The Roots of Christian Mysticism

  The Creation of the Universe





[Note that these 5 subdivisions are NOT found in the original text:
they are intended to accompany the audio-lecture

[1] Trinitarian & Cruciform Contemplation of Creation [2] The Book of Creation [3] The World as Theophany;
 [4] The Person Becomes Priest [5] The World Becomes Eucharist

CONTEMPLATION begins only after the completion of ascetical exercises (praxis), the aim of which is the achievement of interior freedom (apatheia), that is to say, the possibility of loving. Contemplation consists of two stages: direct communion with God is the aim, of course, but first we must come to ‘knowledge of creatures’ or ‘contemplation of nature’ (physike theoria), that is, the contemplation ‘of the secrets of the glory of God hidden in his creatures’.

Faith is the doorway to the mysteries. What the eyes of the body are for physical objects, faith is for the hidden eyes of the soul. Just as we have two bodily eyes, so we have two spiritual eyes, and each has its own way of seeing. With one we see the glory of God hidden in creatures: with the other we contemplate the glory of God’s holy nature when he deigns to give us access to the mysteries.
    Isaac of Nineveh Ascetic Treatises, 72. (p. 281)

People who know nothing of God – and there are plenty of them in our time – none the less have an inkling of him through the things he has created, when they look at them, apart from their practical uses, in their sheer beauty and their strange gratuitousness. Then they are filled with wonder. For the real miracle, as Wittgenstein said, is that things exist! The cosmos – a word that for the ancient Greeks meant at the same time order and ornament – by the continual process of death changing into life and decay into growth, bears witness specifically to an intelligence at work, which, in a time of apparently continuous scientific advance, our intelligence is able to decipher. ‘Ever since the world began, his invisible attributes, that is to say his everlasting power and deity, have been visible to the eye of reason in the things he has made’ (Rom. 1.20). As Dumitru Staniloae emphasizes in his Dogmatic Theology (Bucharest 1978) the very rationality of the world would be inexplicable without an eternal Subject. It ‘presupposes the rational, the more than rational, the apophatic depth of an eternal Person, and has meaning only if it is addressed by that eternal Person to persons with rational and more than rational powers, so as to bring about an agreement and a communion of love with them’.

All things would tend to nothing in virtue of their nature if they were not governed by God.
    Gregory The Great Commentary on the Book of Job, 16,37,45 (PL 75,1144)

 [1] Trinitarian & Cruciform Contemplation of Creation

[ 1. Trinitarian & Cruciform Contemplation of Creation ]

 FOR the Fathers there is a question here not so much of natural theology as of an original revelation, a covenant with the Logos ‘through whom all things were created’ (Colossians 1.16), a covenant that has been renewed and wonderfully deepened by the incarnation of the Logos. Evagrius makes it clear that the Wisdom and the Power of God, of which St Paul goes on to speak, are the Son and the Spirit. Making sense of the universe is only possible with the Trinity. For the purpose of the universe is revealed by the Logos, and it is the Spirit, the life-giving breath, who is causing each thing and the universe as a whole to tend in the direction of that purpose. The world, for a Christian, is a Trinitarian text, or better it is a woven cloth: the fixed threads of the warp symbolize the Logos, the moving threads of the woof the dynamism of the Pneuma.

Besides this, the cosmos, as we have seen, has been mysteriously preserved and strengthened by the cross. In Christ it has been drawn into a ‘union without absorption’ with God (Dionysius the Areopagite). The first Christians who did not dare to make direct representations of the cross, because it was an object of disgust and opprobrium, used to see it in all manner of things – in the flight of a bird, in the spread of a tree’s branches, in the shape of a mast with its sail, in the complete human figure. Today we are discovering that the cross is written into the very stuff of matter, as is shown by contemporary physics which can only tackle its subject by multiplying antinomies. The rhythm of death-and-resurrection recurs in the whole evolution of the cosmos. It transmutes horror into a kind of sacrifice and finds its completion in the ultimate mutation of Easter. All the life and all the suffering of the world are taken up into it. This vision of the ‘Sacrifice of Love’ ought to permeate the way we look at creatures and objects every day.

