“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the wildflowers grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
“So don’t worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Therefore don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
When I read those words for the first time, back in 1986, it kickstarted a process somewhere within me that eventually led to a spiritual transformation some 18 months later.
Jesus’ wisdom struck a chord in my young, atheist heart, changing the direction of my life in so many ways. I was only 20 then and, although I’d already had my fair share of traumas and challenges, life was simple. Not happy, but simple.
The faith I stepped into was also straightforward. And I found happiness!
Now in my late 50s, when life is more complicated and I face different challenges, I’m reminded again of these words as I contemplate these Spring flowers in our local woods.
And I wonder… is it possible to recapture some of that young simplicity?
To once again take Jesus at face value?
And, in my evolved, progressive faith, to simply trust God who cares for Nature to also meet all my needs, not just materially but psychologically and spiritually too?
In The Way of the Heart, the late Henri Nouwen described Solitude and Silence as conditions for contemplative prayer.
I would add Stillness.
Not necessarily physical stillness (many people find it easier to pray and meditate while walking), but a slowing down and calming of mind and heart.
This kind of stillness is synonymous with silence as described by Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge:
“I believe it’s possible for everyone to find this silence within themselves. It is there all the time, even when we are surrounded by constant noise. Deep down in the ocean, below the waves and ripples, you can find your internal silence….swimming across a forest lake or taking a walk over a field: all these can be experiences of perfect stillness too.” 
I find it intriguing that these prerequisites for contemplative prayer are also key to our ability to connect with nature and wildlife photography.
Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not…
I think there are some clear reasons why Solitude, Silence and Stillness are common to both contemplative prayer and photographing nature.
Firstly, when we interact with Nature, are we not also communing with God or ‘the Divine’?
And does not Nature sometimes need some searching out, in the same way that God calls us to seek their Presence with our deepest desire?
In contemplative solitude and silence we are able to tune out the distractions of the world around us and give our attention to that which is beyond the temporal and visible, to the voice and presence of the Divine.
“The Desert Fathers did not think of solitude as being alone, but as being alone with God. They did not think of silence as not speaking but as listening to God. Solitude and silence are the context within which prayer is practised.” (Nouwen)
As for being alone with a camera…
Much as I love walks with my family, it’s often not practical taking time to get a decent picture of a butterfly when others are waiting for what feels to them like hours! I have to hurry on rather than linger mindfully and watchfully.
And the cacophony of children and chitchat of company means that potentially photographable birds inevitably don’t stick around long.
Of course, we can and should appreciate nature with others.
When we explore naturey places with other people, we may be able to enjoy shared moments of awe and wonder, and inspire each other’s love for the natural world and our environmental concern.
But when I’m alone – and stop – and sit or stand, and wait quietly, in stillness and silence… wildlife that wouldn’t otherwise be witnessed might emerge out of the shadows, materialise out of the margins.
Isn’t waiting for God in meditative solitude also something like this?
“God’s first language is silence. Everything else is a translation,” claimed Thomas Keating.
And Meister Eckhart famously asserted, “Nothing in all creation is so like God as stillness.”
Rowan Williams, reflecting on Eckhart, says that:
“Silence is letting what there is be what it is, and in that sense is profoundly to do with God. When we experience moments where there is nothing we can say or do that would not intrude on the integrity and beauty of what is before us, that is a silence that takes us into God.”
I so love that!
I want to carry that principle into contemplative prayer and into nature photography.
…and into everyday life.
And so open my soul to the wonder of everything.
 Nouwen’s classic book on the life of the desert mothers and fathers.
 From Kagge’s meditative, wonder-full, compact book, Silence: In an age of noise.
 A pantheist believes everything is God. A panentheist believes God is in everything. Although the latter seems like a respectable and attractive idea, it’s quite a nuanced belief and not universally accepted among Christians. However, I think it’s fair to say that most people of faith see Nature – or Creation – as a direct expression of the Creator.
 From Rowan Williams’ excellent, short book, Silence and Honey Cakes, also on the desert fathers and mothers.
I like my early morning dog-walks before work. The fresh air, the quiet, the solitude. The connection with nature in our local woods. The opportunity to reflect and pray.
And yet even the contemplative and spiritual aspects of the morning walk tend to be functional.
They serve as tools – resources to enable me to face the challenges of a demanding job, rather than pleasures in and of themselves. I keep an eye on my watch, aware of my limited time before the start of the working day.
But when Saturday comes (to quote an Undertones classic)….
It’s a different matter. I do the same thing, but differently.
Prayer and meditation are more mindful, less focussed, more open.
The colours around me are brighter. The fresh air feels fresher. Everything’s slowed down.
Saturday walks are a bit later. Nature is a bit more awake. As am I.
The sense of connection with Nature and with God feels – maybe not stronger, but clearer.
