Listening to the Music of the Universe
John Scotus Eriugena, the greatest wisdom teacher of the Celtic Christian world, taught that God wrote two books. The smaller of the two is the scriptures, which contain God’s truth. But there was and is a larger book of truth, that of the creation, and Eriugena knew already in the ninth century that we were losing our ability to read it. One of the great gifts of the Celtic Christian world is the emphasis upon creation as revealing God. George MacLeod, twentieth century rejuvenator of the Iona Community in Scotland, spoke of the “thin places” where the line between sacred and profane is blurred and in fact overcome and we know ourselves to be in a holy Presence.
In the nineteenth century, the poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins spoke of the universe as “shook foil” showing forth the grandeur of God. As a calligrapher and illuminator I know about shook foil. Gold foil is so thin that, if held to the light, you can see through the sheet. It is so light that the least wind will blow it and crinkle it onto itself, so you’ve got to be very careful with it. Gold foil reflects light as if it were illuminated from within. So it is with the creation if we can see it. Ah but there’s the rub: if we can see it. Our vision has been clouded over by centuries of teaching that creation is inferior to scripture.
Why have we lost the ability to see God in the creation? The church is at fault in many ways. Some key churchly teachings separated people from the earth and engrained in us the belief that matter is not as good as spirit. One teaching that underlies this split is that human sinfulness renders us totally helpless and bereft of any connection to God. This teaching was pervasive in much of the church and it drove a wedge between creation and God. This sense of estrangement from God and his grace drove and still drives many people from the church, and we have not yet fully overcome it.
Some Christians taught that sexuality and even creativity are bad. A line was drawn between spirit and matter, a line that unfortunately enabled those who wanted to exploit the earth to do so. People conveniently forgot that we are called to be stewards of the creation, not abusers of its resources.
Eriugena knew that, in the words of J. Philip Newell, “To listen to creation without scripture is to lose the cosmic vastness of the song. And to listen to scripture without creation is to lose the personal intimacy of the voice.” The two belong together if we are to know our place in the sacred universe. One text addresses us personally, one text addresses us physically, and we need both of them for wholeness, just as our body cannot be whole without our soul.
While cycling the other week I saw a burrowing owl along our new city path. We looked at each other and knew a deep oneness as interrelated parts of the creation. I am not apart from the creation nor from the burrowing owl or, for that matter, the lazuli bunting I spotted in flight recently. As farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry puts it, we are not apart from, but we are a part of, the creation. We are one in that spiritual matter God created. As we recover this awareness we will recover a deeper sense of the church’s call to oneness, which is much bigger than overcoming the rift between religions. We are called to recognize and live our union with all creation. That way lies healing.