[1] ‘You are looking at the sun? Then think of Him who is the Light of the World, albeit shrouded indarkness.
[2] You are looking at the trees and their branches growing green again each spring? Then think of Him who, hanging on the wood of the cross, draws everything to himself.
[3] You are looking at rocks and stones? Then think of the stone in the garden that was blocking the entrance to a tomb. That stone was rolled away and since then the door of the sepulchre has never been shut’
(A Monk of the Eastern Church, Love without Limits, Chevetogne 1971 pp.27-28).

As for those who are far from God ... God has made it possible for them to come near to the knowledge of him and his love for them through the medium of creatures. These he has produced, as the letters of the alphabet, so to speak, by his power and his wisdom, that is to say, by his Son and by his Spirit .. .
   The whole of this ministry is performed by creatures for the benefit of those who are far from God.
Evagrius of Pontus Letter to Melania (in Hausherr, p. 84)

The contemplative, like the illiterate person, does without books. Creatures and things in their delicacy and infinite subtlety continually speak to him of God. ‘All are yours; and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s’ (I Corinthians 3.22). This could be put the other way round: ‘God is Christ’s; and Christ is yours; and you belong to all things.’

One of the wise men of that time went to find the holy man Anthony and asked him, ‘Father, how can you be happy when you are deprived of the consolation that books can give?’
   Anthony replied, ‘My philosopher friend, my book is the nature of creatures; and this book is always in front of me when I want to read the words of God.’
Evagrius of Pontus Practicus or The Monk (SC 171, p. 694)

The world is the gift of God. We must know how to perceive the giver through the gift. More precisely, since the time of the incarnation, the Passion and Easter, we can see the earth as an immense memorial, the tomb/womb in which Christ was buried and to which he gave resurrected power through the power of his own resurrection. And the tree of the cross, which has become the tree of life, secretly identifies the earth with paradise and gives proof once again of the sacramental nature of things.

I cannot show you my God, but I can show you his works. ‘Everything was made by him’ ( John 1.3). He created the world in its newness, he who has no beginning. He who is eternal created time. He who is unmoved made movement. Look at his works and praise their maker.
    Augustine of Hippo Sermon 261, 2 (PL 38, 12.03)

The Most High has wounded me with his Spirit, filled me with his love,
   and his wounding has become my salvation All the earth is like a memorial to thee,a presence of thy works ...
  Glory to thee, O God,
     thou who art for ever the delight of Paradise. Alleluia!
    Odes of Solomon, 11 (Harris-Mingana, II, p. 266)


 [2] The Book of Creation

[ 2. The Book of Creation ]

 THE book of the cosmos (the world, St Augustine says, is a ‘first Bible) and that of the Scriptures match each other, since they have the same author. Both of them find their full revelation in Christ who, after writing them, made them his body and his face. The incarnate Logos frees the speechless tongue of creation and unites it with the world as logos alogos. Christ has become the direct divine-human subject of the cosmic logoi. He confers on them their deepest meaning, their paschal nature, the power of the resurrection to work in them. He reveals their roots in the abyss of the three-Personed God.

Origen, within the limits of the knowledge of his time, looks at creation with amazement and admiration. He sees its infinite complexity, brought into harmony by syntheses which are increasingly complex and rich. Dionysius the Areopagite celebrated the ‘sympathy’ that holds all creation together and transforms its contradictions into living tensions. Here is the Trinitarian fabric once again. Every creature, however lowly in itself, yet expresses an infinite intelligence. Humanity must be united with every creature in order to make the praise of its tongue-tied nature to be heard. For ‘prayer like a sigh has always resided in the mystery and essential nature of creation’ (Basil Rozanov, The Apocalypse of our Time). The person of prayer understands that ‘everything is praying, every creature is singing the glory of God.’ ‘I learned thus,’ the ‘Russian Pilgrim’ adds, ‘what the Philokalia calls "the knowledge of the language of creation" and I saw how it is possible to converse with God’s creatures.’

