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Epiphany : a theological introduction to Catholicism

by Aidan Nichols O.P.

Chapter 11: The Cosmic Setting of Salvation

The setting of salvation is the realm of nature, the created world. For Catholic faith, this includes a dimension little thought of in ecology: the realm of the angels.

The Natural World

We are surrounded by an amazingly vast and delicately structured universe of which our more immediate environment, our "world," forms a part. The medieval English poet William Langland said, "Go to the giant Genesis and the engendering of all things." The Church Fathers, who anticipated this advice in their commentaries on the Hexaemeron, the biblical narrative of the creation, read Genesis with one eye on a mosaic of cosmologically relevant passages from both Testaments. These included not only the revelation of the divine name as "I am who am" (Exod 3:14) the leitmotif of what has been termed the "metaphysics of Exodus" (3:14), making possible an account of finite being in its relation to him whose being is Being itself but also the affirmation of the author of Wisdom that the Creator "has disposed all things in measure and number and weight" (11:21). For a Father like Augustine, measure, number, and weight (or order, ordo) are ontological principles interwoven into the very make-up of the cosmos, thanks to the nature of the creative act which leaves inscribed there a regularity, measurability, and interconnectedness that make the world a vestigium Dei, a trace or vestigial sign of the superintelligible Being of God himself.

This is remarkably relevant to modern natural science which, in probing the intricacies of physical reality, allows certain general patterns to emerge. The universe moves towards ever-greater complexity and diversification, with fresh entities bearers of new properties and potential emerging in interrelationships which both help to characterize those entities and also provide the environmental net in which further deveiopment can occur. Despite the staggering variety of the material world a unity pervades it because the same structures atomic, molecular, genetic enter into all entities and organisms. The panorama of the cosmos, where, within a quartet of fundamental forces gravitation, electro-magnetism, and "weak" and "strong" nuclear reactions billions of stars have sent out, in their death-throes, heavier elements as spores to seed new stars and planets, fills the mind (more fully than Kant could have known) with wonder and awe. As the mathematical physicist Roger Penrose has remarked, things at least seem to organize themselves somewhat better than they ought to, were one to consider only blind chance or a combination of evolution and natural selection.

Natural science also points negatively to the creative act thanks to its own inability to provide what the Jesuit astronomer William Stoerger has called "a theory of everything." Such hypotheses as unified field theory and the thesis of the initial boundary of the universe fail in their attempt at total explanation by having always to relate everything to something rather than nothing to what already has a potentiality to begin the cosmic process and to account for that potentiality's actualization. The origin of the initial supreme symmetry of the cosmos, for instance, and the laws that govern its devolution into lower symmetries, always eludes the researcher. Thus, while the deliverances of natural science chime with, and even disclose, the basic theological idea of creation, the creation event itself is jealously hidden.

Not only is the Judaeo-Christian tradition indebted to modem natural science; it also helped to generate it. Contrasting that tradition with the predominant cosmological assumptions of antiquity, Peter Hodgson has written:

Into this world of cyclic despair the Judaeo-Christian revelation of the one omnipotent God, creator of heaven and earth, came like a thunder­bolt to shatter the dreary enslaving mechanisms of cosmic pessimism. The Incarnation of Christ was a unique event, decisively dividing the past from the future. Through belief in the only-begotten Son, there developed a vivid consciousness that the universe could not be a begetting, that is, an eternal and necessary emanation from the "divine" principle. Consequently, there emerged a broad cultural consciousness about a universe as a created entity with a clear beginning and a definite end, a world of purpose, of freedom, of decision, of achievement. The world is rational because it was made by a rational God. It is contingent because it is the result of a free choice which the Creator made among an infinite number of possibilities.

Its workings are open to human minds because these are also the work of God, who told us to master it and use it in his service. Thus we can see that science was born in Christian Europe because the Christian revelation prepared the way by saturating the European mind with just those specific beliefs that are essential to the very existence and flourishing of science. [1]

We have spoken above of the way emerging physical structures provide the basis for the new property of livingness, and emerging biological structures likewise for the new property of intellectual livingness, the rational soul. To speak of "providing the basis" rather than "explaining" is only prudent. A particular difficulty attaches to explaining the evolution of the first replicating system equipped with stored information to control its own living processes. No one has yet encountered DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) set up in its own shop outside an organism. The origin of life, the origin of sensation and consciousness, and the origin of human intellectual faculties beyond the ken of the rest of the animal species: these are the three points where there is need to posit an intelligent directing of the course of evolution. Newman commented:

"Mr. Darwin's theory need not then be atheistical, be it true or not; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Providence and skill."[2]

As it happens, those "three points" correspond to the presence within the world of inorganic ("inanimate") matter of three life principles, each higher than its predecessor. Aristotle had already identified them as vegetative soul, sensitive soul, and intellectual soul.

It is of course in respect to the last that the question of origin has maximum ethical and spiritual significance. For if it is by chance that intelligent beings have arisen (as the pure Darwinian form of evolutionism would maintain), then quite apart from any questions about how the powers of understanding, thinking, and self-reflection could have arisen from matter alone, this would or at least should fundamentally alter our view of human beings. If human beings are neither intended nor have an end, they should not look for either purpose or meaning in their lives. Thinking we are unintended must affect our view of the value and thus the dignity of any human being.

The existence of culture, reason, creativity, freedom, and religion marks off human life from animal, and gives us reason to expect a discontinuity not only of end but also of beginning. The radical distinction between the first humans and their hominid parents may be biologically unexpected, yet biologists have not regarded as impossible the notion that one couple could be the source of an entire population.

