The Universe and the Soul: Richard Jefferies on Nature as Prayer for Presence
By Maria Popova
There are moments in life when something breaks open, something breaks free, something dissolves and resurfaces as large as the universe. Moments when we access what G.K. Chesterton called “the submerged sunrise of wonder.” Moments when we part what Virginia Woolf called “the cotton wool” gauzing our view of raw reality. Moments when the boundaries of the self fall away and we find ourselves in oneness with what Margaret Fuller called “the All.”
These are moments marked by William James’s four characteristics of transcendent consciousness, most acutely by their ineffability. But once or twice a century, if we are lucky, a person emerges to articulate the inner pulse-beat of such an experience and, in articulating it, broadens the portal of possibility for the rest of us.
No one has captured the ineffable transcendence of such a moment more vividly and passionately than the great British nature writer Richard Jefferies (November 6, 1848–August 14, 1887) — a man of uncommon sensitivity to beauty, who died at the age I am now, having lived a life electric with wonder.
Like his American contemporary John Burroughs, who wrote so movingly about the spirituality of nature, Jefferies believed that communion with the natural world is a portal to the highest reaches of our own humanity. “To be beautiful and to be calm without mental fear is the ideal of Nature,” he wrote, insisting again and again that we can attain this ideal by relinquishing our sense of separateness from the rest of nature and unselfing into the elemental totality of life.
Jefferies first felt this totality in his marrow one day in his youth when, climbing a hill he climbed often, he entered a state of being he had never experienced before. He recounts the experience in his spiritual autobiography The Story of My Heart (public library):
Moving up the sweet short turf, at every step my heart seemed to obtain a wider horizon of feeling; with every inhalation of rich pure air, a deeper desire. The very light of the sun was whiter and more brilliant here. By the time I had reached the summit I had entirely forgotten the petty circumstances and the annoyances of existence. I felt myself, myself.
In splendid affirmation of Simone Weil’s insistence that “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer,” he adds:
I was utterly alone with the sun and the earth. Lying down on the grass, I spoke in my soul to the earth, the sun, the air, and the distant sea far beyond sight. I thought of the earth’s firmness — I felt it bear me up: through the grassy couch there came an influence as if I could feel the great earth speaking to me. I thought of the wandering air — its pureness, which is its beauty; the air touched me and gave me something of itself. I spoke to the sea: though so far, in my mind I saw it, green at the rim of the earth and blue in deeper ocean; I desired to have its strength, its mystery and glory. Then I addressed the sun, desiring the soul equivalent of his light and brilliance, his endurance and unwearied race. I turned to the blue heaven over, gazing into its depth, inhaling its exquisite colour and sweetness. The rich blue of the unattainable flower of the sky drew my soul towards it, and there it rested, for pure colour is rest of heart. By all these I prayed; I felt an emotion of the soul beyond all definition; prayer is a puny thing to it, and the word is a rude sign to the feeling, but I know no other.
I prayed by the sweet thyme, whose little flowers I touched with my hand; by the slender grass; by the crumble of dry chalky earth I took up and let fall through my fingers. Touching the crumble of earth, the blade of grass, the thyme flower, breathing the earth-encircling air, thinking of the sea and the sky, holding out my hand for the sunbeams to touch it, prone on the sward in token of deep reverence, thus I prayed that I might touch to the unutterable existence infinitely higher than deity.
With the earth, the sun and sky, the stars hidden by the light, with the ocean — in no manner can the thrilling depth of these feelings be written — with these I prayed, as if they were the keys of an instrument, of an organ, with which I swelled forth the note of my soul, redoubling my own voice by their power.
Animated by a desire for “greatness of soul, an irradiance of mind, a deeper insight, a broader hope,” Jefferies finds himself transformed by this prayerful surrender, rendered both more himself and more unselved, rendered a pulsating particle of the great totality:
I returned to myself and thought, reclining in rapt thought, full of aspiration, steeped to the lips of my soul in desire. I did not then define, or analyse, or understand this. I see now that what I laboured for was soul-life, more soul-nature, to be exalted, to be full of soul-learning.
Having drunk deeply of the heaven above and felt the most glorious beauty of the day, and remembering the old, old, sea, which (as it seemed to me) was but just yonder at the edge, I now became lost, and absorbed into the being or existence of the universe… and losing thus my separateness of being came to seem like a part of the whole.
William James himself was deeply moved by Jefferies’s account of this transcendent hour. In his talks to teachers and students, a century before our golden age of compulsive productivity at the expense of presence, he cautions against devaluing such seemingly impractical experiences, urging us instead to recognize them as vital revelations of what makes life worth living:
Surely, a worthless hour of life, when measured by the usual standards of commercial value. Yet in what other kind of value can the preciousness of any hour, made precious by any standard, consist, if it consist not in feelings of excited significance like these, engendered in some one, by what the hour contains?
Yet so blind and dead does the clamor of our own practical interests make us to all other things, that it seems almost as if it were necessary to become worthless as a practical being, if one is to hope to attain to any breadth of insight into the impersonal world of worths as such, to have any perception of life’s meaning on a large objective scale. Only your mystic, your dreamer, or your insolvent tramp or loafer, can afford so sympathetic an occupation, an occupation which will change the usual standards of human value in the twinkling of an eye, giving to foolishness a place ahead of power, and laying low in a minute the distinctions which it takes a hard-working conventional man a lifetime to build up. You may be a prophet, at this rate; but you cannot be a worldly success.
Life is always worth living, if one have such responsive sensibilities. But we of the highly educated classes (so called) have most of us got far, far away from Nature. We are trained to seek the choice, the rare, the exquisite exclusively, and to overlook the common. We are stuffed with abstract conceptions, and glib with verbalities and verbosities; and in the culture of these higher functions the peculiar sources of joy connected with our simpler functions often dry up, and we grow stone-blind and insensible to life’s more elementary and general goods and joys.
For Jefferies, the ultimate function of his transcendent hour on the hill was the discovery of the meaning and substance of the soul as a mediator between the self and the universe:
I was breathing full of existence; I was aware of the grass blades, the flowers, the leaves on hawthorn and tree. I seemed to live more largely through them, as if each were a pore through which I drank. The grasshoppers called and leaped, the greenfinches sang, the blackbirds happily fluted, all the air hummed with life. I was plunged deep in existence, and with all that existence, I prayed… I prayed that I might have a soul more than equal to, far beyond my conception of, these things of the past, the present, and the fullness of all life. Not only equal to these, but beyond, higher, and more powerful than I could imagine. That I might take from all their energy, grandeur, and beauty, and gather it into me. That my soul might be more than the cosmos of life.
The Story of My Heart is a transcendent read in its totality — one of two books Rachel Carson kept at her bedside throughout her life, alongside Thoreau’s Walden. Complement these fragments from it with Margaret Fuller’s kindred taste of transcendence, Virginia Woolf’s arresting account of a total solar eclipse, and Thoreau on nature as prayer, then revisit Jefferies on how to awaken to life.
Published June 8, 2023