In this article I would like to share with you a mystical teaching from John Scotus Eriugena. This teaching is based off of a passage in the book of James which refers to the father of lights. In it James names two gifts which come down to us from the father of lights: there is the generous act of giving and there is the perfect gift. The passage from James reads,
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.James 1:17-18
For Eriugena, the generous act of giving is the blessing of the created universe itself. It is the order and beauty of the cosmos. The light of Christ, in this capacity, is the foundation for all of creation. It is the love which is the bond that unites and maintains all creatures. This light is given generously and fills the entire universe without exception. Everything which exists participates in this light because if it did not it would cease to exist. This means that the light of Christ shines through the simplest of material objects. Eriugena interpreted this light through the words of Paul in Romans 1:20, “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”
Reflecting on this biblical passage, Eriugena describes his own personal experience of being lifted up to God by the light shining out of the stone and wood which his scriptorium was built out of. This light, he asserts, is to be found in the simplest of substances and it imbues the very earth itself with wisdom. This wisdom is a sign post, a guiding light, which leads us into the contemplation of God herself. He said,
“For example, so that we might take paradigms from the lowest orders of nature: that stone or this wood is a light to me. And if you ask me how, reason advises me to respond to you: that in considering this or that stone, many things occur to me which illumine my mind. For I note that it subsists as good and beautiful, that it exists according to its own proportion…These and their like become lights for me while I perceive them in this stone, that is, they illuminate me.”
The stone has many qualities to it, and those qualities must come from somewhere. The blessings of God are not reserved for visions and healing, they are what gives reality structure and order. They sustain the creation and give us things which we often take for granted because they are so abstract. The fact that the stone is an object separate from the wood. The fact that the stones have number, you can count them and categorise them. There is SO MUCH that goes into the existence of a stone that we probably never bother to think about. But, Eriugena tells us, these qualities and characteristics can be a light which lifts us up to God and gives us reason to praise the one who keeps this universe in working order. From observing the creature we learn something about the nature of God. Eriugena goes on to say,
“For I begin to think from whence such things come to it and I realize that they are naturally present in it without the participation of any creature, whether visible or invisible. Soon, with reason leading, I am introduced above all things to the cause of all things. It is from this cause that place and order, number and species and genus, goodness and beauty and essence, and other gifts and grants are distributed to all.”
These blessings from God can be seen in something as simple as a stone, but they can perhaps be seen even more clearly in those creatures which have what we call life – plants and animals. There is a spiritual energy which takes the basic elements of nature and turns it into the remarkable diversity of biological life we see all around us. It is the driving force behind evolution which seems to defy the laws of entropy in order to increase complexity and diversity over time. Eriugena looks to the first chapter of Genesis to describe what he calls the vital life force that animates matter and brings it to life which you can read more about HERE.
The second aspect of the light which comes down to us from the mother of lights is a little different. Rather than being a a universal light which shines equally everywhere the second kind of light is described as a perfect gift. This light can be understood in terms similar to what we call grace today. It is the light of God which perfects the creation and lifts it up to its highest purpose. This is the light which guides us on our spiritual journeys. Because these two lights are really different expressions of the same light, which exists in God without change or diversity, Eriugena uses a metaphor taken from the natural world to describe the inner spiritual journey. He describes the opening of our inner eyes as a sunrise and names three lights which lift us up to God in our hearts.
These three lights are “the sun, the morning star, and the ethereal light which always shines everywhere, is obscured by no darkness of shadows, is impeded by no obstacle of earthly bodies or of things circumscribed by any mass, but is everywhere diffused free and most pure.”
The idea of the ethereal light is what I have just described above as the light which is present in everything giving order and beauty to the cosmos. It is remarkable to note that Eriugena is drawing here from his understanding of natural philosophy (the ancient word for the physical sciences) when describing this ethereal light. The idea that it is not impeded by objects with mass and is everywhere diffused free and pure sounds remarkably similar to the modern understanding of neutrinos which are light particles that we cannot see but which penetrate the whole of creation and pass through solid rock. This light is always there but we are rarely able to interact with it. But I digress.
The morning star, in Eriugena’s metaphor, is the light of faith. It rises before the sun to announce its coming. It shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. It is a kind of twilight in which we are able to see, but not with perfect clarity. It was described so well by Paul as looking through a mirror dimly. The light of faith is the beginning of the spiritual journey as it gives us hope while we are still in the darkness, but it is not the fullness of God’s glory. The full rising of the sun will be when we see God face to face.
After the morning star, the next light which comes about in the sunrise is a colourful glow which fills the dark sky with radiant colours. Eriugena interprets these colours as the next stage in the spiritual sunrise. He refers to an “efflorescent glow” which is understood to represent the development of virtue and the renunciation of vice (read more HERE). After the initial efflorescent glow, there is a golden radiance which Eriugena says represents the “knowledge of all created things.” This knowledge of God’s creation is the beginning of illumination and it leads us into the contemplation of God herself (read more HERE). When the sun itself finally rises over the horizon all darkness is dispelled and we are finally able to see with perfect clarity. We cannot look directly into the sun itself while using human eyes, lest we go blind and once again find ourselves in darkness, but by the light of the sun we are able to see everything else. When we are in the presence of God then this is the perfect gift (read more HERE).
Eriugena uses the language of lifting veils to describe this illumination of the interior person. The darkness of ignorance is, for Eriugena, a veil which separates the full light of Christ from our inner eyes. Thus we begin in the darkness of ignorance but have our first glimpse of light in the morning star of faith. As we grow in virtue a veil is lifted and we can begin to see the dim glow of Christ rising in our souls. As we grow in the understanding of what it means to be a creature in this cosmos we call home, another veil is lifted and our sight becomes even clearer. What lifts the final veil and allows the sun to rise completely, according to Eriugena, is “a knowing power of burning love.” Anyone who has slept outside in the open air knows how cold and dark the early morning can be. When you wake up shivering cold in the twilight of the dawn, you long deep in your bones for the light and the heat which the rising sun will bring along with it. At the heart of the light is a great heat. Since the Holy Trinity, the father of lights, is likened to the sun in the sky, she can also be described as a consuming fire which is never extinguished. The rays of divine illumination pull us upward into the sun where we are consumed in the fire and there become one with God.
“For the highest and holy Trinity One God turns toward himself those human souls in whom he dwells, and consumes them; not so that he might harm them but so that he alone might appear in them, not so that he might consume their substance but so that he might perfect their beatitude.”
The beams of divine light which radiate out from the consuming fire which is never extinguished draw us into union with God. This is the work of God’s grace – to lift us up to Heaven where we may circle lovingly around the good and the beautiful with the angels. The light which shines in every thing which has been created unites everything which has been created. We are all one in the light.
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