“For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.”
This is the fifth verse of the thirteenth chapter of the book of Wisdom in the Old Testament. The author of that sentence, and the sentences that precede it in the chapter, wants to remind us that the grandeur of natural creation is supposed to elicit thoughts and awareness of the One who has created. That grandeur, however, ought not to be deified. How much better is the Lord, he exclaims, “the author of beauty” (Wisdom 13:3)!
My family and I have been blessed to experience this reality for ourselves. We especially love to make pilgrimages to nearby mountain ranges to gaze upon ancient and rugged peaks, to hike, to see autumn foliage that is perhaps unparalleled on earth, and to share each other’s company. There is no doubt in my mind that these are some of the most profound ways that I encounter the Author of Beauty.
I shudder just a bit when I arrive at such august scenes. My Catholic faith gives me two reasons for that reaction. First, it is a response of “humility and respect before the Creator and his work,” just like an art critic standing in humility and respect before a masterpiece by Fra Angelico. Second, it expresses an innate understanding that “God willed creation as a gift addressed to man, an inheritance destined for and entrusted to him” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #299). In other words, anyone who stands before created natural beauty feels, in the same instant, both unworthy and grateful. In that moment, I know that I have had no part in crafting the reality that I see, and I am thankful that I have the opportunity to enjoy it.
My wife and I try to impress this point upon our children. We take every opportunity to whisper the truth about God and beauty and gifts into their young ears. While we speak to them, we let their eyes scan the horizon. This fulfills the classical formula of knowledge, that everything begins in the senses. They are seeing and hearing God’s tremendous love and beauty at the same time. In these moments, all of us can be in proximity to truth by sensing beauty through eyes, ears, nose, and skin. My thought, then, is that such experiences will allow our children to appreciate natural beauty and arrive at the corresponding perception of the Creator of which the biblical author wrote.
There is a potential danger, however. Too many in our world think that the Creator has concocted and granted this gift without any interest in continuing to act within it, or without any interest in interacting with the humans who occupy it. This, of course, is antithetical to the reason that creation happened in the first place. Creation was not necessary, and neither was humanity, which is the pinnacle of creation. Before all time and space, God is perfectly blessed and content within Himself. Therefore, everything that exists (water, plant, bald eagle, and me) is created and sustained freely and out of nothing. So, when a man sees a river full of trout, a glorious sunrise over an Australian beach, or a beautiful family of wife and children, he must know that it comes from God. He must also know that each of those things is utterly dependent on God for its sustained existence. Without the Divine Mind, all of them would cease to be. This might cause a person to ask: why, then, does this exist?
Such questions run through my head, and a conversation takes place between God and me while I spend time walking with my family and witnessing breathtaking vistas. I come to admit that the things I see are bigger than me, and that they aren’t dependent on me in any way. Yet, I also know in such moments that this is one way that God speaks a lesson to me. The grandeur of creation exists precisely so that human beings, including me, might know and share the eternal and never-ending love of God. God speaks to me, and He speaks loudly in such moments. They leave an indelible impression.
What is even more glorious is that He wants me to speak back. Indeed, He wants to enter into conversation, into relationship with me, and He has chosen to use natural beauty as one way to do just that.
A quote from St. Ignatius of Loyola makes a fitting thought to conclude. The great spiritual master writes,
“Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created. Hence, man is to make use of them insofar as they help him in the attainment of his end….”
It is not unlikely that many humans can and will find the tabernacle of nature as an appropriate setting to praise, reverence, and serve the Lord. To the extent that mountains and foliage and family time lead me closer to my Lord, they are a very good thing. However, if I turn those things into gods, I have perverted God’s original intent. I pray only that the beautiful things in life (my wife, my children, sunsets, mountains, and beaches) will always lead me back to a renewed conversation with my Creator, and that I will always be able to perceive Him more clearly.