An incredible essay which requires an intense reading by the late Cardinal Jean Daniélou, taken from The Presence of God, trans. Walter Roberts Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1960), ch. 1: The Cosmic Temple, 9-14. Jean Daniélou, S.J. (1905-1974), was an influential French theologian and author, one of the main movers of Vatican II.
This was one of our readings for the Boston Communio Study Group meeting at St. Clement’s Eucharistic Shrine in Boston. Our focus is the monthly Communio International Catholic Review. We each choose an article from the review and discuss. We discussed this essay along with another An Introduction To Jean Daniélou by Fr. Jonah Lynch. You are more than welcome to join us. We’ll be there next at 3:00pm on May 19th. Contact me and I will make sure you have the readings for the next meeting. We are a monthly reading group and if you like payingattentiontothesky you will love the Christian fellowship you will gain with the group.
Through man the silent litany of things becomes an explicit act of worship.
On the lowest level, which is not essentially Christian, but is part of the historical heritage of Christianity, though generally separated from it, the Christian mystery is the mystery of creation. I mean by its not only an original dependence of the universe in relation to a personal and transcendent God, but also the actual dependence of all things in his sight, and consequently a divine Presence which confers upon the whole cosmos a sacramental value.
At the birth of mankind, the whole creation, issuing from the hands of God, is holy; the earthly Paradise is nature in a state of grace. The House of God is the whole cosmos. Heaven is his tent, his tabernacle; the earth is his “footstool.” There is a whole cosmic liturgy, that of the source of the flowers and birds.
Multiplied blessings made an overflow,
The silence of the soul was a still pond.
The rising sun became a monstrance now,
Filling the heavens with a shining sound.
Smoke was a censer, and the cedar-trees
Composed an ever-mounting barricade.
Days of delight were as a colonnade
Fanned by the calmness of the twilight breeze.
Charles Peguy, “Eve,” in Ouvres Poetiques Completes (Paris: Gallimard, 1948), 710
The time of the patriarchs still retains something of this paradisal grace. The Spirit of God still broods upon the waters. Yahweh is not yet the hidden God, dwelling apart within the tabernacle. He talks with Noah on familiar terms. His relationship with Abraham is that of a friend:
And the Lord appeared to him in the vale of Mambre as he was sitting at the door of his tent, in the very heat of the day. And when he lifted up his eyes, there appeared to him three men standing near him: and as soon as he saw them, he ran to meet them from the door of his tent, and adored down to the ground. And he said: Lord, if I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away from thy servant: but I will fetch a little water; and wash ye your feet, and rest ye under the tree.
Abraham has that parrhesia with God, that freedom of speech which, in the days of ancient Greece, was the right of a free citizen, and by which St. Paul and the brethren symbolized the liberty of the children of God with their Father. The whole of nature is still a temple consecrated to him. A group of trees, a spring of fresh water, these are fragments of Paradise in which he offers sacrifices; a rough stone is an altar dedicated to him.
This is the primitive level, common to all men, whose traces are still to be found, twisted, soiled, perverted, in every religion. So in Greek religion we have the sacred wood, the alsos, with its fountain; but polytheism has corrupted the primitive gesture. God “in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless he left not himself without testimony, doing good from heaven, giving rains and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.” [Acts 14:16-17]
Only the wise men continued to seek for signs in the heavenly Temple, contemplating, examining, and defining, according to the positions of the stars, the sites of towns and altars. The shepherds and the Magi are, as it were, the flowering in the Gospel of this underlying, primary stratum, which corruption has not altogether spoiled, nor Mosaic revelation destroyed.
For us today, it still constitutes the holy in its rudimentary form, which darkly hints at the Divine Presence in the silence of the night, in the shadows of the forest, in the vastness of the desert, in the lightning-flash of genius, in the purity of love. It is this basic level that was recognized by that Boer farmer to whom Otto refers, who in the solitude of the desert, where the sun poured forth its rays upon the plain, was aware of a voice speaking to him. It is this level that explains the religious awe with which the Earth deserves to be surrounded.
But this sacramental element has no meaning except in relation to a personal Presence. “Awe,” writes Peguy, “stretches forth indeed to encompass the whole universe. We too easily forget that the universe is creation; and awe, like charity, is due to every creature.” It is the personal Presence, at once hidden and revealed by signs, that awakens in us this holy dread.
