“For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.” The author of this sentence, and the sentences that precede it in the chapter, wants to remind his audience that the grandeur of natural creation is supposed to elicit thoughts and awareness of the One who has created. That grandeur, however, ought not to be deified. How much better is the Lord, he exclaims, “the author of beauty” (Wisdom 13:3-5, ESV)!
Each year, I find that the fall season offers me ample opportunity to relish in the greatness and beauty of God’s creation, and to perceive in an imperfect way His unsurpassed glory. The weather changes and becomes much more pleasant in my area of the country. The leaves take on beautiful hues of yellow, orange, and red. Each of these developments has the potential to cause an observer to stand in awe of the myriad ways that God reveals Himself through nature and human relationships.
I recall one family pilgrimage in particular that brought all of my family members into this state of awe. When we lived nearby, we took a day-long pilgrimage into the Appalachian Mountains. While we were there, we gazed upon ancient and rugged peaks, saw autumn foliage that was unparalleled on earth, and shared each other’s wonderful company. There is no doubt in my mind that that the natural beauty and the human company allowed each of us to encounter the Author of Beauty in a profound way.
My wife and I have remarked to each other that we shudder a bit, and that we are in such awe of the creation that God has wrought. The Catholic faith tells us that the reason for that reaction is twofold. First, it is a response of “humility and respect before the Creator and his work.” Second, it expresses an innate understanding that “God willed creation as a gift addressed to man, an inheritance destined for and entrusted to him” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 299). In other words, anyone who stands before created natural beauty feels unworthy and grateful, both in the same instant. As we stood in that moment, we knew that we had no part in crafting the reality upon which our eyes had fallen, but we were thankful that we had the opportunity to enjoy it.
Another important response to our perception of the Creator was that we would try to pass that wondrous impression to our children. As we gazed out over the multi-colored valley, we whispered the truth about God and beauty and gifts into their young ears. No matter how old our children have been in those moments, even if they could not comprehend or speak, we have felt it important to speak to all of them and let their eyes scan the horizon.
The classical formula of knowledge is that everything begins in the senses, even before a person comprehends what the sense is sensing. A person can be in proximity to truth by sensing beauty through eyes, ears, nose, and skin. Our thought, then, is that these experiences will allow our children to appreciate natural beauty and arrive at the corresponding perception of the Creator that the biblical author though was so necessary.
Standing before such grandeur, it might be possible to let our minds think that the Creator of such vastness has no interest in continuing to act within it, or to interact through it with the humans who occupy it. This, of course, is directly opposite of the reason that creation happened in the first place. Creation was not necessary, and neither was humanity, which is the pinnacle of creation. Before all time and space, God is perfectly blessed and content within Himself. Therefore, everything that exists (water, plant, bald eagle, and me) was created freely and out of nothing. So, when a man sees a river full of trout, a glorious sunrise over an Australian beach, or a beautiful family of wife and children, he must know that it comes from God. He must also know that it is utterly dependent on God for its sustained existence, for without the Divine Mind, it would cease to be. This might cause a person to ask: why, then, does this exist?
I have had this precise conversation with God as I have walked with my family and witnessed breathtaking vistas. I have had to admit that the things I saw were bigger than me, and that they weren’t dependent on me in any way. Yet, I have also come to know, in those moments, that this is one way that God speaks to me. God’s message and lesson to me: “The grandeur of creation exists precisely so that you might know and share my eternal and never-ending love.”
God speaks, and He speaks loudly in those moments that leave these indelible impressions. What is even more glorious is that He wants me, and us, to speak back. Indeed, He wants to enter into conversation, into relationship with me, and He has chosen to use natural beauty to do just that. That is why we have the opportunity to create beautiful works of written and visual art out of these experiences (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 2500-2502).
A thought from St. Ignatius of Loyola makes a fitting conclusion here. At the outset of his masterpiece, Spiritual Exercises, the great spiritual master wrote,
Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created. Hence, man is to make use of them insofar as they help him in the attainment of his end….
It is not unlikely that many humans can and will find the tabernacle of nature as an appropriate setting to praise, reverence, and serve the Lord. To the extent that mountains and foliage and family time lead me closer to my Lord, they are a very good thing. However, if I turn those things into gods, I have perverted God’s original intention. I pray only that the beautiful things in life will always lead everyone who reads this back to a renewed conversation with the Creator, and that each of us will always be able to perceive Him ever more clearly.