The prescientific character of the biblical form which encloses the revelation to Israel of God as, precisely, Creator ensured that the creation story's account of the cosmos was not separated from its account of the human world the world as it appears to us. Save for such pure scientists as astrophysicists, such a cosmology of the environment remains of paramount interest for human beings, since it deals with the world as it can be experienced directly. It concerns, in other words, the meaning of both human beings and nature, and the relation which the one possesses to the other.

The doctrine of creation has it that the natural world originates in a sovereignly free act of an all-loving God. The doctrine of the incarnation goes on to maintain that this God became, in the person of his Word, his eternal self-expression, an integral part of his own creation thus displaying not only matter's capacity for expressing God but also, and more profoundly (since this was an act, above all, of his own over­flowing charity), the love with which he views the work of his hands. While the primary object of God's self-incarnation into the world of nature was human beings, and their redemption, such apostles and Fathers of the Church as Paul and Irenaeus did not hesitate to find a secondary objective for the redemptive incarnation in the transfiguration of the nonhuman world as well.

In the Genesis creation account, the Priestly source, before telling us that men and women are given dominion over all creatures, insists that they are themselves created in God's "image and likeness." The human rule over creatures is not to be autonomous, much less libertine; it is subject to God's dominion over all things. Similarly, in the Yahwist version, man's duty to till and keep the garden of the world, and to name all other living creatures, is related to the unique distinction whereby he alone of all creatures, endowed as he is with the power of decision, can dialogue responsibly with God. Thus the human being, set by God in the midst of creatures, and given possession of them, must deal responsibly with them, because through them he will enter into responsible relation with their, and his, Creator.

The formative theological descriptions of the prelapsarian world strongly suggest that human beings are to be stewards rather than despoilers of nature. God puts Adam in a position of dominance, and he allows Adam to use nature for the fulfilment of his needs; but God intends Adam to learn moral lessons from the structure of nature and from the behaviour of animals.

A careful reading of Basil and Ambrose, Augustine and Bede allows us to construct an ethic of cooperative partnership with nature. As Genesis makes plain, it is only with the corruption of the human will that the earth withdraws itself from the benign symbiosis that had characterised the prelapsarian world. Adam and his progeny must restore perfection both through the labour of the hands and through the reshaping of moral character.

However, the restoration of perfection need not have as its means or goal the exploitation of nature. Even if it were unambiguously true that Genesis supported an ethic of human domination, it is by no means clear that this ethic need sanction a destructive attitude toward nature. The control of nature may be accomplished through the use of tools that extend human capabilities and put to efficient use the powers inherent in nature, rather than through machines that pit the inventive powers of man against nature. Indeed, ethnological studies of primate tool use suggest that homo faber might have been content to use nature's forces, in­cluding the body's own oilganic potential, in order to develop tools that enhance the ability of human beings to live within a particular ecology.[3]

For, while God is disclosed personally only through the human being, his "icon" in the temple of the world, his glory and power are also manifested in other creatures as well. For the Old Testament, God's Word is effectively active in all created reality; his life-giving Spirit moves over the face of the waters, renewing that earth which the glory of the thrice-holy Lord of Hosts (Isa 6:3) so abundantly fills.

Nothing of creation, then, is to be sundered from the history of salvation which the Scriptures describe.

"From the greatness and beauty of created things, there comes a corresponding perception of their Creator" (Wis 13:5).

Just as Israel enjoys a ministerial role among the nations so, more widely, human beings act as priests of the world. In them the Word of God is addressed to creatures, and in them too, through worship, the mute praise of their existence becomes vocal. The more human beings walk in the "paths of the Lord," in faithfulness to his covenant, the more they can sing with all creation, like the three young men in the fiery furnace of persecution, the praises of God (Dan 3:57-81).

Ancient Israel shared with neighboring cultures a belief in a divinely willed order which in a harmonious way links heaven with earth. Fr. Robert Murray has summed up the features of a widespread, if often subterraneous, belief in this "cosmic covenant" in the Hebrew Bible under six headings: the binding of the cosmic elements by a covenantal oath, the breach of this covenant by rebellious spirits, its reestablishment by God in an "eternal covenant," the earthly effects of any breach of the cosmic covenant, the ritual preservation of cosmic and heavenly order, and an ideal picture of the cosmic harmony between humans and animals.[4] In Jeremiah, the Lord speaks of his "covenant of daytime and night, the statutes of heaven and earth" (33:25) as a paradigm for the covenant with the house of David, on whose basis the Messiah is to be born. The society over whose religion the kings of Judah ruled felt a need not merely to celebrate in word but to act out in symbolic ritual God's control of the world's terrifying cosmic forces. The covenant was disrupted by human beings, but also by higher beings with whom they were associated, and the consequences spread through both nature and society. But in the mystery of the Flood and its appeasement God restores the covenant of cosmic harmony in the promise made to Noah: "While all earth's days endure, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall never cease" (Gen 8:22).

For Murray, just as comparison proves that much of Israelite law coincides with Semitic common law, so biblical ideas of order and disorder, how they are caused and how repaired, show certain strands in Israelite ethics which agree with much ancient thinking on "natural law." The king had to maintain balance and harmony in society, just as God did in the cosmos, and an infringement of the one order might bring in its train the divine suspension of the other. Moral disorder is the inversion of those structures and relationships which keep society in harmony with the cosmic order. Moreover, the Jerusalem Temple bore a cosmic significance, befitting the place where God's justice ("rightness") in all its senses of cosmic order, religion, justice, and peace was praised.

