Is it any coincidence that those saints through history who gave themselves to voluntary poverty for the sake of the Gospel were also people with a strong appreciation of God’s creation…and considered themselves rich if they could enjoy the natural beauty of a field, river or forest?
I am thinking of people like Seraphim of Sarov or Fursa of Norfolk or Francis of Assisi whose enjoyment of nature and friendship with their fewllow creatures became the stuff of legend. I am thinking of people like the Trappists, the most austere and the poorest of the Benedictine monastics. They believed that even their very spartan and basic existence would be sweetened if they only situated their monastic houses with a view of nature and preferably of water. Their expectation was that closeness to natural beauty would make even a person with no possession other than their habit feel rich and satisfied.
The Cistercian Monastery at Fontenay, France
Similarly when Jesus wanted to move people’s attention away from being caught up and distracted by the superficial and material things which often consume us, it was to the birds of the air and the flowers of the field that he pointed. There is something profound in this switch of attention.
Philosopher, Thomas Carlyle
Thomas Carlyle, the nineteenth century philosopher observed that “the great tragedy of life lies not so much in what we suffer as in what we miss.”
It was this kind of reasoning that first brought me to a place of personal faith in Jesus Christ. As a high school student, once a fortnight my friend Phil Steer and I would spend an evening talking about the things of life, and the impulse behind so much of what we shared and the music we listened to and all that we discussed was the desire not to miss the wonderfulness of life. Though for the first seventeen years of my life I was firmly convinced that God did not exist, through those conversations with Phil about appreciating, enjoying and not missing, the feeling within me grew that IF God existed, that was a reality I would not want to miss. Some of the themes of a thirty-year long conversation!
Author and Conversationalist – Phil Steer
I remember a conversation twenty years later in which my friend Phil spoke of his little girl’s ability to draw delight from the most elemental things in God’s creation; the excitement of finding “yellow” or “triangle” in the world around her. What beautiful wonder! This was before I had children of my own and began to appreciate this vicarious joy for myself. Hearing Phil speak about it caught my imagination. And it brought to mind something of the joy-filled spirituality of Francis of Assisi. It was for this that Francis’ neighbours referred to him and his “little brothers” as “the happy people”.
An Eastern hero – Prokhor Moshnin / St Seraphim of Sarov and the bear (above)
A Western hero – Giovanni Bernadone / St Francis of Assisi and the birds (below)
Moreover what does it tell us about the Creator that He endowed his creatures – most especially human beings – with the senses and capacity to share his delight in his creation. As the hymn says so beautifully, “He gave us eyes to see them!” He wants us to enjoy, to derive joy, from the goodness of the sights, sounds, feelings, smells and tastes of what He has made. What a great kindness to us! What a love of life that He should desire to share his divine delight in such a way!
It was this ability to love life that attracted thousands of young people into the ranks of the “little brothers” and “Poor Clares” in the 1200s. When we think and talk about attracting others or living contagiously it is perhaps worth thinking about how we might nurture this gift of delight that made the very demanding lives of some of our monastic forbears so attractive to their contemporaries. So why not take a friend for a walk and go looking for yellow!
And yet another ten years on…Phil Steer explores this and other wonderful themes in his 2013 book “As a Child – God’s call to littleness”.