Eriugena, an Irish philosopher from the early middle ages, understood sin as an illness which can be cured. This illness changes the appearance of our nature, but never the essence. He used a common patristic understanding of the image and likeness of God to talk about this illness. I look at this teaching from the perspective of Basil the Great HERE and from the perspective of Columbanus HERE. The book of Genesis says that we are created in the image AND likeness of God. It is easy to assume that the image and the likeness are the same thing, but many people in the Christian tradition have understood them to be different from one another.
The human being is always the image of God. The human heart is like a mirror in which the image of God is reflected. However, if a mirror gets covered in dirt and grime it can be hard to see that image. The blurred reflection might not actually resemble that which it is an image of. This is where the question of likeness makes its appearance. If the silver in the mirror becomes tarnished, then the image it reflects does not necessarily bear the likeness of its subject. Sin is a tarnish on our hearts, it blurs the surface and obscures the image but it never changes the nature of the mirror.
As part of my upcoming book Psalter of the Birds I have taken the part of Eriugena’s book Periphyseon where he discusses this idea and arranged it into the following poem. In the book it is presented as part of a liturgy exploring the threefold path of deification, but here I will discuss it on its own.
The observation of nature teaches us That all things must return to their source Human nature must also return to its own source Which is the Word in whom we live Human nature was created in God’s image and likeness God the common first principle of all things We will return to where we have come from Because we never fully abandon God Through sin our nature has become tarnished It no longer bears the likeness of God Likeness brings us nearer to God Unlikeness removes us to a distance However, it is not by paces of the foot That we move towards or away from God Rather we move closer or further By the affections of our minds The light of the sun is not lost because of distance We lose its light when we close our eyes It is not space which separates us from health We are separated from health by our pain It happens in exactly the same way When we leave behind the virtues Of life, blessedness, and wisdom Sin is the emptiness where they once were In the same way that skin is infected with leprosy So human nature is infected with sin In this illness the soul ceases to resemble The likeness of Jesus Christ its maker When the soul is cured of that leprosy By the medicine of the Divine Grace It will be restored to its former beauty And I will tell you one thing more The nature which is created in the image of God Never truly lost the blossom of its beauty Nor did it lose the integrity of its essence Nor could such a thing ever happen
The idea that everything must eventually return to its source is essential in understanding Eriugena’s thought. Because our nature comes from God, like all natures do, one day we will inevitably return to the beauty and goodness in which we were created. Either we will do so while still in this life, and this is what the tradition calls deification, or at the final consummation of all things into God’s eternal fire.
The way in which we clean the mirror of our hearts while still in this life is by letting go of all the things which are covering the reflective surface of our hearts. The light of God’s eternal fire is always shining. It falls upon our hearts without ceasing at all times. This light is what Eriugena referred to above as the medicine of Divine Grace. It is a gift freely given from the Father of Lights. You can read more about Eriugena’s teaching on this idea HERE.
If we want the mirror of our hearts to be able to reflect this divine light from heaven, then we must clear away all the tarnish which is covering it. As soon as the dirt and grime on the surface of our hearts is cleared away, the light fills the mirror completely and the mirror itself becomes a source of light. When we are filled with the light of God we become like Christ, for it is the light of Christ which we are consumed by and which we ourselves pour out into the world. This is why it is called deification, because we become like God, whose image we are by nature.
It may take a little elbow grease to clean the grime away. We cannot simply let go of all the sin we have accumulated on the surface of our hearts in one simple motion. We do not have the space here to go into detail about what sorts of spiritual practices help us do this, so I will point you instead to some previous articles if you are interested. Pelagius has some excellent teachings on this which you can find HERE. You can find my explorations of Evagrius’ teachings on the subject HERE. These practices will be the most effective if they are accompanied by a rule of life, which you can read more about HERE.
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