Nature speaks to us in a language of her own. If her intonations sound harsh or unmusical, we may infer that our hearing is not attuned to her utterances. If her voices are unknown tongues, we need carefully to study her rhythm and accent, in order that we may translate her message. Nature is not Nature until we awaken the spirit of interpretation. We are unable to understand her motive until we take her into our confidence, and make her intimate acquaintance.
What is Nature, and what does she signify to us? What is her kingdom, and where its boundaries? Do we really see her, or only her signs and outpicturings? Is she essentially color, form, proportion, length and breadth, or life, mind, and spirit?
Nature is a revelator. The kingdom of spirit is co-extensive with her dominion, and shines through it. Each is the complement of the other, without boundary line. A poet of keen insight confides to us that—
And every common hush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.
—Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Truth must be a full-orbed unit, else she is untruthful. The physicist, while studying forms and properties, may be colorblind to the presence of a universal spiritual dominion. Dissociated from her vital essence, Nature is incongruous and misleading. The materialist interprets her as mechanical, cold, and even cruel. The scientist tests her qualities, and geometrizes her proportions, but does not hear her voices. The theologian, with eyes turned toward the supernatural, does not feel her warm, vital supports and inter-relations to the spiritual realm. Even the artist often catches only her complexion, while her warm and friendly temperament is unrecognized. Each thereby makes his own system misleading and unnatural. Only the spiritual chemism of the poet and idealist divines her affinities, and penetrates to her true inwardness.
The attempt to turn Religion away from Nature, into an arbitrary and unrelated realm, has drained it of its normal and abounding vitality; and, on the other hand, the materialism of Science has kept its gaze turned steadily downward. To the practical vision of the world the supernatural is unnatural, and the unnatural, morbid. Nothing unnatural can be attractive. Religion and science have each been weighted down as they have diverged from the normality of the established divine order.
Religion, in its normal simplicity, may be defined as orderly unfoldment which brings into manifestation the divine pattern. The natural world, in its methods and transmutations, is an articulation of the Father. The genius of Nature is an open gospel for all who can decipher its unrolled manuscript. But only the key of the spiritual intuition can unlock the motives and mysteries of cosmic forces, and disclose their beneficent order and rhythm.
The divinity in man recognizes its eternal counterpart—God in Nature—and feels the ecstatic thrill of the Omnipresent Spirit. Divine monograms and hieroglyphics are stamped upon all his environment, and he dwells in a boundless repository of mystery, harmony, and sanctity. As our spiritual vision grows clearer, the objective universe takes on intrinsic gracefulness and sublimity. The mirror of an uplifted consciousness reflects new revelations of cosmic harmony and unity. God is the mind of Nature. He whispers to us in every leaf, flower, and blade of grass; in the air, the clouds, the sunshine, the sea. All are eloquent from within. Each is a glowing sentence in the great open volume of universal Scripture. As the sea contains all its waves, so the One Life embraces all finite forms of vitality. This concept is a warm and living spiritual theism, and has no alliance with pantheism. Everything is soulful. Shapes and colors are delightful to the degree that we grasp their plasticity to spiritual molding from within. Pope's familiar lines are more than poetry:—
Whose body nature is, and God the soul.
As our physical organism is molded and directed by the mind within, so the whole creation is permeated and vitalized by the immanent God. Emerson, the great modern idealist, thus discourses of expression:—
"All form is an effect of character; all condition of the quality of life. Here we find ourselves, suddenly, not in a critical speculation, but in a holy place, and should go very warily and reverently. We stand before the secret of the world, there where Being passes into Appearance, and Unity into Variety. The universe is an externalization of the soul. Since everything in nature answers to a moral power, if any phenomenon remains brute and dark, it is because the corresponding faculty in the observer is not yet active."