The first chapter of Genesis, in portraying the divine Creator as a transcendent king whose viceroys are human beings made in his image and likeness, implies that the rule over other creatures conferred on the human being is in the pattern of such ideal kingship. The Wisdom of Solomon portrays its royal author as praying to the God

"who by your wisdom formed man, to have dominion over the creatures you have made, and to rule the world in holiness and justice, and pronounce judgement in uprightness of soul give me Wisdom, who sits by your throne" (9:2-4).

When God warns Noah, the only human being who has not corrupted the divine image, to save not only his family but also representatives of all other land animals and birds, we see both God's and Noah's concern for the latter (though that theme is not greatly developed). Isaiah's poem on the paradise where the wolf is at home with the lamb (11:1-9) led Philo to imagine the wild animals returning to Adam, from whom they had been estranged, ready to recognize his sovereignty once again.

All of this has implications for the treatment of animals. Proverbs 12:10 states, "The righteous knows the soul of his cattle," " that is, feels for the nature of his animals. The Torah's prohibition on killing the young of beasts on the day of their birth is probably to be ascribed to the "impiety" of giving needless suffering to their mother (whose milk, Philo remarks, will remain painfully within her rather than nurturing life, as was its purpose). Again, the ban on boiling a kid in its mother's milk forbade the pious Israelite from bringing death into shocking contact with the source of life, offending against due piety towards the Maker of beasts. Maternity in animals symbolizes divine care for life. The Law also requires certain forms of assistance to animals partly as a question of property rights, but also by virtue of what the Talmud will term the duty of relieving the "suffering of living beings." The psalms praise God for his care of all creatures (especially 104; 145; 147), and see all creatures as themselves praising God by their sheer existence (148; 96; 98). At Nineveh, rebuking the angry Jonah, who has been deprived of the satisfaction of seeing his message of doom come true, the Lord invites him to attend, among other things, to all the animals in the city; these are the words on which the Book of Jonah ends. Even young fruit trees are the object of the Law's solicitude, ascribed by Philo to the Lawgiver's kindness and graciousness.

Nor is this perspective abandoned in the New Testament, where the fullness of God, dwelling in Christ, is said to be communicated to all creation through him and his body, the Church. As bearers of Christ's image, Christians, accordingly, are not to act toward creation in a way that betrays Christ's creative and sustaining lordship over all things.

Some exegetes have seen in Mark's testimony that in the wilderness temptations Jesus was "with the animals" a hint of the Messiah as center of a restored paradise, a new Adam (as Paul will explicitly call him). An early Syriac homily says,

"He went about with the animals, which knelt and worshipped him; and the angels praised him on earth as in heaven."[5]

Certainly in his preaching Jesus turned frequently to the animal and vegetable creation for his images, as well as reaffirming God's care for lilies and sparrows. Paul speaks of how the whole creation is groaning in travail until its final redemption (Rom 8:18-23): the thought appears to be that the divine healing will flow to all creation, repairing its unity and enabling its nonhuman members somehow to share in the blessings of the adopted sons of God. And in the history of sanctity in the Church, the Christian inheritance of the kingly function of Christ has entailed a call to share in the making of the new earth (as well as the new heaven).

Again and again, from Syria and Egypt to Ireland and Northumbria, we find stories of ascetic saints being trustfully approached by wild animals or birds, and thereafter living in friendship with them; these stories are recounted not merely as wonders but with a sense that these saints showed the possibility of rebuilding a harmony that had been broken. Even in a world where hunting and killing wild animals was the normal state of affairs, the popularity of these stories shows a wistful admiration, even an implicit yearning, for the integrity of creation .[6]

As Helen Waddell, translator of such legenda as Pachomius and the crocodiles, Columba and the white horse, Cuthbert and the otters, Brendan and the sea monsters, says, these are stories of the "mutual charities" between saints and beasts.[7] The iconography of Christ as Orpheus, surrounded by animals and birds in a creation reharmonized by the "instrument" of the gospel, points in the same direction.

In this respect, Catholic doctrine sees Christ as enjoying two roles: as the preexistent Christ, the Logos (protological) and as the Christ of the paschal mystery, the victor over sin and death (eschatological). As Paul's Letters to the Colossians and Ephesians make clear, in Christ all was created as in the supreme center of unity, harmony, and cohesion. He is the meeting point at which all the generating forces of the universe are coordinated in view of the end which only he can reveal. In the catacomb of Callixtus at Rome, artists learned this lesson well: on the ceiling of a cell Christ is depicted as the center of a cosmos symbolized by winds blowing in from every corner of space. But the Christ of the beginning is also the Christ of the end. Not only the Alpha, he is also the Omega, consummating the evolutionary movement of the universe in his own paschal triumph, which is the anticipation of the end of all things. Karl Rahner wrote, of the relation between the Easter Lord and the world of matter:

Jesus himself said that he would descend into the heart of the world (Mt 12:40), into the heart of all earthly things where everything is linked together and is one, where death and futility hold sway in the midst of this consolidation. Down into death he has penetrated. He let himself be conquered by death holy stratagem of eternal life so that death would gulp him down into the innermost depths of the world. In this way, having descended to the very womb of the earth, to the radical unity of the world, he could give the earth his divine life forever.

Because he died, he belongs all the more to the earth. For when the body of a man is embedded in its grave of earth, the man (his soul, we say), even though in God's immediate presence after death, enters all the more into definitive unity with that one mysterious basis in which all spatial and temporal things are linked together, and the soul lives on, as from its root. By this death the Lord has descended into this lowest depth. Now he is there; futility and death are there no longer. In death he has become the heart of this earthly world, the divine heart in the innermost heart of the world. And here the earth, "behind" her continual development in space and time, sinks her root into the power of the all­mighty God.

