The Speech of the Father
By: T.M. Moore|Published: March 23, 2009 3:22 PM
Celtic Christians and Creation
For the very continuance of the created universe is the speech of God the Father, the eternal and unchangeable generation of his Word. (John Scotus Eriugena)
Christianity has always exhibited a deep appreciation of the created world. In sermons and hymns, art and architecture, and the stories of saints and martyrs, animals, plants, seas, winds, and heavenly bodies are present to illustrate, embellish, or explain. The followers of Jesus understand that the earth and heavens belong to the Lord, and He has entrusted the earth, at least, to our care. God has given us the task of seeking to understand, appreciate, enjoy, order, and replenish it as His vice-regents and subjects.
In the annals of Church history no period more abounds with awareness and appreciation of the creation than that of the Celtic revival, ca. AD 430-900. In the spare writings and abundant artifacts that have survived from this period, we meet a people who knew, loved, enjoyed, and even revered the creation, and who took seriously their responsibility to understand and use it according to the purposes of God.
It’s interesting to speculate on why Celtic Christians should have manifested such fondness for creation. Though they left us no formal theology to speak of, their poems, meditations, litanies, letters, sermons, saints’ lives, and devotional materials are replete with reference to the creatures and features of the creation. Their works of art abound with creatures and patterns from the created world. The deep appreciation of the creation which Celtic Christians demonstrate probably stems from their proximity to it. When Patrick arrived in Ireland, and for two centuries after that, there were no cities. People lived in rude forts, in humble encampments, and wherever they could find provision. They lived largely off the land, as their pre-Christian religion demonstrates, with its many gods and goddesses related to particular spaces and creatures. Celtic peoples had a deep love for the places and creatures around them, and a sense of the mysterious and mystical associated with them. Celtic Christians carried this love of the creation into their own experience of following Jesus.
When the Irish and other Celtic peoples converted to Christ, the Book of Psalms quickly became their favorite of all Scripture. This was undoubtedly because of its lyrical nature and profoundly personal piety, but also, no doubt, because of its many references to and images from the created world. They found throughout the Bible confirmation of their interest in and love for the creation, and so seem to have indulged this love all the more earnestly upon coming to faith in Christ.
The people of the Celtic Christian period showed their love for the creation in three ways—by their desire to understand it, their engagement with it for spiritual or devotional purposes, and the sheer delight they gained from participating in and exercising stewardship over the creation.
In the ninth century, while serving in the Merovingian court in Gaul, Eriugena wrote his massive, Periphyseon, “On the Being of Things.” This is a philosophical and theological work which goes into much more detail than the Liber and explores philosophical concepts related to types of being, hyper-being, modes of existence, and creatures corporeal and incorporeal. Eriugena divided all existence into four classes: (1) that which creates and is uncreated (God); (2) that which is created and creates (men); (3) that which is created but does not create (impersonal creatures); (4) that which neither creates nor is created (non-being). Using a dialectical approach, Eriugena and his student talk their way through the entirety of existence by means of mind-numbing syllogisms, sidebars, and summaries. The purpose of this exercise seems to be to emphasize, by a far-ranging catalog of all being, the greatness of the divine essence and the high privilege of knowing and serving the Lord. As Eriugena wrote elsewhere (Homily on John 1:1-14), “Learn to know the maker from those things that are made in him and by him…From the contemplation of such as these, raised above all things by the wings of natural contemplation, illuminated and supported by divine grace, you will be able to penetrate by the keenness of your mind the secrets of the Word and, to the extent that it is granted to the human being who seeks signs of God, you will see how all things made by the Word live in the Word and are life.”
Thus, the foundation of Celtic Christian appreciation of creation seems to have been the desire to know things as creatures of God, servants in His divine economy by means of which the followers of Christ may come to know His greatness, majesty, wisdom, beauty, and power.