I take my time. I take my camera. I notice more, and enjoy some relaxed and relaxing photography.
Good robin photos are ten a penny on t’internet. But no harm in adding a few more.
I took these – with delight – yesterday, on Saturday morning…
One of the things I love about the green spaces in urban Hastings (St Helen’s Wood, Alexandra Park, Newgate Woods) is the rich variety of exotic and unusual trees planted decades ago, many helpfully labelled. Many of these are now magnificent, sturdy creatures of stature.
However, one such tree that I’ve always enjoyed watching through the seasons each year – an Indian Horse-chestnut – came down in last week’s storms.
A native of the Himalayas, the Indian Horse-chestnut (Aesculus indica) is popular in many parks and estates in the UK, where it was introduced in the mid-19th century.
Although in some ways I’m sorry to see the tree fallen, this is not the end of the story.
One of my favourite posts in an old blog of mine is Twist of Fate (do please take a look) – my attempt at poetry about a fallen trunk in Alexandra Park that continues to give life.
Rewilding pioneers Isabella Tree and Sir Charlie Burrell describe how, in their early days of rewilding the Knepp estate in West Sussex, instead of cutting down a previously grand old – now rotting old – oak, made the counterintuitive decision to leave the tree to its own devices – “our first lesson in sitting on our hands and leaving Nature in the driving seat.”
They watched a whole new universe spring to life, as beetles, other saproxylic (dead wood eating) invertebrates and woodpeckers began to find a home and nutrition in this dying habitat.
Voles took up residence in the rabbit warrens amongst the tree’s roots, and a heron frequently perched itself on a lower limb that overlooked a lake.
Isabella and Charlie learnt to leave fallen branches from other trees on the ground – encouraging the natural process of fertilisation for the trees.
As Isabella puts it, “Death became a different kind of living.” 
Most spiritualities have a healthy and hopeful outlook on death and dying. My own Christian faith has resurrection hope at its centre. Nature (God’s first “Bible”) has always shown us this, with its patterns of renewal, revival and resurrection amidst its ostensibly messy system of decay and dying.
I write this while struggling with a bereavement myself. Putting these reflections together turns out to be an important cathartic process, reminding me of the hope that I hold.
It’s thought that the Victorians are to blame for our obsession with tidying up. Tidiness may be useful in some contexts, but it spells disaster for ecosystems.
In Nature, nothing is wasted.
Dead wood and fallen trees become sources of vital nutrients, create fresh habitats for new visitors, and give rise to all kinds of life.
The collapse of the Indian Horse-chestnut is by no means the end, either of its own life or that of others. In fact, it might just be an auspicious sign of new beginnings.
I just hope and pray now that the authorities don’t decide to tidy the fallen tree away, but leave it to do what Nature does best.
(Photos all mine, but no copyright!)
Wilding by Isabella Tree (London: Picador, 2018).
I recently had the privilege of taking a group of young children from church on a bug hunt at Ashburnham Place in East Sussex. Or did they take me? I’m not sure.
Their fascination and enthusiasm for the insects, woodlice, toads and other small creatures they discovered was simply inspiring. No wonder we talk about childlike wonder!
I introduced the kids and their parents to the idea of Nature being the ‘first Bible’. As I explained, there seemed to be a lightbulb moment – for children and adults alike.
The Bible means different things to different people.
For some, it’s an outdated book of myths and contradictions.
Or a ‘weapon’ they’ve been ‘bashed’ with, to try and make them convert or conform to a particular brand of religion.
For others, it’s the LITERAL, INFALLIBLE WORD OF GOD!
For me, the Bible as we know it, which was first compiled about 200 AD, is a uniquely inspired, messy and diverse collection of literature that has the potential to impart wisdom, wonder and faith, and ultimately to reveal the complex mystery and love of God.
For me, the Bible’s variety of verse, presenting a spectrum of spiritual perspectives on life and God, helpfully reflects the paradoxes and contradictions of life, making it a relatable, believable book.
However, this was not the first Bible.
The first Bible is Nature, “written at least 13.8 billion years ago, at the moment that we call the Big Bang, long before the Bible of words,” as Fr. Richard Rohr puts it.
As early as the 4th Century AD, Anthony of the Desert made a similar assertion that there were two books of scripture: the Bible and Creation.
Or in the words of Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), “Creation is the primary and most perfect revelation of the Divine.”
Like the Bible of words, this first Bible – Nature – is, amongst other things, a uniquely inspired, messy and diverse collection of (living) literature that has the potential to impart wisdom, wonder and faith, and ultimately to reveal the complex mystery and love of God.
Like the Bible of words, the first Bible, with its strange brew of utter beauty, wild wonder, danger, and downright cruelty, reflects back to us the paradoxes and contradictions of life.