Christ has risen from this one heart of all earthly things where realized unity and nothingness were no longer distinguishable. He has not risen for the purpose of departing once and for all from that heart of the world. He has not risen so that the travail of death which brings him forth anew might so bestow upon him God's life and light that he would leave behind him the dark womb of the earth, hopelessly barren. He has risen in his body. And this means that he has already begun to transform the world into himself. He has forever taken the world to himself; he is born anew as a child of this earth. But it is now an earth that is transfigured, an earth that is set free, that is untwisted, an earth that is established forever in him and that is forever redeemed from death and from futility. He rose, not to show that he had forsaken the grave of the earth, but to prove that he has definitively transformed even this grave of death body and earth into the glorious, immeasurable dwelling of the living God and of the God-filled soul of the Son .[8]

In this daring speculation, Rahner could presuppose a highly positive account of creatures in the Catholic tradition.

"The earth on which mankind lives in Jesus Christ" (wrote Cardinal de Bérulle) "is a new centre of the universe to which every spiritual and bodily creature tends."

The Fathers, thanks to their combined Platonist and biblical inheritance, see creatures as reflecting the eternal and unchanging exemplar by sharing in his goodness, beauty, and wisdom, albeit at a level which is only a distant echo of the infinite One. Origen of Alexandria writes that

"Our mind cannot behold God as he is 'in himself, therefore, it forms its conception of the Creator of the universe from the beauty of his works and the loveliness of his creatures."[9]

Consonant with both the biblical doctrine of the human being as made in the image of God and the Platonic idea of the human being as a microcosm of the greater world, Gregory Nazianzen can say of this unique creature:

The Creator-Word ... fashions man, taking a body from already existing matter, and placing in it a Breath taken from himself . . . as a sort of second world, great in littleness, he placed him on the earth, a new angel, a mingled worshipper, fully initiated into the visible creation, but only partially into the intellectual, king of all upon earth, but subject to the King above; earthly and heavenly, temporal and yet immortal, visible and yet intellectual; in one person combining spirit and flesh. [10]

For Basil the Great, our symbiosis with nature means that we have been welcomed into the embrace of all creatures and, through them, receive "visible memorials of (God's) wonders." It is with creatures, symbiotically, that we must manifest God's glory.

Not that the patristic view of nature always rhapsodized on so exalted a metaphysical plane. In Adversus Marcionem Tertullian does not neglect, in praise of the cosmic creation, "a single tiny flower from any hedgerow . . . a single shellfish from any sea . . . a single stray wing of a moorfowl."[11] Gregory of Nyssa notes in his De virginitate an ill­matched pair of horses pulling at the shafts unevenly, and the ripples on a pond's surface moving centrifugally when a stone disturbs it. [12]

Still, it is not primarily for exact observation that we turn to the Fathers. For the ninth-century Irish Platonist Eriugena, each thing is a symbol whereby God makes himself known to us, while in Alain of Lille's De planctu naturae (twelfth century), nature presents herself as the source of fecundity, order, and beauty yet, referring to God, she is made to say:

"His operation is single, mine is manifold; his work is self-sufficient, mine is self-undoing . . . he makes, and I am made; he is the workman whose work I am . . . he works with nothing, I beg for a matter with which to work; he works in his own name, I work in the name of God." [13]

The Franciscan Scholastic Bonaventure drew the obvious conclusion:

"Open your eyes . . . alert the ears of your spirit, unlock your lips, and apply your heart that you may see, hear, praise, love and adore, magnify and honour your God in every creature, lest perchance the entire universe rise against you." [14]

And Bonaventure's outburst must be related to that of his "seraphic father," Francis.

The greatest Catholic statement of ecological cosmology is the "Canticle of Brother Sun" by Francis of Assisi. Firmly grounded in orthodox doctrine, it was written after a mystical experience in which Francis was promised that he would attain eternal life; its verses on forgiveness and suffering (23 26) were added in the context, some weeks later, of a feud within the community of Assisi, and the whole poem was first chanted at a meeting between the bishop and the podesta (temporal ruler). It contains, then, metaphysical, mystical, and ethical aspects fused into a unity of thought and sensibility. Verses 27-31 were written just before the saint's death in October 1226, thus producing the following text:

I 1 Most high, all-powerful, good Lord.
  2 Thine are the praise, the glory and the honour and every
II  3 To thee alone, Most High, they are due,
   4 and no man is worthy to mention thee.
III  5 Be praised, my Lord, with all thy creatures,
   6 above all Sir Brother Sun,
   7 who is day and by him thou sheddest light upon us.
IV  8 And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour,         
   9 of thee, Most High, he bears the likeness. 
V 10 Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the Stars,       
  11  in the heavens thou has formed them, clear and precious 
    and beautiful. 
VI  12  Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Wind, 
  13  and through Air and Cloud and fair and all Weather, 
  14  by which thou givest nourishment to thy creatures. 
VII   15  Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water, 
  16  who is very useful and humble and precious and pure. 
VIII  17  Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
  18  by whom thou lightest up the night, 
  19  and he is beautiful and merry and vigorous and strong. 
IX  20  Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, 
  21 who sustains and directs us,
  22 and produces diverse fruits with coloured flowers and
X 23 Be praised, my Lord, by those who pardon for thy love,
  24 and endure sickness and trials.
XI 25 Blessed are they who shall endure them in peace,
  26 for by thee, Most High, they shall be crowned.       
XII 27 Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
  28 from whom no man living can escape.
XIII 29 Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
  30 Blessed are those whom she will find in thy most holy will,
  31 for the second death will do them no harm.
XIV 32 Praise and bless my Lord,
  33 and give him thanks and serve him with great humility.[15]

