Our readers may be aware that here at Saint Benedict Center, we have a scouting apostolate affiliated with the Federation of North American Explorers (FNE). The FNE has enshrined the following as point six of its Explorer Law: “An explorer sees in nature God’s creations; he loves plants and animals.”
Short and sweet, but there is much behind it.
Ancient Greek philosophers believed that nature was a knowable reality that could lead man to wisdom if he contemplated it. The Bible makes it very clear, as we will soon see, that God can be discovered by the reasonable consideration of His Creation. Medieval Catholic theologians referred to “the Book of Nature,” which they saw as the natural revelation of God standing alongside the supernatural revelation of God in Scripture and Apostolic Tradition. And Vatican I infallibly teaches us that man, using his unaided reason alone, can come to the knowledge of the one, true God.
There are those who see and love God’s wondrous creation, but stop short of seeing God in it. There are even people who worship the created world. Of these, Saint Paul says that they “changed the truth of God into a lie; and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever” (Rom. 1:25).
But God made his Creation in such a way that we could see Him reflected in its beauties, and He wants us to find Him there. This is how Solomon put it: “For by the greatness of the beauty, and of the creature, the creator of them may be seen, so as to be known thereby” (Wis. 13:5). Saint Paul, agreeing with this testimony, writes, “For the invisible things of him [God], from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity” (Rom. 1:20). Saint Paul is being deliberately ironic here when he writes that what is “invisible” in God is “clearly seen” in creation. Our intelligence can see (hear, smell, taste, touch) the visible universe and reason to the existence of God, and even to some of His divine perfections.
This means that plants, animals, rocks, oceans, rivers, clouds, the sky, etc., can teach us about God. In his Confessions, Saint Augustine beholds the marvels of nature, and imagines them telling him, “We are not God, but he made us.” He goes on, “My inner man knew these things through the ministry of the outer man, and I, the inner man, knew all this — I, the soul, through the senses of my body. I asked the whole frame of earth about my God, and it answered, ‘I am not he, but he made me.’”
When we see truth, goodness, and beauty in creation, we see a reflection of the God’s truth, goodness, and beauty. The depth of the ocean, the vastness of space, and the enormity of a whale point us to God’s immensity. A crack of thunder, a flash of lightening, and a storm at sea teach us of God’s might and power. The repeated motion of the heavenly bodies, the cycles of the seasons, and the progress of time point us to God’s eternity. A mother hen brooding over her young shows us a faint glimmer of God’s tenderness. This last is not my image, but was taught us by Our Lord Himself: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered together thy children, as the hen doth gather her chickens under her wings, and thou wouldest not?” (Matt. 23:37).
Is it any wonder that King David, in Psalm 148, invites all of creation — sun, moon, stars, dragons, fire, hail, snow, ice, winds, cattle, serpents, feathered foul, etc. — to join him in praising God? (Crack open your Bible and give that Psalm a read. Better yet, pray it.)
When the Eternal Word through whom all things were made became Incarnate, He taught us in parables. Saint Matthew attributes these words of King David to our Savior: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden from the foundation of the world” (Psalm 77:2, Matthew 13:35). How did Jesus “utter things hidden from the foundation of the world”? In parables that speak of such things as a mustard seed, vineyards, rain, soil, pearls, fish, sheep, birds, the sky, the lilies of the field, herbs, yeast, trees, figs, wine, wheat, and even weeds (called “cockle” or “tares”). He tells us “Now of the fig tree learn ye a parable” (Mark 13:28).
God made a fig tree a teacher!
Jesus would have us explore these creatures of His to discover Himself and His Kingdom — the Catholic Church.
And yes, for all eternity, God knew that His Church would be built on the rock of Saint Peter. When He created rocks, the Divine Mind already knew that the solidity, strength, gravity, and firmness of that noble substance would one day stand for His first Pope and His only Church.
Find, if you can, a grape vine and then read this: “I am the true vine; and my Father is the husbandman. … I am the vine: you the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing. … In this is my Father glorified; that you bring forth very much fruit, and become my disciples” (John 15:1,5,8). From this vine, learn a lesson: God wants you to bear fruit. What fruit? The fruits of good works, the fruits of holiness, the fruits of the Holy Ghost: Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience, Benignity, Goodness, Long-suffering, Mildness, Fidelity, Modesty, Continency, and Chastity.
When you see that vines really have to be “purged” (John 15:2) in order to bear more fruit, you will understand the reality of suffering and mortification better.
Because we can see God in creation, the Catholic imagination has found in plants and animals many diverse symbols of God, Our Lady, the saints, the sacraments, the Christian virtues, and other mysteries of the Faith.
If you are interested in further explorations of the “Book of Nature,” you may enjoy finding out the answers to these questions — to which many more might be added:
- Why is a bee the symbol of Our Lady?
- Why is a fish the symbol of Saint Raphael?
- Why is a Pelican the Symbol of Jesus on the Cross and of the Eucharist?
- Why is a Phoenix the symbol of the Resurrection?
- Why is a man the symbol of Saint Matthew?
- Why is a lion the symbol of Saint Mark?
- Why is a bull the symbol of Saint Luke?
- Why is the eagle a symbol of Saint John?
- Why is a raven the Symbol of Saint Benedict?
- Why is a shell a symbol of Saint James? (Hint: It’s the “cockle shells” of “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary.”)