Meeting God in Nature

Fr. Malachy Hanratty
July 5, 2010
The Journey of Prayer

We don’t have to go to Niagara Falls, the Sahara desert, the Grand Canyon or the Himalayas to be enthralled by nature. To stand on high cliffs gazing, awestruck, at gigantic North Atlantic waves or, meditatively, at an evening ring of purple mountains, is to experience being drawn deeper into oneself and closer to nature. Sadly, we soon forget its influence as we go our busy tourist way.

We are far removed from working with the soil or with animals or trees or growing the food we eat. We would not think of spending a quiet day alone in a little boat just listening to nature. I once climbed Mt. Fuji surrounded by the noise of the loud radios people carried with them!

Of course we leave offices in groups to go off and view the cherry-blossoms, but don’t think of hearing any message from them. Usually I eat my food in a hurry, almost without tasting it. If alone, I feel I should be reading the newspaper at the same time. I don’t try to let the taste talk to me. Today we live in a world surrounded by so much that is manufactured by ourselves. It is a world of concrete, steel and plastic.

We are surrounded by the noise of engines, loudspeakers and traffic. We smell smog and chemicals and exhaust fumes. This is the air we breathe. We can see a beautiful sunset or rainbow, a cat playing with her kittens, or hear birds singing in a forest and smile and hurry on and quickly forget. We don’t make time to let these touch us inside. Giving a glance and a nod at Mt. Fuji from the Bullet Train is a good metaphor of our modern relationship with nature.

Yet, deep within us we know how it can influence us. Just think of the different ways a dull dreary day in February or a bright blue sky in April can influence us. After a day hiking in the mountains, after a long walk through the fields or even after an hour weeding in the garden, we are different people. So these thoughts urge us to devote time to coming closer to nature.

We can do this for recreation; for example, by taking walks on the autumn leaf-strewn path, along a sandy shore or a shaded river. Or we can be attentive to nature as an open door to inner stillness and peace. We are drawn into prayer. Here is what I call “Praying Nature.” I will summarize the steps, then explain them in more detail.

How to “Pray Nature”

  • Pick an object in nature to focus on.
  • Decide how long you will give to the exercise, then adhere to it.
  • Concentrate only on intently gazing at (or hearing, smelling, feeling or tasting) the object.
  • Be passive.
  • Let the object draw you closer to itself.
  • Notice what is gradually happening inside yourself.
  • Notice how you want to respond.

Picking an Object
Here are some examples. They involve using the senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, taste or inner senses of imagination or memory:

  • Gazing steadily at a flower, a potted plant, a butterfly in the garden, the moon on a frosty night, a sunset, snow falling, the first green shoots breaking through the winter soil, a bird gathering materials for her nest, ants busily working together.
  • Listening to waves on the shore, the gurgling of a stream, birds singing on a spring morning, the wind in the trees.
  • Smelling newly-mown grass, wood-smoke, roses.
  • Feeling a soft, fresh breeze on your face, the warm sun on your neck, the heat of a cozy fire, a new woolen sweater.
  • Tasting slowly each mouthful of food, cool spring water on a hot day, freshly picked strawberries, red wine.

We can still pray this way indoors by staring out a window at scenery, at a garden, a bird. Some people pray while listening to tapes of birds singing and other nature sounds; other people burn candles that emit aromas of flowers; still others may use a picture of lovely scenery, of a pet, a flower arrangement.

In a quiet place we can use our imagination or memory to enter nature. We can imagine ourselves as being an oak tree, a snowflake, a canary, a violet, a river, a dog. Or we can remember a special scenic view, or a mountain climb. Experiment with different objects, using different senses. Find your own favorite objects that touch and affect you best and find which sense is easiest for you to use. Then pray these favorites frequently.

Deciding the Length of the Prayer
Each time, first decide the length of the prayer time and use it fully. I recommend at least 20 minutes.

Prayer Time
Begin by just concentrating on gazing steadily at (listening to, feeling, smelling or tasting) the chosen object. At the beginning you may even find it very hard to hold your gaze like this for five minutes. But this struggle to resist thinking, judging, reflecting or doing “something else” is a sign that you are on the right track. You must be passive; keep your mind empty. You must just wait to see what happens.

Gradually we will discover, more and more, details that we had not noticed before. These draw us closer and closer to the object. We might even imagine this object of nature “talking” to us. Or we might find ourselves having a conversation with the object.

One woman shared about being deep in the mountains and feeling “Silence so deep it seemed to hug me with strong arms.” Once while gazing at angry waves crashing on rocks, I seemed to hear them say, “You are not alone, we know your frustration.” Realization comes: God is whispering to us in such moments.

Results: Inner Changes
These experiences of being drawn closer can give us new strength.

Frightening Side of Nature
Of course, there are negative reactions from experiences of nature, e.g. in thunder and lightning, earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, floods, etc. We will want to learn how to pray through these negative experiences too. If we get used to praying through the positives first, then we can learn how to discover values in the negatives also.

Following forty years of missionary work in Japan, Fr. Malachy Hanratty now lives at St. Columban’s, Navan, Ireland.