…. As far as I can see, religion is becoming nothing more than nature worship. The First Communion kids in our local school are brought for nature walks and told to hug trees. I don’t hear a word of condemnation about this from the clergy, maybe some of them are hugging trees themselves. I think it’s a [….…] disgrace…. Religion is about worshipping God, not about worshipping nature. Did they ever hear about idols and the worship of idols, condemned in the Bible…? With all your writing why don’t you write about that…? I picked up a magazine the other day and I saw an article in it that was all about trees and flowers praising God. I wrote a letter to the magazine people saying it would be better if they did that themselves and leave the trees out of it. Now I'm saying the same to you. Thomas H.
If you had picked up a psalm, written thousands of years ago, you would have been similarly shocked. “All the trees of the wood shout for joy” (Psalm 95). “All mountains and hills, all fruit trees and cedars, beasts, wild and tame, reptiles and birds on the wing… Let them praise the name of the Lord” (Psalm 148). “The rivers clap their hands, and the hills ring out their joy” (Psalm 97). “Let everything that lives and that breathes give praise to the Lord!” (Psalm 150)…. That’s just a brief sample. The psalms are of Jewish origin, but they have been used in Christian worship from the beginning. Jesus himself would have known them by heart and prayed them every day of his life.
It is true that idol-worship is condemned in the Scriptures, even in the psalms themselves. For example, referring to pagan idols, psalm 113 says: “They have mouths but they cannot speak, they have eyes but they cannot see, they have ears but they cannot hear, they have nostrils but they cannot smell.” Idols are substitutes for God. But in Jewish and Christian prayer, natural things are in no way substitutes for God. On the contrary, they are called on to praise God with everyone and with everything that exists. God is their creator and they are vestiges of him. St Augustine (354–430) says it better than anyone. “I asked the earth, and it said: ‘I am not God,’ and all things in it made the same confession. I asked the sea and the depths and the creeping things and they answered: ‘We are not your God; seek above us.’ I asked the blowing breezes, and the entire air with its inhabitants said: ‘Anaximenes was deceived; I am not God.’ I questioned the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars: ‘Nor are we the God whom you seek,’ they said. And I said to all things that surround the doors of my flesh: ‘Tell me about my God; since you are not he, tell me something about him.’ And they exclaimed in a loud voice: ‘God made us.’ (Confessions, Book X, 6).
Once that point is settled, the universal chorus of praise can begin:
“Let the heavens rejoice and earth be glad!
Let the sea and all within it thunder praise!
Let the land and all it bears rejoice!
All the trees of the wood shout for joy!” (Psalm 95)
The Canticle in the Book of Daniel is a sustained call on all creatures to praise God. It is so long that I can’t quote it here in full; you can find it instead in this month’s ‘Wisdom Line’ on this website. Here’s the flavour of it:
“And you, mountains and hills, O bless the Lord.
And you, all plants of the earth, O bless the Lord.
And you, fountains and springs, O bless the Lord.
To him be highest glory and praise for ever.”
Have you seen the beautiful church in Fossa, near Killarney? Behind the altar is a wall of plain glass through which you have a wide view of the mountains and lakes. On the front of the altar, carved in wood, are the words, “And you, mountains and hills, O bless the Lord!” It is a literal case of embracing nature in Christian worship. Take a trip to Fossa and see it for yourself. Sit there for an hour and see how the two revelations blend into each other: the revelation of God in nature and the revelation of God in Christ. It will be a healing experience.
In the Canticle of Daniel why not add those little First Communion kids to the long litany of creatures praising God? Ask Ananias, Azarias, and Mizael to move over if you must.
And you, holy and humble of heart, O bless the Lord.
And you, all you First Communicants, O bless the Lord.
To him be highest glory and praise for ever!
If our religion were to boycott nature it would become a cold, lonely and uprooted affair, clinging to a couple of threadbare formulae. The saints and theologians of all time bear witness that God’s face is visible in creation, and that all creation praises God. God is not enclosed in formulations but revealed in every possible way – tangible, at our fingertips. Read Patrick Kavanagh. He will really do you good, Thomas. “In the sow's rooting where the hen scratches / We dipped our fingers in the pockets of God.”