We know that feeling: the awe and wonder that washes over us when we find ourselves amidst the splendor of God’s green earth. We know this feeling when we marvel at the expanse of the ocean or look up in a forest of tall trees or hike through a blooming meadow or climb a steep high peak. At these moments we may be aware of the divine more acutely than we are in our daily lives. Our souls sometimes pull us from the complexity of our schedules to the simplicity of nature, gently coaxing us to leave behind the world indoors and breathe deeply of the world outdoors. In the bosom of nature we feel ourselves to be a part of something far grander than just us, and we are recharged. The rhythms of our bodies are reset in time to the eternal.
Young people are apt to say that they feel closer to God in nature than they do in any church. To the consternation of church leaders, they describe themselves as spiritual, but not religious. That they find God in the night sky’s stars or a waterfall’s cascade or a hummingbird’s vibrating wings may be a reaction to the restrictive tenets with which they were raised: In nature there is no creed, no dogma, no religious requirements that separate some or exclude others. More to the point: In nature there is no hypocrisy.
Maybe we mortals respect the relentless impartiality of Mother Nature, who gives us the beauty of rainbows and the devastation of hurricanes with equal generosity. We understand that, by ourselves, we are no match for the beneficence or the ferocity of nature. We accept and even appreciate the evenhandedness with which this infinite force affects our lives.
The timelessness of nature means that we can gaze upon the same majestic scenes about which the psalmist wrote. We are thousands of years removed from the poet of the biblical Psalms; we have made progress beyond that writer’s wildest dreams; yet we are moved to praise by the same glorious vistas on the same revolving planet. For example, we understand exactly — we feel in our very bones — what Psalm 65 is talking about:
“O God of our salvation,
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas.
By your strength you established the mountains.
You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
softening it with showers
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.” (Psalms 65: 5-6, 9-13)
We get it. The seas, the earth, the mountains, the seasons, the rains, the harvest: These are eternal and essential pillars of our lives, no matter what century we briefly inhabit. The power of nature both blesses us and overwhelms us. In the arms of Mother Nature, we sense the intimacy and the immensity of creation. We are spiritual even if we are not religious.
Still today, the psalmist urges us: “Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth …” (Psalms 66:1) When we reverence God’s creation, we worship the Creator. When we care for God’s creation, we give thanks to the Creator. When we empty ourselves in the presence of God’s creation, we are filled with the grace of the Creator. And I believe that another word for this awe-filled response to nature, this joyful noise, is "praying."