The Darkness of our Inner Eyes

In my essay last week, I explored The Wooing of Étaín, an early medieval tale about the Tuatha Dé Danann, you can read it HERE. In that text there is a short song that explains why mortal human beings are unable to perceive the spiritual world which is all around them. One of the fairies says, “the darkness of Adam’s sin prevents our being discerned.”

In this essay I will use the teachings of Eriugena to explore what that might mean. While he makes no mention whatsoever of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Eriugena does talk about the darkness of our inner eyes and the fact that we are unable to perceive spiritual realities. All the quotes that follow are from the translation by Oliver Davies in Celtic Spirituality.

In his commentary on the prologue to John’s gospel (John 1:1-18), Eriugena interprets the sentence “the light shines in the darkness” as describing this phenomenon. The light is Christ (in particular Christ as Divine Wisdom) who shines within the darkness of human nature. Eriugena provides a two-fold interpretation of this verse to show that it has layers of meaning. I would like to make a slight diversion to explain this before returning to the topic at hand.

Christian tradition often talks about layers of meaning within the scriptures that reveal truths about different levels of reality. In this framework, the same passage of scripture can have multiple meanings that apply to different aspects of the spiritual life. I have used Origen’s threefold method in a sermon about Jesus turning water into wine, you can read it HERE if you want to get a sense of how this all comes together.

Eriugena’s system of interpretation has four levels: historical, moral, natural, and theological. These correspond to the four elements. In the ancient world, the elements were categorised by weight with earth being the heaviest, then water, air, and fire. If you put dirt and water into a jar, shake it up, and set it on the table, eventually the dirt will settle to the bottom, the water will be above it, and the air will be at the top of the jar. If you could somehow put fire in the mix, it would settle into the place above air.

This natural relationship between the four elements forms the basis for Eriugena’s levels of scriptural interpretation. The historical level (scripture as a historical record) is of the earth element and takes the lowest place. Moral interpretation (ethics and justice) is of the water element and so rests above earth. Natural interpretation (science and cosmology) is of the air element. Theology is of the fire element at the top and Eriugena describes it as “the sublime contemplation of the divine nature…beyond which no intelligence can penetrate.” 

The first level being the plain and simple meaning of the text, the following three levels are precisely the stages of the Triple Way. The first stage of purification is about renouncing vice and establishing virtue, and so it corresponds to the moral level. The second stage of illumination is about the contemplation of nature, and so it corresponds to the natural level. The third stage of union is about the contemplation of God, and so it corresponds to the theological level.

With all that background in place, we can return to Eriugena’s two-fold interpretation of the verse “the light shines in the darkness.” In this instance, he uses the moral and natural methods of interpretation to provide two different views on the text. In regards to the moral interpretation he says,

“On account of original sin, the whole of the human race was in darkness – not the darkness of the outer eyes, which sense the forms and colors of sensible things, but of the inner eyes, which discern the beauty and kind of intelligible things.”

In regards to the natural interpretation he says,

“Even if it had not sinned, human nature could not shine by its own powers, for it does not itself possess the nature of light but participates in light. Although it is capable of wisdom, it is not itself wisdom, participation in which makes someone wise.” 

This two-fold interpretation is interesting for a number of reasons. Original sin only seems to apply at the moral level and not the natural level. The reason the human race is in the darkness, in the natural interpretation, is simply that we receive our light from Christ and do not generate it ourselves. Air is dark by its nature but when it receives the light of the sun it is illuminated by it and is no longer dark. We are naturally dark in the same way that the air is, we are created to receive the light and that is why we are dark.

All of this to say that whatever Eriugena means by original sin, it is not what most people mean by it today. Original sin is not the inherited guilt of betraying God, but the darkness of ignorance that prevents us from fully discerning the beauty of God’s creation (perhaps including the realm of the Tuatha Dé Danann if this can be applied to Mider’s song). On a certain level, our own immorality is what blinds our inner eyes. We are blinded by our own anger, sadness, and shame.

I often think of the fall from Eden as a symbol for the way each individual soul becomes scattered and opposed to itself. I have written about that from the perspective of Columbanus HERE. Pelagius said that we sin in imitation of Adam, meaning that we learn bad habits as children by observing the bad habits of the adults who raise us, you can read about that HERE.

While Eriugena has a much more complicated and metaphysical interpretation of how human nature falls from grace, all of these Celtic teachers agree that as we grow into the likeness of God through the practice of the virtues, our capacity to receive the light of Christ increases and spiritual vision is restored to our inner eyes. Read about that from the perspective of Eriugena HERE.

When we participate in the wisdom of God the divine light is restored within us. We gain wisdom from two sources: the scriptures and the natural world around us. The big book of nature and the little book of the bible are the two ways that Christ manifests his light for the salvation of the world. If we wish to restore our spiritual vision, we must study both. Before providing his two-fold commentary on human darkness, Eriugena says,

“The light of divine knowledge departed from the world when humankind abandoned God. Now the eternal light manifests itself to the world in two ways, through the Bible and creatures. For the divine knowledge cannot be restored in us except by the letters of scripture and the sight of creatures. Learn the words of scripture and understand their meaning in your soul; there you will discover the Word. Know the forms and beauty of sensible things by your physical senses, and see there the Word of God. And in all these things Truth itself proclaims to you only he who made all things, and apart from whom there is nothing for you to contemplate since he himself is all things. He himself is the being of all things.”

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