Opening the Book of Nature
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Nature as a Great Book
The following quotations describe some of the ways historical Christians have described the potential to learn spiritual lessons from the world around us. These citations, plus a few from other religious traditions, show that this concept was once well rooted in religious thought. This is evidence of a traditional dimension of faith which has largely been left in the past.
Notice that the quotes selected here only describe the potential to learn from creation. During OBN introductory and weekend event, we challenge participants to recover the practical dimension of the potential described below. In a group context, participants are always successful beyond their expectations.
Hearken unto this, O Job: Stand still and consider the wondrous works of God. (Job 37:14)
But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee: Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee. Who knoweth not in all these that the hand of the Lord hath wrought this? (Job 12:7-9)
Through the grandeur and beauty of the creatures, we may by analogy, contemplate their Author. (Wis. 13:1-5)
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth His handiwork.(Psalm 19:1)
For since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say to you that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (Matthew 6:28-29)
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, it is at my hand."
St. Anthony is known for his affection for the animals which surrounded his desert abode.
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.
Saint Ephraim the Syrian (306 - 373)
Nature and Scripture
I considered the Word of the Creator,
and likened it to the rock that marched
with the people of Israel in the wilderness....
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.
I read the opening of this book and was filled with joy,
for its verses and lines spread out their arms to welcome me;
The first rushed out and kissed me, and led me on to its companion;
And when I reached that verse wherein is written the story of Paradise,
it lifted me up and transported me from the bosom of the book
to the very bosom of Paradise.
Hymns on Paradise, Hymn V:1-3
Saint 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
Saint 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
Tao Chien (365 - 427)
Through Hills and Seas to the Universe
The trees put forth luxuriant foliage,
the spring begins to flow in a trickle.
I admire the seasonableness of nature
and am moved to think
That my life will come to its close.
So little time are we granted human form in the world.
My eyes wander
over the pictures of hills and seas.
At a single glance
I survey the whole universe.
He will never be happy,
whom such pleasures fail to please!
The Poetry of Tao Chien, trans. James Hightower,
Oxford Clarendon Press, 1970, p. 50
Saint 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
Saint 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
Sheikh Muslih-uddin Sa'di Shirazi (1213 -1293)
Every Leaf a Page of Scripture
Every leaf of the tree
becomes a page of the sacred scripture
once the soul has learned to read.
The Gulistan, trans. by Sir Edwin Arnold (1899)
Saint 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. Through these three successive levels, comparable to the rungs of a ladder, the human mind is designed to ascend gradually to the supreme Principle who is God.
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,
Saint Bonaventure (1217 - 1274)
Bonaventure's contribution to a theology of the environment lies in his emphasis that everything in nature is a sign of God: it exemplifies some aspect or quality of the Divine Nature.
Creation reflects the secrets of the Creator
Throughout the entire creation, the wisdom of God shines forth from Him and in Him, as in a mirror containing the beauty of all forms and lights and as in a book in which all things are written according to the deep secrets of God. ... Truly, whoever reads this book will find life and will draw salvation from the Lord.
Perceiving the Divine in Creation
He, therefore, who is not illumined by such great splendor of created things, is blind;
he who is not awakened by such great clamor is deaf;
he who does not praise God because of all these effects is dumb;
he who does not note the first principle from such great signs is foolish.
Open your eyes, therefore,
prick up your spiritual ears,
open your lips and apply your heart,
that you may see, hear, praise, love and worship, glorify and honor your God.
Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274)
Two Sacred Texts
Sacred writings are bound into two volumes: that of creation and that of Holy Scripture.
Quoted in 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.
Meister Eckhart (1260 - 1327)
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.
Dogen Kigen (circa 1265)
Japan, Zen Buddhist
Comprehending the Universe
The ocean speaks and the mountains have tongues
That is the everyday speech of the Buddha.
If you can speak and hear such words,
You are one who truly comprehends the universe.
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)
For Calvin knowledge of God and knowledge of one's self are foundations for understanding creation. To Calvin, the created world is God's "most beautiful theater." He taught that the world will not be destroyed, but that it will be purified; only the corruptions will be destroyed. Study of creation, he says, is a duty of Christians.
Every Part of Creation Reflects the Creator
In every part of the world, he has written and as it were engraven the glory of his power, goodness and eternity....
A Duty to Reflect on the Creatures
While we contemplate creatures, we should not merely run them over cursorily, and, so to speak, with a fleeting glance, but we should ponder them at length, turn them over in our mind seriously and faithfully, and recollect them repeatedly.
The world as a theater of God's goodness
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)
John Wesley (1703 - 1791)
The Book of Nature is written in an universal character, which everyone may read in his own language. It contains not words, but things which picture out the Divine perfection. The firmament everywhere expanded, with all its starry host, declares the immensity and magnificence, the power and wisdom of its Creator.
George B. Cheever (1807 - 1890)
Early American poet
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."
The Fiftieth Birthday of Agassiz, (excerpt) 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.
Saint Theophan the Recluse (1815 - 1894)
A Ukrainian Orthodox priest, Theophan's is ecologically important because of his insistence that awareness of the lessons in nature is directly tied to spiritual awakening.
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.
Bahaullah (1817 - 1892)
Gods Book of His Own Self
Look at the world and ponder awhile upon it.
It unveils the book of its own self before your eyes,
And reveals that which the pen of the Lord
has inscribed thereon.
It will acquaint you with that which is within it
and upon it, and
will give you such clear explanations as to make you
independent of every eloquent expounder.
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.
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.
Abdul-Baha (1844 - 1921)
Creation and Scripture in Accord
The Book of Creation is the command of God
and the repository of divine mysteries.
The Book of Creation is in accord with the written book,
the sacred revelation of all the prophets of God.
In Makatib, cited by Bahiyyah Nakhjavani,
Ronald Co., Oxford, 1981, p. 13.
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 converse with Him
anywhere, 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
Saint 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.
Martin Buber (1878 - 1965)
Nature, as a whole, and in all its elements,
enunciates something that may be regarded
as an indirect self-communication of God
to all who are those ready to receive it.
At the Turning, 1952
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, Aldo Leopold: A Fierce Green Fire, An Illustrated Biography, Falcon Publ. Co., Helena, MT, 1996, 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...
Denver, Colorado, 1993
Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch (1922 - )
The Contemplation of Nature
The mystical way in Orthodoxy 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
Matthew King (contemporary)
Lakota, South Dakota
The World as an Open Bible
God made everything so simple.
The only law we obey is the natural law, Gods law.
We have the wind and the rain and the stars for our Bible.
The world is an open Bible for us.
Weve learned that God rules the universe
and that everything God made is living.
Even the rocks are alive.
When we use them in our sweat ceremony,
we talk to them and they talk back to us.
Fr. 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.