Of all the trees in Florida, my favorite is the water oak (Quercus nigra). Tourists may be looking for (mostly imported) palms or stately live oaks streaming with Spanish moss, but I have an affection for the water oak.
In late January and early February the small oval leaves of the water oak turn to a golden orange before they slowly slip free to the ground. As the winter sun is shining on a water oak when its leaves are at their peak of color, one could imagine that if Moses had encountered God in Florida, he would have met him at a water oak instead of a bush. The leaves shine in the sunlight even as they reveal the colors of burning coals. It was a sight like this that could cause the poet Rainer Maria Rilke to write,
wells up in my heart.
As we gaze upon the creatures of this world, somehow they enter into our consciousness and memory so that an invisible connection is made between them and us. There is a spiritual relationship that we can have with other creatures. We need that relationship, and if we neglect it, we shall be threatened by anxiety and depression. The emotional problems of modern people are not only the result of the speed of life and the complexity of society, but primarily the consequence of a lack of immersion in the natural world.
We need a theological perspective to interpret the spiritual relationship between us and the rest of nature. The witness of Scripture is that the works of nature reveal the glory of the Creator. In the Great Thanksgiving in the sacrament of Holy Communion, the people pray, "Heaven and earth are full of your glory." In Scripture and Sacrament we find the basis for a creation spirituality. It is the task of the theologians of the church to provide an intelligible understanding of this spirituality which is concerned with the relationship between human beings and the rest of creation.
One of the reasons that the theology of Thomas Aquinas continues to inspire and guide new generations of theologians is because he made the doctrine of creation a focal point of his thinking. His most original contribution was his understanding of God as the act-of-being who is the efficient cause of everything that exists. (By understanding God as the act-of-being who is the cause of all existence, rather than as the essence of being, Thomas liberated philosophy from its Platonic limitations and also provided a philosophical understanding of God consistent with the biblical revelation of the deity as the living God who is the Creator of everything.) Since God is the act-of-being of every creature, God is in every thing even as God is transcendent to the world. When this is perceived, then the world becomes a sacred or sacramental universe.
The contemporary Thomistic philosopher Josef Pieper expresses this world-view in a remarkable passage in his The Silence of St. Thomas (St. Augustine Press, 1999, p. 96): "Because things come forth from the eye of God, they partake wholly of the nature of the Logos, that is, they are lucid and limpid to their very depths. It is their origin in the Logos which makes them knowable to men. But because of this very origin in the Logos, they mirror an infinite light and can therefore not be wholly comprehended. It is not darkness or chaos which makes them unfathomable. If a man, therefore, in his philosophical inquiry, gropes after the essence of things, he finds himself, by the very act of approaching his object, in an unfathomable abyss, but it is an abyss of light." In other words, there is a mystery in the being of every creature, a mystery because every creature is known in the mind of God and participates in God as its act-of-being. Through contemplation we come in touch with this mystery, and it the reason why our relationship to the rest of creation is crucial to our relationship to God and for our general well-being.
If a congregation takes creation spirituality seriously, it will change its mission to its community. Last Sunday I visited Parkway United Methodist Church in Broward County under the leadership of pastor Jim Walling. Parkway has a community garden for use by all the members of its neighborhood. And, this garden is part of a large and beautiful park. Many of the plantings came from ECHO in North Ft. Myers. Here in the middle of an urban landscape is a place of beauty and vitality where people can not only find food for their bodies, but also for their souls. This small membership church is an example to others about how to take seriously a spirituality of creation as essential to our relationship to God and to the mission of the church.