In what a wonderful way the tremendous discoveries of Western science – undoubtedly made possible and mysteriously made fruitful by this contemplative gaze – permit us today to widen the scope of this celebration!

The divine art that is manifested in the structure of the world is not only to be seen in the sun, the moon and the stars; it operates also on earth on a reduced scale. The hand of the Lord has not neglected the bodies of the smallest animals – and still less their souls – because each one of them is seen to possess some feature that is personal to it, for instance, the way it protects itself. Nor has the hand of the Lord neglected the plants of the earth, each of which has some detail bearing the mark of the divine art, whether it be the roots, the leaves, the fruits or the variety of species. In the same way, in books written under the influence of divine inspiration, Providence imparts to the human race a wisdom that is more than human, sowing in each letter some saving truth in so far as that letter can convey it, marking out thus the path of wisdom. For once it has been granted that the Scriptures have God himself for their author, we must necessarily believe that the person who is asking questions of nature and the person who is asking questions of the Scriptures are bound to arrive at the same conclusions.
    Origen Commentary on Psalm 1,3 (PG 12,1081)

The Word both hides and reveals himself in visible forms as much as in the words of Scripture. The visible is the invisible written down. The divine idea, the logos, which produces, develops and attracts to itself every creature, is both silent and self-revelatory in it. It is silent in the negligence and greed of humanity. It is self-revelatory when humanity ‘names’ living things, like a poet on fire with love. Matter is infra-visible, the interplay of energies, a mathematical abstraction; form bears witness to the invisible.

In the Scriptures we say the words are the clothes of Christ and their meaning is his body. The words veil, the meaning reveals. It is the same in the world where the forms of visible things are like the clothing, and the ideas according to which they were created are like the flesh. The former conceal, the latter reveal. For the universal creator and law-maker, the Word, both hides himself in his self-revelation and reveals himself in his hiding of himself.
    Maximus the Confessor Ambigua, (PG 91,I I29)

 ‘Lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest’ ( John 4.35). The Word is in the midst of his disciples. He is asking his hearers to lift up their eyes toward [:]
[1] the fields of the Scriptures and
[2] toward that other field where the Word is present in every creature,
however small, so that they may perceive the whiteness and the brilliant radiance of the light of Truth which is everywhere.
    Origen Commentary on St John’s Gospel, 13,42. (GCS 4,269)

The nature of matter is good. In reality, since matter is an abstraction, it is the fruitful flesh in which the Spirit is incarnate. The material nature of ‘materials’, in the sense the artist-craftsman gives to the word, is an incarnation. By means of form it participates in the order, the beauty, the realm of the Good-and-Beautiful where God can be discerned.

It is just as false to repeat the commonplace that it is in matter as such that evil resides. For to speak truly, matter itself also participates in the order, the beauty, the form ... How, if it were not so, could Good be produced from something evil? How could that thing be evil when it is impregnated with good? ... If matter is evil how can one explain its ability to engender and nourish nature? Evil as such engenders and nourishes nothing. It does not produce or preserve anything. If it be objected that matter ... leads souls towards evil, how could that be true when many material creatures turn their gaze towards the Good?
    Dionysius the Areopagite Divine Names, IV,28 (PG 3,792)

And so every creature is a gift of the invisible, a palpable mystery.

When someone whose mind is but partially developed sees something clothed in some semblance of beauty, he believes that this thing is beautiful in its own nature ... but someone who has purified the eyes of his soul and is trained to see beautiful things ... makes use of the visible as a springboard to rise to the contemplation of the spiritual.
    Gregory of Nyssa On Virginity, (PG 46,364)

The ancient Greeks, to symbolize a true meeting, used to use a split ring whose two separate halves were joined together again. In Christ the world is joined together again in symbol, in a profusion of symbols. The invisible part appears in the visible: the visible draws its meaning from the invisible. Each symbolizes the other in the ‘house of the world’, of which God is the ‘eccentric centre’, being radically transcendent. God transcends the intelligible as well as the visible, but through the incarnation of the Logos he penetrates them both, transfigures and unites them. The world is a vast incarnation which the fall of the human race tries to contradict. The diabolos, the opposite of the symbolon, is continually trying to keep apart the separated halves of the ring; but they come together in Christ. Christian symbolism expresses nothing less than the union in Christ of the divine and the human – of which the cosmos becomes the dialogue – displaying the circulation in Christ of glory between ‘earth’ and ‘heaven’, between the visible and the invisible.

