My awe quickly turned to horror as I realized that the catch of the day was a red plastic cup, stuck on its feet. The bird was clearly in distress as it flew away low to the ground, crying. I said a prayer of lament for the polluted pond and asked God to help the bird shake free.
I am a nature lover. In this instance, however, the spiritual connection I felt to that bird was stronger than normal. It’s no coincidence that I was reading Steven Chase’s “Nature as Spiritual Practice.” He is convinced (and he convinces) that relationship with nature nurtured through spiritual practice can interrupt the downward cycle of ecological destruction. Chase connects the recent reemphasis on Christian practices with the ecological crisis unique to our time. By describing specific practices, Chase invites the reader through cycles of contemplation and action: “Nature as practice shapes attention and wonder; it also shapes activism.”
Culling sources ranging from the Desert Fathers to Julian of Norwich to Paul in Romans to Paul Tillich, he teases out creation-oriented themes, creating an overall fabric for appreciating nature as an integral part of our spiritual heritage. The wealth of quotes and references is worth the price of the book. Case knows Scripture and is clearly rooted in Christian sources, but he downplays the specificity of the Christian tradition, often using terms like “divine” instead of God. This creates a possibility for dialogue between contemplative aspects of many religions, especially between Buddhism and Christianity. It also creates the opportunity to connect with people who find God in nature but not in church. The title itself underscores the approach; nature is spiritual practice. Thus a heron not only teaches us about prayer, it prays; a tree not only teaches us to listen, it listens. Moreover, nature is more than a metaphor or a model for human spirituality; it has a spiritual life of its own. I wrestled with this approach because of the inherent anthropomorphism (how does a tree listen without ears?). Ultimately, however, Chase’s approach leads to a deeper respect for nature’s spirituality and the inherent good of the natural world.
A field guide with 64 practices accompanies the main book. When attempting these practices, I found that I needed to interrupt the practice in order to keep referencing the field guide. It would take some, uh, practice, to use the field guide smoothly, but that’s part of the point. Chase intends readers to become acquainted with the field guide over regular use and to grow in their spiritual practice. Chase has included well-designed sample retreats for leaders. These are a bonus and a gift to those interested in spiritual retreats. Rarely is a set of books so theologically rich also so practical. For anyone concerned with how people can connect with nature to change the way we relate to this precious world, “Nature as Spiritual Practice” is a uniquely valuable resource.
SARAH SCHERSCHLIGT is pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Darnestown, Md.