I am sure most of you know that I am in absolute agreement with those who look upon the wonders of nature and find God there. I too love to be alone and quiet surrounded by the glories of the natural world. What worries me however is when people, having found God there, think that is enough. We have to remember that God gives us beauty in order to do something with it, to share it, to use it to inspire us to be better human beings. If we look at beauty just to feel God, to find God far away from the ordinary world of bustle and noise, then we have missed the point.
This comes out strongly in today’s 2nd Reading (Rev 21:10-14.22-23) where heaven, with “all the radiant glory of God” is portrayed, not as some hidden away place in the countryside, but as a great city which needs no light because at its centre is “The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb.” – The Lamb, of course, is Jesus. The ancient world did not have any illusions about the countryside, because in contrast to our countryside which has been tamed by generations of farmers, their countryside was really wild, and thus often quite dangerous. It was in the City with its walls and light where people felt safe and was thus a much better symbol of heaven.
It’s the same with the promise of Jesus in the Gospel (John 14:23-29) that God will send us the Holy Spirit who “will teach you everything”. Notice that “you”, because it does not mean “me” ,or “you in the singular”, it means “us”! I am afraid that I am very intolerant of people who think that they have a hot line to God. The Peace of God, as we also hear in our Gospel is given to the disciples as a body, as the beginning of the Church, the family of God, and so it is when people think that they can go it alone that troubles start, just like a family where people don’t listen to one another.
I once met a Spiritualist who told me that the problem with Christians was that they did not believe in communicating with the dead. He was, of course, talking nonsense; because if he had known the teaching of the Church, he would have known that in the Catholic Church do believe, that through the Resurrection of Jesus death has been defeated, and this means that we can both pray for our loved ones who have died, and know that they are near us and praying for us. What Christians do NOT do is get involved in séances where God is ignored and men and women try to summon up the dead through their own semi-magical devices.
Similarly, you probably know about Jehovah’s Witnesses who sometimes knock on our doors and claim that their interpretation of the Bible is the correct one. Here, as with the founders of Spiritualism, terrible mistakes about what God wants for us have been made because some individual has thought that they had some hotline to God and knew better than the Church what God wants.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, take our 1st Reading today (Acts 15:1-2.22-29) and use it to say that Blood Transfusions are not allowed. Now, it’s true that this Council in Jerusalem recommends some strange things to our modern ears, by suggesting that Christians avoid blood and strangled animals! But the reason for this is not to condemn blood transfusions, but simply to say that that Christians should eat Jewish Kosher meat, because at that time it was the best way to avoid eating meat that had been sacrificed first in pagan temples – not a thing that need worry us today.
All the great Saints who have felt themselves inspired by God as individuals, have realised the need to check that such inspiration was from God by asking the Church for approval, by linking their individual vision to the vision of the whole Church, the whole family of God. So, the Vision of St Bernadette at Lourdes had to be approved as genuine by the Church, before it could become the great centre of prayer and healing that it is today. And St Francis of Assisi founding his Community of Friars in 1209, like me, and probably like you, found God – outside the city in the beauty of nature. But for Francis this led to an even more intensive activity of bringing the love of Jesus back into the city he had left behind; and then, gaining the approval of the Church, he passed this on through those who joined his Community to many other cities all over Europe including Oxford where they arrived only 12 years later!
Remember, real experiences of God must be shared. If we keep our God to ourselves, as a nice private experience, we have missed the point.