A bird took flight.
A flower in a field whistled at me as I passed.
I drank from a stream of clear water.
And at night, the sky untied her hair and
I fell asleep clutching a tress of God’s.
When I returned from Rome, all said,
“Tell us the great news,”
and with great excitement I did:
“A flower in a field whistled and at night,
the sky untied her hair and
I fell asleep clutching a sacred tress…”
Musing on this piece by St. Francis is a good follow up to my last post, in which I mused on Mirabai’s poem, “A Hundred Objects Close By.” That’s because this poem invokes the “book of nature,” the centuries old notion (esp. the Middle Ages, to wit, Megenberg’s 14th century "Buch der Natur") that nature, as much as books of revelation, reveals to us the sacred depth and meaning of God’s creation.
“The heavens bespeak of the glory of God while
their expanse declares the work of His hands.”
– Psalm 19
On the one hand, the book of nature complements books of revelation (or vice versa). Indeed, as mentioned in my last post, sages from the world’s various religious traditions, some of whom are central figures in these very books of revelation, themselves invoke nature in their teachings: the lilies of the field, the lotus flower, mountains, wind... rainfall. It only makes sense that revelation, which is said to reveal God’s will, be consistent with God’s own creation: a harmony between nature and revelation just intuitively makes sense.
This raises an interesting question though, intimated by this poem. If it makes sense that the book of nature and books of revelation be harmonious, which has more authority, especially in those instances wherein the two seem to contradict one another?
One obvious example, given the theme of this post, is the theological doctrine that creation is “fallen,” which points to the further, logically implicit theological doctrine that human beings are inherently sinful; “born into sin.” Given that there is so much beauty and goodness in the creation, do these theological notions not run against the intuitive grain? Do not the book of nature and books of revelation (in this particular case, the New Testament) seem to contradict one another?
Those who would be prone to defend these theological doctrines can easily point to the “problem of evil.” They may ask: “Doesn’t the fact of evil in the world, from tsunamis to humankind’s aggressive tendencies, demonstrate the truth of these doctrines?” It certainly must be admitted that natural disasters and humankind’s destructive tendencies are undeniable realities in this world.
However, it may be countered, what about the “problem of the good?” The evidence of beauty and tenderness in the creation far outweighs the “problem of evil.” For every tsunami that occurs there are countless fiery sunsets, golden meadows, surging mountains, and flowing rivers. For every act of human aggression committed there are myriad examples of acts of compassion, often unnoticed but present nonetheless - present and deeply indicative of our essential human nature: spontaneous acts of compassion between children and moments of deep tenderness demonstrated to those in need.
Yes, there is misery in the world and people can behave “sinfully.” At the same time, beauty permeates the creation and human beings are capable of profound goodness as well. If we admit beauty and goodness as an equal part of the creation, if not even a predominant part of the creation, then the theological narrative of the “fall” is out of step with the book of nature. Pray tell, what then? Should theological doctrine determine our thinking (and behavior) or the book of nature? I think St. Francis is informative here...
Would St. Francis have sacrificed his fellowship with nature and the “great news” he learned from it in favor of theological doctrine? Or, would he have turned his mind away from such theological meanderings and gone back to sleep in a truss of God’s hair, leaving it to Rome to pontificate on such matters? Regarding this question of authority, St. Francis seems to be indicating that nature trumps revelation, or at least the Church Fathers’ interpretation of revelation, if not revelation itself (though I suspect he would hold to that as well). After all, when St. Francis returned from Rome, the seat of Church authority, with everybody chomping at the bit to hear the “great news” from Rome, he opted to read them the book of nature.
There is a profound anti-authoritarian impulse in St Francis, which could be interpreted as heretical. At the same time, one could also interpret St. Francis’ answer as a simple reminder not to lose faith with the creation itself and that the creation itself, if we bother to read the book nature, is already informing us about life’s sacred depth and meaning. “We do not,” he could be understood to be saying, “need theological mediators.”
Tennyson was correct when he said “nature is red in tooth and claw.” At the same time, he was remiss not to point out that nature is far more often cooperative and caring than it is aggressive (Darwin did attempt to convey this message in “The Origin of Species” but the message was missed.).
Now, I’m off to smell the roses and take in those other “hundred objects close by.”
Beauty is a testimony to the sacred that largely goes unnoticed. Think about it. We spend our days in a trance like state. The mind habitually runs like a hamster on its wheel, trotting over the same thought pattern day after day after day. Over and over again we become embroiled in the intensity of our fluctuating emotional states, sun up to sun down. While our bodies crave, from one minute to the next - almost without respite - food, sex, or comfort. With all of this intense politicking taking place within us, it is little wonder that our attention rarely escapes it and that the beauty in which we are enmeshed largely goes unnoticed. Really, who can sit quietly by the crackling fire when the kids are clamoring for attention til our bones ache?
Mirabai frequently poeticizes about beauty. She is reminding us that the simple observation of beauty, if we can let it sink in beneath the internal politics always taking place within us, is a spiritual practice that can free us of our mental, emotional, and bodily habits. She is exhorting us simply to observe the beauty of life - to be penetrated by it - and to let it affect us deep down inside. Beauty, she tells us, can enliven the soul.
I recall one particular moment when I was battling cancer. I had received my diagnosis a couple of weeks earlier. I had gone through surgery and was awaiting the lab results - day after surreal day. It was winter. It was 2am. My wife was asleep at my side and my five year old son was asleep down the hall. As for me, my existential angst was running amuck. Suddenly my attention was drawn to the frost on the window pane above my head, which skewed the winter moonlight into a pattern that magnificently radiated throughout the icy pattern that met my eyes. Immediately the thought came to me: “Fixate on wonder.” So I let that moonlit frostscape became my meditative object. Within moments my angst was alleviated as I felt a conviction deep within me that regardless of my fate, we are held in Spirit's loving embrace. Death, I understand, has a place in the scheme of things - despite my inability to understand this. That night beauty became a testimony to the sacred that largely goes unnoticed...
From the Taoist sages to aboriginal people to Jesus, the mystics have always called our attention to beauty as a testimony to the sacred. "Be as the lilies of the field." How poignant and incredibly deep these teachings go if we do more than mentalize them. Fixate on beauty, my friends. Watch the moon tonight. Feel the air of these cool, late summer nights enter your body. Listen to the sound of the wind rustling through the tree leafs. Let yourself enter beauty. Let beauty enter you. Let your soul be enlivened.
We sit together,
the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.
- Li Po