Appreciating the gift of nature

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Spring is here and with it longer days. There’s time after the children are home from school for walks down to the local nature reserve or cartwheel practice on the back lawn. I water the pot plants and notice the popping up of new shoots, the bursting open of buds.

The simple task of fashioning a boat out of a eucalyptus leaf and a stick to float down the creek for our three-year-old last week was a deeply vivifying contrast to hours I’d spent earlier manipulating little digital symbols on a glowing screen.

Surely God made us to require some contact with the earth, the sky, and growing things every day just as much as we need water and nutrition.

Many of the saints draw attention to the natural world in all created things, most notably St Francis of Assisi. As St John of the Cross drew deeply for inspiration from nature as well, and wrote in a commentary on his Spiritual Canticle that God has left “some trace of who he is, not only in giving all things being from nothing, but even by endowing them with innumerable graces and qualities, making them beautiful in a wonderful order”.

St Pope John Paul II when speaking to athlete skiers once commented that it was there “in the midst of nature, amid the marvels of mountains, seas, fields and slopes, you are in the best position to perceive the value of simple and immediate things, the call to goodness, the dissatisfaction with one’s insufficiency, and to mediate on the authentic values that are at the basis of human life”.

When I am truly present to nature, which can something as simple stopping to notice the variations in the grasses and weeds growing on a vacant lot near our house, my often excessively complicated, angst-ridden, mentally-constructed realities melt away in favour of more sustaining things. Like a moment of simple, pure, gratitude for a God-given world.

Of course, it’s not only in nature, but with children, the sick, or others whose needs are simple and immediate where we are best placed to notice and meditate on these things which are at the centre of our meaning and purpose.

Then, when it comes time to go to church and the sacraments, we have plenty of material, quietly gathered, to take to prayer, and gratitude and praise born of deep reflection to fuel our worship.

I was struck recently to discover the story of Marjorie Liddy, the visionary Catholic Tiwi Islands woman who died last month. Her painting of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, Marjorie’s bird, was the official emblem of the 2008 World Youth Day held in Sydney.

She was inspired to paint it after an encounter with God late one night outside her home after a night’s fishing by the full moon. She saw the painting cover the sky above her head and the sight filled her with ecstatic joy and a deep knowledge of the Holy Spirit’s protective presence over this land.

At her bishop’s suggestion she painted the image exactly as she had seen it. Fr John Corrigan on his Blog of a Country Priest has linked to a video interview Marjorie did explaining her experience and the painting’s genesis and meaning.

I don’t have the gift of visions like Marjorie, but I am given the gift of appreciating what God has given us through her, and also the usual human gift of being able to notice and learn how the natural world communicates something of eternity.

Even in the most aggravating, potential soul-drying traffic jam along an ugly stretch of road I can always look at the sky, and in so looking, see beyond to the infinite wonder of God who wishes to be known by us, as the psalm says: the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

I was also touched last week when learning of an Aleppo resident who has maintained a beautiful and useful garden in the battle-ravaged city. “This garden is worth a billion dollars,” he says in a video making the rounds on social media. “It shows that the ordinary man can own the whole world”.

He’s right. God freely gives us the world of sunlight, and moving water, and growing things to enjoy, and sadly impoverished are those who don’t take the time to appreciate this true wealth and its source.

First published in The Catholic Weekly.

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