The way of Nature, the way of Grace

Grace is a gift from God. And so is Nature.





At the beginning of Terrence Malick’s masterpiece, THE TREE OF LIFE, we hear Mrs. Obrien’s voice speaking these words:

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life … the way of Nature… and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy… when all the world is shining around it… when love is smiling through all things. They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace… ever comes to a bad end. I will be true to you. Whatever comes.

These words come over images of a young girl (images above), the young Mrs. Obrien, as she interacts with Nature, and also with her father. We don’t really see her face much, we don’t see her father except for his hand and shoulder. Instead with see the world as the girl sees it, big, wonderful, full of life – and she is safe in the arms of her father.

Naturally these words set up a kind of interpretive lens through which we might analyse the film. As we follow the story we can’t help but think in terms of nature and grace. In these words we find a perspective of life held on to by Mrs. Obrien, a perspective that she learned as a child, taught to her by nuns presumably at a parochial school. Perhaps Malick is hinting at the kind of spiritual education common to Catholic schools seventy five plus years ago, and maybe he is commenting on that teaching. What is interesting, however, is how the film seemingly undercuts this philosophy. Although one is tempted to say Mrs. Obrien (in her softness and beauty) is grace and Mr. Obrien (in his hardness and anger) is nature, it is amazing how much nature permeates the film in the most loving and awesome ways. Even the film’s title, The Tree of Life, speaks of nature in connection with life. We might be tempted to see grace as the way to life, and yet we are continually being drawn back to images of nature, and in particular the tree the boys climb in the film, and by which the vision of their mother dancing in the air appears.

An interesting question is who is the protagonist in this film. Most are likely to see Jack as the protagonist. But is he? Might not Mrs. Obrien be the protagonist. If the film is a meditation on the book of Job (it opens with the book’s most famous verse), then we see both Jack’s and his mothers struggles in that light. When a boy dies in the story, a young Jack asks of God, “Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good when You aren’t?” This is a big moment, and a huge question for Jack. But similarly, after Jack’s brother R.L. dies (which we do not see, but only hear that he died at age 19), Mrs. Obrien cries out to God, “Lord, Why? Where were you? Did you know what happened? Do you care?” It is arguable that Mrs. Obrien’s struggle and final acceptance is the greater arc. If so, then it is possible that the film is about her coming to terms with the ideas taught to her when she was a kid, held dear for many years, and only later in life revealed to her (perhaps because of her willingness to see) as being false, or at least not entirely true.

Though my inclinations are that Jack is protagonist #1, it could be argued that the story, with all it sweeping and ephemeral qualities, is entirely in Jack’s head, being essentially his memory. If that’s the case, then it could be argued that Mrs. Obrien is the protagonist in the story going on in Jack’s head, or perhaps a co-protagonist.

Other interesting questions include which son is Mrs. Obrien giving to God at the end of the film? We assume it must be R.L., but could it be Jack? And who are the women with her at the end? We might think they are angels, but the one on the right is the girl Mrs. Obrien we saw at the film’s beginning. Might she represent the previous and less mature understanding of nature and grace? She is, after all, representing a more innocent time before adulthood, child rearing, marriage struggles, and the death of a child. And is the other woman an angel, or might she be the personification of grace itself?


I am inclined to think the trouble many people have with watching Terrence Malick’s films, especially the later ones, is that we are a culture that no longer reads poetry. Reading poetry alters the mind to think in different ways. Poetry is the highest form of writing, and thus taps into parts of us that other writing does not, or not as well. Secondly, we do not read the classics enough, especially theology. A good dose of St. Augustine wouldn’t be bad. I’ll leave it at that.

Finally, an interesting connection is that Mrs. Obrien’s verbiage is very similar to that of Chapter 91 of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, quoted here in it entirety:

On the Contrary Workings of Nature and Grace (found here)

My son, carefully observe the impulses of nature and grace, for these are opposed one to another, and work in so subtle a manner that even a spiritual, holy and enlightened man can hardly distinguish them. All men do in fact desire what is good, and in what they say and do pretend to some kind of goodness, so that many are deceived by their appearance of virtue.

Nature is crafty, and seduces many, snaring and deceiving them, and always works for her own ends. But Grace moves in simplicity, avoiding every appearance of evil. She makes no attempt to deceive, and does all things purely for love of God, in whom she rests as her final goal.

