|Opening the Book of Nature
Nature as a Great Book
The following citations describe some of the ways historical Christians have described the potential to learn spiritual lessons from nature. These citations show that this concept was once well rooted in religious thought. This list by itself ought to be sufficient evidence to establish that this is a dimension of faith which has largely been left in the past.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons (129 - 203)
Creation Reveals Him Who formed It
That God is the Creator of the world is accepted even by those who in many ways speak against Him..., For creation reveals Him who formed it, and the very work made suggests Him who made it, and the world manifests Him who ordered it. The universal Church, moreover, throughout the whole world, has received this tradition from the apostles themselves.
"Against Heresies," Book II, ch. 9:1
Origen (185 - 254)
The parallel between nature and Scripture is so complete,
We must necessarily believe that the person
Who is asking questions of nature and
The person who is asking questions of Scripture
Are bound to arrive at the same conclusions.
St. Anthony the Great (251 - 356)
Once when a visiting philosopher asked how such a learned man as he got along in the desert without books, Anthony replied, "My book is the nature of created things, and as often as I have a mind to read the words of God, they are at my hand."
St. Athanasius (297 - 373)
About the "Book of Creation," he says, "the creatures are like letters proclaiming in loud voices to their Divine Master and Creator the harmony and order of things."
Creation declares its Creator
For creation, as if written in characters and by means of its order and harmony, declares in a loud voice its own Master and Creator.... For this reason, God, by his own Word, gave creation such order as is found therein, so that while He is by nature invisible, men might yet be able to know Him through His works.
St. Ephraim the Syrian (306 - 373)
Nature and Scripture
In his book Moses described the creation of the natural world
so that both Nature and Scripture
might bear witness to the Creator.
Nature, through mans use of it,
Scripture, through his reading of it,
These are the witnesses which reach everywhere,
they are to be found at all times, present at every hour,
confuting the unbeliever who defames the Creator.
Hymns on Paradise, Hymn V:1-3
St. John Chrysostom (347 - 407)
Nature is Our Best Teacher
From the creation, learn to admire the Lord!
And if any of the things which you see exceed your comprehension,
and you are not able to find the reason for its existence,
then for this reason, glorify the Creator
that the wisdom of His works surpasses your own understanding.
Indeed the magnitude and beauty of creation, and also the very manner of it, display a God Who is the artificer of the universe.
He has made the mode of this creation to be our best teacher,
compounding all things in a manner that transcends the course of nature.
On the Statutes 12:7
St. Augustine (354 - 430)
The Book of Nature
Some people, in order to discover God, read books.
But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things.
Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it.
God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink.
Instead He set before your eyes the things that He had made.
Can you ask for a louder voice than that?
Why, heaven and earth shout to you: "God made me!"
De Civit. Dei, Book XVI
St. Maximus the Confessor (580 - 662)
The Cosmos as Scripture: Scripture as a Cosmos
Creation is a bible
whose letters and syllables are the particular aspects of all creatures
and whose words are the more universal aspects of creation.
Conversely, Scripture is like a cosmos
constituted of heaven and earth and things in between;
that is, the ethical, the natural, and the theological dimension.
Ambiguum 10, PG 91. 1128-1129a
St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 - 1153)
Learning from Creation
Believe one who knows:
You will find something greater in woods than in books.
Trees and stones will teach you
that which you can never learn from masters.
Letter to Heinrich Murdach,
quoted in The Letters of Bernard 106:107
St. Bonaventure (1217 - 1274)
The Universe as a Book
The universe is like a book reflecting, representing and describing its Maker, the Trinity, at three different levels of expression: as trace, as image and as likeness.
The aspect of trace is found in every creature; the aspect of image, in the intellectual creatures or rational spirits; the aspect of likeness, only in those who are God-conformed. ...
This should be understood as follows: All creatures are related to their Creator and depend upon Him. All creatures, however little they may partake of being, have God for their Principle. All rational beings, however little they may partake of light, are intended to grasp God through knowledge and love; and all righteous and holy souls possess the Holy Spirit as an infused gift.
