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Fr. Richard Rohr

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Nature and the Soul

Posted: 08/07/11 08:00 AM ET

"Just pay attention, and then patch a few words together, and don't try to make them elaborate. This isn't a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak." --"Praying" by Mary Oliver

We looked too long for God and truth through words alone. The fruit for humanity has been rather limited, it seems to me -- especially when I observe every day the extraordinary amount of unhappy and angry people in well educated and "religious" countries. How could this happen? Was salvation for the next world only?

I do not fault any one group, person or explanation, but on all of us together as we failed to pay attention. We removed ourselves from the Circle of Life and ended up talking in circles instead. This is so strange coming from a religion that believed "the word became flesh" (John 1:14), yet we have always seemed to prefer words to enfleshment, for some reason. As my very orthodox Church History professor put it, the church has usually followed Plato (body and soul are enemies of one another) much more than Jesus (body and soul work together as one). Sadly and tragically, that says it in one phrase.

It was a giant misplacement of primal attention to what was right beneath our feet, all around us and flying through the air. Enfleshment, embodiment, physicality -- the material world is the only home we know. Yet, we really "could not see the woods for the trees," and even worse we did not see the woods or the trees, but just our ideas about them and how they could be useful to us. They made paper for our books and shade for our reading, after all!

We all started reading books rather broadly once the printing press was invented (almost 600 years ago), and since then we have largely substituted ideas and words for observation and participation in life itself. Now I am afraid it will become texts, videos and screens that will shield us from reality. This leaves us all at least one step removed from The Real, and we get caught up in a static of ideas instead of the basic and healing symphony of life itself. To use Teresa of Avila's shocking phrase, we find ourselves undefended and alone and become willing to "sell our souls for a sardine"!

Words and ideas work in the short run to get you through school and to impress educators and employers. But they do not work in the long run or in the deep run. We soon find ourselves separate and without wonder. We find ourselves companionless (com-panion = one you share bread with) and lonely in a fully participatory universe, without bread to eat when bread is, in fact, everywhere.

"For what can be known about God is perfectly plain, for God has made it plain. Ever since God created the world his everlasting power and deity is there for the mind to see in all the things that God has created" (Romans 1:20). That is a pretty amazing quote that has not been given the immense importance that it deserves. In fact, read it again! It says the essential message is written everywhere and all the time.

Yes, the natural world is the first and primary Bible. We have not honored it, so how could we, or would we know how to honor and properly use the second Bible, when it was written. We mangled the written word of God for our own group purposes, instead of bringing to it reverence, silence and surrender, which the natural world "naturally" teaches us and also demands of us. If the word surrender scares you, let me tell you that surrender is not giving up, as we usually understand the term. Surrender is entering the present moment, and what is right in front of you, fully and without resistance. In that sense, surrender is almost the exact opposite of giving up. In fact, it allows you to be given to!

For some reason, the whole created world, the animals and the seasons of nature allow us to surrender and trust much more than sermons, words or people do, where we seem to be much more defended, in our heads, and even afraid. Now we are learning that abused children can tell their story if they are touching their dog and those who are autistic and stutter do not hesitate or stutter when they are with their horses or cats. One starts to wonder who is taking care of whom? Who is the healer and who is the healed? Who has soul and who does not? It is not as neat and clear a distinction as humans once presumed.

So I entreat you to trust and learn from the awesome authors in this edition of "Radical Grace," not for their words, but because their words point beyond themselves to what is, to creation itself, to the natural world, to what is all around you -- all the time. The "first Bible" of nature is well written, filled with Mystery and invitation and has all that you need to know God, to know yourself, to know life and even to trust death. Reading reality from inside this circle of creation, and with the eyes of nature, you will inherently know you are already in sacred space, you will know that you belong and you will know that it is OK.

Creation is our first and final cathedral. Nature is the one song of praise that never stops singing. The world is no "contest" any more, but as Mary Oliver says, "the doorway into thanks."

"Nature and the Soul" by Richard Rohr, OFM, copyright © Richard Rohr 2011, Radical Grace, Summer 2011, Vol. 24, No. 3. Used with permission.

Fr. Richard Rohr, the Founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is an international speaker and teacher. The author of numerous books, he is a regular contributor to Radical Grace. Fr. Richard will be presenting together with Bill Plotkin at the CAC-sponsored, 2012 year beginning conference, Nature and the Human Soul. For more information and to register, visit cacradicalgrace.org.