Nature is unwilling to be mortified, checked or overcome, obedient or willingly subject. Grace mortifies herself, resists sensuality, submits to control, seeks to be overcome. She does not aim at enjoying her own liberty, but loves to be under discipline ; and does not wish to lord it over anyone. Rather does she desire to live, abide and exist always under God’s rule, and for His sake she is ever ready to submit it to all men.(I Pt.2:13)

Nature works for her own interest, and estimates what profit she may derive from others. Grace does not consider what may be useful or convenient to herself, but only what may be to the good of many.(I Cor.10:33) Nature is eager to receive honour and reward : Grace faithfully ascribes all honour and glory to God .(Ps 26:2:96:7) Nature fears shame and contempt: Grace is glad to suffer reproach for the Name of Jesus.(Act 5:41) Nature loves ease and rest for the body ; Grace cannot be idle, but welcomes work cheerfully.

Nature loves to enjoy rare and beautiful things, and hates the cheap and clumsy. Grace takes pleasure in simple and humble things, neither despising the rough, nor refusing to wear the old and ragged. Nature pays regard to temporal affairs, takes pleasure in this world’s wealth, grieves at any loss, and is angered by a slighting remark. But Grace pays attention to things eternal, and is not attached to the temporal. The loss of goods fails to move her, or hard words to anger her, for she lays up her treasure and joy in Heaven where none of it can be lost(Matt.6:20)

Nature is greedy, and grasps more readily than she gives, loving to retain things for her personal use. But Grace is kind and generous, shuns private interest, is contented with little, and esteems it more blest to give than to receive.(Acts 20:35) Nature inclines a man towards creatures – to the body, tovanities, to restlessness. But Grace draws a man towards God and virtue. Renouncing creatures, she flees the world, loathes the lusts of the flesh, limits her wanderings, and shuns public appearances. Nature is eager to enjoy any outward comfort that will gratify the senses. Grace seeks comfort in God alone, and delights in the Sovereign Good above all visible things.

Nature does everything for her own gain and interest; she does nothing without fee, hoping either to obtain some equal or greater return for her services, or else praise and favour. But Grace seeks no worldly return, and asks for no reward, but God alone. She desires no more of the necessaries of life than will serve her to obtain the things of eternity.

Nature takes pleasure in a host of friends and relations; she boasts of noble rank and high birth; makes herself agreeable to the powerful, flatters the rich, and acclaims those who are like herself. But Grace loves even her enemies,(Matt.5:44; Luke 6:27) takes no pride in the number of her friends, and thinks little of high birth unless it be allied to the greater virtue. She favours the poor rather than the rich, and has more in common with the honourable than with the powerful. She takes pleasure in an honest man, not in a deceiver ; she constantly encourages good men to labour earnestly for the better gifts, (I.Cor.12:31) and by means of these virtues to become like the Son of God.

Nature is quick to complain of want and hardship ; but Grace bears poverty with courage. Nature, struggling and striving on her own behalf, turns everything to her own interest: but Grace refers all things to God, from whom they come. She attributes no good to herself; she is not arrogant and presumptuous. She does not argue and exalt her own opinions before others, but submits all her powers of mind and perception to the eternal wisdom and judgement of God. Nature is curious to know secrets and to hear news; she loves to be seen in public, and to enjoy sensations. She desires recognition, and to do such things as win praise and admiration. But Grace does not care for news or novelties, because all these things spring from the age-old corruption of man, for there is nothing new or lasting in this world.

Grace therefore teaches us how the senses are to be disciplined and vain complacency avoided ; how anything likely to excite praise and admiration should be humbly concealed ; and how in all things and in all knowledge some useful fruit should be sought, together with the praise and honour of God. She wants no praise for herself or her doings, but desires that God may be blessed in His gifts, who out of pure love bestows all things.

Grace is a supernatural light, and the especial gift of God,( Eph. 2:8) the seal of His chosen and the pledge of salvation,(Eph.1:14) which raises man from earthly things to love the heavenly, and from worldly makes him spiritual. The more, therefore, that Nature is controlled and overcome, the richer is the grace bestowed, while man is daily renewed by fresh visitations after the likeness of God .(Col. 3:10)

The Stars Are Beautiful

The Stars Are Beautiful (1974) 19 min 16mm, by Stan Brakhage (1933-2003):

Part 1

Part 2

More on Brakhage at Senses of Cinema.

