Hebrew Scripture Reading—Psalm 98: 4-9
The writer Wendell Berry once wrote, “I don’t think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is.” Berry believes that the Bible is a book “best read and understood outdoors.” When I first read this, I assumed that Berry was referring to the many references to nature in the Bible, but Berry was instead thinking of how nature can give one a newfound appreciation for the miracles of life. Outdoors there are miracles all around us. There are the miracles seen in the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. The miracles of the Bible “seem merely natural” when placed beside these miracles. “The turning of water into wine” is a small miracle in comparison to “the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”
Whoever it is that wrote the Psalms had a clear sense of the miraculousness of nature. The Psalmist envisions the floods clapping their hands and the hills singing for joy. Here in the United States we had our own psalmist who wrote with poetic flare about the miracles of nature. His name was John Muir. Today he is known for founding the Sierra Club and being one of the early champions of conservation, but Muir was also a marvelous writer. His writings are saturated with a passion and enthusiasm for nature.
Nature was Muir’s religion. Muir came to this religion after rebelling against the strict traditional Christianity of his father who was a minister. Still, the Christian faith of his upbringing in many ways gave him a language and an orientation toward God that would stay with him for the rest of his life. Like Wendell Berry, Muir discovered that nature was the place where he saw the signs and wonders of God. After dropping out of college at the University of Wisconsin, Muir enrolled in what he called “the University of the Wilderness.” He “zigzagged” his way across the country eventually coming to California where he stood before Cathedral Rock in Yosemite. For Muir, it was a spiritual homecoming. He declared it was the first time he had “been to church in California.” This ecstatic experience of nature made him reflect that in the best of times “everything turns into religion, all the world seems a church and the mountains altars.”
Reading Muir’s accounts of nature is ultimately like taking a course in spiritual literacy at Wilderness University. Amidst apple trees, Muir said he enjoyed “sermons on color, fragrance, and sweetness.” Then, there were the sermons he enjoyed that came from stones and storms, flowers and animals. Not to offend the fishers among us, but Muir believed that it was pure scandal to fish amidst nature while God preached “the sublimest water and stone sermons.” For him, it would have seemed far more reasonable if “church-goers” amused themselves during dull sermons in church by “fishing in baptismal fonts.”
Muir in essence saw God everywhere in nature. In landscapes, he saw manifestations of God’s love. In every field and every sky, Muir saw God’s glory plainly written. In Yosemite, he found it written in capital letters. Many of us might have had a similar experience hiking at Beacon Rock yesterday. In trying to entice, Ralph Waldo Emerson to visit him at Yosemite, Muir declared that Yosemite was a place where one could “more easily see God.”
Muir was somewhat eccentric in his love of nature. When Emerson did visit, Muir became quite dismayed after Emerson and his party declined to sleep lying “out in the night air” because they preferred “homes and hotels.” For Muir, this was pure heresy against nature based upon irrational fears of the night air and ignorance of how humans catch colds. For Muir, the ideal bed was one made of red fir branches with “ferns and flowers for a pillow.”
Muir also had what might be regarded as an eccentric love for the harsh side of nature. He viewed the outbursts of earthquakes, volcanoes, and like as the “beauty-making love beats of Nature’s heart.” Muir experienced his first major earthquake only to run out side with fear and gladness shouting, “A noble earthquake.” When a visitor then expressed a sense of dread, Muir chided, “Come, cheer up; smile a little and clap your hands, now that kind Mother Earth is trotting us on her knee to amuse us and make us good.” On another occasion, Muir was swept away by an avalanche only to declare that “Elijah’s flight in a chariot of fire could hardly have been more gloriously exciting.”
While Muir might have discovered God in places many of us would rather not, I think many humans at times experience the kind of awe before nature’s beauty and mystery that he experienced in perhaps less dramatic moments as well. Muir even indicates the seeming universality of this response to nature in his writings. Once as he traveled aboard a steamship in Alaska, he found himself in the company of a group of missionaries who had come to convert the Chilcat Indians. Muir observed that soon the missionaries had forgotten about the Chilcats and their mission when their eyes read “the word of God” written in the mountains before them. There they saw “majestic hieroglyphics blazoned along the sky.” He wrote that with “earnest, childish wonderment” they contemplated “this glorious page of Nature’s Bible” with evident eagerness “to learn.”
As I read Muir’s writings this past week, what I wanted to know was why he was so much more attuned to God’s presence than many of us today. What made him so spiritually literate? Part of the answer came to me as I read what Muir had to say about floods and hills, the two very aspects of nature that our Psalm for today mentions. Muir wrote whole essays on the beauty of floods. His eyewitness accounts make one feel as if he was writing while literally hanging from branches above the swift currents of floodwaters. What stands out in these essays is Muir’s attention to the details of life amidst nature. Muir noticed how pine trees devoured the floodwaters around them not in distress but in wild, “passionate exhilaration.” He noticed how miniature streams cascaded down the bark grooves of tree trunks. He saw how they became interrupted by moss and muddied by spores and pollen. He saw how they slipped into gorges and leapt “from ledge to ledge” as they raced down the tree. Muir could even be fixated by a single raindrop. He noted the different shapes and sizes of raindrops and how they fall at different velocities. He remarked, “How interesting would be the history of a single rain-drop followed back from the ground to its farthest fountains.”
So what is significant about all this? Well, as Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat have noted, “Spiritual literacy is about paying attention,” particularly to details. It is in the details that one finds the world brimming with a life and a vitality that is otherwise easy to miss. It is in the details where one finds God. While we might often overlook a lo
t of what goes on around us, humans actually seem to be hardwired to find delight in giving attention to details. One psychologist who has studied what leads to optimal experiences of joy in life has said that it is by giving attention to the details of our lives and becoming involved in those details that humans tend to find happiness.
Another spiritual insight Muir gives to us comes from his observation of the passengers on the steamship as they gazed “at the hills of the coast with curious wonder as if never before had they seen a hill.” Muir recognized in that moment that sometimes one needs to obtain “a new point of view” in order to appreciate life. Or, as he puts it, sometimes one might need to look from one’s old point of view with one’s head “upside down.” He proclaims that it is then that we will “behold a new heaven” and a new earth and be “born again.” He says it will be “as if we had gone on a pilgrimage to some far-off holy land and had become new creatures with bodies inverted.”
Muir’s spiritual literacy, however, was more than just seeing the details of life and seeing its offerings as if for the first time. In taking in the world with his keen awareness, Muir absorbed it all with a sense of deep gratitude. In considering the harvests of nature all around us that “are always ripe and ready to be gathered,” Muir asserted that we are overpaid “a thousand times for all our toil” here on earth. He believed that just “a single day in so divine an atmosphere of beauty and love would be worth living for.” And, if then, at close of our days, death should come, “without any hope of another life, we could still say, ‘Thank you, God, for the glorious gift.’” Thank you. Amen.