In the Celtic tradition there is an understanding that our own virtue, and indeed our very existence, are flowing forth from an infinite well of life and goodness which exists in all things and is the source of all things. This well is referred to as ‘the hidden recesses of nature’ or ‘the hidden wealth of nature’. Today I would like to talk to you about these secret springs hidden in the nooks and crannies of reality and how tapping into them gives life to the soul and connects us to the seeds of existence which are ever sprouting all around us.
Pelagius’ most famous (and also my favourite) letter was written to a young rich woman named Demetrias. He was giving her instructions on how to live a Christian life and seeing as Augustine and Jerome were also writing letters to Demetrias, he wanted to make sure he started out with his teaching of free will and human goodness to counteract their doctrine of original sin.
One of the arguments he uses to establish his belief in human goodness is that even people who do not have the teachings of Jesus or the Bible to rely on can still be good and live holy lives. He discusses how pagan philosophers and common folk alike often live in the way of Christ without having heard the gospel or the law. This, he argues, is because they are created in God’s image and have the law of righteousness implanted in their hearts as an inherent part of their creation. He uses Romans 2 as a proof text for this which says:
“For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.”
Pelagius also talks about how many of the great heroes of the Bible were able to live good and holy lives without the gospel of Christ, the law of Moses, or even the covenant of Abraham. He talks about Noah and Abel and Melchizedek who were able to be good simply by drawing from the law imprinted on their hearts. When discussing Job, Pelagius says:
“What a man Job was! A man of the gospel before the gospel was known, a man of the apostles before their commands were uttered! A disciple of the apostles who, by opening up the hidden wealth of nature and bringing it out into the open, revealed by his own behaviour what all of us are capable of and has taught us how great is that treasure in the soul which we possess but fail to use and, because we refuse to display it, believe that we do not possess it either.”
The hidden well of nature gives forth all kinds of virtues and if we are willing to draw the water which it produces we will be able to live with the same kind of holiness as Job did. This is the light Jesus told us not to hide under a basket. Pelagius says that we hide our light partially because we do not believe that we even possess it. And this is why he so adamantly opposed the idea of original sin – because we will not pursue something we think there is no hope of obtaining.
But the hidden wealth of nature in our souls is very real and if we open it rivers of goodness will flow out of it and wash away all the stains of sin which cover us. For that is all that sin is – a stain, an accumulation of dirt, which can be washed away to reveal the beautiful image of God which the Bible tells us we are made in. In fact, not only does goodness and virtue flow from this hidden realm, but so does all of reality and the life force which we share with the plants and animals.
I would like to bring Eriugena into the conversation. Eriugena and Pelagius are the two biggest names in Celtic theology. Pelagius teaches the path of right action and Eriugena teaches the path of contemplation and wisdom. Between them we have a very well rounded understanding of God, humanity, and the path of virtue. When Eriugena talks about the hidden recesses of nature he does so from a different perspective than Pelagius. While Pelagius was talking specifically about goodness and the law of God printed on our hearts, Eriugena is discussing the way in which reality itself pours forth from this well and how the seeds of life are everywhere.
In Eriugena’s book Periphyseon he spends a fair bit of time talking about the creation story in Genesis. He notes that on the sixth day of creation the text reads:
“And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.”
Eriugena uses the word ‘soul’ in the quote below, but what he means by that is more like our modern idea of ‘living creature’ which the NIV has used in the passage above. By soul Eriugena means humans and animals and plants and stuff like that. He points out that the land is said to produce souls each according to their kind and makes the point that the elements of the universe do not themselves produce life but that rather there is some quality of life which must be added to the physical elements of the earth.
“The elements of nature generate nothing from themselves, and no species of nature is born from them, although it appears to be. But the force of seeds within them, insofar as Divine Providence allows, through genera and species bursts forth from the hidden recesses of creation into different species of grasses, shoots, and animals.
There is a most general and common nature of all, created by the one First Principle of all; and from It, as from a very copious fountain, corporeal creatures, like streams, are channeled through hidden passages and break forth into the different forms of individual things. That force, coming forth through different seeds from the secret recesses of nature and first emerging in the seeds themselves, then mixed with the different fluids, bursts out into the individual, sensible species.”
Eriugena is saying here that the breath of life does not come from materiality itself but rather from it’s source in the Word of God through whom all things are created. Like God breathing life into Adam’s nostrils. In Eriugena’s understanding of the reality it is Christ who gives order to the universe and who is the fountain we have been describing. This fountain pours forth streams through the hidden recesses of nature which then come out into the “real” world and give life to the clay. This living water is the primordial possibility of the Word of God which is divided into the various species we find here on earth.
This way of seeing looks at the same thing Pelagius was talking about, but from a very different angle. These same mysterious hidden passages flow through us just like they do the rest of creation and they deposit the streams coming forth from Christ. They are the means by which everything exists and therefore they are nature. The power of nature is the power of Christ and it flows through this world intangibly and powerfully shaping everything – including us.
This is the hidden wealth of nature which Job opened within himself to be good without the benefit of anything the church has to offer. It is the light which Jesus told us not to hide under a basket. It is the eternity placed in the human heart which Solomon described. It is the law written on our hearts which Isaiah describes. And it is the love of Christ in which we live and move and have our being.
Christ, as one with the Trinity, is this one uncreated creator which is unconditional love and goodness. For God is love. And so, the secret wealth of nature which imprints the law upon our hearts imprints the Law of Love – and love is not only the source of our virtue but is, in fact, the very source of all that is. In this one last quote from Periphyseon, Eriugena talks about this as well:
“Love is the connection and bond by which the whole universe is joined together with ineffable friendship and insoluble unity. It is the natural motion of all things in motion, and the end and resting place beyond which no motion of created things advances.”
So, my dear sisters and brothers, I implore you to open up the wellspring of love which dwells within you. See that by it you are connected to everything. Draw from it the goodness in which and by which you have been created and use your free will to shape it into a virtuous life.
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