God’s love for humanity wraps the spiritual in the perceptible, the superessential in the essence. It gives form ... to what is formless and, through a variety of symbols, it multiplies and shapes Simplicity that has no shape.
Dionysius the Areopagite Divine Names, I, 4 (PG 3,592)

The world is one ... for the spiritual world in its totality is manifested in the totality of the perceptible world, mystically expressed in symbolic pictures for those who have eyes to see. And the perceptible world in its entirety is secretly fathomable by the spiritual world in its entirety, when it has been simplified and amalgamated by means of the spiritual realities. The former is embodied in the latter through the realities; the latter in the former through the symbols. The operation of the two is one.
 Maximus the Confessor Mystagogia, 2 (PG 91,669)

The divine apostle says: ‘Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature ... has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made’ (Romans 1.zo). If the invisible things are seen by means of the visible, the visible things are perceived in a far greater measure through the invisible by those who devote themselves to contemplation. For the symbolic contemplation of spiritual things by means of the visible is nothing other than the understanding in the Spirit of visible things by means of the invisible.
    Maximus the Confessor Mystagogia, 2 (PG 91,669)

God himself is simple and unlimited, beyond all created things .. . because he is free of any interdependence.
    Maximus the Confessor Ambigua (PG 91,1296)

 [3] The World as Theophany

[ 3. The World as Theophany ]

SO everything is symbolic: all creatures, however lowly, and their relationships, their balance, in which life springs unceasingly from death. The purity of matter, that point of transparency at the heart of things, reaches its perfection in Mary’s fruitful virginity. Alongside the utilitarian use of objects, or rather by means of it, one must learn to contemplate the flowering of heavenly realities in them. There is not only the horizontal concatenation of cause and effect. Each created object when contemplated ‘vertically’ expands to infinite horizons. Only this ‘vertical’ knowledge can clarify the scientific quest and limit and guide its technical power. Homo faber (Man the Maker) suffocates himself and suffocates the world if he is not in the first place homo celebrans (Man the Worshipper).

The apostle Paul teaches us that God’s ‘invisible nature’ has been ‘clearly perceived,in the things that have been made’ (Romans 1.20): what is not seen perceived in what is seen. He shows us that this visible world contains teaching about the invisible world, and that this earth includes certain ‘images of celestial realities’ ... It could even be that God who made the human race ‘in his own image and likeness’ (Genesis 1.27) also gave to other creatures a likeness to certain celestial realities. Perhaps this resemblance is so detailed that even the grain of mustard seed, ‘the smallest of all seeds’ (Matthew 13.31), has its counterpart in the kingdom of heaven. If so, by that law of its nature that makes it the smallest of seeds and yet capable of becoming larger than all the others and of sheltering in its branches the birds of the air, it would represent for us not a particular celestial reality but the kingdom of heaven as a whole.
In this sense it is possible that other seeds of the earth likewise contain an analogy with celestial objects and are a sign of them. And if that is true for seeds it must be the same for plants. And if it is true of plants it cannot be otherwise for animals, birds, reptiles and four-footed beasts ... It may be granted that these creatures, seeds, plants, roots and animals, are undoubtedly at the service of humanity’s physical needs. However, they include the shape and image of the invisible world, and they also have the task of elevating the soul and guiding it to the contemplation of celestial objects. Perhaps that is what the spokesman of the Divine Wisdom means when he expresses himself in the words: ‘It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements: the beginning and end and middle of times, the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons, the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars, the natures of animals and the tempers of wild beasts, the powers of spirits and the reasonings of men, the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots; I learned both what is secret and what is manifest’
(Wisdom 7.17-21). He shows thus, without any possible doubt, that everything that is seen is related to something hidden. That is to .say that each visible reality is a symbol, and refers to an invisible reality to which it is related.
Origen Commentary on the Song of Songs, 3 (GCS 8,208-9)

