Spirituality and Nature

Allison McNaughton

Praise the Lord from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
stormy winds that do his bidding,
you mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars,
wild animals and all cattle,
small creatures and flying birds,
kings of the earth and all nations,
you princes and all rulers on earth,
young men and maidens,
old men and children. (Psalm 148:7-12)

When considering the reading that we have done so far in class I am struck by the relationship that is drawn in many of them, between the appreciation of nature and spirituality. While I am not a Christian in the typical sense there is still no doubt in my mind that there is a benevolent and loving higher power, whatever its name may be. What reason do I have to say this? For me, like Wordsworth in "Tintern Abbey", and like Radcliffe's Emily, I feel a connection with a higher power in my own interactions with nature.

There is no other place in which I feel God more strongly than in the natural world around me. Last summer, working on my aunt and uncle's farm, I would have moments early in the morning, working in crisp air under a light blue textured sky, in which I would be overcome with feelings of insignificance in the face of such vastness. Another moment that stands out in my memory is walking in the valley between Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags in Holyrood Park, Edinburgh as a snow storm visibly moves over the top of the Seat and down into the valley around me, evoking feelings that I can only characterize as sublime. The experience, of which the prior are only two examples, makes my problems cease to matter and makes me feel connected somehow to an ineffable, eternal and concrete Something. It seems to tie us to the world, to all of humanity and to a higher power that seems to move through all of it. While there is absolutely no way to prove scientifically that this feeling is legitimate or correlated directly with our interaction with our environment it seems impossible to dismiss such an overwhelming response to the landscape. Furthermore, belief in accessing God through nature is not confined to the Romantic era. Nature is implicated in the worship of God in the Bible, and in many other of the major religions. Philosophical beliefs such as theosophy, popular among artists in the late 19th early 20th century maintained that there was an underlying spirit that ran through every living thing and that could be captured through art, writing, dancing, etc. The reaction seems innate, uncontrollable and seems to link the past to the present to the future, aspects of the experience that are explored by William Wordsworth in his poetry, and by Radcliffe, in her novel Mysteries of Udolpho.

In Radcliff's Mysteries of Udolpho there is no doubt in the narrator's mind that one can feel closer to God through interaction with nature. The novels heroine delights in "the wild wood-walks, that skirted the mountain; and still more the mountain's stupendous recesses, where the silence and grandeur of solitude impressed a sacred awe upon her heart, and lifted her thoughts to the GOD OF HEAVEN AND EARTH" (10). Emily turns to nature when her father is on the verge of death for comfort, dwelling on the night sky as "the worlds, perhaps, of spirits, unsphered of mortal mould", contemplation that causes her thoughts to turn, "as before, towards the sublimity of the Deity" (71). The link that Radcliffe makes between closeness to God and the appreciation of nature can be used to explain another connection that Radcliffe makes in the novel, between the appreciation of nature and personal virtue. The characters in the novel such as Valancourt and Emily, who are moved by the landscape's beauty, have basically good, mannered, compassionate and God fearing natures. Those that do not, such as Montoni and Emily's aunt for example are heartless, conceited and uncaring. The link drawn between virtue and valuing nature must be based on the belief that appreciation of nature brings one closer to God.

While being less overt about it, William Wordsworth also describes the way that he feels connected to the divine through his appreciation of nature in his poem "Tintern Abbey". To Wordsworth however, the connection seems to consist of more depth than that which Radcliffe describes. While Wordsworth describes a nature granted knowledge of a higher power in his lines: "And I have felt / A presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused" (Wordsworth, ll. 94-98), he also describes the insight that nature gives him into life beyond our physical bodies. Nature to Wordsworth is balanced, harmonious and opposite the "burden of the mystery… Of all this unintelligible world" (ll.39, 41) of human enterprise. He describes his experience of nature as being like a death to his physical body and the resurrection of his spiritual self: "we are laid asleep / In body, and become a living soul" (ll.46-47), a process that results in insight "into the life of things" (l.49). To Wordsworth, the outcome of his experiencing nature is a defamiliarizing one. He is given greater insight into who he is spiritually and how this knowledge connects him to the world through the belief in a higher power that exists in all natural beings and objects. To Wordsworth, the presence that he feels as he beholds the river Wye and the landscape around it dwells "in the light of setting suns, / And the round ocean, and the living air, / And the blue sky, / and in the mind of man" (ll.98-100), a spirit that he believes "rolls through all things" (l.103).

So, while the experience of nature described in Wordsworth's poem, in Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho and in my own experience may not be able to be proven to exist in any scientific way, the pervasiveness of the belief across time must lend it some credibility. But really, what does it matter if the experience is believed by others or not? It is a personal and subjective phenomenon that to me involves spiritual reflection and the feeling of being part of something much bigger than myself. The feeling is one that is valuable to me, the understanding of myself as a spiritual person and the understanding of my relation to the world around me. Based on my own experience, I will continue to believe that "God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what he has made, so that men are without excuse" (Romans 1:20).

Works Cited

Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. Ed. Jacqueline Howard. London: Penguin Books, 2001.

The Student Bible, New International Version. Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.

Wordsworth, William. "Tintern Abbey". Romanticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Duncan Wu. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998.