Here in Ireland, we are being blessed with an unusually hot and dry summer. While this presents challenges to people like farmers, most are enjoying the stunning display of creation’s beauty in this time of vacation. The long evenings, the beautiful sunsets, the patchwork of colors decorating the landscape, the blue seas, the dawn chorus—all combine to lift up our minds and souls in prayer to the One responsible for it all. Immersed in this beauty, evening walks are like a daily retreat in God’s beautiful garden that has no walls. Because of this beauty, I find myself drawn deeper into words of the offertory prayer at the Eucharist where God’s priestly people bless the Creator of all: “Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation.” Here I share a few thoughts on how contemplation of creation and the cosmos can lead us to worship the God of all creation and see how all things, material and spiritual, are not separate but united in Christ.
One of the most stunning discoveries of science made in the last century was that we are part of an expanding universe that had a beginning about 13.7 billions years ago. The implications of this discovery are immense. Whereas before, the universe was perceived by some scientists as being eternal, now it had a time of origin. Not only this, but because the universe is not static but expanding, it also had a point of origin from which everything emerged. If this is true then all creation has a common source and finds its unity in that source.
It is amazing that science is beginning to verify what believers have intuited for centuries, namely that all creation emerged from a common source or principle they called God. For our Jewish ancestors, God made all things through his Word and by the power of the Spirit: “By the Word of the Lord the heavens were made and all their host by the breath of his mouth” (Ps. 33:6). For the authors of Scripture, God’s fingerprints were on all he has created, for “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:2). Feeling themselves close to and part of the created world, the three Jewish heroes in the Book of Daniel invite the elements to join them in praise of the author of all that exists: “And you sun and moon O bless the Lord; O you stars of heaven O bless the Lord. To him be highest glory and praise forever” (Dan. 3:62-63).
In the New Testament, St. Paul makes an amazing confession of faith in God as Creator—the man Jesus of Nazareth who they had come to believe was divine, was the personification of this Word through whom all material and spiritual things were made and in whom all things are united: “For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth; everything visible and everything invisible…in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17). This means that all of reality is somehow united in Christ and converges on him. The same idea is expressed in the Gospel of John who teaches that when the “Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us” (John 1:14), Jesus entered into a world that had “come into being through him” (John 1:10). This means that when God assumed humanity in Mary’s womb, God united himself through Jesus not only to all of humanity but to the material world and all creation. At the Incarnation, the invisible world of spirit and visible world of matter became one in him.
So often we think of the Incarnation only in terms of Jesus becoming a human being like us. This he certainly did, but in this broader vision of creation, the Incarnation also has a cosmic significance because through it, the immaterial God united himself with the material world.
We see this unity of the material and spirit worlds in the Gospels with Jesus himself where he often points to elements and processes in the natural world to teach important spiritual truths about God and his kingdom. With these examples Jesus draws our attention to the intrinsic connection between material and the spiritual realities—realities that have their origin and unity in him. For example, he pointed to light as a metaphor for faith, wisdom, and goodness (Matt. 4:16; 5:16; Luke 11:34-35; John 1:5; 8:12). He pointed to darkness as a metaphor for evil, sin, and ignorance (Matt. 25:30; Luke 22:53; John 3:19). He pointed to the sun’s indiscriminate rays to teach how God’s love is unconditional and is offered to the good and bad alike (Matt. 5:45). He used the human experiences of hunger and thirst to teach of humanity’s spiritual longing for God. He identified bread and water with himself who had been sent by the Father as “living bread, living water” so that his people’s restless desire for fulfilment would be satisfied in him (John 4:14; 6:51; 7:37ff). To teach about the divine life and the Father’s kingdom, Jesus pointed to the birds of the air, fish in the sea, sheep in the fields, grains of seed, the harvest, fig trees, vines, and branches. This was natural for Jesus for he had come into the world “that had its being through him” (John 1:10). His teaching methods invited people to contemplate the natural world because creation’s natural mechanisms and cycles are deeply metaphorical of the divine life he calls us to participate in.
Jesus was so connected to the created world that the earth quaked at his death (Matt. 27:51). He walked on water as a sign of his Lordship over creation (Mark 6:45ff; Matt. 14:22; John 6:15ff). With his resurrection, his material body rose with him, and at once transfigured the material and spiritual worlds in himself. This is why St. Paul invites us to become “a new creation” in Christ (Gal. 6:15; 2 Cor. 5:17) and become transfigured by his grace in body and soul. Jesus invites us to become participators in the divine life because we first participate in the created world that was made through him.
In this cosmic vision that tightly connects the created world to Christ, Jesus is no longer a distant figure or someone I think about rarely or pray to only in churches. His presence is enflamed in everything we see and in the beauty of all God has made. The contemplation of creation leads us back to himself for, in the words of Pierre de Chardin, all creation has been “Christified.”
This renewed vision of the created world mediating an experience of God is not so new after all. It goes right back to the early Church, who also found in creation a rich source of spiritual inspiration. For St. Paul, “ever since the creation of the world his [God’s] invisible nature…has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:19-20).
It is said that St Benedict contemplated the Word of God in two books—in Scripture and in the book of nature. In words that should encourage all scientists with open minds, St. Augustine urged his listeners to “question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea…question the beauty of the sky. Who made them if not the beautiful one who is not subject to change?” (Sermon 241). For Thomas Aquinas, creation tells us something about the One who created it: “The beauty of the creature is nothing other than a likeness of the divine beauty, participated in by created things” (De Div. Nom. 4:5.9). For St. Bonaventure in the thirteenth century, creation is a revelation of God’s glory, composed of many words that make up a book that describes its author. The world therefore is a kind of sacrament—a sign that leads to and points to what it signifies: the Trinity of creative and self-giving love. For this appreciation of creation, Bonaventure credits St. Francis of Assisi, and wrote of his spiritual father that “in beautiful things he contemplated beauty itself…out of them making for himself a ladder through which he could climb and lay hold of him who is utterly desirable” (The Major Legend of St. Francis). Such was the connection St. Francis felt to the natural world that he described the earth as mother with fire, water, the moon, and stars named by him as brothers and sisters (Canticle of the Creatures).
In more recent times, Vatican II taught that “God provides humanity with constant evidence of himself in created realities” (Dei verbum, 3) while the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “the whole of creation is ordered to the praise of God” (CCC 337). Finally, in his encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis stresses the unity of all creation for “the book of nature is one and indivisible” (Laudato Si, 6). This is the book written by God “whose letters are the multitude of created things present in the universe” (Laudato Si, 85).
Friends, this is the book of creation that always remains open for us to contemplate—the most wonderful, intriguing, and awesome book we will ever read. What we haven’t always done is take the time to read this book carefully and lovingly, allowing our souls to be attuned to its beauty and enchanted by the awesome universe we are part of. What we all long for is a God to adore. Contemplating the book of creation can lead us to such a God who is Lord of all, creator of the universe and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. New discoveries about the cosmos cannot be ignored by people of faith but neither can we lose the opportunity that presents itself. If creation is one, living, relational, and infinite, then faith in a God who is one, living, relational, and infinite is more plausible to human reason, not less. Many times on evening walks this summer, the music of Louis Armstrong’s song rang in my ears: “I see trees of green, red roses too. I see them bloom for me and you. And I think to myself what a wonderful world.” Indeed, what a wonderful world; but much more wonderful is the God who made it.