I find this kind of non-narrative experimental filmmaking wonderful. When I studied film in college my interests gravitated to this kind of art. Maybe it was because I was also studying art history and had a fondness for modern art. Maybe also because I love poetry. I think any work of art is a kind of test of what we bring to it. That test is not only of us, but of the artist and his/her work of art. A kind of dialogue ensues if we pursue it. Brakhage worked with a language, at least on its surface, that is foreign to most people. One could say it is abstract, I prefer poetic. However, I think there is a universal resonance within his best films that makes them work at a deeper level than is possible with more common forms of film language. I also had the privilege of attending a two evening presentation and discussion with Brakhage where he talked of his processes, inspirations, showed a number of his films, and introduced us to other filmmakers. It was revelatory.

Stan Brakhage

Getting rescued

We are entering another season of outdoor activities. I am looking forward to doing some climbing this year. Of course, climbing comes with its dangers. Below are two great videos of climbers being rescued from their respective mountains. Being rescued can feel embarrassing, but I think in life and not only in climbing, it is a great thing to be rescued.

In both of these videos it is clear that the rescuers are incredible. that they would do such things is a testament to their courage, but also to their commitment to climbing; climbers rescue climbers.

Sunday ride to Hayward Field and Delta Ponds

Today the weather cooperated and we mounted the bicycles and rode over to Historic Hayward Field. Once there we did some stair climbing. On the way home we took the longer route and saw lots of wildlife. This was also Wilder’s first time on the tag-along. A great family ride.

Wilder looks cool on the tag-along.
Beautiful skies of sun and clouds. Riding the west bank trail.
Waiting for the light. Wilder and Lily having a good time.
Our bike train parked at Hayward Field.
Ah, nature. The Delta Ponds.
A Great Blue Heron rules the pond.
Stopping to watch the heron.
Across the Owosso bridge, heading towards home.

Climbing Mount Thielsen

The mountains will always be there, the trick is to make sure you are too.
~ Hervey Voge
The three rules of mountaineering:
  1. It’s always further than it looks.
  2. It’s always taller than it looks.
  3. And it’s always harder than it looks.
This past weekend I summited Mount Thielsen. This was the first real summit for me in many years and it became a test of my endurance and will. Climbing mountains is something I love, but in recent years my climbing trailed off and shifted to reading climbing stories and getting out of shape – the summits beckoned from the couch but the couch won out. Finally I got off the couch.
This climb was both a test of my current capabilities and, I hope, a jump start to more of the same. In short, I want to get back into climbing and climbing shape and, I have the say, I’ve got a long ways to go.

We arrived at the trailhead on Friday around 10PM and set up our tents in the dark. The sunset on Mount Bailey was beautiful. I crawled into the tent and began getting my gear sorted for the next day. I was not sure what I was going to need so I stared at my choices for a while and then decided I would make the final choice in the morning. The night was cool but not terribly cold, probably got down to about 30 degrees. I read some of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (not trying to be ironic) and then listened to my iPod – Arvo Pärt for a while and then John Zorn, and then I fell into an uneasy sleep. I don’t usually sleep on the ground and I was anxious about the climb.

In the morning I opted for a cold breakfast of a Cliff bar and water. I decided not the bring my crampons since no one else was. Our climb coordinator/leader was Wayne from The Obsidians – a Eugene-based outdoor group that organizes hikes and climbs and other trips. The others were Bob, Wendy, and Chrissy.

We started hiking around 5:40AM and in a short while I could feel the altitude. A mile in we began to encounter snow patches and eventually we put on our snow shoes. At times we could see the imposing summit peak through the trees. The trail steepened and we powered on. Because of the snow we took a shortcut through a “blow down” area where many large trees were scattered on their sides. It was eerily impressive. I began to tire severely and wondered several times if I would make it. My heart rate maxed out and my breathing was heavy and labored. I felt like I had bit off more than I could chew. I could tell I was getting clumsy. Finally we stopped for about 15 minutes. This allowed me to down some trail mix and electrolyte bites, lots of water, and catch my breath. After that I felt much better, though I was still only hanging on the the back of the group as we continued up the mountain.

