This summer we are delving into a worship series drawn out of the book, The Soul’s Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred, by Christine Valters Paintner.
Celtic Christianity originated in Ireland and Scotland and flourished independently of Rome for about 200 years. Paintner points out that one of the things that draws so many people today to the Celtic Christian tradition today is its sense of intimacy with the earth and creation.
This morning the focus is on Landscape as a Theophany – in other words, Creation as an unfolding revelation of God. And to open our focus we are turning to an Irish philosopher and theologian who lived in the 800’s. He is considered the greatest teacher in the Celtic branch of the Christian Church. His name is strange to our ears: John Scotus Eriugena. It means John the Irishman from Ireland.
Eriugena taught that God is in all things, and that God is the essence of all life. God has not created out of nothing, but out of God’s very own life. Eriugena said that God’s essence is the light that is in all things. He wrote,
God’s Life is “The light which is the light of angels, the light of the created universe, the light of all visible existence.”
Eriugena taught that the world is a visible, unfolding, manifestation of God. Even things which seem to be without vital movement, like great rocks, have within them the light of God.
Eriugena’s thought was particularly shaped by the Gospel of John. He described St. John as the “observer of the inmost truth.” He said John had listened within and heard
“the Word through whom all things are made, the Word that is at the heart of life and from which all that is comes forth.”
If the Word were to stop, the whole created universe would cease to exist.
In the morning, the rising sun speaks to us of grace and new beginnings. The fertility of the earth is a sign of how life wells up from within, from the dark unknown place of God. God is in all things.
To know the Creator, he said, we must look at things he created. Christ in the world walks with two shoes, one shoe is Scripture, the other shoe is Creation. He urges us to listen to these expressions of God, and to “conceive their meaning in our souls.” In order to follow Christ, we need to be walking in his shoes – Scripture on the one foot, and all the species of Creation on the other. Scripture, he said, speaks to our intellect and reason; Nature speaks to our senses.
Because the essence of our life comes from God and is rooted in God, we are to be aware of the unity and simplicity of God that underlies the diversity and complexity of outward life.
Eriugena’s view was that the spiritual is at the heart of life, and that the more deeply we look into matter and living things, the closer we will come to God. He held that divine goodness is the essence of the whole universe. We and all creation bear within us good, no matter how deeply covered over it may be with sin and evil. There is goodness in all things because all creation comes from goodness.
His work was controversial, because of his focus on God in All Things, and in the Essential Goodness of people and all creation. Opposing theologians called it “Scottish Porridge.” But his teachings and writings on Nature and Scripture gained footholds in Great Britain and in Europe during his life and after.
So, informed by John Scotus Eriugena and the Celtic tradition of Christianity, how should we love nature today? That is especially important when we consider the vulnerability of all creatures and people in this climate crisis.
First, all of Creation – ourselves included – has intrinsic worth, because it is created in the love of God. So we ought to love (and protect) Creation for itself. Not for how useful it is to us, or whether it makes us feel warm and cozy. Or whether it is beautiful to our eyes. Creatures have intrinsic worth, apart from how we may feel about them. We can love nature by obeying a simple but difficult rule: pay attention to it.
What does it mean to pay attention? The writer Iris Murdoch says “it is difficult to see the world as it is.” We usually see the world in terms of our fat ego.” Murdoch tells of a moment standing at a window in a moment when she is anxious and resentful and brooding. Then suddenly there is a hovering kestrel. And her mind shifts to nothing but the kestrel and its flight. The thing she was brooding over a moment ago became less important. She says “there is a self-forgetful pleasure in [turning attention] to the sheer, alien, pointless, independent existence of animals, birds, stones, and trees.”
We are loving Creation when we pay attention to difference – that is, what is different from ourselves. A plant or animal – or another human being –is not important because it is useful to us, or even pleasing to us. But realizing that something other than myself is real, in itself and for itself – that’s difficult. To acknowledge another being as different and perhaps indifferent to me – like a hovering kestrel – is a feat of imagination.
But most of the time we don’t see. We pass by and fail to encounter wonder.
I remember (with regret) the time I was on my way to a meeting. As I drove along Bellingham Bay I saw cars lined up alongside the road. I assumed it was a rowing race and I drove by. Later I heard the story of a pod of gray whales feeding and playing. I had missed this awesome sight because I was not curious.
We often have an arrogant eye toward nature, seeing plants and animals only in reference to ourselves, our needs, wants, preferences. A loving eye is an eye that is curious, and interested, and pays attention. An arrogant eye sees only in terms of its own desires and needs, and how resources might be used. A loving eye judges the needs of the creatures and people who will be impacted by our choices.
The mystic Simone Weil said that absolute attention is prayer. By paying deep attention to something we are praying. May Sarton wrote:
“When you think about it, we almost never pay attention. The minute we do, something happens. We see whatever we’re looking at with such attention and something else is given – a sort of revelation. I looked at the heart of a daffodil in this way the other day – deep down. It was a pale yellow one, but deep down, at the center, it was emerald green – like a green light. It was amazing.”
The Irish monk St. Columbanus said,
“Understand, if you want to know the Creator, know created things.”
Christine Painter points out in this chapter of her book that
“If we want to come to know God, we must grow intimate with God’s artistry. When we awaken to this holy shimmering, we discover that we are woven into a vast community. We find ourselves nourished and supported in ways we didn’t see before. We are called to hold this deepening awareness and trust that our own holy birthing is sustained and called for by the choirs of creation.”
So here is the practice Christian Paintner suggests for you for this week. Make a commitment in this coming week to spend time with nature – a large or small landscape – or a single plant or creature. Be present to it as a place of revelation. Taking a camera with you on a walk or a hike can help you see something you might pass by.
Whatever you choose to pay attention to, I wish for you the slow ripening of your soul.