A Part of Nature — Center for Action and Contemplation
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A Connected Universe

A Part of Nature

Thursday, January 20th, 2022

Writer Sophfronia Scott has journeyed and “conversed” with the writings of Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915–1968) for many years. Here she contemplates what we can learn from Merton’s deep connection to God, particularly through nature:

Merton found somehow beneath the branches, on the sides of the hills, in all of nature a sense of transcendence. . . . To me, this is . . . about an awareness, perhaps even a fine tuning. I’m not sure there are even proper words for what I’m trying to describe. It looks like a complete oneness with all of creation. Since my baptism in 2011 in the Episcopal Church, I’ve often thought about that oneness and about what belonging to Christ means. . . .

How can we use nature to cultivate an awareness of God? How do we enter a space of reverence, where there are no walls and no ceilings and yet where we find a room we share with Creator Spirit? Merton had pondered this as well that first day walking in the forest: “And I thought: if we only knew how to use this space and this area of sky and these free woods.” [1] [2]

Considering his reflections on that pivotal day and then how he lived and wrote afterward, I think the answer to this cultivation question comes in three pieces. He began by going out every day and walking the earth in a sacred manner—meaning reverently, with his whole being open to the feel of the earth underneath him and of the air around him. Merton often walked barefoot so that he could better appreciate connecting with the ground. The second piece involved an ongoing acknowledgment of the weather. The third seemed to be about learning all he could about the “rooms” of his outdoor home, including the names of the flowers and trees that furnished it and the birds and animals who resided there. The assembled wisdom of these pieces brought Merton to the unity of creation and his place in it: “How absolutely central is the truth that we are first of all part of nature, though we are a very special part, that which is conscious of God. In solitude, one is entirely surrounded by beings which perfectly obey God.” [3] [4]

Another 20th-century contemplative who experienced the unity of God’s presence through nature was Howard Thurman. He reflected:

The earth beneath my feet is the great womb out of which the life upon which my body depends comes in utter abundance. There is at work in the soil a mystery by which the death of one seed is reborn a thousandfold in newness of life. The magic of wind, sun and rain creates a climate that nourishes every living thing. It is law, and more than law; it is order, and more than order—there is a brooding tenderness out of which it all comes. In the contemplation of the earth, I know that I am surrounded by the love of God. [5]

References:

[1] Sophfronia Scott, The Seeker and the Monk: Everyday Conversations with Thomas Merton (Minneapolis, MN: Broadleaf Books, 2021), 52, 53. As a cloistered monk, Merton had been limited to the monastery and its enclosed outdoor spaces. However, he was given permission in 1949 to go out beyond the monastery walls. Scott writes, “On that day, his writing and his spirituality changed forever.”

[2] Thomas Merton, Entering the Silence: Becoming a Monk and Writer, ed. Jonathan Montaldo (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996), 329.

[3] Scott, The Seeker and the Monk, 53–54.

[4] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1966), 268–269.

[5] Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart (New York: Harper and Row, 1953), 210–211.

Explore Further. . .

Image Credit: Brian McLaren, Untitled 7-9 (detail), 2021, photograph, United States. Jenna Keiper and Leslye Colvin, 2021, triptych art, United States.

The creative team at CAC sent a single-use camera to Brian McLaren as part of an exploration into contemplative photography. His photos are featured here in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image Inspiration: We often look up to appreciate the universe, but this massive universe is not only above us. It’s also under us, around us, and in us. It connects us all—stars, palm plants, grasses, humans and turtles alike.

Story from Our Community:

It is easy in these times to see the world as evil, angry, selfish, and violent—so much hate. But those are the loud voices. The quiet voices go softly about the world doing good whenever and where ever they can. They are the Christ light in the world. Many small candles can light up the darkness.
—Kathleen B.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.

 

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