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Nature and Spirit Articles

Below is a sermon I delivered on Sunday, the 4 December 2005, at the Universalist Unitarian Church, Inglis Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. This was the first sermon I ever delivered, and I am grateful to the church for the opportunity to express the relationship of nature and spirituality, and the role it can play in our well-being.

Nature and Spirituality: Awakening to the Flow of Spirit in Your Life

It’s interesting to think back on how we gain new insight and realizations, and on how those things affect us for the remainder of our lives. Often, such insight can happen with basic things; we gain a new insight about something we had been doing over and over again, for as long as we can remember. For instance, years ago, I used to be obsessed with recording sunsets. If I viewed a sunset, I would want to document that sunset – to take as many photographs as I could before the sun vanished over the horizon. This seemed perfectly reasonable to me. Then, one day, I was reading a book by Krishnamurti, and I happened upon a page where he was discussing sunsets, and lamenting the fact that we often miss the best part of them – that we are so busy documenting and trying to capture the sunset, we miss the best part of it. Well, I was spellbound by what he said, and had a sudden insight: I hadn’t actually experienced the fullness of a sunset! What I mean to say, is that I hadn’t stopped to experience the moment. Previously, my attitude was, “Oh, isn’t that a beautiful sunset! I’ve got to get a picture of it.” I hadn’t enjoyed it for what it was – a beautiful momentary experience. An experience where each moment offered subtle changes in colour, in the positioning of the sun, in the silhouette of the trees and the shadows. I’ve never again tried to photograph a sunset; but, rather, to be still and experience the fullness of each moment.

I came to realize that it is the same thing with Spirit. In seeking to come to terms with an understanding of Spirit, we are prone to search through books, to analyse various definitions, to debate, in much the same way as we would scientifically analyse a sunset. With the sunset, we might measure angles, the position of the sun to the horizon, and so on, to understand intellectually what a sunset is all about, all the while missing the beauty and inspiration of what is before us – the qualitative things in life. As with a sunset, so with Spirit. Don’t be too concerned with an intellectual definition. Simply keep an open mind. Seek out beauty, art, love, innocence, wonder, inspiration, and give yourself the ability to stop and enjoy the intricate weaving of a spider’s web – an example of the beauty and medicine of the natural world. Eventually, you will gain an inner understanding of what Spirit means to you – a very personal understanding and something you may or may not wish to share with others.

In John3:8 we read, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” What a beautiful statement. The author uses a force of nature – the wind – to illustrate the spiritual freedom and consciousness of the individual who is rich in Spirit. It’s an enchanted verse, and, today, we often hear about the need to discover a re-enchantment with things – with nature. We can experience enchantment in our lives, by giving it some priority. We can move beyond reading about it in books. It isn’t difficult. No! I haven’t come all the way from the wilds of Lunenburg County to waste my time:) I’ve come to issue a challenge, but not in a combative way. Rather, to challenge you to apply nature, the elements of the natural world, and the landscape, as an ally in your spiritual life. For example, to copy the verse in John 3:8, and carry it with you for safe keeping; to find a group of tall pine trees on a day when there is a breeze in the air. Seat yourself in some secluded area amongst those trees and read the verse: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit”. Meditate on the verse as you listen to the wind blowing through the pine needles. You will experience, first-hand, the role that nature can play in the spiritual life. This is enchantment. It will give you joy, and a cheerful heart. And, as it says in Proverbs 17:22, “A cheerful heart is good medicine....”

In re-connecting with the natural world, we find a deep well of inspiration from which to draw, spiritually. And, we are in good company. For centuries, members of religious orders have withdrawn to isolated sanctuaries, The Yogis have lived in caves in isolated places, in the mountains, dedicating their lives to spiritual unfoldment and the spiritual advancement of the world. Famous figures such as Blake, Woodsworth, that rascal, Walt Whitman, Ralph Emerson, Gray Owl, and the great Canadian painter, Emily Carr, received inspiration and spiritual nourishment from the natural world. The mystic and Rosicrucian, Robert Fludd, Nicolas Roerich, The founder of Theosophy, Madame Blavatsky, and the great Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, all testified to the role nature can play in the spiritual life, on the path to Cosmic Consciousness.

