The National Catholic Review
Ruth Anne Olson
Finding God in majestic places
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As a child I was fascinated by the tiny tornadoes that scurried across the western Oregon landscape where I grew up. Sometimes called “dust devils,” these small funnels of air skipped over the earth picking up twigs and dry grass, tossed them in swirling twists of playfulness and then disappeared in bursts of upward energy as the dirt and leaves fluttered to the ground. Where did such power come from? I wondered. Where did it go? Always I was left with the unsettling realization that I was lucky to have seen it at all, to have been looking in the right place at the right time. What mysteries happen behind my back? I wondered. What surprises would the world hold for me if I could look in all directions at once?

One limitation of our humanity is that we can look in only one direction at a time. I have come to feel deeply the expressions of God’s love in Bible stories, ancient prayers and meditation; in the love of family, friends and total strangers; and in human creations of sculpture, poetry, liturgy and music. Yet the direction in which I look most often, the experience to which I most faithfully turn to ponder the unimaginable miracle of God, is experience of the wild. The awesome immensity of nature has shown me the divine: God before the beginning, through time unimaginable—indivisible, inseparable, indestructible.

Beautiful Blooms, Bright Skies

I invite you to share briefly my experience of God and to go beyond liturgical habits and Scripture, beyond the sound, color, light and beauty of churches, mosques and synagogues. Go instead to the shore of a mighty Midwestern lake, to the constancy and complexity of changing seasons, to the tenacity of delicate harebells clinging to tiny granules of dirt trapped in the cracks of billion-year-old rocks and splashed with the weight of waves leaping out of a vast basin created millions of years ago. Yes, tiny bell-shaped lavender flowers grow out of hairline cracks in rocks, having lain in the same place for billions of years, flowers thrown flat by water that leaps out of an ancient basin we call Lake Superior. As each wave drains slowly away, the harebells bob upright, absorb the earthy smells, and are cast down by the next pounding wave, over and over again. This is God’s joy, God’s unfathomable joy, love and wisdom at my very feet.

Since my childhood, people have used the Psalms, Gospels and other Bible stories to teach me about faith. But none of those stories has the power to guide me toward love and my place in the world as strongly as a night when Venus, a bright dot 25 million miles away, shines so bright as to cast a stream of light upon the lake. Or as fireflies flickering in a darkness that suddenly lies deepest-black after massive sheets of lightning have brought noontime clarity to the midnight sky. The parables of Jesus teach a right life; so too do the song sparrow, swarms of biting mosquitoes, waves threatening to swamp our canoe and a Milky Way that extends deeper into the heavens than my imagination can follow.

Each Sunday I step into the sanctuary of my church, eager to surround myself with symbols of the divine. But the ability of liturgy and hymns to lift me out of myself pales when compared with the sensual strength of seeing a first flock of snow buntings when cold November winds move south from the Canadian plains. The power of altars and stained-glass windows is dwarfed by the magnificent stars of Orion spread wide across the cold bright winter sky. The soft bathing of Easter incense on my cheeks becomes unfathomably weak compared with a spring breeze as the lake gives up its winter ice to earth’s lengthening days.

God’s Creation Speaks

Within my community of worship, three and even four generations of us set aside our self-absorptions to reflect and serve something bigger than ourselves. There I have grown to understand the importance of God’s mystery. Our shared exploration and openness to each person’s life and yearning has allowed me to see that God flows fundamentally from the creation I am privileged to know. This realization gives me confidence that the earth itself holds the hope for unity and the future of humankind.

Through my own fear and loneliness in years of illness and when those I love in my widespread family have struggled with depression, drug dependency and sickness, I have prayed for acceptance and wisdom. God’s answer comes most clearly each time I stand in the woods and hear the sound of water filtering through the trees. Grounded on that small hilltop, I learn constancy amid adversity from the destructiveness of tons of wind-blown ice, from waves that toss car-size boulders onto the shore, from rain that topples trees and drowns mice in their nests and from the steady persistence of fire moving through the rich fuel of the soil. There too I find comfort in moss-covered trees decaying into the earth, snakelike trails of a vole scurrying beneath fresh snow and the playful dignity of gulls hitching rides on drifting ice floes.

From it all, my confidence that creation comes together in ways beyond my understanding grows deeper, and I learn to know my place in the circle of humankind. Who am I in this world of love and anger, of intimacy and despair? How do I respect and love the old people with whom I live, the children and adolescents who are part of my life and the stranger on the street who asks for money? My answers come from the generosity of the pileated woodpecker who beats her territorial marks on the trees around our campsite; from the constancy of the seasons and the straight-line trot of the coyote over snow-covered rocks; from the persistence of the deer who returns safely to shore after swimming out of sight to escape a hungry wolf. I learn from the joyful surge of the gull flying into a gusting wind and from the timelessness of a loon who shares his ancient call with the surrounding world.

The Bible has taught me that humankind has a unique and special relationship with God, but I suspect that so too does all creation. My ears are too feeble to hear, my brain too small to comprehend, but I believe that creation tells its story of unlimited unique relationships with God. Vast expanses of space, orange and gray lichen that find life on the cold dark surfaces of ancient rocks, moss beds that light the forest floor with iridescent green, tiny pond creatures that look like swimming twigs. Each talks with God in a language different from but no less special than my own. I like it that humanity has its own unique qualities. But I am confident that so too has every cell of the many billion years of history before us, so too the incomprehensible future beyond.

Lessons to Learn

Eve and the apple, Moses in the bull rushes and on the mountain, Joseph walking wearily alongside the donkey, Jesus in the garden, stories of parting waters and pillars of salt—in these we treat humankind as the center of creation. All else are supporting props to our self-centered dramas. But creation itself reminds us that we are an infinitesimal speck in a rich and infinite vastness. We are urged to see the Psalmist’s love of God as sun, rock, spring, shield, thundering torrent and devouring fire. We nudge ourselves to step outside the smallness of our altars and processions to learn celebration from the rising moon; trust, wisdom and forgiveness from the grass that grows in sidewalk cracks; constancy, generosity and joy from the migrating birds; humility and love from the unseen creatures in the nearby creek and in backyard puddles on a rainy day. Surrounded by a totality that makes us—and all the holy stories we know—mewling infants in God’s vast creation, we learn who we are and who we can be.

I still carry my childish wish to be able to see in every direction at once, but I grow every day by seeing what is always straight ahead. Creation is an unfolding story seeking to find the spaces within me that yearn to see, to hear and to love.

Ruth Anne Olson is retired from a career in education. She divides her time between Minneapolis and the north shore of Lake Superior.

Comments

MARY GRIESEMER | 10/13/2009 - 8:47am
Your article touched my soul with its images.  You live with your eyes wide open to all the marvels of this magnificent universe.  Observing the subtle changes of each season while I walk daily in the woods has let me know that God is in charge.  Why should I ever worry?
MICHAEL LAU | 10/10/2009 - 4:37am
In the church buildings you see the human artifacts. But from the alrar where the sacramental Eucharist is performed, and when you receive Jesus" own Body and Blood from HIS ALTAR, you will see in HIM all the beautities plus HIS LOVE you would like to be seeing in the open universe. Seeing the real beauties of the universe brings us to see the real and loving Jesus in whom we have faith in, too.