John Muir, a 19th century explorer and one of America’s most influential conservationists, wrote about one of his journeys in a letter to his former college professor:
I had been fording streams more and more difficult to cross and wading bogs and swamps that seemed more and more extensive and more difficult to force one’s way through.
He was traversing the Canadian wetlands in search for the elusive and beautiful orchid: the Calypso borealis.
Entering one of these great tamarac and arbor-vitae swamps one morning, holding a general though very crooked course by compass, struggling through tangled drooping branches and over and under broad heaps of fallen trees, I began to fear that I would not be able to reach dry ground before dark, and therefore would have to pass the night in the swamp and began, faint and hungry, to plan a nest of branches on one of the largest trees or windfalls like a monkey’s nest, or eagle’s, or Indian’s in the flooded forests…
Despite Muir’s extensive expertise, it didn’t assuage his dread onset by the deadwood bogs, and the dimming sky.
But when the sun was getting low and everything seemed most bewildering and discouraging, I found beautiful Calypso on the mossy bank of a stream, growing not in the ground but on a bed of yellow mosses in which its small white bulb had found a soft nest and from which its one leaf and one flower sprung. The flower was white and made the impression of the utmost simple purity like a snowflower. No other bloom was near it, for the bog a short distance below the surface was still frozen, and the water was ice cold. It seemed the most spiritual of all the flower people I had ever met. I sat down beside it and fairly cried for joy…
Muir’s reaction to finding the Calypso borealis is not what I would have predicted. Not only did he fail to even touch the flower, he didn’t even attempt a photograph. But why?
The truth is that he did not ask what he could make of it, or how he could capitalize on it. He saw its loveliness for what it was. And his only response to such unassailable beauty was to weep.
The way that John Muir encountered this flower is the way I imagine that Psalm 145 approaches God–to love and praise because he knew the object and how it was worthy of love and praise.
1 I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name forever and ever.
2 Every day I will bless you,
and praise your name forever and ever.
3 Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
his greatness is unsearchable.
4 One generation shall laud your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
5 On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
6 The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed,
and I will declare your greatness.
7 They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness,
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.
8 The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 The Lord is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made.
10 All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,
and all your faithful shall bless you.
11 They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom,
and tell of your power,
12 to make known to all people your mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
13 Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and your dominion endures throughout all generations.
The Lord is faithful in all his words,
and gracious in all his deeds.
14 The Lord upholds all who are falling,
and raises up all who are bowed down.
15 The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
16 You open your hand,
satisfying the desire of every living thing.
17 The Lord is just in all his ways,
and kind in all his doings.
18 The Lord is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.
19 He fulfills the desire of all who fear him;
he also hears their cry, and saves them.
20 The Lord watches over all who love him,
but all the wicked he will destroy.
21 My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord,
and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.
My relationship with God sometimes reminds me of a grocery store. My relationship with the grocery store is that of a consumer. It provides the goods that I want and need.
For a moment, let’s set aside the petitions that feed my own greed, lust, and pride. I am still prone to asking and pursuing God for other things: community, spiritual guidance and direction, inner peace, salvation and eternal life. While those things may be spiritually superior goods, for me to want the things of God more than God still makes me a consumer of God’s products, gobbling up God’s offerings for my own sake and moral self-interest.
In Psalm 145, there is no personal request. There is only a long exhortation on the nature of God. Similar to others like it, it testifies to the art of praising and loving, not for what can be done for us, but to love the beloved for the beloved’s own sake. The other provisions of God are still good but they are incidental. And though God may have attracted our initial attention by those provisions, our journey in loving God should transition beyond what can be done for me and toward praising how lovely God truly is.
It’s a lofty ambition. After all, it’s hard to love people this way, let alone an unseen God. So what special wisdom can I offer? I don’t have much by way of grand gestures or sure things.
But I have a hunch that I need to contemplate more on Psalms like this, extolling the nature of God.
I have a hunch I ought to treat each person I meet as someone for whom Christ has died and risen.
I have a hunch that I ought to pray for a quality of love that I do not, on my own, have.
And I have a hunch that the journey there will be lifelong, with untangled branches and waded bogs. And I have a hunch that if this is how God wants me to learn, I should ask for nothing less.
How long I sat beside Calypso I don’t know. Hunger and weariness vanished, and only after the sun was low in the west I splashed on through the swamp, strong and exhilarated as if never more to feel any mortal care.