If we delve deeply enough into the laws and constitution of rocks, plants, animals, and man, we everywhere discover the footprints of the unifying and energizing Presence. The revelations of Deific wisdom and spiritual vitality are as scientifically accurate as they are aesthetically transcendent. To feel our spiritual oneness and relativity to all things, is to expel infelicity and leanness from our consciousness. Such a transformation is, in itself, evidence of the truth of the principle. Nature is friendly. Her correspondences with us are so intimate and reciprocal, that they demonstrate infinite wisdom, unity, and adaptability. Bryant, in his "Thanatopsis," beautifully moulds this thought in his familiar lines:—
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware.
The barrenness and unruthfulness of atheism are evident from their utter inability to awaken human responsiveness. Nothing is abnormal save that which is created by man's defective and misplaced consciousness. He alone can cloud his own horizon. The much-vaunted achievements of material science cannot lift the load of human woe, or satisfy the universal soul-hunger. Whatever is unnatural is a distortion of the divine type. The deadly upas of artificialism is a blight upon literature, society, and institutions. A debasing so-called realism, claiming to be artistic, raises a false and perverted standard in the measurement of fiction, the drama, and real life. To paint abnormity in picturesque and vivid outline is a perversion of true art. Only that which is divine and normal in type can possess veritable artistic proportion. Even intellectual development, as usually defined, is powerless to lift men above the plane of shadows and illusions.
With an arbitrary and materialistic treatment Nature is severed from her vital relations, and becomes a caricature, mechanical, cold, and even adverse. The over-wrought refinements of a hyper-civilization, which subtly beckon us away from the natural type, promise much, but finally end in chaotic degeneration. The blandishments of fashion, society, display and ambition seductively whisper their charms; but following close in their train are barrenness, bitterness and heartlessness. As institutions take on abnormal shape and character, they invite decay. Civilizations, even when most distinguished for material grandeur and aesthetic culture, become top-heavy, and fall, because they lack a simple but broad archetypal basis.
We are touched on every side with life. The outward forms of buds and leaves and flowers may wither and fade from our sight, but the life which for a while held them in form is not lost, but conserved for further expression in yet sweeter and nobler shapes. New worlds are continually created before us for fuller revelations of truth. Every changing season opens fresh vistas, and slips new slides into the lenses of subjectivity which open outwards. Divine laws are engraven all about us, and each is interpreted through its own chosen and particular symbol. Nature has its parables and precepts, its comedies and tragedies. The Decalogue, psalmody, prophecy, the incarnation, sacrifice, and resurrection, are objectively written in living characters all about us, and subjectively inscribed in exact correspondence in the tablets of man's constitution. There are platforms and pulpits on every hand, from each of which is expounded the divine completeness of the established order. Poesy bids us:—
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
That vision is inspired which beholds mountains, forests, and rocks as cathedrals and altars, which enshrine the divine bounty and radiance. We are walking upon enchanted ground, and bushes are aflame all about us, and yet are not consumed.
Arcadian simplicity always has been a saving force, an instinctive feeling after the divine life. The primitive Aryan made Nature his inspiration, and its vigorous power was long perceptible during his migrations and shifting conditions.
A true translation of Nature is not a mental construction, an allegory, or a fancy, but a vision of a living reality working out its grand purpose. We should not read her superficially, as a shallow critic may read a book, with eyes only for its style and construction, but with open soul for her vital meaning and interpretation. But she is shy of her richness, and must be wooed and followed by sympathetic association, in order that she may respond with hearty communication. To pursue her with a mathematical chart, or an intellectual measuring stick, is to chill and alienate her, so that from a warm and loving mother she becomes only a conventional stranger, made up of mechanical powers and forces.
To the penetrative vision of the Hebrew prophets, Nature was but a transparent medium, through which they clearly saw the Infinite. The fervid imagery of Isaiah gave tongues and voices to every animate thing, and all joined in a universal anthem of praise.
But, as a whole, a somber shadow overcasts the sacred Hebraistic literature. The Deity was infinite physical force, more than omnipresent Spirit and Love. With an exuberant poetic and artistic symbolism, there is lacking that broader and grander consciousness of divine harmony, unity, and goodness with which a truer concept thrills the soul. Human fellowship and oneness with the spirit of Nature is a later and higher ideal than that of the Old Testament poets and seers.
