On Nature as My Church


I’ve been in a lot of churches and synagogues in my day. Some of them have indeed been very beautiful, adorned with impressive artwork. But none have ever struck me with awe.

I recently spent some time on the coast of Oregon where I took the above picture. I realized the ocean is my church. I have encountered God in other ways. Through art. Through recovery. Through the wonder of birth and death. But I feel closest to God when by the ocean.

I am certainly not unique in finding God in nature. Writers I greatly admire — from John Muir to Loren Eiseley to Annie Dillard — articulate the Godliness of nature. Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins celebrates that manifestation as he intones “Glory be to God for dappled things…” Singers, too, invoke the presence of Spirit found in the outdoors, none more than the late John Denver.

And, yes, I agree with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel when he reminds us that God must be found amidst the skyscrapers. But I hear His/Her Voice most clearly in the crashing waves.

Perhaps this is because it is a pure encounter with creation. It is not filtered to me through someone else’s interpretation of what it means. It is a one-to-one encounter.

Lest you think, I am naive, I know too of the power and violence of the ocean. Once I had run along the beach in Marina del Rey and stopped to sit on a rock, feeling very mellow and spiritual. Suddenly a big wave roared in and nearly knocked me off the rock! “OK, God. I get it. You’re much bigger and more powerful than I can imagine.” A humbling reminder.

I envy those who talk about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This seems to be a source of comfort for them. It is an experience I don’t understand.

But as I stand at the edge of the ocean, waves washing over my feet, my face misted with spray, yes, in those moments I have a personal relationship with the God of my understanding. For that, I am grateful.

Reflection: 1. Has your spiritual journey been enriched by Nature in any way?

Further Reading: Loren Eiseley The Starthrower; Annie Dillard A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Further Viewing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OwARpaKHx_w Enjoy again this classic hymn!

About richp45198

I am a clinical psychologist and have an abiding interest in matters spiritual.
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7 Responses to On Nature as My Church

  1. Margarita GironSanchez says:

    What a great article. Gives me food for thought. I need to reflect on what gives me or should I say “when do I feel the closes to God” Thank you, Dr. Patterson Margie

    From: Psyche and Spirit/Richard B. Patterson PhD >To: gironsanchez6@sbcglobal.net >Sent: Friday, July 5, 2013 9:51 AM >Subject: [New post] On Nature as My Church > >richp45198 posted: ” I’ve been in a lot of churches and synagogues in my day. Some of them have indeed been very beautiful, adorned with impressive artwork. But none have ever struck me with awe. I recently spent some time on the coast of Oregon where I took the above ” >

  2. Laura Z. says:

    Nature has always been my God. When I traveled to Hawaii with my sisters, we visited this shoreline with a particularly rough wave pattern. The sea was only a little rough, but the way the shore was, the waves exploded 100 feet or more in the air. It was awesome and very humbling. Reading this post and reflecting on other moments where I’ve felt spiritually connected, perhaps being humbled is the key to being close to God? If we sought humility would we therefore be seeking God? Hmmm…something to consider!

  3. Cornelia Patterson says:

    So many of us find spirituality in nature. My heart filled with joy when reading your blog. P

  4. Rose Mathews says:

    As usual, Rich, you give us something to ponder on and marvel on. I so appreciate your writings! I have always found God in nature, especially when the sun is setting. I seem to be able to see God in Heaven then!

  5. Eileen P. Williams says:

    Bee yoo tee ful. I just love how you express yourself and I thank your for sharing. I experience God in MOUNTAINS. Especially layers of mountains with clouds/fog and deep shadows. I can stand transfixed for hours staring and feeling like I might get sucked right into the depths of them. Plus the smell of the desert when it rains. And trees. I love all trees. Except palm trees. 🙁

  6. Susan says:

    When I was young, I received a medal with the image of St. Dismas. As many people know, Dismas was crucified beside Jesus. He acknowledged/accepted Jesus that day and was promised to be in Paradise. I also felt crucified at one point in my life. I told my persecutors about Dismas and they laughed. When I feel resentment about that, I simply look around me and ask myself, “Are you in Paradise?”. And the answer is “Yes!”. Every day I look out over the ocean from the windows of my home and drive by it on the way to work. My son plays in it all summer long. Every day I feel the balmy breezes and see the mist that creates rainbows over the huge, green mountains. Daily I smell the fragrant, wild flowers that bloom all year long. I look up at the tall trees outside my office that house the brightly colored birds and I am in Paradise.

  7. Well, in the words of a radical nun friend who used to live in your town and was one of my support people when I first arrived in El Paso, “I don’t DO church.” Yes, she actually said that because she had become, as I now have, a huge fan of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme’s work, and she was completely done with the patriarchal hierarchy of the church. Last fall I went to a retreat at the Well, a retreat center of the St. Joseph order near Chicago. The focus was Thomas Berry, Teillhard de Chardin, and Hildegard of Bingen. All of them “did” church in nature, as well as in brick and mortar buildings. I do some parts of church, but my real “church” experience happens when I sit in a lush Colorado forest and listen to the rustle of Aspen leaves accompanied by the babble of a nearby stream or when I sit, as I did this past week, in a lush herb garden in Santa Fe and hear the birds chirping or the hummingbirds whirring around a nectar-laden flower. Every part of creation screams, sings, hums, groans, or whispers the presence of the sacred, and I feel much more capacity to cozy up with that kind of church than the institutional one.

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