Springtime, as the natural world rises from its wintry tomb, brought great joy to Saint John Henry Newman – speaking to him of God’s glory. He eagerly noticed the progress of trees and flowers: ‘The chestnut and lime leaves are just a quarter out – and the sycamore shows just a few beautiful pink buds where there should be a burst of full rejoicing verdure…We excel in rhododendrons, camellias and arbutus – but our soil is not the best, and we are sadly open to the east wind.’ (Letters and Diaries XXVIII, p62)
Whereas, Newman was full of sorrow at the effects of severe frost on the Oratory garden at Rednal: ‘It has quite put me out of heart with planting, so many of our shrubs and young trees have come to grief.’ (Letters and Diaries XXX p76)
Nature regularly featured in Jesus’s teaching and Newman found it an important source of analogy. He describes the growth of virtue in different people accordingly: ‘…. the soul which is quickened with the spirit of love has faith and hope …one and all exist in love though distinct from it; as stalk, leaves, and flowers are as distinct and entire in one plant as in another, yet vary in their quality, according to the plant’s nature.’ (Parochial and Plain Sermons IV, 21)
Newman also compared the negative effects of nature with the influence of adult worldliness upon the enthusiasm of young people: ‘…it breathe on them, and blights and parches, and strips off their green foliage, and leaves them, as dry and wintry trees without sap or sweetness. But in early youth we stand with our leaves and blossoms on which promised fruit; we stand by the side of the still waters, with our hearts beating high …with a sort of contempt for the fashions of the world…’ (Parochial and Plain Sermons VI, 22)
The power of creation to invigorate the senses, free the mind and enable us to communicate with God, was something Newman passionately believed in. His letters and diaries are full of the enjoyment of walking by himself or with others. He often used his rambles to pray, think of problems and compose sermons and addresses.
May our own spiritual lives benefit from the outdoor environment too.