When we read the Christian Bible, we should be mindful that many of the characters therein, were basically tribal people with a deep appreciation for the earth and all creation – an appreciation that must have been similar to some degree, to that held by the aboriginal peoples of North America. In this regard, I always think of Elijah. He must have had an extremely close and sensitive relationship with nature and the landscape. Imagine yourself going for an evening walk and meeting Elijah, in from the desert or the mountains, all tucked out in his animal skins, with hair moving to the rhythm of the wind! If we met him, many of us would probably turn, and run as fast as we could in the opposite direction! What a contrast he would make to the TV evangelists – sorry, that was a cheap shot. It’s just that my mind often plays with such contrasts.

But, really, try to imagine the connection Elijah must have felt to the sacred lands of his people. Imagine how well he appreciated that the desert, the mountains, were places to nourish the soul and spirit. In 1 Kings 17: 3-4, Elijah is told by God to retire to “Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. You will drink from the brook, and I have ordered the ravens to feed you there.” We should bring this special sense of communion with the birds and animals into our lives; to treat nature, daily, as a blessing, and a source of well-being. Barry Lopez, a naturalist from Oregon, spells out this special sensitivity and communion, beautifully, in his writings. Concerning the raven, he writes in Desert Notes, pp. 17-18, “ morning four ravens sat at the edge of the desert waiting for the sun to rise. They had been there all night and the dew was like beads of quicksilver on their wings. Their eyes were closed and they were as still as the cracks in the desert floor. At first light their bodies swelled and their eyes flashed purple. When the dew dried on their wings they lifted off from the desert floor and flew away in four directions.”

The Kerith Ravine was a special place for Elijah. I continue to emphasize “special places” in my nature workshops. Discovering our own special places brings a sense of accomplishment, of anticipation, and healing to our consciousness – a sense of attending to our inner selves, so that we may nourish the inner life and be that much more effective in our outer lives and relationships. We replenish our good medicine, so that we may give it out to others – this is the “medicine maker way,” and a good way to use our personal medicine.

In Nova Scotia, we’re blessed with many opportunities to seek out special places. However, even if we’re stuck in the city, we can visit parks, or even create a special place in our apartment or house. Decorate an area tastefully with plants, play a CD of nature sounds, and make it your retreat, if only for five or ten minutes, daily. There, learn to meditate, and dwell on things of the Spirit. Practice visualization: imagine yourself flying gracefully over the fields and trees, rivers and lakes. This is not escapism. This is nourishing the inner life, and the creativity of your mind.

Spirit is a subject so central to the spiritual life, yet so difficult to grasp with the rational mind. As Henri Nouwen writes in, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, 1975:114, “What is closest to our person is most difficult to express and explain.” His example is prayer. He goes on to give the analogy of the tight rope walker who was arrested for trying to walk between two tall towers. When asked why he wanted to do it, the tight rope walker said, “‘Well ... if I see three oranges, I have to juggle, and if I see two towers, I have to walk.’” That was the extent of his explanation.

For some people, Spirit is an intellectual concept – a metaphor – a means to express subtle ideas, attitudes, and feelings. For others, it’s an esoteric force, closely aligned to the concept of soul, heaven, and the world of angelic beings. For me, it is all of this, and a subtle energy permeating all things. I must confess that, as a young boy, I could sense this vital energy flowing through the trees and plants, and throughout the landscape. So, I’m biased! In any event, how do we know when we are in tune with the flow of Spirit? Well, partly, it flows when we are able to break the routine in our lives; when, at certain moments, we feel a ticklish joy in the pit of our stomach; when we recognize and feel nourished by small things like wind through pine needles, or, when we take the moment to feel the soft texture of moss, to witness sunshine flowing through the trees or touching the soft petals of flowers. The flow of Spirit is awakened by meditation and prayer. Those are classical methods, richly enhanced in a natural setting. Finally, I want to mention, “intent”. I believe the intent on seeking things spiritual, has a dynamic effect, attracting spiritual gifts into our lives. With intent, we are more apt to notice those precious moments in our lives – the sound of a bee, the call of chickadees on a warm winter morning, the way grasses break under our feet as we cross over a frozen swamp, or the fleeting moments of a sunset. Notice those things, and you will awaken to the flow of Spirit in your life. Thank you.


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