For anyone who reflects, the appearances of beauty become the themes of an invisible harmony. Perfumes as they strike our senses represent spiritual illumination. Material lights point to that immaterial light of which they are the images.
Dionysius the Areopagite Celestial Hierarchy, 1,3 (PG 3,121)

The interpretation of the world as a theophany, that grand contribution of the ancient religions to understanding, thus finds its full place in Christianity. But it has been freed from the danger of idolatry and has become the poetical expression of a communion. The marvellous hymn composed by Dionysius the Areopagite should be read: the brilliance of the sun symbolizes and incarnates the life-giving radiation of the divine glory. The sun by its prolific splendor testifies to a different Sun. The Good-and-Beautiful, spreading its presence like the sun, initiates a Trinitarian game of separation and conjunction; it gives each object its limits and at the same time its urge towards communion, its leap in the light towards the fount of the sunshine, towards the centre where the lines converge. This quotation from the Areopagite reminds one of Van Gogh writing from Arles, at the height of August, to his brother Theo: ‘Anyone here who does not believe in the sun is a complete infidel’.

What praise is not demanded by the blaze of the sun? For it is from the Good that its light comes, and it is itself the image of the Good. Thus we give glory to the Good by calling it Light ... Indeed, just as the goodness proper to the deity permeates everything that exists, ... so that it illumines every creature and gives it life, ... and is its height and breadth, its cause and its purpose; so likewise with the image in which divine Goodness is revealed, that great sun which is wholly light, and whose brightness is unceasing ... It is the sun that enlightens everything and pours out upon the whole visible world the brightness of its rays ... It is the sun that allows bodies to develop, bestows life on them, purifies and renews them ... And just as Goodness moves all things, and just as God the Creator gathers together all things that are scattered, turning them towards himself as their source and centre and perfect fulfilment; and as according to the Scriptures everything receives from the Good its structure and existence ... and as every object finds its own proper borders in the Good and all objects aim at the Good – the intelligent by way of knowledge, the sensible by way of the feelings, the merely animate by natural instinct, the inanimate by their simple share in existence – so, likewise, the light uses its property of revelation through images to gather together and draw to itself ... everything that receives its rays. That is why it is called ‘sun’ [helios] because everything is gathered together [aolles] in the light and the light reunites what has been scattered. It is towards this light that all perceptible realities are tending .. . I am certainly not asserting in the manner of the ancients that the sun actually governs the visible world as god and maker of the universe. But since the creation of the world, the invisible mysteries of God, thanks to his eternal power and godhead, are grasped by the intellect through creatures. (cf. Romans 1.20)
 Dionysius the Areopagite Divine Names, IV,4 (PG 3,697-700)

The angels are the mediators of glory, ministers of this symbolic structure of created being. Perceiving their presence we learn to fathom the depth of nature and its belonging to another world, its being rooted in God:

Angels, bearers of the Divine Silence,
  Lights of revelation set by the Inaccessible
    to reveal him on the very threshold of his sanctuary.
Dionysius the Areopagite Divine Names, IV,2 (PG 3,696)

Interior freedom – apatheia – makes possible that attentive gaze, stripped of covetousness, which perceives the outward appearance of each object and its secret, and honours it. Claudel must be quoted here: ‘A pure eye and a fixed gaze see every object becoming transparent in front of them’ (La Ville) ‘Only a soul that has been made pure will understand the fragrance of the rose’ (L’oiseau noir dans le soleil levant). And his allusion to Japanese art is pertinent because, let us repeat, the ‘contemplation of nature’ makes it possible to accommodate in the ‘barque’ of the Church, in its memory, the experiences of the cultures that are fed by a cosmic symbolism: ‘All the art of the old Japanese painters (who in almost all periods were monks) is explained if it is understood that, for them, the visible world was a perpetual allusion to Wisdom, like that great tree which, with unutterable majesty, says No to evil for us’ (ibid.).