"On the Trinity of God," ch. 12, Nrs. 1-2,
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274)
Two Sacred Texts
Sacred writings are bound into two volumes: that of creation and that of Holy Scripture.
Quoted in Rev. Carla Berkdahl, Earth Letter,
"Dreaming of Green Parishes," Sept., 1998, p. 1
Meister Eckhart (1260 - 1327)
Sermons in Creatures
Anyone who truly knows creatures may be excused from listening to sermons for every creature is full of God, and is a book.
Every Creature is a Book about God
Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things.
Every creature is full of God and is a book about God.
Every creature is a word of God.
If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature even a caterpillar
I would never have to prepare a sermon,
so full of God is every creature.
Dante Aligheri (1265 - 1321)
The Divine Comedy (excerpt)
I raised my eyes aloft, and I beheld
The scattered chapters of the Universe
Gathered and bound into a single book
By the austere and tender hand of God.
Martin Luther (1483 - 1546)
God's Other Gospel
God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.
quoted in The Harper Religious and
Inspirational Quotation Companion, pg. 120.
Martin Luther (1483 - 1546)
Creation as a Book
All creation is the most beautiful book or bible,
for in it God has described and portrayed Himself.
Luthers World of Thought, trans.
Bertram, Concordia, 1958, p. 179
Paracelsus (1493 - 1541)
Nature is the Universal Teacher
It was the Book of Nature,
written by the finger of God, which I studied...
Nature is the universal teacher.
Whatever we cannot learn from the external appearance of nature,
we can learn from her spirit.
Both are one. Everything is taught by Nature to her disciple
if he asks for information in the appropriate manner.
The Perfect Man in Christ
John Calvin (1509 - 1564)
The World as a Theater
For it is said that it is the wisdom of men to search out God's works, and to set their minds wholly upon them. And God has also ordained the world to be like a theater upon which to behold his goodness.
William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616)
The Uses of Adversity
Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winters wind,
Which, when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say,
"This is no flattery: these are counselors
That feelingly persuade me what I am."
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Find tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stone, and good in every thing.
As You Like It
Galileo Galilei (1565 - 1642)
The Grand Book of the Universe
Philosophy is written in the grand book of the universe,
which stands continually open to our gaze.
But the book cannot be understood
until one first learns to comprehend the language
and read the letters in which it is composed.
It is written in the language of mathematics,
and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures,
without which it is humanly impossible to understand
a single word of it;
without these one wanders about in a dark labyrinth.
Robert Boyle (1627 - 1691)
The book of nature is a fine and large piece of tapestry rolled up, which we are not able to see all at once, but must be content to wait for the discovery of its beauty and symmetry little by little, as it gradually comes to be more unfolded.
The Christian Virtuoso, 1690
Thomas Traherne (1637 - 1674)
And every stone and every star a tongue,
And every gale of wind a curious song.
The Heavens were an oracle, and spoke
Divinity: the Earth did undertake
The office of a priest; and I being dumb
(Nothing besides was dumb) all things did come
With voices and instructions...
William Penn (1644 - 1718)
The Library of the Philosopher
The world is certainly a great and stately volume of natural things,
and may be styled the hieroglyphics of a better one,
But, alas, how very few leaves of it do we seriously turn over!
It would go a long way to caution and direct people
in their use of the world that they were better studied
And known in the creation of it.
For how could man find the confidence to abuse it,
While they should see the Great Creator stare them in the face,
in all and every part thereof?
The country is both the philosophers garden and his library,
in which he reads and contemplates
The power, wisdom and goodness of God.
Some Fruits of Solitude (1692)
George B. Cheever (1807 - 1890)
The Gates of Heaven
The man who can really, in living union
of the mind and heart,
converse with God through nature,
finds in the material forms around him,
a source of power and happiness inexhaustible,
and like the life of angels.
The highest life and glory of man
is to be alive unto God;
and when this grandeur of sensibility to him,
and this power of communion with him,
is carried, as the habit of the soul, into the forms of nature,
then the walls of the world are the gates of heaven.
quoted in The Encyclopedia of Religious Quotations, edited by Frank Mead, Pillar Books, Inc., N.Y., August, 1976
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 - 1882)
The Manuscripts of God
And nature, the old nurse, took
The child upon her knee,
Saying, "Here is a story book
My Father hath writ for thee.