During the long and gloomy period between the decay of classic culture and the Renaissance, inspiration through Nature almost ceased. The rigid austerity and asceticism which cast their shadows over the Middle Ages obliterated the beauty and harmony of the visible creation. Under such a cloud Nature appeared cold, arbitrary, and forbidding. Men found nothing lovable without, because they were conscious of no beauty within. Men and women barred themselves into cells, and lived behind bare walls, and put God's beautiful world out of sight. The visible universe, stripped of the living Divinity, was stern and joyless. The Deity was loveless, Nature a desert, humanity an object lesson of deformity, life a bed of spikes, and the future a rayless gloom. But with the modern awakening, the mind of man puts off its fetters, and asserts its freedom; existence becomes joyous, and Nature soulful and companionable. When life loses its plasticity, and becomes artificial and conventional, it hardens into rigid forms, and religion becomes an institution, and worship a prescribed service in temples made with hands. The open volume of the Spirit is pushed to the background by scholastic definitions and ecclesiastical authority and ritual. The outward sense is appealed to by imposing ceremonial, but the divine overflowing in the soul is smothered amid literal structure and objective dogma.
The forces of Nature are the exponents and ministers of righteousness. The man who violates the moral law ignores the principles of his own being, and sets at naught the laws which are inscribed in his inner constitution. It is impossible to cheat or baffle the established order. There is one orderly and beautiful pathway of progress, and no climbing up on the outside. But infinite forces work with us when we work through them. Nothing is detached, nothing casual, nothing unimportant; but all are necessary to the complete unity. The poet assures us that—
The scale of Nature is boundless. Upward and downward her octaves are endless in vibratory harmony. When we attempt any intellectual solution of her mysteries, we are confronted with the incomprehensibility of the Absolute. But what we cannot rationally measure, we may become one with. The spiritual perception may be filled with its love and goodness, and thoroughly taste its quality.
"Canst thou by searching find out God?" Through the intellect never, but through the inner vision thou mayst see him. God and Nature can only be known through related unisons. Man can cognize them because he has their samples in his soul. He translates them because he has found their subjective key. Said that great interpreter of Nature, Thoreau, in speaking of an experience in the woods: "I was sensible of such a sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering in the drops, and in every sight and sound around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine-needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even in scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary, and also that the nearest of blood to me, and humanist, was not a person nor a villager, that I thought no place could ever seem strange to me again." And again: "The indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature—of sun and wind and rain, of summer and winter—such health, such cheer, they afford forever! and such sympathy have they ever with our race, that all Nature would be affected, and the sun's brightness fade, and the winds would sigh humanely, and the clouds rain tears, and the woods shed their leaves and put on mourning in midsummer, if any man should ever for a just cause grieve. Shall I not have intelligence with the earth?"
One more thought of his: "In a pleasant spring morning all men's sins are forgiven. Such a day is a truce to vice. While such a sun holds out to burn, the vilest sinner may return. Through our own recovered innocence we discern the innocence of our neighbors."
Emerson says that Beauty is a creator; a notable specimen of his divine definitions. Objective loveliness is really soul-reflection. The graceful and perfect forms, colors, odors, and harmonies that we see and feel, are our higher and more ideal thought pictures, which are painted by the vibrations of Divinity upon our responsive souls. The beauty of a flower consists of the beautiful thought about it. The peculiar quality of things depends not upon intellectual observation, nor even interpretation, but upon the optics of soul.
A potato-patch in full blossom to one means only coming potatoes, to another an aesthetic revelation of Divinity.
How exquisitely does Nature do her finishing, polishing, and shading! No point-laces, brocades, or velvets can compare with her embroidery in lichens, ferns, and mosses. Her shuttles weave more delicate fabrics than those fashioned by the cunning of the looms and dyes of the Orient.