Wisdom consists in seeing every object in accordance with its true nature, with perfect interior freedom.
    Maximus the Confessor Centuries on Charity, 11,64 (PG 90,42.0)

Here is a little spiritual exercise: by means of the humblest of sensations – of breathing, of rejoicing under the blue sky, of touching a stone, or the bark of a tree, of gazing, as Claudel or Heidegger would say, at the majesty of a tree – I try to reach the transcendence of a thing. The object is visible and at the same time invisible; I must seek its inner self, let myself be led by it.

We may gain some inkling of what God is if we attempt by means of every sensation to reach the reality of each creature, not giving up until we are alive to what transcends it ...
    Clement of Alexandria Miscellanies, V,XI (PG 9,112)

The aim of the exercise becomes more specific: the mystery of the object, progressively laid bare, leads us to Christ. The Word, by becoming incarnate, has reopened for us the paradisial dimension of the world. Opaque but transparent, the earth is the paradise which we can re-enter by dying and rising with Christ.

By meditation ... we are no longer considering the physical properties of an object, its dimensions, its thickness, length or breadth. What is left from now on is only a sign, a unity provided, if I may so put it, with a position ... Beyond, we discover the immensity of Christ, and there, by means of his holiness, we advance toward the depth of his infinity until we glimpse the Almighty ... The grace of understanding comes to us from God through his Son. Solomon bears eloquent witness to that when he says: ‘I have not the understanding of a man ... Every word of God proves true ... Do not add to his words’ (Proverbs 30.2 & 5-6). Moses also calls Wisdom by the symbolic name ‘tree of life’ (Genesis 2.9) and it was planted in paradise.
   But is not this paradise also the world in which are all the elements of creation? There the Word was made flesh; there he flowered and bore fruit; there he has given life to those who taste of his goodness.
    Clement of Alexandria Miscellanies, V,XI (PG 9,109)

So it is that a person in whom all the strength of the passions has been crucified and transfigured radiates the peace of paradise. Around him wild beasts are calm, and human beings also, who can sometimes be wild beasts. In truth he is another Orpheus, like the young Christ of the Mausoleum of Galla Placida at Ravenna.

The humble man confronts murderous wild beasts. From the moment they see him their savagery is tamed, they approach him as if he were their owner, nodding their heads and licking his hands and feet. They actually scent coming from him the fragrance that Adam breathed forth before the Fall when they came to him in paradise and he gave them their names.
    Isaac of Nineveh Ascetic Treatises, 20 (Spanos, p. 78)

For such a person the beauty of the body no longer arouses lust, but rather praise.

Someone, I was told, at the sight of a very beautiful body [a woman’s] felt impelled to glorify the Creator. The sight of it increased his love for God to the point of tears. Anyone who entertains such feelings in such circumstances is already risen .. . before the general resurrection.
    John Climacus The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 15th step, 58 (p. 168)

If objects give us an inkling of God, then drawing near to God we can receive the full revelation of their logoi, their spiritual natures, their infinite meanings. The Logos is the divine subject of all logoi, of all the subsistent ‘words’ that support the world. The logikos man, personal image of the Logos, is called to become their human subject. The meeting is fully brought about in the God-Man who enables us to fathom the spiritual essences of objects, not in order to possess but in order to offer them to the Logos after having ‘given them their names’, marked them with our own creative spirit. The world then becomes a momentous dialogue between the Logos and the logikos man. (It is also necessarily a dialogue of human beings among themselves, since they exist as persons only according to their relationship with oneanother.) All history, all cultures, animated by the presence of the cosmic Logos, form the setting; but the only place where there can be neither confusion nor separation is Christ.

Just as at the centre of a circle there is a single point at which all the radii meet, so one who has been judged worthy to reach God recognizes in him, by a direct awareness and without formulating thoughts, all the essences of created objects.
    Maximus the Confessor Gnostic Centuries, 11,4 (PG 90,1125-8)

In knowledge, the spirit offers the spiritual essences of the universe as so many gifts which it makes to God. In existence, the spirit receives the gifts, making explicit by its life all the splendour of the divine wisdom that is invisibly immanent in creatures.
     Maximus the Confessor Questions to Thalassius, 51 (PG 90, 480-1)

As for the Saints, it is in union with God that they receive spiritual awareness of created objects. They see the world in God, permeated by his light and forming a whole in the hollow of his hand. This is what St Benedict was doing when he contemplated the whole universe gathered up in a ray of the divine glory.

