Nature and the Divine Presence by Ken McIntosh

It’s a perfect day for mountain biking: not too hot but not yet winter here in Northern Arizona. The red-brown trunks and grey-green needles of Ponderosa pines fly past me as I steer my bike along the trail. All I hear is the swish of knobby tires on the earth . . . the wind’s rustle through the pine needles . . . occasionally a raven’s call.

The path meanders back and forth along a dry creek bed, then climbs uphill through rock formations where I have to gear down, stand on the pedals, and balance the bike. Finally, I descend into another meadow and reach my intended destination, my “prayer rock,” the place I’ve named “Aslan’s Throne.” The volcanic rock is twice my height, pockmarked by time, and mottled with patches of lichen.

I lean the bicycle against a nearby pine, take off my helmet, and walk behind the rock, where a series of natural indentations serve as footholds. Using these, I can climb to the top, where a rounded dome forms a seat. Atop this monumental stone, I fold my legs, turn my hands upward on my knees, and close my eyes. I feel I am rooted to the Earth, as solidly placed as the stone. I begin to pray, bringing to mind my friends, loved ones, people in need of various help, and the woes of the world. Then my thoughts turn to sheer thankfulness—for the forest, the sun, this rock . . . and then, my meditation moves past words.

Presence embraces me. The stillness has become preternatural. I can no longer hear the ravens or the rustle of pines. I open my eyes and find the scene has shifted subtly: colors are brighter, lines crisper, and . . . Somehow, I’m looking both from my eyes and simultaneously from beyond my point of view. “I” am no longer here. My body has merged with the Earth, the trees, and the sky. I am one with the forest and with God. I’m not sure how long this reverie lasts, because time seems to have stopped. It’s like being in a still photograph, only intensely tangible. I’ve entered into what seems like the very edge of God’s view of the world, pulled outside space and time.

Eventually, I come back to normal consciousness. I hear the raven cawing; I feel my haunches cramping on the hard rock. I stand, stretch, and clamber back down the side of the rock. Yet the sense of astonishing peace, of unity with God and the world, remains.

The Celtic followers of Christ celebrated and honored experiences like this. Even before they knew Christ, the Celts knew that Nature was their portal to a great spiritual reality. Wells, mountain crags, caves, and lochs were “thin places” that allowed access to the realm of spirits. In these temples of nature, the Celts sought physical and spiritual healing, as well as revelation. The salmon, the eagle, and even the tiny hazelnut, all were allies in helping humanity access the mysterious magic that underlay physical matter.

When the Celts were introduced to Christ, the Divine beauty revealed in Nature became inseparably entwined with the strands of Christian doctrine. They believed that Christ’s death on the Cross, for example, was not just for humankind; it was a cosmic event that touched the entire natural world. In the suffering of Christ, all creation suffered. Blathmac, an eight-century poet, wrote that at the time of Christ’s death, “A fierce stream of blood boiled until the bark of every tree was red; there was blood throughout the world on the top of every great wood. It would have been fitting for God’s elements—the fair sun, the blue sky, the earth—to have changed their appearance, befitting their calamity.”

The Celts are not alone in their belief that the Creator and creation are inextricably united. Russian novelist Fydor Dostoevsky wrote, “Love all of God’s creation, the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light! Love the animals, love the plants, and love everything. If you love everything, you will soon perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.” The twentieth-century Catholic priest and theologian Teilhard de Chardin affirmed that “the heart of matter is at the heart of God,” and founder of the Iona Community George MacLeod insisted, “Christ is vibrant in the material world, not just the spiritual world.” In our own time, Episcopal priest Matthew Fox declares, “I see the universe as a Divine womb and we’re all swimming around in this soup.” The ancient Celts would have understood all these thinkers as kindred spirits.

The Celts’ creation-based theology also led to one of history’s first attempts at ecological restoration. As Martin and Nigel Palmer explain in The Spiritual Traveler: England, Scotland and Wales, “Britain, as part of the huge Roman Empire, was exploited . . . thoroughly. . . . By the end of the Roman period, c. AD 450, many parts of England had been farmed out and consisted of vast areas of scrublands.” Meanwhile, the unconquered Celtic regions of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales remained ecologically more robust. The invading Saxons depended on raiding and warfare for their subsistence, in part because the land they had claimed was unable to sustain suitable levels of agriculture. Later, as Celtic Christians moved into areas of England formerly held by Rome, their activities included, “a new form of agriculture: replanting forests; cutting new waterways to irrigate parched land; creating ponds and lakes, and most importantly, building upon the old Celtic sacred vision of the land, of all nature, to revive the very land and spirit of Britain. . . . In this way the Celtic and Christian traditions restored the sacred to the landscape and refounded settled life in Britain.”

Christianity today faces accusation that its doctrines have led to the exploitation of the natural world. The ancient Celtics, however, had a far different interpretation of the scriptures, one that led to the ecological restoration of Britain. They cared for the Earth with committed labor, believing it was the embodiment of God’s very being. May we today be challenged to learn from them—sensitive to the Divine Presence in the natural world while we take action to heal our broken planet.

Kenneth McIntosh is the author of Water from an Ancient Well: Celtic Spirituality for Modern Life and Reading the Bible the Celtic Way: The Peacock's Tail Feathers. This post is adapted from Water from an Ancient Well.