Come, wander with me," she said,
"In regions yet untrod,
And read what is still unread
in the manuscripts of God."
Excerpt from "The Fiftieth Birthday of Agassiz," May 28, 1857
Tyrone Edwards (1809 - 1894)
Gods Two Books
Nature and revelation are alike Gods books;
Each may have mysteries,
But in each there are plain, practical matters
For every day duty.
St. Theophan the Recluse (1815 - 1894)
All of creation witnesses to God
Everything is a source from which you can distill a higher and more celestial knowledge that is both valid and useful. Yet this understanding will alter from one person to another, depending upon their power of penetration, their attention, and their faith and devotion. Those who relentlessly and enthusiastically pursue these exercises will in time feel enriched by the wealth of knowledge that is yielded. ...
When we can do so successfully, the world will be like a holy book filled with uncountable and wonderfully different paragraphs; then any object, any event, will refer us to God, so that our thoughts will be directed toward Him. Every activity and movement will be made in His presence. We will walk and act inside the field of the senses and materiality, yet in reality, we move in the realm of the Spirit. Everything will unveil its divine dimension for us, and this will reinforce the power with which our attention turns towards Him.
This text is fertile beyond anything we can conceive. If everything in daily life can be spiritually reinterpreted, it is because everything is a symbol of the invisible realm, but reflected within time and space. This is why it has been said that whatever exists on earth is modelled on an archetypal essence that is actually present on another plane of God's creation. Do we not say in the Creed, "Creator of all that is, visible and invisible."
John Burroughs (1837 - 1921)
Rereading the Book of Living Nature
The book of living nature is unlike other books in this respect:
One can read it over and over, and always find new meanings.
It is a book that goes to press every night, and comes forth fresh every morning.
John Ruskin (1819 - 1900)
The Poetry of Nature
There is religion in everything around us,
a calm and holy religion in the unbreathing things of nature.
It is a meek and blessed influence,
stealing in as it were unaware upon the heart;
It comes quickly, and without excitement;
It has no terror, no gloom,
It does not rouse up the passions;
It is untrammeled by creeds....
It is written on the arched sky,
It looks out from every star,
It is on the sailing cloud and in the invisible wind;
It is among the hills and valleys of the earth
where the shrubless mountaintop
pierces the thin atmosphere of eternal winter,
Or where the mighty forest fluctuates before the strong wind,
with its dark waves of green foliage;
It is spread out like a legible language
upon the broad face of an unsleeping ocean,
It is the poetry of nature,
It is that which uplifts the spirit within us...
And which opens to our imagination
a world of spiritual beauty and holiness.
Charles Spurgeon (1834 - 1892)
Be Not Afraid of Gods Creation
Strange is it that some who love God
are yet afraid to study the God-declaring Book of Nature.
The mock-spirituality of some believers,
who are too heavenly to consider the heavens,
has given color to the vaunts of infidels that nature contradicts revelation.
The wisest of men are those who with pious eagerness
trace the goings forth of Jehovah as well in creation as in grace;
Only the foolish have any fears lest the honest study of the one
should injure our faith in the other.
The Treasury of David, exposition on Psalm 19, verse 1
Charles Spurgeon (1834 - 1892)
Books and Sermons Everywhere
Whatever you see,
take care to consider it well,
and you will not see it in vain.
You shall find books and sermons everywhere,
in the land and in the sea,
in the earth and the skies,
and you shall learn
from every living beast and bird and fish and insect,
and from every useful or useless plant that springs out of the ground.
We may also gather rare lessons
from things that we do not like.
I am sure that Solomon did not in the least degree
admire thorns and thistles,
but he nevertheless found instruction in them.
Wisdom has a way of gathering grapes of thorns
and figs of nettles, and she distills good from herbs
which in themselves are noisome and evil.
Do not fret, therefore, over thorns,
but get good out of them.