While the disciples were still sleeping, Benedict the man of God was already keeping vigil, anticipating the hour of the night office. Standing in front of his window in the dead of night he was praying to the Lord Almighty when suddenly he saw a light shining, and it dispelled the darkness and sparkled with such brilliance that it would have outshone the light of day. While he was watching it something extraordinary happened. As he described it later, the whole world was gathered up before his eyes as if in a ray of sunlight .. .

   How is it possible for the whole world to be seen in this way by a human being? ..

   To one who sees the Creator, the whole of creation is limited. But one glimpse of God’s light makes everything that has been created seem too narrow. The light of interior contemplation in fact enlarges the dimensions of the soul, which by dint of expanding in God transcends the world. Should I say this? The soul of the contemplative transcends itself when, in God’s light, it is transported beyond itself. Then, looking below itself, it understands how limited is that which on earth seemed to it to have no limits. Such a seeker ... could not have had that vision except in God’s light. It is not surprising that he should have seen the whole world gathered up in his presence, since he himself in the light of the Spirit was lifted up out of this world. When it is said that the world was gathered up before his eyes that does not mean that heaven and earth were contracted. No. The soul of the seer was expanded. Enraptured with God he was able to see without difficulty everything that is under God.
    Gregory the Great Dialogues, 11,35 (PL, 66,198-200)

The sun that rises and illumines the world makes itself visible as well as the objects it illumines. It is the same with the Sun of righteousness. When he rises in a mind that has been purified, he makes himself seen in addition to the logoi of the objects he has created.
    Maximus the Confessor Centuries on Charity, I, 95 (PG 90)


 [4] The Person Becomes Priest

[ 4. The Person Becomes Priest ]

DEEP within Shinto temples in Japan you find only a mirror. It is a symbol and a riddle. The risk there is of turning in upon the Self. But the Christian knows that the Self is the image of Christ. And Christ is the faithful mirror who reflects the truth not only of creatures and objects, but also of the Self that is no longer an undifferentiated abyss but the interior expression of a face.

See! The Lord is our mirror:
  open your eyes,
look into it,
  learn what your faces are like!
    Odes of Solomon, 13 (Harris-Mingana, II,276).

From that moment on nothing is profane. Nor is anything sacred of itself any more. The real division is between the profane and the sanctified. And everything can be sanctified: not only cosmic realities, but objects produced by human beings apparently for the most ordinary uses. This surprising importance of the commonplace, which some artists of our time try to bring out – for example by putting some utilitarian object on a pedestal – is perceived by the spiritual person, who quite naturally respects it.

Look upon all the tools and all the property of the monastery as if they were sacred altar vessels.
    Benedict of Nursia Rule, XXI, to (Centenario, p. 76)

The person who is sanctified in this way includes all created things in his love and in his prayer. His charity extends to the cosmos. Reading the lines that follow from St Isaac of Nineveh we are reminded of certain Buddhist texts. Yet from the biblical point of view created things are not ‘temporary aggregations’, they are perfectly real. And their suffering is real too, the horror that is multiplied by the powers of darkness, to which the world is continually given over as prey by our sin. About this agony it might be said that Christ, and the saints with him, are perpetually being crucified in order to impart to all things, ‘even to serpents’, a life freed from all forms of death, an aspect stressed by St Isaac.

