Nature As A Means Of Grace
( Originally Published 1908 )
For the invisible things of Him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made. Paul.
To him, who, in the love of Nature
The attempt to speak in favor of the natural world from a pulpit would receive endorsement from artists and poets and all of the open-eyed and free children of earth. Indeed, when its manifold uses and beauties are considered, it seems strange that any one would object to it as a theme for a Sunday morning's meditation.
Nevertheless, although in diminishing numbers in these later years, there are still those who would enter their protest against it. Especially would they oppose the attempt to find any religious significance or spiritual value in the great external world with its wonderful phenomena and unvarying laws. So far from being a revelation of divine power, nature has sometimes been regarded as evil in itself. Instead of being a tonic and cleanser of the soul and an aid to reverence, it has been represented as an enemy to spiritual life and progress. There is a form of theology in which the two terms "nature" and "grace" are as directly opposed to each other as are the terms "darkness" and "light." The presence of one means the absence of the other. Friendship for the world implies hostility to God. The first chapters of the Jewish Scriptures affirm that earth shared in the primal curse pronounced against man. Doubtless this mistake gave form and color to much of after thought upon the subject. The Persian doctrine of Dualism, in which Deity and Devil struggled for mastery, projected itself into the practice and literature of early Christianity. Asceticism, which in the earlier centuries of our era drove mankind into deserts and caves, tortured the body, and destroyed all natural affections, was an outgrowth of that doctrine. In the interests of what was mistakenly called religion nature, in all its forms, was despised. The body was debased that the soul might be exalted. This amazing and glorious earth was regarded only as a dark vale of tears through which man was compelled to pass on his way to heaven. In making this journey all natural enjoyment is sinful. It is not a place for pleasure, but for penitence.
This mistaken conception of the world invaded Christian art. Its earliest canvases hold no landscapes. They contain only the portraits of unnatural and impossible saints and martyrs. The walls of some of the churches were covered with figures that are neither human or divine. Even the great Angelo showed his low estimate of all natural beauty. He called it: "The frail weed in which God dresses the soul which he has called into time."
Literature did not wholly free itself from that false idea until within a more recent period. The older writings do, indeed, contain many allusions to natural objects, but there is no indication that nature in its vastness and beauty had mastered the hearts of the writers. There was sometimes a mention and a description of natural objects, but no passionate love for them. In the Iliad the stars are used, not to awaken the sense of awe over their mystery and sublimity, but to illustrate the number and brilliancy of the Grecian camp-fires encircling the walls of Troy. The "clouds hanging motionless around the mountain tops when the north wind sleeps" only served in the writer's mind to picture the Grecian warriors gathered around their captains fearlessly and immovably waiting the advance of the Trojan hosts. Homer spoke of green grass, not as beautiful in itself, but as a thing that oxen love to eat. There are passages in the Hebrew Psalms and the book called Job that present natural objects in most eloquent and sublime language. Still nature is used in a subordinate way. It is for illustration of something else. It is not admired because it is sublime nor loved because it is beautiful in itself. The writers possessed no sense of their own spiritual relationship to the world in which they lived.
There can be no doubt that, in this respect, we have moved forward into a new era. To multitudes Nature has become a source of unceasing delight. It is teacher, inspirer, friend, and comforter. Through the senses its exhaustless treasures are poured into the waiting and expectant soul. Vast, beautiful, an unceasing display of unmeasured forces, in its least and greatest pervaded by unvarying laws, constant revelation of divine truth, what words can fitly describe it!
To whom are we indebted for this new era? Let us be sure it is not to the ecclesiastics and theologians. Their long dealing with artificial things unfitted them for sympathetic appreciation of Nature. Hence that our inherited systems of theology and our forms of worship are mechanical and unnatural need not be surprising. The Westminster Assembly spent more than five years forming the famous Confession of Faith and Catechism which bears its name. The first session was in October, 1643, and the last was in February, 1649. In all there were 1163 meetings. Five times fell the snows of winter; five times the hawthorn blossomed; five times the harvest ripened; five times the woods turned to gold and scarlet while that notable Assembly was doing its work. It seems strange that some fragrance from the spring blossoms, some graceful movement from a waving wheatfield, some rich coloring from autumnal forests, some pathetic strains of music made by falling leaves did not insensibly steal into the hearts of some of the members softening the rigidity of their dogmas and clothing them with more tolerance and benevolence. Had they consented to sit for a time at the feet of Nature as their teacher they would not have dared pronounce such dreadful doom upon the multitude of mankind nor draw the portrait of a cruel despot and call it God. When in the right mood, it is true that—
"One impulse from a vernal wood
Passing from theology to general literature the scene changes. The dawn of the great day of man's friendship for the natural world appears in the fourteenth century.