Do not begin stinging yourself with nettle;
grip them firmly, and then use them for your souls health.
Trials and troubles,
worries and turmoils, little frets and disappointments,
may all help you if you will.
Like Solomon, see and consider them well
look upon them, and receive instruction.
George Washington Carver (1864 - 1943)
The Joy that comes from Reading God in Creation
As soon as you begin to read the great and loving God
out of all the forms of existence He has created,
both animate and inanimate,
then you will be able to convanywhere, everywhere, and at all times.
Oh what a fullness of joy will come to you!
George Washington Carver, quoted
in George Washington Carver In His
Own Words, Gary R. Kremer, editor,
Univ. of Missouri Press, 1987
George Washington Carver (1864 - 1943)
Experience a more potent teacher than books
Reading about nature is fine,
but if a person walks in the woods and listens carefully,
he can learn more than what is in books,
for they speak with the voice of God.
St. Therese of Lisieux (1873 - 1897)
The Flowers in the Book of Nature
Jesus set before me the book of nature.
I understood how all the flowers He created are beautiful, how the splendor of the rose and whiteness of the lily do not take away the perfume of the little violet or the delightful simplicity of the daisy....
And so it is in the world of souls, Jesus' garden.
He willed to create great souls comparable to lilies and roses, but He has created smaller ones and these must be content to be daisies or violets, destined to give joy to God's glances when He looks down at His feet.
Story of a Soul: Autobiography of
St. Therese of Lisieux, private translation
by the Washington Province of Discalced
Carmelites, 1975, text on the website.
Aldo Leopold (1887 - 1948)
A Great Story
I am trying to teach you that this alphabet of "natural objects"
(soils and rivers, birds and beasts) spells out a story.
Once you learn how to read the land,
I have no fear of what you will do to it, or with it,
And I know many pleasant things it will do to you.
Wherefore Wildlife Ecology," in The River of the
Mother of God and Other Essays,
quoted in Marybeth Lorbiecki, p. 181
Fritjof Schuon (1907 - 1998)
Wild Nature as an Open Book
Wild nature is at one with holy poverty and also with spiritual childlikeness;
she is an open book containing an inexhaustible teaching of truth and beauty.
It is in the midst of his own artifices that man most easily becomes corrupted,
it is they who make him covetous and impious.
Close to virgin Nature, who knows neither agitation nor falsehood,
he has the hope of remaining contemplative like Nature herself.
Light on Ancient Worlds (London, 1965), p. 84
Pope John Paul II (1920 - )
The visible world is like a map pointing to heaven...
We learn to see the Creator
by contemplating the beauty of his creatures.
In this world the goodness, wisdom and almighty power of God shine forth.
And the human intellect... can discover the Artist's hand
in the wonderful works which he has made.
Reason can know God through the Book of Nature...
Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch (1922 - )
The Contemplation of Nature
The mystical way in Christianity requires as a necessary stage
the contemplation of nature a vision of "the secrets of the glory of God which is hidden in beings and things," to quote a great mystic who was both an Arab and a Christian, St. Isaac the Syrian.
"The Spirituality of the Creation," 1989, Lausanne, Switzerland
Basil Pennington (contemporary)
Creation Bespeaks Its Maker
The whole of creation bespeaks its Maker.
As the Greeks would say,
the whole of creation is full of logoi, little words,
that give expression to the Logos, the Word.
I can stand on my bluff overlooking the Pearl River Delta
and wonder at it all:
the creation of God and humans,
the beauty of the sky, the sea, the islands,
the exuberant energy of metropolitan Hong Kong
it all speaks of God,
gives expression to the Word.
If the original sources for any of these citations are needed, please drop a note to the OBN office. These are all extracted from either a book entitled A Cloud of Witnesses, which includes over 1,000 citations of historical Christians writings on creation (and which is available from our office for $49 plus $6 for postage and handling. This is 455 pages in length and spiral bound), or The Sacred in Nature: The Great Poetry and Prose of Human Responsibility to God for the Care and Keeping of Earth, another RCFC publication, (also available for $25 plus $5 for postage and handling).