As the early Franciscan source called The Mirror of Perfection explains, Francis was moved to write the canticle both by a sense of gratitude to God for creation and through sadness at the misuse of creatures "in whom the human race much offends their Creator." [16] While the poem's main concern is to praise God as Creator, its chief originality lies in its presenting the world as a vast friary where each brother and sister holds a unique and indispensable place. From Brother Christ this cosmic friary extended via Francis's human brethren to brother wolf and to his sisters, the swallows and hooded larks. His love extended to embrace the strong brother fire, who lights up the night, and the humble, pure, and useful sister water, as well as sister moon and brother sun. Francis is linked here to his later disciple Duns Scotus because he affirms in this canticle the never-to-be-repeated identity of every creature in nature, the haecceitas, "thisness," of things, what Hopkins would call their "inscape." As Francis presents matters, while things are indeed useful, nature has a meaning and value of its own, as created by God. Brother fire is beautiful and merry, vigorous and strong, and not simply an aid to human beings.

A sense of wonder at the beauty, mystery, and fascinating intricacy of nature is part of the Catholic ethos: in the philosophy of Thomas, the science of Albert, the romance of Wolfram, the carving of, say, leaves of thorn and maple in a great mediaeval church like Southwell Minster. The scale of being is the splintered image of the fullness of being. But all is led back ultimately to the Lord of the cosmos who became one of his own creatures so as to transfigure all:

the "Elder Brother and Firstborn of all creation, who came to cast fire on the earth and to give us waters that well up into springs of eternal life, the unconquered Sun of Justice and Only-Begotten of the one Father of heaven and earth."

This raises the question of the sense in which, for Catholic doctrine, the universe is itself, like humanity, fallen and to be redeemed. Here fallen and redeemable can only be analogous terms. Yet we can say that a universe which has known, in human sin, an upsetting of its own internal order, is to some degree disintegrated. Material things' "obediential potency" to a human activity which should perfect them remains frustrated in a world where people are unable to control either themselves or their environment in a way that chimes with the will and way of the Creator.

It seems indeed that, as Margaret Atkins has written, the contemporary ecological movement needs a theistic (as in Judaeo­Christianity) not a pantheistic (as in, for instance, "new age" spirituality) basis." In the first place, only belief in a Fall can ground a conviction that things could be were meant to be better. In the second place, judgment about the value of other creatures and about our failings in their regard has to be grounded in appeal to the higher order of that which ought to be as the apparently irresolvable differences between animal rights theorists and environmental ecologists (both working within a humanistic framework) show. The former exploit the idea of kinship with human beings, stressing evidence that points to a capacity for self-determination, or at least subjectivity, in certain animals, or (if they are utilitarians) the capacity for pleasure and suffering. But such commentators find it hard to "draw a line": for instance, why, on this view, should a plant matter? Ecologists, on the other hand, criticize the anthropocentric starting-point, which treats other creatures as incomplete humans. Surely other beings should be valued precisely in their distinctiveness, for they have their own existence and excellence. Thus conservationists tend to value highly non­anthropomorphized ecological systems for qualities such as integrity, stability, and variety. Both approaches raise the question of a ground of values, a ground that is nonsubjective and enables us to posit a good end or proper goal for this vast range of creatures, such that their flourishing is something we must respect for itself. For Catholic theology, it is because the wider world is a sketch of the ideas in the mind of God that we can see its point and at times disregard our own private interest in its favor. The fasts and feasts of the Church, if entered into in the right spirit, induce a proper sympathy for the cosmos. Eating is integrated with prayer, and by liturgical action one thinks of the Byzantine Rite's blessing of water on the feast of the Theophany, or of grapes on the feast of the Transfiguration we share with Christ in the gathering in and benediction of a scattered creation. The Word's entry into the world with the incarnation, and his provision in the resurrection of a new outflow of the Holy Spirit grants the material cosmos a new possibility of perfection and harmoniousness. The final gathering­together of the universe can only be in Christ, the perfect image of the Father who represents not only the Father himself but all creatures, flowing as they do from that same Word. Inevitably, then, the cosmos, beautiful with creation's radiance, yet groaning with the travail of salvation, forms the wider temple in which the Church's liturgy is celebrated a point well made in the Saunders Lewis's poem Ascension Day.

What's going on in the hills, this May morning?
Look at it all, the gold of the broom and laburnum,
The shoulders of the thorntree bright with its surplice,
The ready emerald of grass, the quiet calves;
The chestnut-trees have their candlesticks alight,
Hedgerows are kneeling, the birch is still as a nun,
The cuckoo's two notes over the hush of bright streams
And a ghost mist bending away from the meads' censer.
Before the rabbits scatter, O man, come forth
From your council houses, come and with the weasel
See the earth lift up an immaculate wafer
And the Father kiss the Son in the white dew
. [18]

The Angels

Scripture opens by referring to the creation of the angels: "In the beginning God created the heavens" the world of the angels, or indeed the angels themselves. That at least is how the Fathers of the Church understood the word. Given the existence of God, who is infinite Spirit, it seemed to them improbable that spiritual being should be represented in the world only in the minimal fashion that we find in ourselves. Old Testament people experienced the angels as filled to the brim with divine activity, so much so that sometimes they had difficulty in distinguishing the angels from God himself (cf. Gen 16:7-13). In the New Testament Jesus Christ overshadows the angels, because in his person God and man are perfectly joined. Nevertheless, the members of the New Testament Churches occasionally venerated angels too enthusiastically earning a rebuke from Paul, and the warning voice that corrected John in Revelation.

