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    Reading the Book of Nature

    Reading the Book of Nature

    Four writers study the divine as revealed in the natural world.

    By Lilias Trotter, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Augustine of Hippo and George MacDonald

    February 27, 2024
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    • Ann Catherine Dayton

      Very moved to read Lilias Trotters' radiant description of the little, half withered dandelion caught in the beams of the rising sun, and thereby transfigured. A symbol for us of the Sun of Righteousness touching our souls, and enabling the divine "attrait" to draw us towards His Light

    Lilias Trotter, Oleanders

    Lilias Trotter, Oleanders, watercolor, 1893. All artwork used by permission of Lilias Trotter Legacy and Arab World Ministries of Pioneers.

    Lilias Trotter

    Isabella Lilias Trotter was a British artist and a Protestant missionary to Algeria in the late nineteenth century. She chose the mission field above a promising art career, and never lost her love of nature.

    It was in a little wood in early morning. The sun was climbing up behind a steep cliff on the east, and its light was flooding nearer and nearer and then making pools among the trees. Suddenly, from a dark corner of purple-brown stems and fawny moss, there shone out a great golden star. It was just a dandelion and half withered, but it was full face to the sun, and had caught into its heart all the glory it could hold, and was shining so radiantly that the dew that lay on it still made a perfect aureole round its head. If the Sun of Righteousness has risen upon our hearts, there is an ocean of grace and love and power lying all around us, and it is ready to transfigure us, as the sunshine transfigured the dandelion, and on the same condition that we stand full face to God. Turn your soul’s vision to Jesus and look and look at him, and a strange dimness will come over all that is apart from him, and the Divine “attrait” by which God’s saints are made even in this twentieth century will lay hold of you. For he is worthy to have all there is to be had in the hearts that he has died to win.

    Lilias Trotter, ed. Constance E. Padwick, Master of the Impossible: Sayings, for the Most Part in Parable, from the Letters and Journals of Lilias Trotter of Algiers. (New York: Macmillan, 1938), 65–66.

    Lilias Trotter, Mountain Scene

    Lilias Trotter, Mountain Scene, watercolor, date unknown.

    Gerard Manley Hopkins

    Gerard Manley Hopkins was an English poet who, at age twenty-two, became a Roman Catholic, and later, a Jesuit. He died of typhoid fever in 1889 at age forty-four.

    Why did God create? – Not for sport, not for nothing. Every sensible man has a purpose in all he does, every workman has a use for every object he makes. Much more has God a purpose, an end, a meaning in his work. He meant the world to give him praise, reverence, and service; to give him glory. It is like a garden, a field he sows: what should it bear him? Praise, reverence, and service; it should yield him glory. It is an estate he farms: what should it bring him in? Praise, reverence, and service; it should repay him glory. It is a lease-hold he lets out: what should its rent be? Praise, reverence, and service; its rent is his glory. It is a bird he teaches to sing, a pipe, a harp he plays on: what should it sing to him? etc. It is a glass he looks in: what should it show him? With praise, reverence, and service it should show him his own glory. It is a book he has written, of the riches of his knowledge, teaching endless truths, full lessons of wisdom, a poem of beauty: what is it about? His praise, the reverence due to him, the way to serve him; it tells him of his glory. It is a censer fuming: what is the sweet incense? His praise, his reverence, his service; it rises to his glory. It is an altar and a victim on it lying in his sight: why is it offered? To his praise, honor, and service: it is a sacrifice to his glory.

    The creation does praise God, does reflect honor on him, is of service to him, and yet the praises fall short; the honor is like none, less than a buttercup to a king; the service is of no service to him. In other words he does not need it. He has infinite glory without it and what is infinite can be made no bigger. Nevertheless he takes it: he wishes it, asks it, he commands it, he enforces it, he gets it.

    Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Christopher Devlin, The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins. (United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1959), 238–239.

    Lilias Trotter, Leaves of Gold

    Lilias Trotter, Leaves of Gold, watercolor, 1906.

    Augustine of Hippo

    Saint Augustine (354–430) was bishop of Hippo and one of the Latin Fathers of the Church.

    How can I tell you of the rest of creation with all of its beauty and utility, which the divine greatness has given to man to please his eyes and serve his purposes?…

    Shall I speak of the manifold and various loveliness of sky and earth and sea; of the plentiful supply and wonderful qualities of light, of sun, moon, and stars; of the shade of trees; of the colors and perfume and song; of the variety of animals, of which the smallest in size are often the most wonderful – the works of ants and bees astonishing us more than the huge bodies of whales?

    Shall I speak of the sea, which itself is so grand a spectacle, when it arrays itself as it were in vestures of various colors, now running through every shade of green, and again becoming purple or blue? Is it not delightful to look at the storm and experience the soothing complacency which it inspires by suggesting that we ourselves are not tossed and shipwrecked? What shall I say of the numberless foods to alleviate hunger, the variety of seasonings to stimulate the appetite which are scattered everywhere by nature, and for which we are not indebted to the art of cookery? How many natural herbs are there for preserving and restoring health? How graceful is the alteration of day and night! How pleasant the breezes that cool the air! How abundant the supply of clothing furnished us by plants, trees, and animals! Can we enumerate all the blessings which we enjoy?

    Augustine of Hippo, City of God, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II. Ed. Philip Schaff. (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), 504.

    Lilias Trotter, Desultory Bee

    Lilias Trotter, Desultory Bee, watercolor, 1907.

    George MacDonald

    George MacDonald was born in 1824 in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. He left the ministry to pursue a literary career and wrote over fifty books to support his family of eleven children.

    Every fact in nature is a revelation of God, is there such as it is because God is such as he is; and I suspect that all its facts impress us so that we learn God unconsciously. True, we cannot think of any one fact thus, except as we find the soul of it – its fact of God; but from the moment when first we come into contact with the world, it is to us a revelation of God, his things seen, by which we come to know the things unseen.…

    What idea could we have of God without the sky? The truth of the sky is what it makes us feel of the God that sent it out to our eyes.… In its discovered laws, light seems to me to be such because God is such. Its so-called laws are the waving of his garments, waving so because he is thinking and loving and walking inside them. We are here in a region far above that commonly claimed for science, open only to the heart of the child and the childlike man and woman.… Facts and laws are but a means to an end; in the perfected end we find the intent, and there God. For that reason, human science cannot discover God; for science is but the backward undoing of the tapestry-web of God’s science; it will never find the face of God, while those who would reach his heart will find also the spring-head of his science. The work of science is a following back of his footsteps, too often without appreciation of the result for which the feet took those steps. If a man could find out why God worked so, then he would be discovering God; but even then he would not be discovering the best and deepest of God; for his means cannot be so great as his ends.

    Adapted from George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, Series III. (Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg).

    Lilias Trotter, Blossom in the Desert

    Lilias Trotter, Blossom in the Desert, watercolor, ca. 1896.

    Contributed By Lilias Trotter Lilias Trotter

    Isabella Lilias Trotter was a British artist and a Protestant missionary to Algeria in the late nineteenth century.

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    Contributed By GerardManleyHopkins Gerard Manley Hopkins

    Gerard Manley Hopkins, who in life was considered a failure as both a poet and a priest, posthumously became one of the great poets of the modern era.

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    Contributed By Augustine Augustine of Hippo

    Saint Augustine (354–430) was bishop of Hippo and one of the Latin Fathers of the Church.

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    Contributed By GeorgeMacDonald George MacDonald

    George MacDonald wrote over fifty books that are still cherished for their literary quality and spiritual insight. C. S. Lewis has said that MacDonald’s influence can be found in every book he wrote.

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