The Natural World As Spiritual Guide- Christine Valters Paintner
“How necessary it is for monks to work in the fields, in the sun, in the mud, in the clay, in the wind: these are our spiritual directors and our novice-masters.” — Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas
Thomas Merton, the 20th century Trappist monk, knew that the true mentor of the soul was nature itself. The fields, sun, mud, clay, wind, forests, sky, earth, and water are all companions for our own inner journeys. The elements of water, wind, earth, and fire offer us wisdom and guidance. They are the original soul friends. Air is the gift of breath we receive in each moment, the rhythm of life sustaining us. Fire is the gift of life force and energy, and we might call to mind St. John of the Cross’ image of God as the living flame of love which burns in each of our hearts. Water is the gift of renewal and replenishment, and we might call to mind the ritual of baptism as a call to claim our full gifts or the blood that flows through our veins. Earth is the gift of groundedness and nourishment. The elements at the communion table emerge from the earth, and the act of eating is sacred and holy, also sustaining our life and work.
15th century Zen Buddhist monk and poet Ikkyu wrote: “Every day, priests minutely examine the Law and endlessly chant complicated sutras. Before doing that, though, they should learn how to read the love letters sent by the wind and rain, the snow and moon.” What a beautiful image to receive the gifts of creation as love letters written to us. I am reminded of how many of the great saints would write letters of spiritual direction to those who sought their guidance.
In the Celtic tradition, Irish monk St. Columbanus taught the precept: “if you want to know the Creator, understand created things.” He was known to “call the beasts and the birds to him as he walked, and they would come straight away, rejoicing and gambolling around him in great delight … He would summon a squirrel from the tree tops and let it climb all over him, and from time to time its head might be seen peeping through the folds of his robes.”
What would it mean to listen into the deep wisdom of these four elements of sky, sun, sea, and stone for our own spiritual direction and guidance in life and creative inspiration? Nature offers us this universal language with which to understand our own inner movements.
The 20th century Jesuit theologian and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin writes that “By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us.” All created things await to serve the divine purpose in our lives. There is nothing in nature that falls outside these parameters. Every rock, every bird, every flower, every creature is how the sacred dimension of the world enters into intimacy and communion with us. This is how divine wisdom is revealed and we would do well to listen for their spiritual direction.
This kind of intimacy with nature means that when our hearts feel heavy or conflicted, we might find ourselves walking a trail in the woods, or along a river, or in a nearby park and experience a sense of kinship with creation. In these moments, the natural world often meets us as a guide and offers insight or peace to us. What wisdom do water, wind, earth, and fire have to offer you? How might they kindle a creative spark within your heart in new ways?
CHRISTINE VALTERS PAINTNER
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE is the online Abbess for Abbey of the Arts, a global community bringing together contemplative practice and creative expression. She is a poet and the author of 15 books including The Soul’s Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred. In 2012 she moved to Ireland with her husband John.