Alive in the Natural World: A Way of Prayer

This article is from the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Reflections magazine. Read the entire issue by clicking here.

by the Rev. Dr. Jane Lancaster Patterson

The text message on my phone is from my friend Linda: “Friday morning walk?” I respond, “Yes!” So on Friday, I’m up at 6:30, pulling on comfortable clothes and sneakers and driving to the Blue Star area, south of downtown San Antonio.

When I pull up at the edge of the Mission Reach extension of the River Walk, it is still dark, but very quickly the sky begins to lighten, first to gray, then becoming faintly tinged with coral-pink. I sit on an iron bench to wait for Linda, and notice movement on a tree branch overhead. It’s a tiny hummingbird, sitting still for once. I watch and watch him, holding my breath, until I realize that he doesn’t care that I’m below him. He is at home. Shortly, three egrets fly over, then the black-bellied whistling ducks come swooping in for their day on the river. Linda shows up with coffee, for which I practically kneel and sob in thanksgiving, and we are off, cantering along the path; and we are hardly alone.

We see both black-crowned and yellow-crowned night-herons, the first red-winged blackbirds of the season, cormorants, and mallards.

We spy a hawk stalking a dove, and on our return we see the felled dove on the pavement, its pink feet curled and the blue patch startlingly vibrant around the glazed-over eye. I am a crossroads of emotions: sad for the death of this intricate creature, but awed by the hawk’s swift and silent skill.

In the beginning of the Gospel of John, we read that the wisdom (Word) of God is the structuring agent of the whole creation:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through the Word, and without the Word not one thing came into being (John 1:1-3).

On certain mornings, these walks are my prayer, a time for listening to the Word of God as it comes to me through hawk and egret, through clouds and water, through stones and grasses. Each of these creatures, moving through the air or swimming or hugging the earth, is a facet of God’s Word, a grammar of wingbeats or stillness, flight or rest or song or rustling: a thousand names for God, ten thousand verbs of God’s activity.

Behind the whimsy or dignity of each creature is the unfathomable mind of God, the very God I have risen early to meet here.

In his book Nature as Spiritual Practice (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), and its companion workbook, A Field Guide to Nature as a Spiritual Practice, Steven Chase interprets nature in relation to classical forms of prayer and Christian liturgy.

“Nature is Christian practice,” says Chase. “She is the teacher and she is material and she is spiritual – the everyday and the sacramental.

“The whole universe is God’s tongue speaking,” he adds.

Chase bewails our current society’s disconnect from creation and its attendant wisdom of the human/nature relationship. Relearning our shared language with creation “is a slow but essential prayer that draws memory back into the present,” he says.

He points out that John Calvin wrote that creation is sustained in and through the fact that it is constantly praising God, and “if God should withdraw his hand a little, all things would immediately perish and dissolve into nothing.”

All around me, I see evidence of this in my Friday-morning walk. The hummingbirds, the ducks, the dove and the hawk speak with God, are sustained by God, in ways that my earth-bound mind cannot comprehend.

But I know that this practice of finding God in nature has led more and more to finding God in all the details of my daily life. It has been a doorway into what the scriptures call prayer “without ceasing,” a constant attentiveness to the God who is over all, and through all, and in all.

________________________________

The Rev. Dr. Jane Lancaster Patterson is an educator, retreat leader, writer, and co-director of The Work+Shop in San Antonio TX. Reach her at jpatterson@theworkshop-sa.org.

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