I could not have been more than five years old. My family was cutting firewood in the LaSalle Mountains for the coming winter. As the adults were working, I wandered off and into a grove of Aspen trees. The leaves of the trees were golden and they sparkled in the sun. I lay down on my back so I could get a better look. The earth was wet, spongy, and sweet smelling. I fixed my gaze on the glittery leaves, and I knew Someone more than myself was with me. I knew I was safe and would never be alone.
This is a pivotal moment in my life. This one childhood moment has often been an anchor for my faith. I am not alone in this, when I teach conferences on spiritual formation, I invite adults to use their non-dominant hand to draw their first memory of God. More times than not, they draw a picture that includes some aspect of nature. How does God use nature in the lives of children to invite them into a life with him?
The Trinity is both intimately within creation and extraordinarily beyond it. The Scripture is loaded with examples. Paul makes the case for the Cosmic Christ who is above all and in all (Col. 1:15-20). In Ezekiel 37:9-14, John 20:22, and Acts 2:2 the Holy Spirit is understood as wind. The Psalmist references the power of nature to form and inform humanity in the ways and grandeur of God throughout one hundred and fifty chapters. God is present in nature, and nature is present with God.
In Isaiah 55 the trees and mountains dance and clap their hands in praise. Nature is the place where the kingdom of God is most available to the senses. Cognitively speaking the Eastern Orthodox Church has given a vocabulary to Christians to understand immanence and transcendence beginning with the Cappadocian Father, Saint Basil the Great. He helped articulate the immanent God who would make himself available through creation and yet paradoxically be exponentially beyond and other.
Transcendence can be a bridge that brings together the concrete nature of experience with the abstract quality of religious training. Nature experiences have a quality of transcendence, meaning that nature experiences go beyond religious tradition or doctrine. These experiences transcend religious language. They often transcend language in any capacity, especially in children who have a limited command of language. Often when children share about their experiences, adults judge them as undefined and vague, however, they wield tremendous power.
Authentic transcendent nature experiences include the body and all its sense-gathering capacity. Authentic experiences produce concrete knowledge. Developmental theory is a linear formational system as opposed to nature experience which is a living system based on interconnected elements. Those interconnected elements include all the parts of the person, including those parts which researchers do not have direct access to, namely the spirit.
Children have not yet learned to hide inside their bodies and as a result they have a natural propensity for awareness. They are able to engage with nature with their whole selves. Children are fully present to their current surroundings. Maturing human beings must learn to shift their awareness to past and future, but this is a learned skill. This may be why children report more spiritual experiences than adults. Nature invites the whole self of the child into an experience with the immanent and transcendent God. The characteristics of these experiences are wonder, union and mystery.
Tomorrow we will explore wonder, union and mystery and how they draw children to God.
How has nature drawn you to God? Do you have a childhood experience in nature?
In addition, here are a few resources that helped form my thinking.
David Hay and Rebecca Nye, Spirit of the Child (London: Fount, 2006).
Fritjiof Capra, “How Nature Sustains the Web of Life”, in Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World, ed. Michael K. Stone and Zenobia Barlow (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2005).
Fritjiof Capra, “Speaking Nature’s Language Principles for Sustainability,” in Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World, ed. Michael K. Stone and Zenobia Barlow (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2005).
Hay and Nye, Spirit of the Child.
Daniel L. Brunner, Jennifer L Butler, and A.J. Swoboda, Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: 2014).