Standing with the diversity of each ‘Bible’, accepting and holding its differing perspectives simultaneously in tension can give us the strength of spirit to navigate the seeming impossibilities of this life.
The Bible itself is filled with invitations to study and meditate on Nature for wisdom and spiritual direction. Its pages are a constant stream of prophecies and teachings, from ancient prophets and from Jesus himself, inspired by the world of Nature.
It’s almost as if the Bible is saying, “Don’t just look at me and enshrine my words – read the first Bible too! Its wisdom will literally jump off the pages at you!”
One small, simple thing I shared with the group on the bug hunt, which I hadn’t prepared but struck me as we were talking, was this:
“We look at all this Nature, and think how wonderful it all is, and marvel at its beauty. How much more, then, does God look at us, and think how wonderful and special we are.”
May you hear the voice of Nature, God and the Universe for yourself, as you look and listen to the world around you today.
(Photos all mine, but no copyright. Feel free to use / share, with my blessing!)
In my family we’ve argued about whether the first day of the week is Sunday or Monday. Do other families have these weird debates or is it just us?
Anyway…according to the ancient Judeo-Christian creation myth, God made mankind on the sixth day, then rested from work on the seventh……
This means that mankind’s first full day was a Sabbath.
Years ago I heard a refreshing talk about this observation, deducing that our natural starting place is one of rest – that our work or activity should therefore spring from a place of restfulness, or simply being, rather than seeing our rest or Sabbath as recuperation from our work.
In the natural rhythms of life, rest is our priority. Then our activity / work / productiveness. This has important implications for our sense of identity – knowing who we are apart from our achievements.
This does not always come naturally to me. I’m full of energy and drive and restlessness. Maybe due to an addiction to productivity, stemming from an insecure childhood. I may even have undiagnosed ADHD. But probably mostly it’s just my innate personality.
Which is one of many reasons I find meditative and contemplative practices so vital in my life.
Ideally, what we do streams from who we are, rather than creating who we are.
Rest, then work. Not the other way round.
I wrote most of this piece and took most of the photos while on holiday, reflecting on this timeless wisdom and on my work-weariness. The holiday was definitely a rest from work, and that’s fine…
…but I was also conscious of the need to not just switch off and forget about work, but also to renew my sense of identity, to find strength and revive my soul, for its own sake and in preparation for the return to the responsibilities of day-to-day life.
Despite my assertion above about the designed order of things, sometimes we need both processes (rest-then-work and work-then-rest) to take place, almost at once.
Holidays, Sabbaths, periods of rest and moments of meditation can be both things: first a time of healing and recuperation from the stresses and strains of life and work, sashaying almost imperceptibly into a state of being, of satisfied stillness, simply for the enjoyment of life itself, as well as reviving us in preparation for the return to the 9-5 (or 8-6 or 12-12).
For some people, Sabbath is a Saturday, for others it’s Sunday, and for still others it’s whenever they can get a day – or a moment – to rest. The first day of the week, I guess, according to Judeo-Christian thought, should technically be whatever day your Sabbath or day off is.
What matters, most, though, is seeing rest as the starting point that we work from. Making restfulness our (my) priority, for the sake of our own souls as well as for those who depend on us.
“But those who trust [rest] in Yahweh [God / Presence / ‘I Am’] will find new strength.
They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
They will walk and not faint.”
(Photos all mine. No copyright. Feel free to use / share, with my blessing!)
 I believe that accepting the Genesis account of Creation as allegorical enables us to understand depths of meaning and breadths of wisdom that might otherwise be lost by taking it literally. Having said that, I wouldn’t entirely rule out the possibility of literal elements! As I expressed in A Natural Creed:
“I believe that science gives us wonderful insight into the origins and progression of the Universe and Life;
that the Biblical accounts of Creation are deeply inspired, allegorical myths that reveal much about the Source of the Universe and Life – and about human nature,
but that there may also be elements of literal truth in those ancient texts;
that we would do well to listen to science and religion and philosophy in order to best understand our place in the Universe;
but that the origins of the Universe and Life remain a mystery and are probably weirder than any scientist or theologian can imagine!”
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”
These were some of the reassuring words read out at the funeral I attended of a young man today. A service at which I was filled with sadness.
On the way there I stopped at the Old St Helen’s Church ruins for a few minutes’ contemplative prayer.
As I entered the grounds I saw my first butterfly of the year – a Red Admiral brought out of hibernation by the Spring-like weather. What a wonderful divine reminder of the resurrection hope and eternal life that so many of us believe in.
Like a lot of people, we suffered some storm damage at home. Nothing too dramatic – our next door neighbour’s cherry tree fell on our fence. That is, one major bough toppled on to a fence that was already in need of some repair.
My neighbour and I chopped and sawed the fallen tree, and we’re getting the fence fixed. No lasting harm done.
(I didn’t think to get a picture of the tree first. Sorry for that missing bit of the story!)
