Perhaps nothing should capture the imagination as powerfully as the wonder of Creation. Even the simplest things, when humbly observed, should kindle a sense of the extraordinary. In our highly scientific and technological age we so easily lose sight of how marvelous, how strange, how captivating, our little blue dot really is. Anyone familiar with my blog will surely know that I am anything but anti-science, yet it would be foolish to only think of Nature through one lens, truth is rarely found through such reductionistic thinking.
G.K. Chesterton has said that the youngest of children do not need fairly tales, but only tales, “mere life is interesting enough.”1 It is the infants among us who are the realists, they see the world and understand it as it is, life itself is the mystery, the story, the poem, the song, the roots of our longing and the foundation of our dreams. Fairly tales, as he calls them, are really not meant for the young, but for us, the blind bored ones. When used correctly these tales do not provoke escapism, but remind us to view our world as realists, as the children do. Indeed, “These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”2
Recently, I sat on the dock in my backyard which sits along a humble creek. (Some would call it a glorified muddy ditch, and they wouldn’t be that far off from reality.) As I sat there with thoughts from Chesterton, and Augustine, swirling in my mind, I reached a moment where the abstract met the personal.
Warmth surrounds me. It radiates above me and reflects upon me. Beads of sweat drip with the heat, and yet, with them comes not annoyance, but cooling. The air is alive with a buzz. High in pitch, yet strangely soothing. Constant, pleasing, comforting. Is the sound always so loud? Always this present? Could I really not notice if it were?
Air rises from the bottom of the liquid trench before me, where does it come from? Is there unseen life below? Meandering along the surface, or just below, not causing a single ripple—floating, yet still beneath—comes a thing so strange, so wild, so unfathomable, that I hesitate to describe such a being. Dark speckled scales and camouflaged mahogany. It rises ever so slightly and appears to take a breath, could that be? Does this creature, so different from me, take in the same air as I? And yet its gills move steadily all the while, what sort of freak this thing is, what a marvel. Its snout extends lengthily beyond its cylindrical body, and its teeth, its teeth! They cannot be restrained within its maw as they curl across one another. Fins on top, below, beside and behind all moving rhythmically, steadily swaying as the buzz plays on. Others follow in its motionless wake.
And yet there’s more, beyond even this finned phantom’s fiendishly looking friends. Some are quick, I catch only a glimpse of feather and color darting against a backdrop of crystal blue. A color so opposed to the dirty fluid before me, that it is surely misplaced, and yet it is. Further above, drifting and whispering softly, nonliving forms swim along the current’s within the azure. Chattering beyond me beings of fur and tail jump and chase one another over trees and across branches. They are fearless in their pursuit, flawless in their movements.
Then, as if driven by an unseen current, gentle wings of yellow dance within these waters above, floating within their own spacial abode, effortlessly, or at least such is the appearance of their fluttering jig. As if in protest of such free movements, a creature of great speed and rhythm propels itself with translucent appendages that take it forward and back, up and down, anywhere it pleases with a skill unmatched. If the beast were larger I would be convinced I have seen a dragon or some other splendid horror of great imagination. Three of them dogfight above the gentle waters, a protruding branch their resting place or neutral zone. At times, not to be outdone by the monsters within, they dip themselves lightly onto the reflective surface. Do they drink? Do they breath? Or do they merely boast?
A lifetime could be well spent describing just the wonder my eyes behold in this moment. Creatures of strength and timidity, beauty and obscurity, elegance and mystery, all join the show. They whisper, they shout, they sing. So little do I know, but one thing is clear, they shall not, no, they cannot, keep silent.
Nature speaks. From the greatest minds, to the simplest hearts, humanity has always heard this, and still hears this. As Chesterton observed as he considered the repetitive performance found within the natural world, while still an unbeliever, it was as if even “the crowded stars seemed bent upon being understood.”3 But ultimately, the stars, the earth, the animals, the grass, the ripples and the waves, all of it, comes together with one harmony, with a common claim that they are not speaking of themselves as being the end of their chorus, no, rather they say, “Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote [this] book with ink. Instead, He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that? Why, heaven and earth shout to you: “God made me!””4
If nature is singing merely of its own merits, showboating its own glory, then it is ultimately not a song of joy, but of lament. If the composite beauty of what is before us is wrapped up entirely in what nature itself will produce, then it becomes difficult to exult in the beauty before us, without transcendence beyond it, the thing itself, birthed in its own absurd mystery, is hanging by an untethered thread as it takes its final gasps of existence. Indeed, “If the beatification of the world is a mere work of nature, then it must be as simple as the freezing of the world, or the burning up of the world. But if the beatification of the world is not a work of nature but a work of art, then it involves an artist.”5
If nature is our mother, is its own mother even, then the song stops when she dies, which of course, she is destined to do if left to herself. Yet as Chesterton, and Christianity, declare, “Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister… even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved…since we have the same father.”6 No one should relish nature more than the Christian, for we understand our relationship to her. When you treat your sister as a mother, you will ultimately find frustration, confusion, and eventual darkness. When you join your sister in celebration of your mutual Creator, you shall find joy, serenity, and true Light. And, perhaps most wonderfully, we will rightly understand the beauty that lies behind existence, for we will have caught a glimpse of the splendor of the One for whom all that beauty speaks. Who doesn’t want to join this song of creation?
I cannot help but be in awe of the absolute marvel of existence, of the newness of all that is, and of the promise that even what is remains but a shadow of what will be. Perhaps no one has captured this more powerfully than Marilynne Robinson in her novel Gilead. I can think of no better words to close this post with than those of her own marvelous crafting:
I have been thinking about existence lately. In fact, I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly. As I was walking up to the church this morning, I passed that row of big oaks by the war memorial—if you remember them—and I thought of another morning, fall a year or two ago, when they were dropping their acorns thick as hail almost. There was all sorts of thrashing in the leaves and there were acorns hitting the pavement so hard they’d fly past my head. All this in the dark, of course. I remember a slice of moon, no more than that. It was a very clear night, or morning, very still, and then there was such energy in the things transpiring amount those trees, like a storm, like travail. I stood there a little out of range, and I thought, It is all still new to me. I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees can still astonish me. I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that.
- G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (New York: Cross Reach Publications, 2017), 32
- Ibid. 36
- Sermon 126.6, Miscellanea Augustiniana 1:355-68, ed. G. Moran (Rome, 1930) as cited in The Essential Augustine, ed. and trans. Vernon Bourke (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1974), 12; sourced from: Gavin Ortlund, Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation: Ancient Wisdom for Current Controversy, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020), 62
- Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 71
- Ibid. 70; quote is reordered, but carried the same meaning
- Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, (New York, NY: Picador, 2004), 56-57; I am indebted to Alan Noble for giving me the final push to read this book by quoting most of this section in his marvelous lecture: Alan Noble, “Discipling Towards Transcendence in a Distracted Age,” YouTube, Henry Center, November 19, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a8XdTu0-xuk&t=92s