THE spring has come. It floods the church. A divine hand is at work in what we call our “local ecology”: that careful relationship between organism and environment. Recent disasters and mishaps have reminded us what occurs when we take too distracting or greedy a hand in agriculture, and upset this relationship.
There is a now a new reverence for nature that is no longer religious — or not entirely so, as it was in St Francis’s day. He has revealed things above and below which his and later generations could never have imagined.
But, still, the Benedicite manages to cover them, if not to show them as we are now accustomed to seeing them. Science and holy song fit together. What I want to emphasise is the continuing sacredness of the countryside.
What is St Francis saying in his natural catalogue of love? It is relate, relate. That great creation poem, Genesis, if you read it early in the year, speaks of something quite different. It speaks to us as lords of creation. In Genesis, human beings rule nature. Digging in his Italian garden, and near to leaving it, St Francis, aged 44, sees only family, and connections, including Sister Dead.
Just below my old farmhouse, visible in March through the bare trees, is Wiston Church, with its flashing weather-vane. I often walk to it across the river, and stare at the Norman wall-paintings. My favourite is on the north wall, above where the pulpit used to be. St Francis is preaching to the birds, who all turn to the east, paying attention. They say that this picture was painted only 20 years after St Francis’s death, which proves how swiftly legends fly about the world.
Generations of village folk, as they listen to their priests, would recognise not a saint talking to blackbirds, but a lesson on infinity. They might have well walked home saying: “Good day to Brother Lake, Brother Oak, Sister Moon.” They might well have told themselves “We are all in it together.” But in what? In life on earth.
There were times in the history of the Church when an appreciation of nature was condemned, and the blessings provided naturally by the plants were forbidden, and those who understood them were persecuted. Of course, the Church was scared of pantheism, or the recognition of God in mountains, rivers, woods.
Yet some of the greatest saints saw God in nature — saw him more clearly there than anywhere else. Had not Christ himself told his followers that he would be present in his natural food of bread and wine? Did he not walk on real earth, put up with real bad weather while sailing? Did he not watch foxes, sheep, fish, birds?
The earthiness of the Lord’s teachings is often so pungent that we can almost smell rural Palestine. In our day, we talk of what we call the real world. Jesus was entirely within the real world of his day, and he loved it and valued it. When he had to explain “his Kingdom” to his friends, he did not use unearthly analogies: he said that his Kingdom was like mustard seeds, weeds to garden, or a vineyard.
We do not need to be taught to love our native scene. It is as natural a part of our affection as our families. Although there were periods when it was dismissed in favour of the life to come, and called a vale of tears, we know now that it is nothing of the kind. It is, as Traherne said, a world “to be delighted in, to be highly esteemed”.
I’ve often thought that some of the big questions that God puts to us might include, “Why did you not enjoy it more, my beautiful world, my wonderful creation? Why did you not praise where I put you, that spot which you called your environment? Why did you so often spoil it? Why did you sometimes think that you were above it? Why did you spend so much of your short life ‘in getting and spending’, as Wordsworth said, and so little time in just looking?”
Jesus and his friends were lucky to have that marvellous handbook of nature-praise the Psalms, in which gratitude for the world about them spills over into an appreciation of everything they saw. Including, of course, the night sky; for it was those watching shepherd-poets who named the stars. Our good earth is the gift of God. His incarnation brought him into his own gift, to feel it, smell it, and touch it. The old writers called nature “God’s handiwork”, which is a holy name for it.