Dante is a mingling of the old and new spirit. Sometimes he was theologian, sometimes he was poet. Sometimes he was entangled in the machinery of the middle-age metaphysics ; at other times he moves freely among the sublime and beautiful scenes of nature. At the very commencement of his great poem he leads the reader into a great forest. Through this winds a valley terminating at the base of a mountain. Looking upward he saw sunbeams investing its summit. He describes rivers and snow-storms and doves returning to their nests and the sea gleaming at sunrise and sleeping flowers awakened by the call of the morning. Each division of the poem closes with an allusion to the stars. He pictures Heaven in the form of a rose whose layers of petals are made of many colored light. Once he heard a burst of bird song in the forest of Chiassi that silenced all other sounds.
Coming a little farther forward in time the famous stories of Boccacio are set in a framework of nature. They were told in the summer woods.
Later came Petrarch who, it is said, was the first man who cared enough for a landscape to climb a mountain for the sake of a view from its summit. He has left a passage which reveals his attitude toward the external world. This is part of it:
"Morning and evening the hills throw welcome shadows : in the valleys are sunwarmed gaps, while far and wide stretches a lovely landscape. Deep and undisturbed silence reigns every-where only broken now and then by the murmur of falling water, the lowing of cattle, and the songs of birds. What do I do here? In the Morning I wander over the hills, through the flowery valleys and mossy caverns : in the evening through the meadows or in that rocky garden near the fountain which nature has made more beautiful than could the art of man. This spot is suited to inspire profound thoughts and lift the most careless minds to lofty contemplation."
That which started in Italy moved onward in England. Time would fail in which to tell of Chaucer who, indeed, did not find the inner and spiritual meanings of things, but unveiled the surface beauty of the world. Later came Shakespeare —the all-seeing—who gave descriptions of nature as beautiful as nature itself. Recall these accustomed lines:
> "Bare, ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang;" "Jocund day stands tip-toe on the misty mountain tops;"
"But, look, the morn in russet mantle
"I know a bank where wild thyme blows,
"How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
But, once begun, the work of bringing the soul into sympathetic communion with the world could not halt. Thompson and Gray and Burns and Wordsworth and Shelley and Tennyson and Browning and Goethe and Emerson and Bryant and Whittier and Lanier carried it onward. Columbus discovered a new continent, but the poets discovered a new world.
What a world it has been to them ! Potosi and Colorado and the Klondike all combined cannot confer such riches as it has given. Sustaining them in life,- it cheered and consoled them in death. It is not strange that Goethe, in his last hour, wished the curtain lifted that the sunlight, in which he had lived for eighty years, might shine upon him in the new journey he was about to undertake. Matthew Arnold wished that his last hour might not be passed in a close room with heirs and nurse and doctor and minister at his bedside.
"Bring none of these; but let me be,
Bathed in the sacred dews of morn
Which never was the friend of one,
Thus feeling, gazing might I grow
It is pleasant to recall that his wish was gratified. The mortal touch came to him suddenly out in the air and sunshine which he loved so well.
How fitting, how beautiful the picture of the last hours of Tennyson ! It was night. The window was unveiled. Through it the garden, and beyond that, the open downs might be seen, while not far away the moaning sea could be heard. Within the room the lamps were extinguished. The pure, unimpassioned moonlight flooded the space illuminating the noble face of him whose spirit was poising for its great flight. Whoso loves and trusts and obeys her higher as well as her lower laws all through life nature will not desert in death.
What a wise, what a faithful, what a patient teacher is nature. Her course of study comprises the whole range of knowledge. Who is the truly educated person? That one who has learned all the lessons she has assigned and has applied them to life. Agriculture, navigation, and political economy are under laws as invincible as those laws by which the seasons come and &o, tides ebb and flow, rivers seek their level, and rains fall from the clouds. The wise farmer, the wise sailor, the wise trader is who learns and obeys these laws. Nature says wheels must be round ; walls must be erect; the length of the lever must be in proportion to the mass to be moved. He who disobeys this decree is useless. The same is true in legislation. Only when a statute is based on an enduring principle is it of any real value to society. Legislation which benefits the few at the expense of the many is not only an error; it is a crime. The moral laws are as exigent as the law of seed time and harvest. The soul that sinneth it shall die is written in the Scripture be-cause it was first engraved in nature. Sometimes the natural man has been called the sinful man. Let us rather say that it is the unnatural man who is sinful. He who makes a wheel square; or places the fulcrum at the wrong end of the lever; or sows wheat in the Sahara is no more foolish than he who thinks he can find happiness by abuse of body or mind; or gain honor by fraud; or amass learning by idleness. Nature never tries to grow grapes on thorns or figs on thistles. Only foolish mortals make that attempt. The experiment is always an utter failure.