What is purity, briefly? It is a heart full of compassion for the whole of created nature ... And what is a compassionate heart? He tells us: ‘It is a heart that burns for all creation, for the birds, for the beasts, for the devils, for every creature. When he thinks about them, when he looks at them, his eyes fill with tears. So strong, so violent is his compassion ... that his heart breaks when he sees the pain and the suffering of the humblest creature. That is why he prays with tears every moment ... for all the enemies of truth and for all who cause harm, that they may be protected and forgiven. He prays even for serpents in the boundless compassion that wells up in his heart after God’s likeness.’
    Isaac of Nineveh Ascetic Treatises, 81 (p. 306)

The ‘contemplation of nature’ can give spiritual flavour to our lives even if we lay no claim to be in any way ‘mystics’ in the rather particular sense that this word has acquired in the West. A little loving attention in the light of the Risen Christ is enough. The humblest objects then breathe out their secret. The person becomes the priest of the world at the altar of his heart, celebrating that ‘cosmic liturgy’ of which Maximus the Confessor speaks. Language, work, art, culture, the humanities, find their meaning there because the Logos,

while hiding himself for our benefit in a mysterious way, in the logoi, shows himself to our minds to the extent of our ability to understand, through visible objects which act like letters of the alphabet, whole and complete both individually and when related together. He, the undifferentiated, is seen in differentiated things, the simple in the compound. He who has no beginning is seen in things that must have a beginning; the invisible in the visible; the intangible in the tangible. Thus he gathers us together in himself,through every object ... enabling us to rise into union with him, as he was dispersed in coming down to us.
    Maximus the Confessor Ambigua (PG 91,1288)

 [5] The World Becomes Eucharist

[ 5. The World Becomes Eucharist ]

 HOWEVER, we are continually tempted to appropriate the world, to take possession of it as a kind of prey. We thus increasingly enslave it to death, and today we are in danger simultaneously of collectively committing suicide, and destroying nature. But by the intervention of the mystery of Christ and of the witness of his followers a state of death is transformed into a state of resurrection. In Christ the world becomes Eucharist. In him we can transfigure the world by integrating it into the human consciousness of the Risen Christ, who offers resurrection to everyone and everything. It is up to Christians to show people that the cross, all the crosses of history, call upon us to advance from possession to sharing and offering, to discover the Giver through the gift. They invite us to respect nature and spiritualize it, and to share the blessings of the earth like brothers and sisters, because, as Dumitru Staniloae, whose thought is summarized here, writes, ‘They are destined to serve interpersonal communion’ (Dogmatic Theology, I,344). Sanctity imparts the divine light not only to our bodies but to the whole cosmic environment. Today, when history itself is raising the ultimate questions, we are called to what Simone Weil termed a ‘holiness of genius’ that is able to communicate the light to the very foundations of culture.

Two passages from contemporary writers underline the reality of a similar form of contemplation. Pierre Emmanuel in L’Arbre et le vent shows the need to experience the depth of the universe in order to awaken the depth in oneself. He continues: ‘In the countryside this dimension is everywhere to be seen: in the plain extending all the way to Ventoux; in the distance to the evening star at dusk; in the trunk of the majestic umbrella pine; in the flight of the kestrel; in the hooting of the owl at night. These objects that are at once visible and invisible exist as much as I do, and more so, each in its own order ... They are all symbolic – even the scorpion that I am careful not to squash and which I like to see basking on the wall. Man’s true measure is in these objects. It consists in making their true nature his own, taking part in their praise, hearing it in them, merging it into himself.’

And Vladimir Maximov in Les Sept Jours de la création: ‘Miraculously ... it was if I were seeing the forest for the first time. A fir tree was not only a fir but also something else much greater. Thedew on the grass was not just dew in general. Each drop existed on its own. I could have given a name to every puddle on the road.’

Thus the person of prayer, the person for whom knowledge stands for life and life for immortality, becomes capable of ‘feeling everything in God’. He can feel on every object, in every object, the blessing of God. Thereby he is able to bless everything and to see in everything a miracle of God. By so seeing he is able, without seeking to do so, to work the miracle of materiality restored to health, weightless, splendid, belonging to the new Jerusalem.

What is knowledge? – The feeling of eternal life.
And what is eternal life? – Feeling everything in God.
For love comes from meeting him. Knowledge united to God fulfils every desire. And for the heart that receives it, it is altogether sweetness overflowing on to the earth. For there is nothing like the sweetness of God.
    Isaac of Nineveh Ascetic Treatises, 38 (p. 164)


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