Eden and Human Nature

Last week I wrote an article about the Triple Way of Christian spirituality which you can find HERE. In this article I would like to expand upon the previous one by drawing from the story of Eden.

Eriugena taught that Eden is a spiritual reality rather than a physical garden. It is a narrative which speaks deeper truths than can be discerned from a surface reading alone. Eden is a symbol (in the fullest sense of the word) for human nature. The Tree of Life in the centre of the garden is a symbol of Christ, who is given the name “every tree” because he is the fruitful tree of all good things. 

For Eriugena, the original paradise of Eden was a sacred beginning. If the first human beings had not fallen from grace, they would have grown within Eden instead of outside of it. That is to say, within their own nature rather than outside of themselves. Within their own nature they would have been able explore the exceptional beauty and intricacy of the garden and participate in its unfolding.

The intention was never for Eden to be static or unchanging. Human nature was always meant to evolve, which is why a garden is such a beautiful symbol – because it is always growing and changing and will never be the same from one moment to the next. 

The spiritual journey which Adam and Eve would have embarked upon, if they had remained within the garden, is one which moves infinitely into God herself. God created Eden for the purpose of uniting herself with her creatures so that, by participating in her nature, they might become one in Christ.

When a finite creature is united with the infinite creator a bit of paradox is born. The finite can never complete the process of unification because there is no end to God. Adam and Eve would have progressed infinitely into the Good and the Beautiful if they had not eaten the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil which created a duality in human nature that has far reaching consequences.

The infinite progression of human nature into the beauty of mystery and the mystery of beauty has been interrupted within us because we have left Eden and are lost in the wilderness outside of the garden.

There is an Old Irish text which tells a story about Adam and Eve that is not found in the Bible. You can find an excerpt from it HERE. After they were expelled from the garden, so this apocryphal text tells us, our original parents wanted to try and make up for their mistake.

They decided that each of them would immerse themselves in a river so that they could ask these rivers, and all the creatures who lived in them, to pray with them to God for forgiveness. The text says that Eve stood on a flat stone in the river where she was just deep enough that her face was above water but her hair was floating on the surface, going out to either side. She raised both hands up into the air to beg the Lord for forgiveness. 

Then Adam said to Eve, “Let us beg all of creation, which has been brought into being by prayer, that they may beseech the Lord with us for forgiveness of our sins. Let us pray without distraction” At that moment the river stopped flowing, as if it were frozen in time. All of the creatures who lived in the river were completely still as well.

Then all of the animals slowly gathered around Adam and began to pray. The text says that not only the animals but also the river itself joined them in their prayer. Together Adam, Eve, the animals, and the rivers directed their little prayers up towards the angels who surround God at all times. 

When we have fallen away from ourselves and are wandering in the wilderness outside of the garden, we can imitate Adam and Eve. The pattern of their prayer followed a very important progression. First they fasted and immersed themselves in cold flowing water and the they prayed without distraction. This represents the first stage of the triple way which is about ascetic practice and letting go of our chaotic thoughts.

Then they asked the creatures of the natural world to join them in their prayers. It is when their prayers were united with the animals and the rivers that they were able to reach the angels in heaven. This represents the second stage of the triple way, which is about being lifted up to the ineffable by participating in the beauty of the created order.

The text tells us that the creatures of earth directed their prayers towards the angels of heaven who surround God. The angels are God’s messengers who climb up and down the ladder between the infinite and the finite, between heaven and earth. To join the angels who circle around the eternal is the third stage when we are united to God.

The animals and the rivers joining them in their prayers can be thought of as a return to Eden, in a certain sense, because it represents a restoration of the harmony of nature. It was because of their undistracted prayers that they were able to participate once again in that harmony.

The first stage of purification is about healing our broken hearts and distracted thoughts. It is to step back into our own nature rather than labouring and struggling in the wilderness outside of the garden. The first stage of Christian spirituality is about returning to ourselves and living in harmony with our own nature. It is a response to the fall which resituates us within ourselves and allows us to seek the tree of life at the centre of our being. When a soul has been restored to its original condition, it will once again be a sacred beginning. When human nature is restored to its original beauty, it is once again able to embrace union with the ineffable and infinite source of all being. 

The ever expanding and always new process by which the creature is united to the creator is called deification. While giving this teaching about Eden, Eriugena quotes Gregory the Theologian to define what he means by deification. He describes a person who has been deified as one who is “permitted to transcend matter and flesh, as though they passed beyond the clouds and the veils, and through reason and contemplation to come into the presence of God, and be received into the most pure light, in so far as that is possible for human nature.”

The process of deification, which is the true purpose of our creation, begins in the created order of matter and flesh and then ascends above them into the divine light of God. The creature becomes united with the creator by first passing through itself and then eventually rising above itself.

The second stage is about being united with nature and encountering the divine light within the created order. The third stage is an encounter with the radiant darkness of the divine mystery. It is when our finite being is united with God’s infinite mystery. The second and third stages, therefore, exist together in an inseparable unity. Together they are the unending unification of the finite and the infinite. 

This is the path which Adam and Eve would have taken if they had not left the garden. It is the path for which we were created. Within the garden of Eden, which is a symbol of human nature, the spiritual journey is one that seeks after the tree of life, which is Christ himself.

The garden is infinitely knowable and the tree is infinitely unknowable. Our journey through the garden towards the tree of life is the symbol of the second stage because it is by passing through the natural world that we are able to glimpse what is beyond it. The contemplation of nature illuminates our minds and awakens them to the Truth which is beyond all truth. By coming to know nature more deeply we enter into relationship with the author of all life. 

And so, the triple way begins with a healing of our spiritual wounds and a return to the harmony of Eden. Once we have returned to ourselves and found balance within our hearts and minds, we are able to undertake the spiritual journey which we were created for. The neverending, always new, ascent into the heart of God is the reason why we were created and so the journey into the centre of our being is the work we undertake once we have returned to Eden.  Christian spirituality, in its truest and most beautiful expression, sees the fulfilment of what it means to be human as an unending evolution and progression rather than a static state.

I will be presenting a talk on the triple way at The Mystics Summit this year. It is a free online event taking place June 18-22, 2023. You can learn more about it and register by clicking HERE. There are a number of excellent people who will be presenting including my friends David Cole and Carmen Acevedo-Butcher. Both of the have written guest posts on New Eden in the past. You can find some of Carmen’ contributions HERE and HERE. You can find some of David’s HERE and HERE.

If you enjoyed this article please share it with your friends or on your favourite social media. If you would like to explore spiritual direction with Justin then click HERE to learn more about it. If you have any questions then feel free to contact Justin at justin@newedenministry.com or if you are receiving this in an email, simply respond to the email.

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