The "angelophanies" of Scripture fall into four main types: historical when individual angels lend help to humanity, from the time of the patriarchs, when Hagar is saved from the folly of her flight from Sarah, to that of the apostles, when Peter is brought out of prison with angelic assistance; liturgical as in the allusions to the multitudinous presence of angels in divine worship; prophetic where angels are described as doing great things in the mysterious future; and what can only be described as ontological references mentions of the angelic realm as a vital part of the supernatural world. The overall message is that the angels are as wholly ready to do God's will as they are powerful to perform it; they are completely God's own, and at no time is there any fear as to their future. In their world spiritual wealth is the rule, and journey toward a moral or mental destitution unknown.

The angels stand in the burning light of God's countenance, yet the lowliest things of this earth are the objects of their attention as when Raphael goes to the city of the Medes and finds Gaelus, giving him the note, of hand and receiving from him all the money that was owed to Tobias. As Balthasar has written, the fact that they continually behold and adore God does not prevent them from existing in the mode of mission. From their home in heaven, their mission is to "provoke" and trigger history in the world."

Until the ninth century, the only individual angel honored in the Church's liturgy was Michael. Michaeline devotion had spread rapidly from the fourth-century East to Italy and then to the rest of the West, leaving a trail of sanctuaries behind it, not least St. Michael's Mount, off the coast of Cornwall, and Skerrig Michael, on the west coast of Ireland. Among medieval theologians, Aquinas offered a rationale of the cult of the angels, which is based, he suggested, on two things: a recognition of their excellence as created beings, and a recognition of our dependence on them within the providence of God, who uses them to help us. As with the veneration of the saints, submediation (from God, through Christ) is no derogation from God's being God, but on the contrary a witness to his sovereign creativity and graciousness. By establishing the intermediaries through whom he accomplishes his will, God gives them the dignity of sharing in his causality, and by multiplying their number increases the sum total of those to whom gratitude is due.

In the later Middle Ages and the early modern period, Christians founded confraternities and other associations for the purpose of honoring the angels. This carried on until as late as 1950 when the society called the Philangeli, the "friends of the angels," was formed by an Englishwoman, Mary Angela Jeeves (its headquarters is now in the United States). In the Catholic Church, whole periodicals were dedicated to angelology, the study of the angels, and many paraliturgical prayers and other devotional aids were assembled. In the Carmina gaedelica, a collection of Celtic oral material made in the Catholic islands of the Hebrides and the adjacent Western Highlands by Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912), angels come and go as naturally as they ascended and descended upon the Son of Man (John 1:51). The shining presences, invisible except to the inner eye of love and self-giving, continued to play the role they had occupied for Jesus himself -for, despite his Godhead, it was by an angel that he was helped in the time of his deepest agony. He also spoke in his teaching of the angel guardians of children: for these "always see the face of God" (Matt 18:10). In the Carmina, hills, the sea and the heavenly presences are wonderfully blended.

O Michael, victorious,
Stand guard all around
On your bright shining steed
With your sword that tamed
The dragon. Your name:
Great Ranger of heaven,
God's warrior man.
Be thou at my back
O Michael victorious;
O light of my days,
Thou shining and glorious
Guard me always.
My round I will make
with my saint by my
On machair, on meadow-land,
On the cold hills of heather;
We'll travel together
Round this hard globe of earth.
No harm will come to me,
For your shield is over me,
O Michael victorious,
Shepherd of God.

Tradition maintains, indeed, that an openness to the angelic presences can transform our attitudes and activities toward wholeness, creativity, and a charity which is at once exacting and joyous.

Since human beings are spirit as well as flesh, they are naturally subject, in spirit, to the, conditions of the spirit-world as they are, in body, subject to the conitions of the material world. In themselves, and in their bodies, part, of the earth, they have a direct relationship with the celestial hierarchies with their cosmic scope and power. These latter are part of the mighty harmony of innumerable regions and orders of being, as we are.

It is an army at salute!
It is a people in the Dawn!
It is the ceaseless service done
by those who were, and are,the First
unto the Father,eternal rite!
In presence of the Unity
this is the Number which adores!
This is the soul attuned entire
and never parted from its source
in contemplation of the truth,
flawless and faithful children who
ever regard their Maker thus.
God the Father-God who knows
all his nestlings by their names

has gathered in his mansion, sealed
with seven seals, these winged seeds
in all their myriad multitudes,
different each from each in kind,
being, from Angels to the Seraphim,
the types and prophecies of all
Creation and, within the Eternal
Zion, Preface to the Holy Mass.

No one who kneels, no one who prays,
no one who yields himself to God,
no one who weeps to see his life,
no one who with a grieving cry
opens himself to Mary's Son
but soon must feel his buried soul
gradually pervaded by
the adorable Angelic host:
O revelation of the Friend,
spiritual Brother and the Guide
assigned! to grant us Heaven
and unite us in the hierarchy
of those concerning whom it is said
they give not nor are they given
in marriage of the flesh! For none
is welcome in the Father's Realm
who is not as his children are.

The ending of this segment of Claudel's poem, by raising the question of the dialectic of the spiritual and the fleshly, reminds us that the Logos became man at two levels: that of spirit, and that of body. He who asked a woman for water when he was thirsty could also be helped throughout his life by the good spirits, and challenged by the evil ones. Though the Gospels were written from the standpoint of the historical and visible realm, they are not enclosed by its limitations. Openings into the invisible recur throughout their course, from the annunciation to the ascension when the Lord passed from one to the other.

