During his three years of active preaching, Jesus frequently drew upon aspects of the natural world to explain his teachings to his followers. He drew their attention to the birds of the air and the lilies in the field. He spoke of the sowing of seeds, the nurturing of vines and the reaping of the harvest to explain his teachings in simple terms. In reference to his pastoral mission he frequently used the analogy of shepherds, sheep and lambs. He called on his followers to be fishers of men. He also encouraged them to have eyes to see and ears to hear.
The ascetic monks of the Celtic Church believed in living close to nature. They built their simple hermitages in remote locations of great natural beauty where they spent much of their time observing and reflecting on the wonder of the natural world whilst meditating on the meaning of this life and on the afterlife.

Grant me sweet Christ the grace to find
Son of the living God-
A small hut in a lonesome spot
To make it my abode

A pleasant woodland all about
To shield it from the wind,
And make a home for singing birds
Before it and behind.

A little pool but very clear
To stand beside the place
Where all men's sins are washed away
By sanctifying grace.

A southern aspect for the heat,
A stream along its foot,
Smooth green grass with rich top soil
Propitious to all fruit.
St Manchán (c.660ad)

It is clear from the writings of early Irish monks that they were creationists and spent much of their time observing and reflecting upon the natural world and the Creator.

A hedge of trees surrounds me,
A blackbird sings to me.
Above my lined book,
The trilling birds chant to me.
From the top of the bushes
The cuckoo sings;
Verily – may the Lord shield me.
Well do I write under the greenwood tree.
Seventh-century Irish

While the monks of the Celtic Church eagerly embraced mankind and the natural world as the work of the Creator, those of the Roman tradition tended to eschew the world and the flesh, placing great emphasis on the sinfulness of mankind. They tended to withdraw from the world, not only physically, but also in spirit. In contrast, the monks of the Celtic Church opened their eyes and minds to the world around them and saw in it the work of the Creator.

All of life, all of nature,
Pulsates with the life-force of a creation,
And there is nowhere, where the Creator is not.
St Columbanus (540 – 615 ad)

Today, many people are rediscovering the spirituality of the Celtic Church as a channel towards a deeper understanding of the meaning of life. Indeed, interest in the link between the natural world and the Creator has always held a particular fascination for the Irish mind. Some modern Irish poets such as Joseph Mary Plunkett (I see his blood upon the rose), and Katherine Tynan (All in the April evening) have reflected on this relationship in their poetry.

All in the April evening,
April airs were abroad;
I saw the sheep with their lambs,
And thought of the Lamb of God.
Katherine Tynan (1861 -1931)

We are very lucky in Ireland that we are seldom far from areas of natural beauty. It is open to us all to find quiet picturesque locations where we can pause and take time out to observe nature and reflect upon the deeper meaning of life. Having found a quiet location in a pleasant natural setting one should sit in a comfortable position and just relax. Allow yourself to become absorbed in the beauty of your surroundings and try to exclude extraneous thoughts of everyday matters coming into your mind. Focus your mind on the scene in front of you and try not to let your thoughts go outside of what you are seeing and hearing. Do not feel that you have to conjure up specifically spiritual thoughts. Simply become absorbed in the natural beauty of your surroundings and try to live in the moment. Start to focus on particular aspects of the scene. Look, for example, at the clouds and marvel at how no two moments are the same as they slowly wind their way across the sky. Observe a river and how it works its way determinedly through the landscape, turning this way and that, getting around each and every obstacle until it arrives at its final goal. The infinite variety of trees and their beauty, both singly and collectively, provide endless opportunities for reflective thought. Observe animal or bird life and how at harmony they are with their surroundings. One of the most awesome natural sights is a clear starry winter sky when the vastness of the cosmos, by comparison to the Earth we live on, becomes evident to us. By observing and reflecting on nature over the course of a year we can also observe the progression of human life reflected in the seasons.
It takes time and patience to develop the capacity to mentally detach oneself for periods of time from the many distractions of everyday life. It is, however, well worth the effort and in itself is a very healthy exercise for mind and body. Over time, when you become more practised at reflecting on the natural world around you, your mind will move naturally to thoughts of deeper things. Do not force it; it will gradually move naturally in that direction Learn to appreciate and enjoy these quiet moments of inner peace and tranquillity. Sometimes one will experience moments of deep thought; other times one will not. If outside matters keep intruding on your thoughts then try having an internal conversation with yourself. Silently talk to yourself about aspects of your natural surroundings, the mountains, the fields, the animals etc. This will greatly assist you in excluding outside thoughts from your mind. At its least, the experience of being close to nature will be one of inner peace and quietude and this, in itself, is good for mind and body. Initially, a period of about twenty minutes reflection is enough with a gradual extension over time. For those who are less nimble of foot it can be a very satisfying experience to park your car at a lay-by on a scenic road and spend a little time reflecting on the natural beauty around you. Sometimes it can be helpful to have a nice instrumental CD playing softly in the background.
The ascetic monks of the Celtic Church gave much of their time to observing nature as a channel towards reflecting upon the deeper meaning of life. We, on the other hand, lead busy everyday lives with many distractions. However, with commitment and persistence it is possible for most people to regularly take a little time out in quiet places of natural beauty to observe, reflect and recharge mind and body.

Deep peace of the running wave to you,
Deep peace of the flowing air to you,
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you,
Deep peace of the shining stars to you,
Deep peace of the infinite peace to you.
Old Irish Blessing

Frank Tracy
Dublin Unitarian Church