I open the book
and the words
fly out of the page.
–Scottish Poet Kenneth White
Every once in a while, I have these experiences in which I am overwhelmed by the beauty of the world. I remember vividly the first time I saw an ocean. I stood on the beach, transfixed by the sheer vastness of the open water. I remember squinting to see the horizon, where the water met the sky. It looked like the edge of existence, even though I cognitively knew there were people living on the other side. When I lived in Bolivar, my friends and I would often drive the 2.5 minutes it took to get out of town and into the middle of nowhere. We’d sit in the bed of my friend’s truck and stare up at millions of stars and talk about our relative smallness. Or last fall, when Laura and I went to New Mexico. I snuck away during one session to climb a nearby mountain. From the peak, I was struck by this view:
Thinking back on these experiences, I’m reminded of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. For Thoreau, the ability to recognize the beauty of nature was directly connected to the human ability to achieve self-awareness and art.
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of [a human being] to elevate his[/her] life by a conscious endeavour. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.
Celtic Christianity has long seen this same connection between the goodness of creation declared in the Genesis poems and the goodness that exists in each human soul. In The Book of Creation, Celtic theologian J. Philip Newell describes it this way:
God’s wisdom is born with us ‘in the womb’, as Ecclesiasticus says, or, as St. John says, in us is ‘the true light that enlightens everyone coming into the world’. Sin has buried the beauty of God’s image, but not erased it. The gospel is given to uncover the hidden wealth of God that has been planted in the depths of our human nature.
So, what is left for us to do? It is as Thoreau said,
We are constantly invited to be what we are; as to something worthy and noble.