Steven Chase is resident scholar at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research and president of the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. His forthcoming books from Eerdmans, Nature as Spiritual Practice and A Field Guide to Nature as Spiritual Practice, highlight the role of nature in the formation of Christian spiritual and moral identity. With vivid imagery, Steven illustrates here how slowing down and noticing the natural world actually enriches our perception of God and brings healing.
Careful attention to nature fosters what Gerald May in his book The Wisdom of Wilderness calls, “the power of the slowing.” Such attention — such slowing — calls us into spiritual practice, into formation, and into a path to healing; it calls us into discernment. Yet, how does nature’s slowing guide us into discernment?
In a recent best-selling historical novel, Girl With a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier writes of the famous seventeenth century Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer, and of a peasant girl, Griet, who enters Vermeer’s household at a young age as a maid. Chevalier tells the story through they eyes of Griet, who gains the trust of Vermeer and, though still young, is given the important task of cleaning and arranging Vermeer’s studio. Eventually she becomes the model for Vermeer’s famous painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Griet’s chores include laying out the colors of paint Vermeer requests for the next day. One day, Griet lays out blue paint instead of the ultramarine Vermeer had asked for. At first annoyed, Vermeer soon recovers and walks over to open the studio window. He invites Griet to look out the window. It is a breezy day, and Griet can see clouds disappearing behind a church tower.
“What color are those clouds, Griet?” Vermeer asks. Griet looks hard at the clouds and answers, “Why, white, sir.”
“Are they?” he asks. She looks again: “And gray,” she says, “perhaps it will snow.”
“Come, Griet, you can do better than that. Think of your vegetables . . . your turnips and your onions — are they the same white?”
“No. The turnip has green in it, the onion yellow.”
“Exactly. Now, what colors do you see in the clouds?”
“There is some blue in them,” she says after studying them for a few minutes. “And yellow as well. And there is some green!” In the first-person narrative of the novel, Greit says, “I became so excited I actually pointed. I had been looking at clouds all my life, but I felt as if I saw them for the first time at that moment.”
Vermeer teaches Greit contemplative attention, wonder, and slowing — just as the clouds, over time, had taught Vermeer. Likewise, it is Greit’s vegetables — her turnips and her onions, and now the clouds — that slow her gaze, arouse her curiosity, and, by the end of the book, will teach her a new way of being on the earth.
In 1857 the painter Frederic Edwin Church completed his spectacular and now famous painting Niagara. The foreground of the huge canvas, which is nearly four feet high and seven feet across, is taken up entirely by the tumultuous water and spray of the falls; land is represented only by two small, nearly imperceptible islands offshore on the far side of the falls. Only a thin line paints the islands between the water and the sky. The sky itself comes forward — thunderous, ominous as the falls — with a small rainbow lending color. One art critic of the period wrote that the painting was the Falls — the only thing missing was the sound.
Ten years after its completion, the painting was a sensation at the Paris Exposition of 1867. European viewers, normally suspicious of any “art” emerging from the United States, lined up for blocks and blocks outside the Exposition’s exhibit hall waiting for a chance to see the painting. Even with hundreds of people waiting in line behind them, it is reliably reported that men, women, and children spent an average of one hour slowing before this spectacular window into nature.
Seeing yellow, green, and blue in clouds and standing before a single painting for an hour — these two examples of attentive slowing are remarkable in part because that kind of intensity of perception is unusual today. Yet attention, slowing, and intensity of perception are components of discernment. Christians are called to discipleships of discernment; they are apostles of healing. To see a complete palette of colors in a cloud is an act of discipleship. To be rapt by the spray of water falling from a painting is a way of discernment. All we attend to on this earth is a part of our apostolate. This kind of contemplative perception both sees and acts; it hears the groaning of creation and attends to its healing. In turn, creation hears your groaning and attends to your healing.
Intensity of perception leads to curiosity, which may lead to compassion. It is a Christian’s baptismal right to be curious. Peter follows in curiosity. Mary Magdalene is curious as she approaches a tomb. Christ looked at every person he met with the intensity of Vermeer looking at a cloud — curious, rapt, probing. How intensely and with what discernment must Jesus have considered the lilies of the field.
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 Tracy Chevalier, The Girl With a Pearl Earring (New York: Plume, 2001), scene, 99-102, dialogue, 101.