In the cosmic Temple, man is not living primarily in his own house, but in the house of God. This is why he knows that he should revere those creatures who do not belong to him, that he can lay hands on nothing without permission. All is holy; the trees are heavy with sacramental mysteries. Primitive sacrifice is simply the cognition of the sovereign realm of God. He takes the first-fruits, and leaves the rest to man. But at the same time, man is part of creation and has his role to play in it. God has in some way left creation unfinished, and man’s mission is to bring it to fulfillment. Through his work he exploits unknown material resources, and thus work is sacred, being co-operation in the task of creation. Through knowledge and art he removes it from its ephemeral condition to enable it subsist spiritually.
[FN: This is well expressed by P.J. Toulet:
Whispering woods, if I should die,
Perish without my artistry.]
Indeed, by sacramental use man confers on visible things their supreme dignity, not merely as signs and symbols, but as effective means of grace in the soul. So water effects purification, oil communicates power and unction, salt gives the savor of heavenly things. Man is thus the mediator through whom the visible universe verse is gathered together and offered up, the priest of that virginal creation over which God lovingly watches. Through man the silent litany of things becomes an explicit act of worship.
Nature without me is vain, it is I who give it a meaning;
All things become in me eternal, are laid on my altar.
Water now washes the soul, not only the travel-worn body;
My bread becomes for me the very substance of God.
Paul Claudel, Cinq Grandes Odes (Paris: Gallimard, 1936), 174.
Thus the whole of nature, as St. Paul says, expects that man will lead it to its end. The sacred character of love, in particular, is not derived from the shadowy presence of the race using individuals for its own ends, but from the Presence of God in the handiwork that love causes men to share. “When I was close to him I nearly always had the sense of God’s actual presence,” wrote Alice Ollé-Laprune of her husband.
Such is the innocence of creation. Creatures are holy, expecting that man will lead them to their goal. But man has the power to violate this order. When he turns away from God, when he profanes himself by ceasing to be a consecrated creature, he also profanes the world on which he imposes sacrilegious uses.
The material inventions that are meant to help men to free themselves from matter and bring to realization the community of mankind, we transform into instruments of hatred. The beauty of the body, which is the lovely reflection of the beauty of the soul, its visible “glory” which should awaken in us loving awe, we transform into an instrument of selfish pleasure. The blessings of culture, intended to help men to become more truly human by developing the powers of their minds, we transform into an instrument of perverted specialization and highbrow aestheticism.
But creation itself is free from all these faults, wherever she may “suffer violence.” She, too, rebels in her holiness and purity against such profanation by sacrilegious rites; and she expresses her rebellion by the resistance that she makes when we turn her aside from her goal. Between her and us there is a battle waged, which is the result of sin.
You know nothing in the vast universe
That may not be a means of unhappiness.
Charles Peguy, “Eve,” in Ouvres Poetiques Completes
This is the hostile world that we know so well, where everything is threatening; and the more sensitive we are, the more it is so. No one has felt this more acutely than Rilke:
The terrible in every breath of air,
You breathe it all too clearly
No citation was given in the original translated publication.
The rebellion of creatures is the cause of suffering, which is the resistance of matter to our will. It was unknown in Paradise, it will be unknown in Paradise Regained, and Jesus already restores this Paradise, mastering the winds and waves, healing the sick. It is the cloudiness of the world that, far from showing us God, hides Him from us and confines us to earth. So we become slaves, we that are called to be kings. What are the fires of hell but the rebellion of the creature, defined all too clearly?
How are we to rediscover the lost harmony, how are we to reconciled with things? Here is the nostalgia that lies perhaps at the center of poetry, which is a quest for the cosmic privileges of Paradise Lost, a glorification of the body without using the conversion of the heart as intermediary.
But everything depends on this conversion. Things themselves have never changed. They remain what they always were; they await us in brotherly innocence. It is we that are “underlings.” If I seek to rediscover the joys of Paradise, to move at ease amid created things, I must give them back their proper meaning, I must restore their honorable mission as servants of humanity. Then they will cease to burden me with silent reproaches, they will begin once again to chant before me:
None but the pure heart knows
The perfume of the rose
Paul Claudel, Figures et Paraboles (Paris: Gallimard, 1936), 28.
I must recover the purity of my glance. Then only will creatures once more become bearers of light from heaven. It is this paradisal reconciliation that we find in St. Francis of Assisi, in St. John of the Cross: “Yes, the heavens are mine and e earth is mine and the peoples are mine…. What more can you sire? What do you seek, my soul?”
Nothing remains of our prostration before the powers of the cosmos and history, those words of Damocles hanging over mankind. Cosmic fear is vanquished, the universe has become once more a Temple where we are at home with God in the cool of the evening, where man comes forward, silent and composed, absorbed in his task as in a perpetual liturgy, attentive to that Presence which fills him with awe and tenderness.