Circles are perhaps the most common religious symbol in the world. They can represent a myriad of things but the obvious meaning which seems to weave through all the traditions who use it is that the circle is a kind of geometric perfection. It is simple and balanced and the beginning of all geometry.
It can also describe a path which has no beginning and no end and in that sense it represents eternity. Richard Rohr brought the old Greek understanding of the Trinity as a perichoresis back into the public’s attention. The word perichoresis was used by the early Christians to describe the relationship of the Trinity as a circle dance, which is the literal translation of the word.
In this article I would like to trace some teachings about the circle through a few of my favourite theologians and philosophers. Beginning with Dionysius who very clearly and undoubtedly influenced Eriugena and moving into Bonaventure, who many scholars suspect was deeply indebted to the writings of Eriugena. The idea of the circle was incredibly important for these mystics and so I’ve tried my best to bring them together in this short article.
Not only did the early Christians describe the Trinity as a perichoresis, they also believed that the angelic hosts participated in this circle dance. In his extremely influential book On the Divine Names, Dionysius describes this dance:
“The divine intelligences are said to move as follows. First they move in a circle while they are at one with those illuminations which, without beginning and without end, emerge from the good and the beautiful. Then they move in a straight line when, out of Providence, they come to offer unerring guidance to all those below them. Finally they move in a spiral, for while they are providing for those beneath them they continue to remain what they are and they turn unceasingly around the Beautiful and the Good from which all identity comes.“
Dioinysius spent a lot of time talking about angels, they were a hugely important part of how God creates and orders the universe for him. In his book Celestial Hierarchies he lays out a map of reality which describes the orders of angels but is also an explanation of how the unity of God becomes the multiplicity of creation. I often wonder (and I plan on writing about this at some point) whether we couldn’t compare modern ideas like the laws of physics with some of the higher orders of the angels in this cosmological model. But I digress.
This way of seeing the world is something I discussed in the article Creatio ex Omnia, in which I talked about Eriugena and his explanation of creation from everything. Eriugena draws heavily on Dionysius and used the image of a circle with lines coming out from the middle as a tool to explain how everything is united in its origin but divided in its created form in time and place. Below is the image Eriguena describes and an excerpt of his explaining it.
“Haven’t you observed how all the lines are united at the center so that none of them can be distinguished from others; since all of them are one at the center and are not separate? So a center is reasonably defined not as a junction of lines into one, but as the simple and undivided source and beginning from which, whether by nature or by art, the manifold number of lines proceeds. For the center is the universal beginning of lines, in which all are one. “
This wheel shaped image becomes a map of the cosmos and is very similar to the circle in the Celtic cross. The four points of the cross work in the same way as the lines in the image above.
God is the center point from which all else proceeds and the further from God which things are positioned the more distinction there is between them. The outer circle, then, represents the material world in which we exist, and in which you are reading this right now. But, as Eriugena teaches in other places, we are able to move along those lines and towards the center of Goodness and Beauty which is the Trinity.
These straight lines are what Dionysius described in the passage quoted above as the movement of the angelic orders giving life and existence to the circumference of the circle. As creatures move between the center and the circumference they grow either closer in unity or further apart from one another, but always do so in a manner which maintains their balance and equality. Here’s one more quote from Eriugena about this:
“You see, I believe, in the first progression of lines from unity itself, which is in the center, how closely they are joined to one another so that they can scarcely be distinguished from one another. As they extend farther from the center, the spaces separating them begin to grow a little wider until they reach the circumference, by which they are bounded.
There is such equality among them that no space and no line can be distinguished from another, whether by nature or by art. It has continuous quantity, so that it does not begin from any definite starting point and is not bounded by any established limit, but subsists wholly for itself in the whole as both starting point and limit.“
And so, the circle of the material world has no real beginning and no real end. It is not a linear creation but rather an expanded version of the divine unity in the center from which it radiates. This image is so deep and profound that I use it to understand so many different things. Besides being a map of the cosmos, it can also be a map of the soul, especially when understood in relation to the enneagram.
The 9 types of the enneagram exist in the outer circle. They are the divided human condition. But the center point is the image of God in which we are created and which is the same in every person. The closer we draw to the center of the circle, the less distinction there is between each type until finally they all are united as one in the center source from which they all arose. None of the enneagram types actually precedes the others but rather they exist in a balanced circle equally distant from one another. But I digress.
Bonaventure also talked about this circle, though he says he got the idea originally from Ramon Llull, another slightly earlier Franciscan. Either way, this idea fits well into the Dionysian lineage of thought we’re discussing here and Eriugena is the one who brought that Eastern lineage to the West. I feel like Bonaventure really ties it all together with this brilliant insight. He said:
“By God’s power, presence, and essence, God is the One whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. God exists uncircumscribed in everything. God is, therefore, all inclusive. God is the essence of everything. God is most perfect and immense: within all things, but not enclosed; outside all things, but not excluded; above all things, but not aloof; below all things, but not debased. Finally, therefore, this God is all in all…. Consequently, from him, through him and in him, all things exist.“
The outer circle, or the circumference, is the boundary of the physical world, but not a boundary for God. Because all the divisions of the created order proceed from and have their primary existence in the center of the circle, in a sense the whole map is really an expanded version of the center point and the outer boundary is really kind of arbitrary.
This is why Bonaventure is able to say that the center of the circle is everywhere and the circumference of the circle is nowhere. This is true on the cosmic scale but it is also true of each soul. At the center of our being is the divine image, and that image proceeds into the separate self which is the outer circle, but at the most foundational level, the center is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere. Within our being the divine nature encompasses everything and the boundary which makes us distinct and unique individuals is really nowhere to be found.
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