I don’t want to brag, but for a writer I have a pretty amazing office. Sitting back in my comfy, adjustable chair, I am surrounded on all sides by windows. Of course I have personalized temperature controls, sound system, and a convenient spot for my beverage. Best of all, the scenery is regularly changing, as in those fancy rotating restaurants on the tops of skyscrapers. Yes, we’re still talking about my personal office. Did I mention that it has “Mazda” stamped on one side?
So I’m a car writer. Quite a lot of what I produce is penned (literally, because it’s not a great idea to leave a laptop in the car) from the front seat of the family CX-9. It all started when my eldest son was a baby. I would spend long summer afternoons in our heinously hot (non-air-conditioned) house trying to persuade him to nap. He was wildly resistant. Finally, when I was at my wits’ end, I found a solution: the car seat. I would strap the baby in, drive to some gorgeous spot overlooking the Mississippi river, and bathe myself in delicious cool air while he slept. And I would write. All of the most poetic passages in my dissertation were written in the car.
Car-writing began as a ploy to trick my son into napping, but I soon discovered that it was also a wonderful way to write. How many people have the luxury of “going to work” in an idyllic natural setting of their own choosing? I’ve always loved hikes and outdoor picnics, but I used to see writing as an indoor activity. Now I know how a majestic river bluff or a strand of blossoming trees can throw open the windows of the mind. I’m no romantic poet, but car-writing occasionally makes me feel like one. I can understand completely why Shelly and Wordsworth found nature so intoxicating, and why, enthralled by its enchantments, they were inclined to flirt with idolatry. Alone in a sublime natural setting, we do feel ourselves to be in the presence of the divine.
That, of course, is because we really are. Nature-worship is wrong, but it’s easy to understand why it would seem right, especially to those pagans who have lacked the benefit of more direct revelation. Nature is not God, but it is his handiwork, and consequently it is stamped with the vestiges of divinity. When we understand this, we can immerse ourselves in natural beauty without fear of idolatry, knowing that our admiration for God’s creatures will naturally be redirected back to the Creator himself.
St. Francis offers a beautiful example of this in his Canticle of the Sun. All the natural world bears the stamp of the God that made it. All God’s creations sing his praise. Because the other creatures are simpler than we, we must make ourselves simple to understand them, but St. Francis obviously achieved this and we can too.
What Francis models in poetry, the Doctors clarify in lucid prose. Here is St. Thomas Aquinas on the love of the created world:
For whatever goodness and perfection is distributed to the various creatures, in partial or particular measure, is united together in Him universally, as in the source of all goodness … if, therefore, the goodness, beauty, and delightfulness of creatures are so alluring to the minds of men, the fountainhead of God’s own goodness, compared with the rivulets of goodness found in creatures, will draw the enkindled minds of men wholly to Itself. (Summa Contra Gentiles II:2 n.3)
As limited creatures, we can take immense pleasure in the natural world, but we must limit ourselves to enjoying natural beauties one at a time. I myself love exploring a new natural environment, and in the spirit of St. Thomas’ passage, I like to think of it as a way of glimpsing another corner of the divine mind. But of course, it is not possible to enjoy a beach at sunset, a lofty mountain peak and a sun-splashed red rock desert all at the same time. In God, we will find all these goods and much more, combined in a single source.
For great mystics (such as St. Bonaventure in his Journey of the Soul to God) nature appreciation is a recognized stage on the path to God. However, it is one of the very early stages. I love to remember this when I’m car writing, and not only because it keeps me from floating into pretentious, overwrought heights of emotion. I love it because it adds to the beauty of nature a note of delicious anticipation. It affirms the goodness of what we experience here below, while also promising that the best is yet to come. It makes me feel as though I have just eaten a sumptuous appetizer at a dinner party, only to be assured by a fellow guest with impeccable food-critic credentials that this is in fact the least impressive of the dishes on the menu. If this is only the beginning, I can’t wait to see what God has in store for us next.