The Wisdom of Nature - Beauty Will Heal the World
Today we come to the end of our Preaching series on the Wisdom of Nature, using Gary Ferguson’s book 8 Master lessons of Nature as our rough guide. In his Epilogue tells of how he visited an old story teller from the Native American Ojibway tribe. As he listened to her, she told him the following story.
“Long ago in the land of trees, the first human twins were born to Spirit Woman but it fell to the animals to help care for them. The animals were enthusiastically committed to the task, doting on them, eager to meet their every need.
Bear warmed them through the wee hours by hugging them to her furry chest. Deer provided her milk, the beaver and muskrat lovingly bathed them, and the birds sang them lullabies. Dog was an excellent guardian taking his job more seriously than anyone. When the flies came and pestered the babies Dog snapped at them to chase them away. When the twins were cranky and out of sorts with colic, he nuzzled their bellies with his cold wet nose and made them laugh. If that didn’t work, he jumped into the air and did all manner of tricks. But something wasn’t right. As the babies grew he noticed they were not walking.
Dog brought his concerns to Nanabush who noted that the animals had taken excellent care of the young twins. In fact, Nanabush remarked “I think maybe you did too good a job. The young of any creature doesn’t grow by having everything done for them. They grow by reaching, by struggling for what they want.” But as wise as Nanabush was, he was clueless about how to fix the problem. And so he decided to call on the Great Spirit. In reply to his call the Great Spirit told him to gather thousands of tiny coloured stones. Nanabush did as he was told. It was a big job, but finally he had gathered a large pile of beautiful stones of blue, red, yellow and green.
He then squatted beside the pile of stones and watched them but nothing happened. But what was he supposed to do next? Hour after hour, he sat waiting for further instruction from Great Spirit. But no word came. Finally out of boredom, Nanabush began tossing the stones into the air, first one at a time and then in big handfuls. He invented games. He learned to juggle. Then one morning as the sun was poking above the east horizon, he grabbed a big handful and tossed them high into the air. Only this time to his astonishment they didn’t come down again. Instead has he looked up he saw that they were turned into winged creatures of many colours and shapes. The beautiful creatures fluttered here and there before coming to rest on his shoulders. These were the first butterflies.
Now he knew what he needed to do. The butterflies followed Nanabush back to the twins, who crowed with pleasure and waved their legs and stretched out their arms to the beautiful creatures. The butterflies always flew just beyond the grasp of the small outstretched hands. Soon the twins began to crawl, then to walk, and even to run in their efforts to catch the beautiful butterflies.”
When the Ojibway Story Teller had finished telling him the story and Gary Ferguson was getting himself ready to leave, she put her hand on his arm and said to him: “Before you leave, there is one thing you need to understand about that story. You must realize” she said “that when we tell that story it is not because we need to be reminded not to give our children everything they want. We already know that,” she said. “Instead, we use that story when we get stuck. When we fall into sadness or anger or lose hope. The story reminds us to first heal our relationship with beauty.” And she concluded with these words, “Beauty will help us to start moving again.”
When our relationship with Life has grown difficult, beauty has the power to heal and restore what has become dislocated and damaged.
Gary Ferguson writes that he witnessed this lesson being played out when he became involved with a compassionate wilderness therapy program for so-called at-risk teens.
One of the girls who had been on that wilderness therapy program was called Alexi. She was from an upper-middle-class family, and at the age of 16 her life was in tatters due to a three year long heroin addiction. She had already been through a number of rehab programs but with little to no success.
A year after the wilderness therapy program he made contact with her by telephone, and she told him the following:
Here’s the thing, she said, The wilderness ruined my high. A couple of months after I got home, I tried drugs again. But I stopped. I walked away from it. I knew too much.
Over the next half an hour, she shared her thoughts on what happened for her in the wilderness therapy program that had made such a change possible for her.
“It was the first time I’d ever known beauty,” she confided in him, “Beauty so deep that it almost hurt.” He said the phone went quiet and then she corrected herself. “I did know beauty once”, going on to describe how at the age of seven she had spent a week at her uncles cabin in the wilderness, and how she had waded through creeks and picked flowers for the table, and how she had felt alive and free in the beauty of nature that had surrounded her. Pretty soon after that she said, her parents got divorced and in the middle of that her brother was killed by a drunk driver, and everything fell apart from there. At that moment, the beauty and wonder of life had been cut off for her, leading her into dark and self-destructive places.
But in the wilderness, where she was able to begin to reconnect with a sense of life’s beauty, her journey towards healing and recovery began.
In the book of Psalms, the Psalmist writes: Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness.
There seems to be an implicit sense in this verse that God is the source of all beauty and that beauty itself communicates to us something of the Divine.
Growing out of the Greek Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, medieval Philosophers spoke of God in the terms the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Goodness and Truth alone are not enough to point to the Divine. They are not enough to form the basis of a religious life. Goodness and Truth alone could have the danger of producing a religious spirit that could tend towards a moralism and a cold certainty, constricting and restricting the religious life to moralistic rules and conduct and our heads. Beauty is important because it connects us to a sense of wonder that touches and opens the heart.
And so the Psalmist encourages us to Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness. It is not enough to worship the Lord with Good conduct and with correct doctrines. Our worship of God needs to open our hearts to a sense of that which is truly beautiful in Life.
It is clear that beauty and the beauty of nature were things that Jesus valued highly. He considered the lilies of the field more beautifully adorned that Solomon in all his glory. The beauty of nature for Jesus was more beautiful than any man-made attempt to create beauty. It cannot be repeated often enough, how throughout the Gospels, one gets the sense that Jesus spent a lot of time outdoors, withdrawing into the wilderness, or into the mountains, or sometimes simply taking time out in unpopulated places on the outskirts of town.
The Psalms themselves are full of references to the beauty of the created world. Even that most familiar of Psalms, Psalm 23, invites us to imagine ourselves surrounded by beauty, lying down in green pastures and walking beside still waters. There is implicit in this Psalm the sense that being surrounded by such beauty is healing for the soul and the spirit.
Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness says the Psalmist. When you are anxious and afraid. When you feel like you are walking through a dark valley, the valley of the shadow of death, like the Ojibway story teller, the Psalmist encourages us to reconnect with a sense of beauty and in doing so reconnect with God, the Divine, and our truest and deepest selves, the Spirit of God of Holiness and Beauty within.
Gary Ferguson writes, that some twenty or more years after that wilderness therapy experience where he had first met Alexi, Alexi is now a paediatric nurse with children of her own. And when he last spoke with her, she was adamant that her time in the wilderness was the most important experience of her life, for it was where beauty had reached out and taken her hand. Where she had finally taken her place as part of the bigger world.
The 19th Century British Naturalist, Richard Jeffries once wrote that the hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live, and the Russian writer and Christian Fyodor Dostoyesky once wrote: “Beauty will save the world”.
What are the ways that in your life, that beauty has spoken to you, and reached out to you and taken you by the hand and invited you into a life of greater wholeness, wonder and joy.
Know this: that every experience of beauty you have ever had, was none other than the God of Goodness, Beauty and Truth reaching out to you and inviting you to come home, to come home to God, to come home to your true self, to come home to the Spirit of God that dwells within you.
In what way in your life today are you being invited by God to re-establish your relationship with beauty again?