Man mars and cuts her fair face; but she uncomplainingly hastens to hide, soften, and repair his rude angles and scars. Even our beautiful country roads, which she trims with soft and variegated fringes, delighting the eye and soul of the wayfarer, are mowed and squared by crude human artificiality. But she, the beautifier and healer, follows with her magic touch of restoration. Everything is beautiful. The science of the world could not fashion the petal of a flower, the sting of a bee, nor the point of a thistle. The polish of a grain of sand is infinite. Every natural thing is a revelation of the skill and taste of the Divine Artist.
Various kinds of matter are really different modes of motion, each having its peculiar vibration. The most real and dense thing in the universe—if there be anything other than universal spirit—is the illimitable ether, which to sense is unknown except through some of its effects. Paradoxical as it may seem, while it is the most dense of all things, it is also the most elastic. John Eiske, in his "Unseen World," says of it: "It fills all material bodies like a sea, in which the atoms are as islands, and it occupies the whole of what we call empty space. It is so sensitive, that a disturbance in any part of it causes a tremor which is felt on the surface of countless worlds." But the qualities which we attribute to objective conditions are really in us, and do not touch the absolute, or, we may better say, spiritual realities.
Material science in the past has insisted that mind and spirit can only be known in their activities and phenomena through or in connection with a material base or organization. Such a conclusion is now outlawed, and the latest and highest trend of physics is now all in the other direction. Spirit is the reality, and matter its servant and sensuous expression. The seen universe or world of sense is only a parable, or a realm of show, like shadow pantomime, indicative of the character of realities behind. Spenser aptly puts this thought:—
And hath in it the more of heavenly light,
So it the fairer body doth procure
To habit in, and it more fairly dight,
With cheerful grace and amiable sight.
For of the soul, the body form doth take,
For soul is form, and doth the body make.
To the degree in which we are spiritually unfolded, we may penetrate beyond appearance, and gain glimpses of the real. Our eyes have never looked upon our friend, nor even upon our very selves, but only upon manifestations and coverings. We see but little of the spiritual world in Nature, because our finer faculties are only in an infantile stage of development. But even among physical existences our sensuous and intellectual range is so limited, that modern science admits that there may be whole universes of beings who dwell among us, or pass through us, of whose presence we know nothing. Their forms, colors, and properties are so subtle, that only beings whose senses are far more acute than ours can be introduced into their society. What ranges of orders upon orders above and below us! An eminent scientist has recently made the startling suggestion, that not only below us may exist molecular universes, intelligences, and even civilizations, but that above us perhaps worlds may be but as molecules of grand systems and organizations.
But such speculations in physical science have no especial value, unless by way of analogy they quicken our perception of the spiritual verities, of which the visible universe is but the printed page. 0 man, made in God's image, and linked to and nourished by Nature, what glorious vistas are to open before you in the eons of eternal progress!
Nature is God and love and truth translated. The world is embellished by spirit, and its inaudible music is the cadence of the gospel of good-will. Nature is a vast kindergarten, where easy object lessons train our child-like affections so they may gain strength to finally mount above and beyond them. As to her teaching, says Wordsworth:—
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
The latest movements of science in prying into Nature's deeper subtleties are a reproof to former conventionalism and finished materialistic concepts. A truer realism is coming to claim the spiritual genesis of all normal types; their spontaneity, perfection, and vital warmth. Art is becoming purified of arbitrary conventions, and with a free and plastic movement falling into the rhythm of divine harmonies and patterns. When so inspired she is the handmaid of spiritual development. Whether in the groined arches and Gothic tree-like forms which are materialized in grand cathedrals, or in the ideal of the sculptor, which, like Galatea, is ready to burst into life, or on glowing canvas instinct with stories of living reality, art is the visible molder of idealism and the revealer of faith.
