For the beauty of the earth

On a summer day in South Haven, Michigan, at the little resort where we stay (formerly called a “motel”), guests leave their rooms and picnic tables to head toward the bluff at a certain time each evening. Along the lakeshore road, cars pull up, dispensing young and old bearing blankets and lawn chairs. The magnet drawing them hither is free, silent, and unavailable across the water in Chicago: a glorious sunset over Lake Michigan. Sometimes you’ll hear little oohs and ahs as a particularly beautiful cloud formation has its way with the sunlight, or as the last sliver of sun finally drops below the horizon.

Two years ago in Estes Park, Colorado, we rode horses out of our camp and over the moraine into Rocky Mountain National Park. For an hour or so, we could indulge the illusion that we might meet up with Buffalo Bill. As we finally took the trail back over the moraine, the horses chuffed nervously. There on the forest floor beside the path, not 10 feet away, rested a stupendous elk, big as a horse, a giant rack on his head, staring imperiously at horses and riders alike.

Now that we have survived arctic blizzards in Boston and snow in El Paso, now that school is nearly out, summer hands us a chance to let our kids become students of the beauty of nature.

One such student, Catalonian architect Antonio Gaudí, earned the praise of Pope Benedict XVI when he dedicated Gaudí’s wondrous Church of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, still unfinished 85 years after the architect’s death. The pope referred to “the three books which nourished [Gaudí] as a man, as a believer, and as an architect: the book of nature, the book of sacred scripture, and the book of the liturgy.”

“He made stones, trees, and human life part of the church so that all creation might come together in praise of God,” said the pope, “but at the same time he brought the sacred images outside so as to place before people the mystery of God.” In this way, Gaudí tried to overcome the division “between the beauty of things and God as beauty.”

I suspect many of our kids are beauty-starved. They spend far less time outdoors than previous generations. Much of what comes at them from TV, from the Internet, from their endless video games is crude, glitzy, lacking in substance. They are hustled as consumers from toddlerhood on.

Nature offers children a break from this onslaught. It can be a harsh mother (I will never forget the warning poster in the Rockies that read, “The mountains don’t care”), but it offers us experiences of beauty, of wildness, of God’s grandeur. Beauty is one of our deepest needs, says the pope. “It is the root from which the branches of our peace and the fruits of our hope come forth. Beauty also reveals God because, like him, a work of beauty is pure gratuity; it calls us to freedom and draws us away from selfishness.”

The poet Mary Oliver, whose poems my daughter often reads at bedtime (ever since having to memorize one for a wise teacher), ponders how creatures help us glimpse the creator. In the prose poem December she encounters a deer in the woods for an all-too-brief moment before it vanishes: “In shyness, perhaps. Or simply because we get no more than such dreamy chances to look upon the real world. The great door opens a crack, a hint of the truth is given—so bright it is almost a death, a joy we can’t bear—and then it is gone.”

—by Catherine O’Connell-Cahill from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the 2012 Best in Class award from the Associated Church Press, as well as the 2010 and 2011 General Excellence awards from the Catholic Press Association. Here’s a sample issue.

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