Every human being is born pure and blessed as the image of God. The practice of wisdom is not about becoming something other than ourselves, it is about nurturing and protecting our original goodness. We must keep watch over our hearts in order to ensure that the natural harmony of our souls operates uninterrupted and remains oriented towards the Beauty of God.
The practice of keeping watch has its roots in a symbol that has been passed from generation to generation. It began with Solomon, was picked up and expanded upon by Jesus, and has since become a staple of monastic practice. In his book of Proverbs Solomon says, “Keep watch over your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (NRSV)
Jesus uses this symbol to discuss the way the Holy Spirit flows within the human heart. The Spirit flowing like water ties into the way the Spirit flows like wind. Last week I wrote about a scene from John’s gospel where Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit onto the disciples. That article ties into this one and you can read it by clicking HERE.
In the excerpt of John’s gospel below, it says that there was no Spirit at that time because Jesus had not yet been glorified. The Holy Spirit appears in many other places in the scriptures before this event took place. The most notable example is when the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and she conceived Jesus in her womb. This anomaly, which cannot be true on the literal level, invites us to seek a deeper meaning.
The mystical interpretation of this verse is that the Spirit flows freely within our hearts when the light of Christ (who is the incarnation of Wisdom) shines within us. If we turn away from Wisdom, the free flowing of the Spirit within us is interrupted. The text in John reads,
“On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ ” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive, for as yet there was no Spirit because Jesus was not yet glorified.”
The exact phrase Solomon uses in Proverbs is “springs of life” but when Jesus quotes him he changes it to “rivers of living water.” It seems like a subtle difference, but these sorts of details can be very important. This subtle change teaches us that alongside the springs of life, there are also flowing rivers.
In the natural world every river flows from a source. That source can be a lake, a collection of smaller streams converging rainwater together, or a spring. A spring is a place where water comes up from underground and pours out onto the surface.
In the story of Eden, there is a spring in the garden that comes up from a single point and divides to form four rivers. Eriugena interpreted the rivers of life Jesus said flow from the heart of the believer as being one and the same as the ones that flow from the spring in the garden of Eden.
The garden of Eden is a symbol of human nature and therefore it is the heart of the believer out of which the springs of life flow. In the gardens of our souls, there are subterranean rivers of virtue that form the structure of our consciousness. Eriugena says,
“None of the wise denies that the source in paradise which is divided into the four cardinal rivers, interpreted typologically, signifies the Holy Spirit, from Whom, as from their first principle and unique and inexhaustible source flow the four cardinal virtues in the paradise of the rational soul, I mean prudence, temperance, courage, and justice, and from these in their turn flow forth all the streams of all the virtues, which, when they have irrigated and fertilized the surface of human nature, flow back into them again. Rightly then is the Holy Spirit said to flow, whether from the Son alone or from the Father and the Son, because He is the Source and Origin of all the virtues, and by an ineffable course through the hidden channels of our nature they return to Him.” (Trans by Sheldon-Williams and O’Meara)
These natural streams of virtue flowing through our soul are the source of all goodness and beauty that the human being is capable of. They nourish and sustain the soul while also forming its very structure. Those who drink the water that Christ has given them will never be thirsty because it is a spring gushing up to eternal life. The art of keeping watch, therefore, is about tending to the health of these waterways, keeping them clean and flowing freely.
The spring of life and rivers of living water are the Holy Spirit, who is an unending fountain of vitality that renews us and animates us. The Spirit enters into our hearts from a single source and then divides into a multitude of rivers and streams. Eriugena also believed this is how the universe as a whole is structured, which you can read more about HERE.
The Holy Spirit becomes the virtues in the same way that a ray of sunlight becomes a rainbow when it shines through a prism. Every goodness flows within us, coming up from the one source of life, coursing through the soul, and eventually returning to the source from which it came. There is a cyclical dynamic within the soul where the oneness of Spirit becomes the multiplicity of virtue, ultimately returning again to unity. This is the natural movement of thoughts within our angelic nature.
The Spirit carries the virtues of Wisdom because it proceeds from the Mother through the Son. The words in Hebrew and Greek that we translate as spirit both mean breath or wind. Wind and water are both symbols of the Spirit because they flow and give life. God breathed into Adam’s nostrils and he became something more than a lump of clay.
For Eriugena, the Breath of Life is also part of God’s speaking the world into being in Genesis 1. If Christ is the Word by which God speaks creation into being, the Breath of Life is what carries the Word and brings it into the unfolding of time. You can read more about Eriugena’s trinitarian metaphysics HERE. In his homily The Voice of the Eagle Eriugena says, “Whoever speaks emits breath in the word that he utters; so too God the Father, at one and the same time, gives birth to the Son and, by the birth of the Son, produces the Spirit.” (Trans by Davies)
The Holy Spirit is the principle of life and vitality. God blows the Spirit of Life through Wisdom and in this all things are created. Wisdom is the truth of goodness and beauty, the Spirit is what animates this truth and gives it life. Just as it is in the cosmos, it is in our souls as well. The Holy Spirit animates our nature bringing vitality and fertility to our inner being.
The presence of the Holy Spirit is the growth of wisdom in the human heart and it is through Wisdom that we receive it. They work together as one to dispel the shadows of foolishness. The light shines in the darkness and what comes into being from this light is the life of all people.
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