The snow got too steep for snow shoes so we abandoned them by a tree. Wayne marked the way point on his GPS unit so we could find them on the way down. We climbed into a bright sun which rose behind the mountain. The trees on the ridge now thinned out to twisted scrub and the wind picked up for a while. As the ridge steepened we left the snow and climbed scree and then loose rock we called the dinner plates. At this point the route began to get quite steep and our group slowed down. Some in the group said they did not want to “look down” at that point. I appreciated the slowing. It allowed me to catch my breath, but I also began to feel more in my element. Though I am not in mountaineering shape like I should be, I enjoy when the terrain becomes more challenging and alpine. For the first time I felt that I would make it to the summit. We ran into a couple coming down the mountain. They had passed us going in but they had not brought proper gear and were unable to go any further up the mountain. They were moving slowly because one of them was clearly scared of the steep angle of the slope and was going slowly down the mountain scooting on her bottom.
After the dinner plates we hit steep snow and out came the ice axes. The snow was firm but not too hard. We kicked steps at we moved carefully higher across the snow field. The exposure steepened dramatically. We opted not to set up a fixed line though a fall could have sent one of us quite a ways down. But our feet felt solid under us and we felt confident. Finally the slope curved from east to north under the summit block and got very steep and the snow got quite hard. We carefully kicked steps up to a small ledge where the six of us were just able to stand and trade spots as we took off our packs and put on our climbing harnesses.
Wayne then led the summit block – 80 feet of near vertical scramble – with Bob belaying him. Once the rope was secured at the top each of us took our turn climbing, using prusiks for self belay. The summit block is a jumble of solid rock with many good foot and hand holds. The exposure, though, is extreme and the running belay was welcome. Finally I stood on the small summit of Mt. Thielsen at 9,184 ft (2,799.3 m).
The pinnacle of Mt. Thielsen can only hold about six to eight people. It is known as the lighting rod of the Cascades. On the east side one can look down a couple thousand vertical feet to the glacier. After taking a few photos we each had to down climb to our packs. Going down is usually where climbers get into trouble, so we were very careful. Once we got to our packs as the base of the summit block, we decided to set up anchors and drop the rope down the steep snow slope. It was still icy where we were and some in the group didn’t like down climbing on the ice. I offered to go first to test the slope. The first 20 or so feet was still icy and I gingerly kicked steps backwards. Then the snow became very soft and I turned around and plunge stepped down to the end of the rope and slid my prusik off the end and continued down to a patch of loose rock where the others eventually joined me and we rested, ate, distribute the group gear, and then continued on down the mountain.
Like most hikes out it is easier going down than up, but one’s feet begin to ache and mine did considerably. We got back to the trailhead by 7:30 PM, hiking the last couple miles through mosquitoes. The drive home was long but good. I got a ride from Bob and he and I talked about search and rescue – for which he does a lot of volunteer work.

As I write this my legs are very sore and my sunburn hurts, but I feel very good. I carried sunscreen to the summit and back but forgot to put any on, so my face is as red as a ripe tomato and beginning to peel. I’ll take my sunburn as a temporary badge of honor though. I have been living as an armchair mountaineer for too long. My heart longs to be off the couch and hiking through alpine regions. This climb means a lot to me in that respect. One thing for sure, I need to get into better shape if I am to climb again. Another thing for sure, I loved this experience and can hardly wait for the next.

In Our Nature

To one who has been long in city pent,
‘Tis very sweet to look into the fair
And open face of heaven, – to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament.

~John Keats, Sonnet XIV
Or maybe to look into a volcano.
“Outbreak of the Vesuvius”, painting by Johan Christian Claussen Dahl (1826), 
collection Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main.
You can probably tell from a number of my recent posts that I have a goal to get myself and my family into nature, to confront it, embrace it, wallow in it. Nature is a transformative force. It is possibly far more important that we realize. Non-nature, those places we create that keep nature at bay, make us feel safe and make life seem more predictable, but we also lose out on something (or many things) intrinsic to ourselves and our sanity. An overly safe and controlled world is a pathway to a troubled mind and, I would argue, a troubled soul. Confronting the less predictable and sometimes frightening wildness of nature has got to be a key aspect of the mind’s design. We need nature. I believe John Muir was right when he said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” But are we raising our children to love nature?