Not one to waste an opportunity to delight in the gifts that Nature brings my way, I picked up a few of the snowy blossom-laden twigs to brighten up the kitchen.
Janine and I have enjoyed their presence the last few days as they’ve slowly shed their tiny, white petals over the worktop.
I started this post with my own version of the old “When life gives you lemons…” platitude*:
“When Life brings storms, pick up the flowers.”
I’m not much of a fan of far-too-easy platitudes, but sometimes they do resonate.
I’ve experienced a storm of stress and anxiety with physical symptoms recently, which is all calming down now, and I’m beginning to glean some bright fragments of blessing from the debris: things I’ve learned that will carry me through into a better future.
The Divine often has a way of speaking to us through Nature.
Whatever the weather, whatever the season, there’s always something to be received, to connect with, to draw us closer to Divine Reality and therefore closer also to ourselves and others.
(All photos mine, but I’m not precious about copyright, so feel free to use any of them if you wish, with my blessing.)
*For an “alternative”, less platitudinous version of “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”, check out Kaitlin Shetler’s version. It’s brilliant.
“Everywhere we look, the complex magic of nature blazes before our eyes”, according to Vincent van Gogh in the Doctor Who episode, Vincent and the Doctor.
A wealth of artists, from poets and singers such as Van Morrison, Mary Oliver and The Unthanks, to writers Richard Mabey, Brian McLaren and Mackenzie Crook, to the genius Vincent van Gogh himself, have helped and inspired me to delve further into the ‘magic of nature’ – to dive deeper into its divine depths.
Maybe it’s me but I feel that both science and theology sometimes reduce the world around us to a utilitarian thing. An ‘it’. Call me picky (and I have been known to be picky about words), but the religious use of the word ‘creation’ for ‘Nature’ slightly jars with me….
…like Nature is seen as an inanimate object – there simply to ‘give glory to God’….
….rather than being a living, breathing entity given to us, to enjoy and love for her own sake, in her own right….
… to dance with, sing with….
enjoy being a part of.
Be family with.
I think this delights God’s heart.
Like tree-hugging: an exchange of vital gases, of complementary textures. A sharing of lives, of life. Of the Love that flows through all things.
Religion can sometimes be so intent on trying to worship God that it misses the wood for the trees – literally.
Likewise, science can be known to scrutinise, compartmentalise, to explain away in binary detail, until all awe and wonder have evaporated in the heat of cold analysis (I do like a paradox!).
Of course, it needn’t be – and isn’t always – like this. We need science and religion, both of which have the potential to lead us into the sheer, incredulous amazement that our souls were born for. Brian McLaren’s book, God Unbound: Theology in the Wild, is a great example of this.
As for me, my ever-deepening immersion into Nature, and my habit of talking to birds and trees, has led me to question whether I’m straying from my Christian faith into something more pagan. Fearing that my love for the created world exceeds my love for her Creator.
It’s good and healthy to question ourselves, and my self-query led to self-reassurance.
I find myself walking in the steps of St Francis, who acknowledged the consciousness and unique personality of each wild animal and addressed them as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’.
…St Francis, who in turn walked in the steps of Jesus, who in turn followed the pattern of thousands of years of wisdom teachers and prophets, who walked in and with Nature, learned and taught from Nature, found God in the everyday and not-so-everyday miracles of the wild.
And, as one of Jesus’ own best friends, John, made clear, our love for other human beings – and by extension all our fellow creatures – is a good barometer of our love for God.
Rather than drawing us away from God, our deepening love for people and Nature is in fact an accurate expression of our love for God. And this is true even for those who profess no religious faith!
Our Western society and, sadly, Christendom, have a poor record of respect for the Earth, preferring largely to conquer rather than acknowledge and celebrate our oneness with her.
And the more industrialised, commercialised and technologised we become, the more we lose touch with Nature, with the Earth – and in the process lose something of ourselves and our experience of the God who lives and shines humbly and vulnerably from the natural world: incarnate through every creature, as well as in the infant Jesus.
As we desperately try and reverse our tragic destruction of our home planet (and therefore our self-destruction), it’s surely more vital than ever that we as a human race recapture our oneness with Nature.
I rather like this quote that I recently came across: “Prayer is the act of resacralizing the desacralized world.” I think that a prayerful approach to any situation enables us and those around us to (re)discover the inherent sacredness of anything and everything.
And I realised that when I enjoy my contemplative walks through woods and wilderness, I’m simply enjoying the sacredness, the magic, the holy wonder of Nature (of Creation, if you like!).
Although I do sometimes pray with words during these walks, I often try and avoid using words, even in thought, because words can be so superficial, so one-sided, and a hindrance to the experience of God in the presence of stillness, silence and songs of Nature.
Photos all mine and taken in glorious East Sussex.