Say you’ve just climbed Mt. Helena. Surveying the 360 panorama at your feet, you take a moment to catch your breath. Behold! You enjoy a sense of well-being and more – inspiration – even exhilaration. How do you find words to express your experience?
In his “Book of Hours – Love Poems to God” (translated by Barrows and Macy) the German poet Rilke (1875 – 1926) wrote: “I would describe myself/like a landscape I’ve studied/ at length, in detail; like a word I’m coming to understand…Now you must go out into your heart/ as onto a vast plain”… and then ‘have courage to walk out into the world to’ “love the things/ as no one has thought to love them” (pp. 4, 5). One of Rilke’s translators spoke of Rilke as embodying “our human capacity to redeem our world through the act of transforming attention, which is naming – or love ”(p. 33).
“Earth is crammed with heaven/And every bush is aflame with God/But only those who see, take off their shoes/The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.” (Elizabeth Browning, 1806-1861).
Our busy lives don’t ask us to behold – to hold as a treasure what we see – and then express our experience. Still, when we enjoy sustained beauty, a desire rises up to bridge the exterior panorama with our interior landscape. Giving words to that discovery is as old as Confucius (551 – 479 BCE). He wrote: “Desiring self-discipline, they rectified their own hearts; and wanting to rectify their hearts, they sought precise verbal definitions of their inarticulate thoughts – the tones given off by the heart” (translated by Ezra Pound, 1885 -1972).
In other words, we are in the world to love the world, our neighbor and God. Sound familiar? According to Jesus our highest aims are: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ And: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mt 22:37,39). Loving God includes loving him as the Creator. Loving our neighbor includes loving the place where we live.
Over a year ago, we found a fixer-upper above Lake Helena – with a grand view of the Elkhorns, Scratch Gravel, the lake and then there’s our town – nestled in the foothills and spilling out over the valley. When guests come, I give them a while to settle in. Often I eventually ask: “How do you articulate what this view does for you?” A veteran with multiple tours in Afghanistan and now with a recent degree from MSU in English Lit opined: “Our souls need a place to expand and this view gives our souls that opportunity.” Well done.
Beholding Montana stirs our souls. Away from “home” we long for “home.” It’s no surprise that, during the mid-1920’s, John Smith, a frequent visitor to Glacier from Rochester, NY, wrote from NY: “I’ve had the montana (sic) blues several times. I will probably get over it OK” (“Dream Chasers of the West,” Wettstein, p.129).
Insights from Science
A 2008 study reinforces how nature impacts us. Researchers at the University of Michigan gave student volunteers a series of numbers and asked them to recall them in reverse order. Then half the students, “city-folk,” took a walk in downtown Ann Arbor while the other half, “naturalists,” wandered through the Arboretum. Returning to the lab they were retested. The “naturalists” outscored the “city-folk” – and in their second test, the “naturalists” outscored themselves! Does being outside help us think more clearly?
Researchers devised tests to factor out variables. The result? “Simple and brief interactions with nature (even pictures of nature) can produce marked increases in cognitive control…Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, ‘modestly’ grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish” (“Natural Born Heroes” pp. 222, 223 and “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature,” http://pss.sagepub.com/content/19/12/1207.abstract).
Ramping up the view from nature in general to spectacular nature – from ordinary to awesome – researchers from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management devised experiments to study the after effects of awe. “Jaw-dropping moments made participants feel like they had more time available and made them more patient, less materialistic, and more willing to volunteer time to help others.” Awe slows down time, “brings us into the present moment and makes life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise” (http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/being-in-awe-can-expand-time-and-enhance-well-being.html). Aha.
Some seek to explain these phenomena by pointing to our past. “Just a reminder of our ancestral past can be enough to flip a switch in the brain that focuses attention and shuts out distractions. You slip back into hunter-gatherer mode – and when you do, you’re capable of remarkable things” (“Natural Born Heroes,” p 223).
But instead, what if we understand clarifying the resonance of our hearts and minds with our world by pointing to the Creator – affirming the audacious claim that we are made in his image? The author of Ecclesiastes wrote: God “has set eternity in the hearts of men” (Eccl. 3:11). When we hear the “tones,” we are beginning to hear him.
Some Real Questions
But we wonder, are “tones of the heart” simply too mystical? And, why do some young Montanans resist romantic portrayals of our state? Also, if experiencing nature has such positive benefits, why has Montana has been a leader in suicide among the states since the US began keeping suicide statistics in 1928?
As a Christian I recognize that we have deadly foes: the world (broken systems), the flesh (personal brokenness) and the devil (evil personified). Somehow in Montana there is a spiritual void that leads some to abdicate to these enemies. There are spiritual dimensions of suicide.
What about following Confucius’ advice by looking inward? His advice is too mystical. Even as a leopard cannot change its spots, neither can I initiate sustained connection with God, creation or my neighbor. Any attempt to do what Confucius calls me to do – to rectify my own heart – cannot be maintained and I either give up or become eager to justify myself – my way of living. So, to that extent, I do not – should not – trust the tones given off by my heart – even amid the beauties of Montana. When we idolize our hearts or this last best place, we fail to understand both ourselves and this place.
But, in Christ I find I’ve been welcomed into a new creation. “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor 5:17). I want to listen – God may be speaking. The “tones” may be from the Spirit. “We speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words” (1 Cor. 2:13).
How do we learn to distinguish between the demanding, insistent, incessant tones of our sly old natures and the true tones of the Spirit? Believing the good news of Jesus dying for us and astonished that such a holy God would freely give sinners like us the Spirit of Christ –- we begin paying attention to the Scriptures – to creation – to providence – to redemption – to others in the body of Christ – to our neighbor. We begin to hear both the words and the melody of life as the Spirit guides us. Despite ongoing challenges, we keep engaging – whether in New York City, Kentucky or Montana.
Three Witnesses Beholding
Steven Dilla, New York City, 2015: “The firm foundation of faith allows us to laugh at our sometimes absurd world while also trusting a God whose love, grace, and justice transcend our momentary realities” (Park Forum).
Stephen Colbert, New York City, 2015: “The context for my existence, is that I am here to know God, love God, serve God, that we might be happy with each other in this world and with Him in the next—the catechism. That makes a lot of sense to me. I got that from my mom. And my dad. And my siblings.”
Thomas Merton in a Kentucky monastery, 1948: “We are exiles in the far end of solitude, living as listeners/With hearts attending to the skies we cannot understand/Waiting upon the first far drums of Christ the Conqueror/Planted like sentinels upon the world’s frontier” (“Collected Poems,” 1978, p. 201).
Montanans, as we behold our frontier, let’s tune our hearts to listen for the first far drums of Christ the Conqueror.