For the medievals, God was not distant and separate from the material world. To the mind of the Middle Ages, everything that exists has meaning, everything is a sign pointing to God, and everything is mystically connected. –Rod Dreher, How Dante Can Save Your Life
I would go even further, or perhaps simply draw out the implication of this observation in Dreher’s most recent book. Everything in the universe is a message from God, teaching us how to live with Him in love. Can we learn to understand this message? Can we learn the ‘language’ of creation? Or is this just a dream? After all, isn’t it possible that every person simply reads his own meaning into things? Isn’t this idea of the cosmos having an inherent meaning just a romantic, childish fancy that sober modern men and women have left behind?
Dreher underlines the fact that the meaning really was objective in his following sentence: “The point of life…is to let go of one’s ego and live in harmony with God and the cosmos.” Again, I agree with his observation of the medieval mind. If this is true, however, it would seem that merely personal interpretations of the cosmos would risk reinforcing the ego (and for Dreher, hell is “a dark and loveless place of absolute egotism”), and that harmony with more or less brute objects within the cosmos would require a degree of acceptance of how things are. This idea is profoundly at odds with the modern scientific view. But this modern view is at best incomplete, at worse completely erroneous, as I hope to demonstrate in future posts.
So how does one go about learning the language of the cosmos? Can we learn to say with St. Antony the Great, “My book, O Philosopher, is the nature of created things, and any time I want to read the words of God, the book is before me?” Perhaps we should ask instead, “How did St. Antony come to this knowledge of the language of God?”
Antony learned this language within the monastic world of the third and fourth centuries. In this world, there are two disciplines required to learn the language of the Creator. The first discipline is the acquisition of virtue. Without virtue, our desires distort the meaning of things. For the temperate man, food is a sign of God’s love and constant sustenance of our life. For the glutton, food is there to serve the ego’s craving for pleasure. For the chaste person, sexuality is a wondrous and mysterious gift for building up the human family through mutual self-giving. For the unchaste, it is for personal enjoyment and domination of others.
The second discipline is the training of the mind in God’s language through meditation on the Scriptures, especially as explained in the liturgy and the homiletic writings of the saints. The Church Fathers made a great effort to read creation in the new light of the Resurrection of Christ. There is really very little arbitrary about this, and the persistence of certain kinds of reading support the idea that there is a kind of objective reading of things. This work is what the first systematic theologian of the spiritual life called ‘natural contemplation’. For the great monk Evagrius of Pontus, natural contemplation was about finding the ‘reasons’ for things. All things came to be through God’s Word, and therefore contain in them a message from God, a rationality and purpose. We are invited to decode this message.
And as Dreher so aptly puts it, the recognition of God’s loving presence in all things makes Him astounding near.
In most writings on the spiritual life since Evagrius, natural contemplation is left out. His system lists three stages of the spiritual life: the practical or active life of moral purification from the distorting passions; the acquisition of knowledge of the reasons for things, or natural contemplation; and then finally contemplation proper, the knowledge of God as God is, no longer mediated by created things. In simplifying this into the two stages of ‘active’ and ‘contemplative’ (and further distorting this ancient distinction by turning it into the canonical description of two types of religious life), we have lost the idea of natural contemplation.
When you speak of contemplation in religious circles today, most people are going to think of a withdrawal from created things to one’s inner world and direct converse with God. Contemplatives are sometimes criticized for disengagement with the world, for a kind of navel-gazing self-absorption. What the contemplative claims to experience as God is, I think, rightly called into question. Aren’t we just inventing an idea of God? Or confusing our feelings with God?
Natural contemplation undercuts the accusation of egotism and solipsism in the larger work of contemplation (so does the active life of acquiring virtue, but I will save that for a later day). Acquiring an understanding of God through His prolific ‘writings’ in the natural world requires us to be attentive to the reality of things. This was the insight that revolutionized the world of the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things…” The living God has arranged every molecule, continually sustains each whirling electron and gives pattern to all manner of charged inscapes. When we attend with care to His works, reading them like the love letter to humanity that they are, we come to know the very mind of God. And then, when we close the doors of our senses and pray to God in secret, it is that God, not a wishful projection of our own insecurities, that we encounter.
God’s blessings to you!