I found a thesis written by a Religious Studies Ph.D. student at the University of Iowa (Nancy Lee Menning) entitled, “Reading nature religiously: Lectio Divina, environmental ethics, and the literary nonfiction of Terry Tempest Williams.” Lectio divina means devotional reading, and it is a way of studying scripture where one is intentionally open to being transformed by the text. It is what some would describe as God’s Spirit speaking to ours through his Word. In her thesis, she outlines the four classic stages of lectio divina and applies them to a “reading” of nature, as opposed to scriptural writings: Paying attention, pondering, responding, and surrendering.
The thesis is based on the belief that there are two books through which God reveals himself to us: the book of scripture (the Bible) and the book of nature. Books are usually written in a specific language, understandable to a specific group of people, but the book of nature is written in a language that anyone can understand, regardless of the language you speak or whether you are even literate.
Back in the day (medieval times), you could only access the Bible if you were wealthy enough to own a copy (books weren’t as ubiquitous then as they are now), and if you were literate (which also wasn’t as common as it is today, especially in America). So if scripture is the only way to know God, this would have left a large portion of the population to only rely on what someone else (who was inevitably privileged, if wealthy and literate) told them about who God is.
However, nature was (and is) accessible to everyone, no matter the language you speak or your reading abilities. And unlike the Bible, it has always been around.
Romans 1:19-20 speak to this:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse.
And Psalm 104 is a beautiful picture of God as the creator and provider of all he created, and how we can see his glory through all he has made (it is too long to post, but you can read it here).
Certainly, none of this is to downplay the importance of scripture, but rather to emphasize that God’s word and God’s creation (both of which God is the author) add meaning to one another. It’s why we like to read materials that have plenty of nice images – it engages us and gives us a more holistic idea of the subject. We develop a deeper understanding of who God is by spending time in and meditating on both Word and Creation.
Words and language can be such a barrier sometimes – think about the miscommunication we run into on a daily basis, even technically speaking the same language. Words are tricky since everyone has a slightly different connotation that they associate with each word, causing much to be lost in translation, so to speak. So you end up thinking you know what the other person is saying, but later may find out that – whoops! You actually had no idea.
So it is good that we have another source of God’s wisdom to supplement the words he has left us. Now, going back to the four parts of lectio divina.
- Lectio: paying attention. Concentrating on what your senses are experiencing. When you read, you are focusing intently on the words, and listening for what stands out to you in the text. To translate this in to “reading” nature would be to pay attention to what you are seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and in some cases, tasting in the natural word around you, as well as paying attention to how you respond to these things. It is active participation that involves your body and your mind.
- Meditatio: pondering. Spending time in silence reflecting on and internalizing what you are experiencing and what is being revealed to you through what you are experiencing. It is also the time when you put what you are learning into the context of your life and what you know of scripture.
- Oratio: responding. Taking to God in prayer what you are feeling, experiencing, and thinking, so that his presence and voice can give you clarity as to what is truth. Accepting what God has spoken to you and letting it change you.
- Contemplatio: surrendering. Giving your new knowledge and understanding back to God and recognizing that it is only in his power that you can do what he asks of you. Surrendering to God takes the burden of making change off of your shoulders and puts it fully back into God’s control.
I think that if we begin to “read” nature in this way, God will teach and change us infinitely more than we might expect. I can imagine that he has much to show us that he is just waiting for us to discover. My challenge to you would be to try applying these 4 principals of lectio divina as your spend some time outside in creation – find a place where you feel peaceful and undistracted. Give God a chance to speak to you through what he has made.