“I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

~ spoken by a fourth grader, reported in Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv
A grove of trees along the bike path near our home.
Feel free to just stare at it for a while.
We often hear people say they feel more alive when they are in nature, or facing into the kinds of ambiguity that adventure brings. What does this mean? Certainly one is not truly more or less alive in a strict sense. And yet, in nature one’s senses come more alive. One’s spirit is lifted or engaged more fully. There is something about the infinite variety, the ambiguity, the perfection of nature that seems to be ideally suited to the needs of our brains and spirits. That has got to be one of the reasons we own pets and buy potted plants, but also why we need wilderness. Could it be that the wildness of nature is a kind of correlative to the wildness of God?
Being in nature is important for children. We often have fears about letting kids run wild in the wild. And yet, when we do, we find kids come alive in nature in a way they never do (nor never will) in school, at home, playing video games, etc. It is as though nature was made for kids, or maybe it’s the other way around. I am convinced that many of the apparently psychological/emotional issues with children today stem from not enough nature time. Richard Louv takes this on in his important book Last Child in the Woods. He describes that the last few years have seen a significant shift in how, and how often, kids interface with nature. Here is a clip where he talks a bit about this topic:
My problem is that I am lousy at getting off the couch. I have a talent for dreaming but not so much for doing. But I’m trying to change that. I and a friend are starting a kids outdoor club of sorts. We hope to do lots of outdoor activities, but mostly just get kids and nature together and let the magic happen. Of course we will bring along lots of bandaids and bactine. What is critical is that there is, at least, a repeated experience of nature and a moving away from radically lesser forms of play and entertainment, such as video games and television.
Now, with this in mind, a Cub Scout can earn awards (“Belt Loop” and “Academics Pin”) in video games. Gasp! I find this disturbing. Below are the requirements taken from the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) web site.
Tiger Cubs, Cub Scouts, and Webelos Scouts may complete requirements in a family, den, pack, school, or community environment. Tiger Cubs must work with their parents or adult partners. Parents and partners do not earn loops or pins.
Earning the “Belt Loop” award
Complete these three requirements:
  1. Explain why it is important to have a rating system for video games. Check your video games to be sure they are right for your age.
  2. With an adult, create a schedule for you to do things that includes your chores, homework, and video gaming. Do your best to follow this schedule.
  3. Learn to play a new video game that is approved by your parent, guardian, or teacher
Earning the “Academics Pin” award
Earn the Video Games belt loop and complete five of the following requirements:
  1. With your parents, create a plan to buy a video game that is right for your age group.
  2. Compare two game systems (for example, Microsoft Xbox, Sony PlayStation, Nintendo Wii, and so on). Explain some of the differences between the two. List good reasons to purchase or use a game system.
  3. Play a video game with family members in a family tournament.
  4. Teach an adult or a friend how to play a video game.
  5. List at least five tips that would help someone who was learning how to play your favorite video game.
  6. Play an appropriate video game with a friend for one hour.
  7. Play a video game that will help you practice your math, spelling, or another skill that helps you in your schoolwork.
  8. Choose a game you might like to purchase. Compare the price for this game at three different stores. Decide which store has the best deal. In your decision, be sure to consider things like the store return policy and manufacturer’s warranty.
  9. With an adult’s supervision, install a gaming system.
In my opinion this an important failing on the part of the BSA as well as a symptom of a deeper malaise in our culture. In fact, I would argue the huge popularity of video games in our culture is the result of a profoundly pervasive nihilism. This is not to say video games are bad, or that anyone playing them is a nihilist, but the ubiquitous nature of video games is not unlike other forms of popular drug use. It seems that we have become a society of mass dissipation and escapists from life. Who we are, what we value, and what our world view is, comes to the fore in the kinds of entertainment we choose. If life is meaningless then playing video games hours on end (or watching television hours on end, or many other things) might makes some sense. But life is not meaningless and we need to teach our children that fact (and live that fact ourselves). We need to lead our kids away from cheap, easy, and empty escapism and toward the fullness of an examined life. Frequently unplugging from the electrical outlets is important. Getting into nature is a part of the solution.