The human imagination, freed from the leaden weights of pessimism, pathology, and literal limitation, soars aloft into the upper atmosphere of light and growth. The revelation of divinity in Nature is in exact accord with that which is incarnated in the Son. God is the author of all truth, and therefore every realm is sacred. The unperverted type of normal man, as seen in the Christ, confirms the inherent oneness of God and his children. The beautiful proportions of the perfect human model demonstrate that a full influx of the divine life tempers all the fancies of the imagination and impulses of the will to a heavenly shaping; and this is full-grown man—the measure of the stature of the Christ. The revelation of God in Nature is not less sacred than that through the Son or the Book. It is a great volume of pictorial illustration, at the center of which man himself is the grandest feature.
—William Cullen Bryant
The simplicity, freedom, and spontaneity of the early religions were manifested in a sympathetic oneness with Nature, and an instinctive feeling of her divinity. The people assembled for worship or sacrifice at natural shrines, or under the broad canopy of heaven, rather than in temples made with hands.
In process of time, as sacred enclosures, synagogues, and temples became common, men began to feel that in a special way these structures contained God, and that there was little divinity outside. Instead of being omnipresent, as men proclaimed with their lips, in their feelings He was either divided and limited, or else far away. They could only awaken their sense of Him at special times and in particular places. The consciousness was still further limited to set ordinances, sacraments, and ceremonies. God consecrated all things, and yet men so lost an appreciation of the overwhelming presence, that only those particular places and environments are regarded sacred which men, through their own special, puny forms, reconsecrate.
But we would have no place less sacred, but lift all up to the high level and ideal. Men have effectively deconsecrated nature, art, institutions, customs, and even our own physical organisms, which have been truly declared to be temples of the Holy Ghost.
We have drawn a sharp line around a few things which we have identified with God, pronouncing everything outside of these secular. We have virtually shut him out of all religions except our own, and, through a limited inspiration, out of all books save one. We have dispensed with him in history, with the exception of the doings of one race; and so, not feeling his particular presence in other records, have rated them as profane. We have, perhaps unwittingly, almost declared that God could not be found outside of one institution, one system, one round of observances and saving ordinances. We have not so intended, but our anthropomorphic and limited ideas of our Deity have logically closed the portal of the higher consciousness.
The church and the Bible are good, but are not all. We may truly meet God in the groves or fields, on the mountaintop, under the azure canopy, or by the shimmering sea; but, as we are constituted in his image, most nearly, face to face, in the sanctuary of our own soul.
We go to meet him one day in seven, but he is with us all days, and upon invitation will dwell in our living consciousness. True thinking, service, and aspiration are profitable on Monday as well as on Sunday.
We have put God out of business, out of politics, out of political economy, out of education, and out of society, and thereby made them Godless. Encased in our sensuous pursuits, we fail to feel him, though he besets us behind and before, and is nearer than our thoughts. Only his immanence explains all the marvels of nature within and around us. Not merely worship, but communion and fellowship with the "All in All," should be the noblest, sweetest, truest, purest experience of life.
We can lift everything towards the divine by transforming our own ideals. "The pure in heart shall see God." What a wonderful power and privilege! and yet it potentially belongs to all. How often we have rated this grand declaration as metaphor or allegory, rather than as scientific exact truth.
Life, in all forms and on all planes, is a direct deific manifestation. There is only one vitality, but it is all-inclusive.
The materialist sees nature only as a great mechanism. His standpoint will not permit of the broader range of reality. He views the prismatic glory of the rainbow merely as light resolved, the beauty of leaf and flower only as chemical selection, and bursting and exuberant life only as a response to light, heat, and moisture. Nature to him is therefore a hopeless, loveless, cold, remorseless machine, a general arena of warring forces. But true science, at this late period, is beginning to divine her friendliness. We are learning to listen while she whispers to us of her subtle laws and methods. She is waiting to serve us in every direction. Her very regularity, which we thought was machine-like, we learn to depend upon, and find it beneficent. In our undeveloped state we thought her our enemy. But vibration, with her divine rhythm, causes all things to become ours. She places reins of relationship in our hands, which reach out objectively in all directions.
We often speak of the forces of Nature. But back of all forces there is one Force; back of all laws, one Law; back of all causes, one Cause, one Spirit, one Life, one Love.