Seven keys to finding God in nature

By Chris Lanciotti

Today, many of us often hear the phrase that one “finds God in nature.” While something in that near cliché phrase rings true with me, my experience has shown me that this “finding” is quite a bit more challenging than it appears at first glance. The idea that one simply “finds” God in nature, perhaps like a friend waiting patiently on a park bench, seems to strike a dissonant chord with my own experience.

There is evidence to support my intuition. Many people outside of the Church have come to calling their experiences in nature “spiritual” and the outdoors “their church” without (and often at odds with) reference to God. 2020 saw record numbers flocking to the outdoors as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The outdoor industry is suffering an unprecedented scarcity  of equipment, with the bicycle industry facing a particular shortage worldwide. In recent decades, National Parks have struggled to keep numbers at reasonable levels, with the years leading up to the pandemic reaching some of their most crowded in recorded history.

Does this mean we will see (or already have seen) a reciprocal increase in the number of people who practice religion? Definitely not. While it is apparent many who identify openly with a religious worldview speak about how they “find God” in the outdoors, countless individuals outside the religious sphere find something else in their experience without making an explicit reference to some supernatural presence. What are they finding? Is there an experience of nature that unites both of these groups and taps into the deeper humanity that we all have in common?

Photo by Johny Goerend on Unsplash

We find the answer in contemplation. Thomas Merton said of contemplation, “It is a kind of spiritual vision [that] sees without seeing and knows without knowing.” The human person is quite literally made for contemplation, able to perceive God’s “invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity…in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20). Yet how few are actually able to pierce through the veil and touch that invisible nature! 

The experience is perhaps something like the apostles encountering the resurrected Christ. Most saw but did not believe (Luke 24:37). On the other hand, Thomas, who at first does not see and who we call the “Doubter,” later sees the Lord and believes, crying “My Lord and My God” (Jn 20:28). While nature points to God’s invisible nature, hidden just across the threshold of the forest, the mountain top, or the sunset, how few of us are able to proclaim these words with Thomas as we contemplate nature. Contemplation should be a natural response to reveling in God’s magnificent creation and our place in it.

Still, the questions remain: how do we find God in nature, and how do we pierce the veil and discover the supernatural shrouded there within? We need to receive the gift of contemplation in order to better dispose ourselves to experience the natural. For it is not me that finds God in nature, but in the natural world that God finds me. In order to better dispose ourselves, I have found the following seven keys to be very helpful.

1. Plan ahead and Prepare

Borrowing from Leave No Trace (lnt.org) outdoor ethics, my first key is to plan well for any experience out into the backcountry. In general, when we go into the wilderness, we don’t want surprises, but instead to be prepared to receive the gift of whatever nature wants to give us that day. Preparation fosters a deep respect and reverence for the power of nature, and contrary to opinion does not take away from the experience but disposes the person to better receive it.

2. Take your Time

For most of us this means “slow down.” We come from an intense rhythm of life, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but we should aim to take advantage of our time in the backcountry by entering into the rhythm of the natural world. If you are going on a day-hike, try to start before dawn and allow yourself to “wake up” with the environment around you. Take one step further and perhaps leave for a hike the night before and sleep near the trailhead, making sure to spend some time in the blanketed silence of night in the outdoors. Entering into the rhythm of the natural world helps us to more easily perceive the rhythm of the Real.

Photo by Akash Dutta on Unsplash

3. Listen…to nothing, which is something

Spending time in silence is a highly underrated activity in a culture full of constant noise. Many times we unknowingly bring that noise with us into the natural world through our conversations, through technology, and even in the way we move and walk. Even if you’re with a group of friends, take some time to listen to your own thoughts, and to listen to nature itself. You’ll be surprised at what you’ll hear.

4. Try not to take (so many) photos

Photos can be a good thing, very good. They help us remember events and reconstruct our experiences. They remind us of wonderful moments, and all of the feelings and emotions associated with them. But I would not be reaching if I said that we simply take too many photos. On top of that we “filter” these moments to influence how others (and even ourselves) remember them. Taking less photos will also remind you that we also have four other senses – who knew!?

5. Bible Study

Spend some time exploring the relationship of the natural world with Scripture. No spoilers, but from Genesis to Revelation, the relationship is much more profound than many of us know. The created world, and man within it, are an expression of the glory of God. Understanding how that relationship works begins in God’s revealed Word.

6. Plant something 

There’s no experience, in my opinion, quite as powerful in learning to develop a relationship with the natural world as helping “cultivate” new life. Learning to act responsibly as nature’s stewards takes commitment and humility. In a world where we can go and buy just about anything we desire from a supermarket five minutes away, there’s nothing like eating your own tomatoes.

7. Write Something Down

If you keep a journal, or even if you don’t, take some time to record your thoughts in a natural setting. I can imagine some of the greatest works of literature were written in this way, from the Psalms to Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The way we capture words helps us to enter more deeply into communion with the logos of the natural world. 

Chris Lanciotti is a Consecrated Lay Member of the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae and is originally fromFort Collins. He is currently the Program Director at Creatio, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to “helping allpeople encounter the beauty of Creation and the Creator.”

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”