Category Archives: eco-spirituality

Pilgrimage as a means of exploring faith, science and nature

At a basic level, pilgrimage is about following a path. It provides a break from the routine, an opportunity to expand horizons, – and a chance to reassess priorities. Pilgrimage is about about noticing things, taking in the language of a place, its history, its dynamics, its culture; tuning in to the essence of things, a way of connecting.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, probably most famous for his short poem “God’s Grandeur”, used two terms in his writing, “inscape” and “instress”. By “inscape” he means a complex of characteristics that gives a thing its uniqueness and that differentiates it from other things; and “instress” the force of being, which holds the inscape, and carries it whole into the mind of the beholder.

Wordsworth experienced a similar inscape which had spiritual or mystical significance for him. These poets from the Romantic era saw nature in its individuality, as opposed to the scientific approach of the eighteenth century, which had been to classify and generalise.

In his book I and Thou, the philosopher Martin Buber says that when considering a tree, one cannot avoid degrading it to the status of a mere object, by naming its species and counting its number, but then he says,
“It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is no longer It.”[ Buber, Martin, I and Thou, trans., Ronald Gregor Smith, pp. 7-8]

The whole of nature is a ‘thou’, a mirror of the human existence, silently reflecting our experience of being alive, forcing us to rethink our ideas about the physical world. By walking through a meadow, or beside a river, or through a woodland we can not only appreciate the science of the landscape, and but also its poetics.

Attentiveness deepens our sense of the order, balance, harmony and grace of creation. In turn this develops our human capacities for intimacy, trust and relationship. Just as a great painting may hold us in conversation, or a piece of music touch our soul, so a journey of any kind in the outdoors can give us a glimpse, an insight, into the silent and invisible life that points to something more significant.

Annie Dillard’s spiritual autobiography, Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek is a theological and natural science study of a year in a Virginia valley. She is riveted by profligate, extravagant nature, and the law of kill or be killed, that we tend to ignore when we are walking in the countryside. But at the same time nature invites her to make connections in personal ways and she concludes her book by saying,
“The giant water bug ate the world. And like Billy Bray I go on my way, and my left foot says ‘Glory,’ and my right foot says ‘Amen’: in and out of Shadow Creek, upstream and down, exultant, in a daze, dancing, to the twin silver trumpets of praise.”[ Dillard, Annie, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, (Pan Books, London, 1976) p.237]

Science comes from the Latin ‘scientia’, which refers to any systematic body of organised knowledge. But science, as we know it today, is generally taken to mean just the natural sciences. Theology, another systematic body of organised knowledge was once termed ‘the queen of sciences’. It contributed to the emergence of modern science. Scientia is a pilgrimage of discovery and scientists are pilgrims in much the same way that people of faith are. The realms that some scientists are operating in today is getting closer to metaphysics than physics.

The father of quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr, became something of a guru with his quasi-mystical understand of his field.The science writer Philip Ball has called his recent book Beyond Weird: Why everything you thought you knew about quantum physics is different. It’s recommended for lay readers. I’m thinking of getting a copy. Scientists are beginning to take seriously what philosophers have been debating for centuries. What is real? What is a living being? What is beauty?

Professor Suzanne Simard at the University of British Columbia [ TED talk, June 2016,, has discovered that beneath the soil of the forest, a world of infinite fungal networks grows in association with the roots of a plant in a symbiotic or mildly pathogenic relationship. These networks connect trees and allow them to communicate. So the forest behaves as though it’s a single organism. A single species will look after their kith and kin and send messages of wisdom and support to the next generation. By their roots, trees speak in a language of electrons with crystalline bonds of affection. Trees through their leaves can taste, smell and in a sense see, warning others of harmful invaders. We can learn from the wisdom of trees.

The earth behaving as one organism is an idea put forward by the inventor James Lovelock. To his annoyance, his ideas about Gaia have been taken up by eco-theologians and earth-diviners. But secular or not, the point we should remember about Gaia is that she is not a benevolent Mother Earth, who calls for a cult of worshippers to gather round her. To pay attention to nature is not to pray to Gaia, to worship her, to ask her what she wants from us and to do it. Rather, it is to be provoked toward new modes of thinking and acting.

In his book The Biology of Wonder, the biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber questions the pure scientific viewpoint of a mechanistic universe, of an abstract genetic code controlling the bodies of all created organisms, like pre-programmed machines, with algorithms shaping lives. He says it does not explain freedom of choice, the sense of what is good or bad shared by all organisms; the human feelings of doubt, love, guilt or compassion.[ Andreas Weber, The Biology of Wonder, (New Society Publishers, Canada, 2016) pp.97 – 100]

As a birdwatcher, I have heard, all too rarely, the nightingale’s song. What becomes apparent, and scientists have confirmed this, is that its song is not just about genetic inheritance, or indeed mapping territories by warning off the opposition. Deep in the hedgerow its song is an expression of the sheer joy of its existence; and it orients me into its world.

In recent years, I have been taking part in developing links between faith, science and nature in the context of pilgrimage.

St Ternan’s Banchory had a science and faith project, which involved woodland walks led by an Aberdeenshire countryside ranger along parts of the Deeside way. The ranger expertly drew our attention to what was happening in nature. But to give the walks a spiritual dimension, we were invited the walkers to share a poem, piece of scripture or spiritual writing. Science and faith fell into conversation following the same path. And it had an extraordinary effect on the participants. Many started to notice the detail of nature, a small flower, birdsong, a caterpillar crossing our path. Contemplative silence fell on the group; even the young people ceased their ‘Game of Thrones’ battles and joined the ‘oldies’ in the walk.

I led an 8 mile reflective walk through the Fetternear Estate in Kemnay for the Epiphany group. We tried to maintain a vow of silence and participants were aided by extracts from various writings and questions for reflection. It was clear by the time of our lunchtime picnic that the vow of silence had to be lifted as everyone seemed bursting to say something about what they had experienced.

I am a trustee of Eco-Congregation Scotland and in the run-up to the Paris Climate Change Conference, ECS commissioned a baton made from a recycled pew from a church in Edinburgh. It was carried from church to church across the length and breadth of Scotland before arriving at the conference floor. A spiritual symbol present at a secular conference.

ECS has set up a pilot with registered congregations and the RSPB. The aim is to provide opportunities for churches to import the scientific expertise of RSPB staff into their wildlife projects, such as, how to develop wildlife sanctuaries in their churchyards and communities. The reciprocal is the opportunity to enjoy the biodiversity of the paths through the RSPB reserves, providing places of prayerful contemplation and worship.

“God is an active creator, an artist and a musician. By an outpouring of divine love, a great order, a grand symphony, God arranges the staff, notes, pitch and accidentals, dots and ties of creation; and, surreptitiously, unfolds a work of harmony and beauty, while the beat and rhythm drives the pace of life.”[ Murray Richard, ‘Preaching Eco-Theology’ p.10] As pilgrims exploring nature, we can experience this musicianship if we apply our intelligence and are receptive to wisdom.

Intelligence comes from the Latin meaning ‘choose between’. But its not about choosing between science and faith. We need to use more than our brains; we need to experience nature with our whole bodies; we need to be mindful, inwardly appreciative, moment by moment.

Making the connection between science, faith and nature provides an experience of belonging that makes our lives profoundly meaningful. Pilgrimage makes every place holy ground.


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