A painter can be known through their paintings, a poet can be known through their poetry, and the creator of all heaven and earth can be known through nature. We glimpse the simple truth of God by looking at the diverse and complex truth of creation. Any truth which we find in the cosmos is rooted in the ultimate truth of God. As in heaven, so below. This was so beautifully expressed in that famous line of Columbanus:
“Who then is God? He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God. Seek no further concerning God; for those who wish to know the great deep must first review the natural world.”
Columbanus is speaking here about an ancient Christian practice called natural contemplation. The contemplation of nature leads us into the contemplation of God. While we can only know God through unknowing (a kind of knowing which transcends ideas) we can know a great deal about nature with our reasoning mind. When our reasoning mind discovers the fingerprints of God within the creation, it is transformed by that encounter. By encountering God in nature, we are transformed into the likeness of God from one degree of glory to another.
The natural world is a mirror in which we can see the face of God reflected. We do not escape the created world in the spiritual journey, we plunge down into its innermost depths and contemplate the creator in the smallest atom and the largest galaxy. The beauty of the natural world enlightens our minds and unites them with the beauty of God, from which all beauty comes. We gain wisdom by learning from nature and this wisdom is an illumination of our inner being. It is an awakening and an opening of the spiritual senses. Something as simple as a loaf of bread can be the real presence of Christ for us, if we have eyes which see the truth.
One approach to natural contemplation, which is ascetic and devotional in character, can be found in The Penance of Adam. In this text Adam enters into the natural world by immersing himself in a river and asking it to fast and pray with him. The text tells us that once Adam, the river, and all the creatures in the river joined together in a single prayer that they were lifted up to the angelic realm.
Another approach to natural contemplation begins with philosophical inquiry. The way in which we see the fingerprints of God in nature is by careful observation and metaphysical speculation. The poem below, adapted from Eriugena’s book Periphyseon, is a perfect example of a speculative endeavour of this kind. The rational mind is close to the angels in its nature and the proper use of it leads one into the angelic life. I have arranged this poem into quatrains so that it can be chanted. Teachings on the practice of chanting, with musical instructions and a large collection of Celtic poetry arranged for chant, can be found in my book Psalter of the Birds.
The student said to the master I would like to hear what theology Teaches us about the ineffable And incomprehensible Nature The creator and cause of all things The teacher answered in reply Does not the very theology Which you have just mentioned and which Is concerned entirely with the Divine Nature Tell us in words plain to see For those who can see the truth We know from what has been created That this Nature is an essence But not what that essence is For, as we have often said It does not only exceed human reasoning But also the reasoning of the angels Yet, theologians can know three things Since the universe has existence We know that this Nature is being From the order of the universe We know that this Nature is wise From the movement of the universe We know that this Nature lives This is the way that the theologians Discovered the great truth That the cause and source of all things Is of a threefold substance From the essence of things We understand that it is essence From the marvellous order of things We understand that it is wisdom From the motion of things We understand that it is life Therefore the cause and creator Of all things is, and is wise, and lives Those who search out the truth Have handed down this theology In its essence we understand the Father In its wisdom we understand the Son In its life we understand the Holy Spirit The Holy Trinity - three in one
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