The light of the Word in itself altogether sufficient for the world's redemption must be appropriated, and it is in our spiritual relations with the angels as well as in our physical relations with matter in its organization and extension in the empirical realm and our practical activities there that we must do so. When the Son addressed the Father he did so in intimacy, certainly, but not in isolation: the Father is the Lord of Spirits, the "I Am" whose angels stayed the hand of Abraham, and appeared in the burning bush (Acts 7:30), the Lord who rides above the cherubim, the Lord of hosts. All this is expressed in the opening invocation of the Lord's Prayer: "Our Father, who are in the heavens." At the passion Jesus remarks that if he asked the Father, he would send his angels to save him. All prayer is an asking of the Father, yet the angels are our helpers in presenting our asking and adoration. To discover this for themselves, Christians must give the angels an active place in their own lives of prayer and meditation, where the mind reaches to its source. What the angels can do most naturally is to clarify the human spirit, to open human minds to the light of God which shines around them. The glory of the Godhead has so much in excess of what we can take in and is so different from our own sinful being that were the parousia to take place immediately, few could look upon the face of Christ and find in it love, not judgment. But and this is true likewise of that analogue of the parousia which is our individual dying, instead he sends his angels before his face to prepare the way for his coming. The return of Christ will be the definitive opening of heaven into earth, the irreversible throwing open of the threshold. Co-involved with the Father and the Son in all "sending" (and the angels are certainly God's messengers, as the etymology of their name implies) is the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, in whom the parousia, as also the incarnation, of the Son is achieved, and whose personal economy Christ's second coming will reveal. The angels are breathings of this Spirit: the relation of the doctrine of the Spirit to that of the angels is, as the Irish Carmelite theologian Noel Dermot O'Donoghue has pointed out, an area as yet undeveloped in the story of Catholic theology.

The belief of the Church about guardian angels is expressed only in the liturgy. It is not dogma, but it is doctrine in the sense that lex orandi equals lex credendi: what is laid down when we pray is a norm for our faith. Though it may seem excessively pious, ecclesiastical, and specialized, in the hands of the traditional theologians who have written about it angelic guardianship is presented as something absolutely natural. It has no special relationship to the Christian economy, or to the mystery of the Church. One's guardian angel is acquired at birth, not baptism. This guardianship is a general dispensation of providence to keep the human race, and human individuals, in perfection of nature. For Thomas Aquinas, its most direct and constant effect is the illumination of the human mind. Humanity is kept in approximate mental equilibrium through the unceasing watchfulness of these spirits. It is a remarkable thing that, despite the many fatuous or aberrant things that individuals or even entire cultures can come to believe about why or how we are here, the human race can be expected to respond to a call back to some fundamental truths about beliefs and behavior. Because of the angel guardians, for instance, a papal encyclical on morals can be addressed to all human beings with some hope of a hearing.

Yet the guardian angels are not concerned with world-historical forces as such, but with each person. Aquinas points out that the secrets of grace are God's personal providence the dealings of the Trinity with ourselves not en masse but as individual rational creatures. It is not astonishing that individual angels are chosen to watch over individual human souls treated with some preference by God himself. This is how the divines of the English Catholic revival saw them. In Newman's Dream of Gerontius, the angel guardian greets Gerontius, "My friend and brother, hail!" and in F. W. Faber's hymn Angels of Jesus they wait, ready to greet the pilgrim whose Doppelganger they have been: "Angels of Jesus, angels of light, / singing to welcome the pilgrims of the night."

But there is the negative side: the doctrine of the fallen angels. To the extent that God, the infinite Spirit, is thought of as thoroughly distinct from the world, it becomes possible to conceive of a disharmony between him and some finite spirit. Thus the notion of spiritual evil becomes intelligible and for the New Testament not merely a possibility, but a reality. The devil and his angels are also realities, in Catholic teaching. These realities are not to be encountered by human beings chiefly in the spectacular form of satanic possession, which happens only under the most extraordinary (and rare) circumstances. The reality of angelic evil is to be sought rather in the ordinary realm, in the alienation from the divine image of the individual person as also in the demonic character of pathologically deformed institutions. Evil lives in the human heart, and that heart's refraction in the pattern of human coexistence; yet it cannot be completely demythologized as a simply human reality. Although we are the subject of evil, we are not altogether its initiator, and the sin in us can be experienced as the work of a stranger; furthermore, morally criminal activity (Hitler, Stalin) can take on more-than-human proportions. The struggle between good and evil has a cosmic dimension. The article of the Creed that deals with the descent of the Word incarnate into hell affirms among other things that the victorious Christ confronts Satan in a world utterly beyond the everyday, and that as a result of that conflictual meeting evil is now, in principle, directly subjected to the victory of God's goodness in Jesus Christ.

Aquinas's account of angelic sin is subtle. An angel's nature is so perfect that there is nothing he can wish for or to which he can aspire. How then is angelic sin possible? Only if the spirit be taken out of his natural order and placed in another, higher, supernatural one where the possibility arises that he may resist this relocation, and rebel against God. The share given him in the supernatural order is not only elevation, for it means also community with all others so favored, including the human race. A spirit may choose to enter into community with the supernatural or to remain entirely within his own sphere, preferring his own natural,excellence to the communion of the universal family of God. The malitia angelica consists in wanting to possess the resemblance with God that comes from grace not through the divine help, according to God's order, but through the power of his own nature alone. All other perversities ascribed to the evil angels follow from this: for what they have freely chosen is not a passive state of personal excellence but an active opposition to a higher order. With every means in their stupendous power, then, they fight against the supernatural ordering of the world which means above all the world drama's center in the Cross and resurrection of Christ' That is why the Revelation of John the Divine concentrates the activity of the "dragon" in the time from incarnation to parousia, and why too the human embodiment of angelic evil can only be the "Anti-Christ": one who is systematically opposed to Christ, and to that extent parasitic upon him even, as in Luca Signorelli's fresco at Orvieto, his dreadful parody.

