francis writes “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things. Saint Bonaventure teaches us that ‘contemplation deepens the more we feel the working of God’s grace within our hearts, and the better we learn to encounter God in creatures outside ourselves.”
And if we happened to still be interested in what it is that makes human beings special, we could probably do worse than to consider this kind of awareness, this bridging of the material and spiritual, earth and heaven, that homo sapiens seems blessed with. It’s true, we often forget amidst all our distractions, but we read in Genesis, in the same passage where it talks about our dominion over all things, that God says “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; … So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them;” Being made in God’s image means we are children of God as Jesus was, inheriting Jesus’ ministry of reflecting and recognizing the light of Christ in the world. And by this simple act of recognition it becomes perfectly natural that in God’s Kingdom, our kingdom, our dominion is one of relating to all of creation as intimately as mother, father, brother, sister.
Kallistos Ware describes our unique role this way: “[We stand] at the heart of God’s creation. Participating as [we do] in both the noetic and the material realms, [we are] an image or mirror of the whole creation, imago mundi, a ‘little universe’ or microcosm. All created things have their meeting-place in [the human heart].”
So how do we encourage this recognition, this awareness of who we are as God’s image, mirror, and meeting-place. Well, it probably helps to give ourselves over completely to the Holy One and let God live through us as people of prayer. Offering God our real presence leaves us open to the grace of awareness, of seeing ourselves and the world as God sees them. And what we see is infinitely beautiful and precious beyond words, a place where earth and heaven meet, where peace and joy meet, where the light of Christ and Spirit of Love meet.
At this point, I could offer some suggestions on potentially useful prayer practices, but we can start with something much more simple. Whenever you happen to remember, just notice the presence of a humble tree, or feel your weight patiently supported by a generous ground; stop and listen to what the wind says, or gently gaze upon the beauty of the moon; delight before the glory of a flower, or spend some time with a few flirtatious clouds; taste the rain as it falls from the sky, or pause for a moment and consider a stone at rest; slowly relish the warmth of sunlight kissing your face, or see your own reflection shimmering in a pool of still water. Because, you never know who you might meet.