Truly speaking, is not nature our only source of knowledge? We have heard much of knowledge that is revealed. But revelation itself is a product of nature. Coming into contact with all the facts and laws of the world, man's intellect has formed science. Coming into contact with its beauty, he has formed art. Coming into contact with its mystery, he has formed religion. Nature speaks many languages, but man has learned all of them and translated them into life. When she speaks of love, from the marriage of the flowers to the marriage of souls, all understand her meaning. When she breaks forth into many toned music, now deep and grand like thunder rolling along the horizon, now soft and pathetic like wind rustling autumn leaves, all listen. When spring comes with its promise, all are expectant. When summer comes with its wealth, all feel rich. When summer goes, all feel the touch of pain round the heart. When hope controls life, it is nature's way of saying : You are still young. When experience has curbed expectation it is nature's way of saying: The afternoon of life has come. When, for much of the time, the heart lies under a shadow it is nature's way of saying : The evening is not far away. Thinking of the vastness of the world the mind expands and the heart wonders. Seeing the long, tireless sweep of law,—an intricate net-work of forces working for a million years to pro-duce a single result,—man learns the value of persistence and patience. Beholding the variety of methods, life learns to disdain a monotone in its own career and strives to sound all the many chords of existence.
Nature not only teaches, but it inspires. Upon some day we feel that we have become the slaves of dull routine. The mind is empty of thought, the heart is empty of imagination. But let us pass out from between four walls into God's great open country. Let us inhale the blithe and tonic air. Let us feel a current of the Universal Life sweeping through all our being. Let us hear some strains of that music to which rivers run, seas billow, seasons revolve, and planets roll. Lo! What a change is wrought. Then comes new energy, new hope, new inspiration for our accustomed tasks. We feel that we are brought into communication with the inexhaustible source of all things. Whether or not birds brought bread to the famished prophet on the mountain of Horeb now, surely, some winged messengers are bringing sustenance to our starved souls. Or on some day we are full of fretfulness or repining. The remedy is the same. Behold how calm is the sky! How full of repose are the great hills ! How soothing the outspread green of fields and woods! Whether or not with his harp David drove demons out of Saul, we know that when we draw close to Nature the music of her many toned harp banishes. bad spirits from us who, if we are not kings, have sometimes all the uneasiness and worry of kings. Is there any malady which nature cannot cure? For what are the diseases of the individual or of society but penalties for disobedience to laws which, if benignant, are also austere. A wise man said: "Give me health and a day, and I will defy the pomp of emperors." But it is the days them-selves, lived wisely and obediently, that furnish the health. He who makes the right use of the world around him is king of an empire greater than the conquered world of Alexander.
Thus does a noble philosophy grow up from a mind that perceives the meaning, and a noble religion from a heart that perceives the beauty and mystery of the universe. So far from science and religion being enemies they should be inseparable companions. One is mind knowing the universe ; the other is heart adoring the Cause of the universe. The other night, sitting under the stars, a noble man* said: "The older I grow the more I think about the formation of the world; and the more I think the more wonderful it all seems." This statement contains the essential elements of a true religion.
We are to be congratulated that we live in a period in which we are permitted to love our great beautiful world without seeming to hate God.
Happy day in which earth is no more regarded as a vale of tears, as a desert, as a prison. Its valleys have far more smiles than tears ; compared with its deserts its fruitful fields are as a million to one; it far more resembles a palace than a prison. He who lives in it need not fear to die in it, for he will still be in a world of law, of beauty and of God. Blessed earth in which our infancy and our age are alike encompassed by divine influences!
After some weeks of absence and separation we return to this place of worship. In coming here from many a wayside altar we are not changing our religion, but only its form of expression. Our hymns and prayers are only the formal utterance of what many of you must have often felt in the fields, amid the groves, and by the shore of lake or sea. Thoreau once said: "Returning to society all the inspiration of my hours of solitude flows in upon me." Let us trust it may be so of us all. May the energy, the hope, the courage and the inspiration that came to us while we were apart, flow back to us, now that we are again together, making our worship more spiritual, our enthusiasm deeper and more lasting and the doing of duty more and more seen as a great privilege. Thus through the coming weeks and months may this beloved church bear more and more signs of an external prosperity, because of the presence of hearts within it full of sincerity and full of a sacred zeal. To increasing multitudes may it be a wisdom to guide; a beauty to inspire; a strength to sustain;—a rallying place for right, for light, and for love.
Sermons By Reed Stuart:
Nature As A Means Of Grace
A Perpetual Gospel
The Palestine Philosophy Of Life
A Twenty Years Pastorate
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