The Gospels, or at any rate the Synoptics, are barely conceivable without the presence of the fallen angels. One of the strongest impressions Jesus made was as someone who healed by exorcism. Nowadays, we may tend to understand the demons in psychopathological terms, as a disease of the mind, or a disease of the body induced by the mind. But we do not need to regard such a subjective view of the demonic spirits as an alternative to an objective account of them, of the kind that the doctrinal tradition furnishes. The devil and his angels are present wherever there is disintegration of God's creative work, wherever what should be orderly, harmonious, a unity, begins to fall into chaos and anarchy. These spirits are personal beings but they are not persons: they lack the unity that goes with being a person. Their thoroughgoing, clear-sighted commitment to evil makes them not only the disintegration of others but, more profoundly, disintegrated beings themselves. Small wonder, then, that we encounter them only as a pattern of symptoms, a disorder in the body or the mind. Whereas the angels who said yes to God are self-consistent spiritual realities who share actively in the construction of his kingdom, the satanic angels do not hold together: their act of saying no disintegrates themselves not least of all.

The Church's Christological faith proclaims Christ to be Lord of these fallen principalities and powers by right of his victorious Cross, and the supereminently personal reality (at once divine person and human personality, inseparably united) whose omnipotence, working patiently through created forms, can nullify and reverse the processes of disorder in the universe. The cosmos is, then, not only the setting of salvation; it is also, in and through humanity, salvation's wider objective.

The bliss of the redeemed will be to possess all truth, to be in contact with all reality, to see all beauty. In this the enjoyment of the company of the angels will play its part.

We must always keep alive within us that essentially Catholic principle of life, that the possession of the supreme Goodness, God himself, never destroys the appetite for created goodness, but, on the contrary, enhances it; to see God face to face produces in the minds of the elect a new capacity to see him in his creatures, and where is he seen to greater advantage than in the world of angels, which mirrors back, with an almost infinite power of radiation, the glory of the invisible God? [24]

Whereas the modern Italian philosopher-aesthetician Benedetto Croce thought Dante was wrong to fill his vision of ultimate reality with highly selved beings, for that medieval predecessor of his it was vital that in the light of God the angels and saints are yet more distinctly themselves.

And all around that Centre, wings outstretched
I saw more than a thousand festive angels,
each one distinct in brilliance and in art
. [25]

In the eschatology of the Church, by contrast with Hegelianism, opposites do not combine and disappear in higher syntheses. Rather is there stronger identity and sharper distinctiveness even or especially within final harmony, indissoluble unity. As one Dantist has put it:

All this is no doubt a medieval embarrassment, even to the postmodern Christian who is usually convinced both that the spiritual needs to become virtually indistinguishable from everydayness and that paradise, if it exists, wilt simply be unlike anything we know. Some future intellectual antiquarian will have to explain why the twentieth century tried to make God a subdivision of this world, and push the transcendence of the next world beyond all human relation. That investigator will no doubt still be reading Dante, who thought, with all Christendom before us, that unexpected beings sometimes visit our world and that the next world will be like this one, only more so than most of us can imagine. [26]


1. P Hodgson, "The Significance of the Work of Stanley L. Jaki," Downside Review 105 (1987) 263.

2. C. S. Dessain, et al., The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman (London, 1973) 24:77.

3. S. Ovitt, Jr., The Restoration of Perfection: Labor and Technology in Mediaeval Culture (New Brunswick and London, 1987) 85-86.

4. R. Murray, The Cosmic Covenant: Biblical Themes of Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation (London, 1992).

5. Pseudo-Ephrem, Sermons for Holy Week 1.95-96, cited in ibid., 7.

6. Murray, Cosmic Covenant, 146.

7. H. Waddell, Beasts and Saints (London, 1934).

8. Rahner, The Eternal Year, 90-91.

9. Origen, On First Principles 1.1, 6.

10. Gregory Nazianzen, Orations 45.7.

11. Tertullian, Against Marcion 1.13.

12. For these and other references see D. S. Wallace-Hadrill, The Greek Patristic View of Nature (Manchester and New York, 1968).

13. Alain of Lille, On the Lamentation of Nature, "Natura Alano loquitur."

14. Bonaventure, The Journey of the Mind to God 1.15.

15. As translated by the late Eric Doyle, in his short study, "The Canticle of Brother Sun," New Blackfriars 55 (1974) 392-402. For its interpretation, see R. D. Sorrell, St. Francis of Assisi and Nature: Tradition and Innovation in Western Christian Attitudes towards the Environment (New York and Oxford, 1988).

16. Mirror of Perfection 100-101.

17. M. Atkins, "Flawed Beauty and Wise Use: Conservation and the Christian Tradition," Studies in Christian Ethics 71 (1994) 1-16.

18. Welsh original in S. Lewis, Byd a Betws (Aberyswyth, 1941).

19. H. U. von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory (San Francisco, 1992) 3:491-92.

20. Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1:208-11.

21. P. Claudel, "Hymnes des saints anges," in Oeuvre poetique (Paris, 1967) 453-56.

22. A rich angelology can be constructed from O'Donoghue's writing in Heaven in Ordinarie (Edinburgh, 1980); The Holy Mountain (Collegeville, Minn., 1983); The Mountain behind the Mountain: Aspects of the Celtic Tradition (Edinburgh, 1993).

23. K. Foster, "Satan," in Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, vol. 9: Angels, ed. K. Foster (London, 1968) 306-21.

24. A. Vonier, The Angels (London, 1928) 84-85.

25. Dante, Paradiso, canto 31, lines 130-32.

26. R Royal, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Dante's 'Birds of God,"' Crisis 13.2 (1995) 29.

©; 1996 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota. All rights reserved.

This version: 6th February 2008

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