CREATION AS DEVOTION
Today I gird myself
-Faeth Fiada, “Patrick’s Breastplate” (8th century)
In later litanies—private devotional prayers written to reclaim the glory of an era that had passed—mystics found the creation a source of inspiration and illumination:
O God of the earth,
- Litany of the Trinity (14th-15th century)
I entreat Thee by water and cruel air; I entreat Thee by fire, I entreat Thee by earth . . .
I entreat Thee by the compass of the tuneful firmament; I entreat Thee by every stately-branching order, the host of the bright stars . . .
I entreat Thee by every living creature that ever tasted life and death; I entreat Thee by every inanimate creature because of Thy fair beauteous mystery . . .
May this host protect me!
- Litany of Creation (16th century)
In Saltair na Rann (“The Psalter of the Quatrains,” probably ninth century) God is celebrated as Creator and King of all the vast creation, making everything beautiful and orderly in its place and function. He is the King of winds, colors, forms, the divisions of things, all patterns and measurements, and all the forces of the vast cosmos. All this lengthy extolling of God’s greatness and beauty has the sole purpose of bringing joy and comfort to those who see in the creation the hand of Him Who, though Almighty, cares intimately for them:
The King who rules over cold and heat,
With grace the bright King of mysteries
Aspects of the creation also feature into the celebration of Celtic saints. By showing the close relationship between a saint and the creation, hagiographers both emphasized some feature of the saint’s character and taught their hearers to emulate the saint by drawing close to God through the creation. Kevin of Glendalough was thus a characterized as a man of such great prayer that he continued in the discipline all the while a blackbird built a nest in his outstretched hand. Columba of Iona was gentle with all animals—a beleaguered crane, his beloved horse—and thus even more gentle with people. The touching scene of Columba’s horse weeping on his breast as the saint went off to die is unforgettable. Brendan read signs from God in the drumming of a bird’s wings or the back of a whale. Cuthbert prayed in icy water with only otters to attend him to make his arduous labor a little lighter. Columbanus shared his solitude with a bear, thus emphasizing his confidence in God and intimacy with all created things.
The creation was for Celtic Christians a rich source of insight into the devotional life, as well as a resource for bridging through the glory of God in the creation to the glory of God in His majestic albeit unseen presence (Ps. 19:1-4; 16:11) and for celebrating and urging emulation of the greatness of the saints.
In this same vein, creation was for Celtic Christians a rich resource for ornamentation in illuminated manuscripts and carved crosses. On the vellum sheets of The Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells, the creatures of the world interlace and interact with the Word of God. Meanwhile on the carved panels of great stone crosses, relating the stories of the Bible, elements of the created order interlock and surround, thus emphasizing both the sovereignty of God and the role of creation in clarifying and conveying His greatness and bounty. In all Celtic Christian art the cosmos, in all its forms, revolves around and is subject to Christ, its King. All the servants of the King are thereby called to join with the creation in obeying and honoring Him, and in honoring His creation according to His purposes and plans. The lovely and wondrous interweaving of creatures and letters of the alphabet in many illuminated manuscripts serves to heighten this important role of the creation by uniting the Word of God written and the Word of God created in a powerful way that reminds us of our stewardship over all God’s revelation.
Columbanus, the great seventh-century missionary to the continent, summarizes the Celtic Christian view of the high and indispensable place of creation in the life of faith: “Understand the creation, if you wish to know the Creator; if you will not know the former either, be silent concerning the Creator . . .” (Sermon I). The creation is a vast book of revelation—the very speech of the Father (Ps. 19:1-1), and all who will give the time to appreciate it will gain a wealth of insight, perspective, wonder, delight, and confirmation concerning the presence, power, and provision of our sovereign redeeming God.
T. M. Moore is dean of the BreakPoint Centurions Program and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. For a bibliography on the Celtic Christian period—including books on the Celtic Christian view of creation and the arts, write to T. M. at email@example.com. Put “bibliography” in the subject line. Sign up at his website to receive his daily email devotional Crosfigell, or at WilberforceProject.org to receive his daily devotoional, ViewPoint. T. M. and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Hamilton, Va.