I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about how medieval Christians understood the natural world they lived in. With much of the contemporary discourse on ecological concerns (and even “eco-theology”), I think it is helpful to gather insights from the wisdom of our Christian ancestors.
Kenelm Digby, that excellent scholar of medieval Christianity, has unearthed much traditional sentiment in this regard. Here he comments on the placement of church buildings beside forests and mountains.
Our Catholic ancestors placed their abbeys in similar situations, which afforded to men that most perfect pleasure of enjoying at the same time the loveliness and peace of a country life and the delights of solemn worship amidst affecting solemnity and holy song. Their surrounding woods too, contained oracular trees, like those of Dodona, which could pronounce lessons of wisdom. Oh what a moment was that when on the dewy lawn, in some natural amphitheatre of wooded hills, as day arose, in that sweet hour, one heard the chant of lauds from some abbey, mingled with the liquid tones of the nightingale! What more could have been found in those happy islands which were thought to lie in the ocean, so delightful that they seemed intended for Gods and not for men, so greatly did they abound in beauty and joyful inspiration! St. Bernard of Clairvaux used often to go out after the office of the night was sung and walk through the wood which surrounded the monastery till it was time to sing the morning office; and this interval he would spend in prayer for his brethren. Once, at this hour, he had a vision of angels descending into the valley from the mountains. These holy men, living in the bosom of nature, were examples to the world of the excellence of uniting a love of nature with the Christian faith.
Such a relationship with the physical world around us, though never entirely automatic, was much better appreciated by Christians before the Modern industrial era. Today, by contrast, anything we learn from “nature” is often considered hip, trendy, and new. But it was commonsense for someone like Cicero, that famous Roman orator, who could still utter with conviction these words: “Nature without learning oftener attains to virtue and praise than learning without nature.”
This was all presupposed at the outset, when Christianity converted the West. As Digby concludes, “under the influence of the Catholic religion the wish of the religious Wordsworth had been realized to the traveller of the Middle Ages. Cliffs, fountains, rivers, seasons, times, had all reminded his soul of heaven.”
It wasn’t until the Modern Enlightenment that such a vision of the world was largely replaced and lost. But I think it is safe to say that we have found something missing in our souls ever since.