This post will consider the contemplation of the God’s presence in creation, as viewed in Scripture, the writings of St. John of the Cross, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It follows both an earlier post titled Art, Detachment and the Beauty of God and my reflections over the past week during a retreat. During that reatreat, Fr. Datius Kanjiramukil, O.C.D., spoke about contemplation and the presence of God, prompting part of this reflection.
Creation and Redemption
Nature, viewed as God’s creation, naturally draws the attention of anyone who contemplates the divine. Metaphors drawn from nature appear throughout the Psalms and elsewhere in Scripture.
The Apostle’s Creed affirms the role of God the Father almighty as “Creator of heaven and earth,” a role that can be seen in the first verse of Genesis, and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (“CCC”) 279. God the Son and the Holy Spirit were also active in creation, so that the mystery of the Trinity is found in it (CCC 290 to 292).
Jesus, the Word of God, was the mediator of creation, as John 1:3 says, “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” Colossians 1:15 call him “the first-born of all creation,” and Colossians 1:16-17 says of Him:
“For in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. He is before all thing, and in him all things hold together.”
The latter phrase, that in Christ all things hold together, suggests a universal presence of Christ as creator in creation in the present. A distinction has to be drawn in that it is only of human beings that Galatians 4:6 says that “because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” However, the omnipresent and omnipotent God is present in creation in a way that differs from His presence in the hearts of believers – a distinction developed in the writings of St. John of the Cross.
Moreover, Christ, the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end (Rev. 1:8, 17, 21:6), is also called the “first-born of the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent” (Col. 1:18). In one of the passages in Revelation in which Jesus is called the Alpha and the Omega, we are told, “The one who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.” (Rev. 21:5-6). There will be a new heaven and a new earth, a new Jerusalem. (Rev. 21:1-2).
Creation “Groans” Awaiting the Redemption
God’s role in creation is such that St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans 8:18-23 envisions all of creation groaning for the glory to be revealed in the redemption when all things will be made new:
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God, for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
The CCC explains this in sections 1046-1047:
“For the cosmos, Revelation affirms the profound common destiny of the material world and man:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God . . . in hope because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay. . . . We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
“The visible universe, then, is itself destined to be transformed, 'so that the world itself, restored to its original state, facing no further obstacles, should be at the service of the just,' sharing their glorification in the risen Jesus Christ.”
Three related Greek words are translated as “groan,” “groans” and “the groaning” in Romans 8:22, 23 and 26. The first two are in the verses that say that the whole creation has been “groaning in travail” (8:22, sustenazo, a verb meaning to groan together) and that we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit “groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons” (8:23, stenazo, meaning to sigh or groan). The third follows at Romans 8:26-27 (stenagmos, a noun meaning a groaning or a sigh), saying that the Spirit helps us in our weakness, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
Although the word in Romans 8:26 is translated by the word “sigh” in the RSV translation used here, it is translated by a word closer to the other two elsewhere. The New American Bible thus translates the three words as “creation is groaning,” “we also groan,” and “the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.”
A footnote in the French TOB translation, édition intégrale (1998), mentions the similarity of these three groanings of creation (8:22), the Christian (8:23), and the Spirit (8:26).
A footnote in the New American Bible mentions this groaning for the "full harvest of the Spirit's presence":
“Paul considers the destiny of the created world to be linked with the future that belongs to the believers. As it shares in the penalty of corruption brought about by sin, so also will it share in the benefits of redemption and future glory that comprise the ultimate liberation of God's people (Romans 8:19-22). After patient endurance in steadfast expectation, the full harvest of the Spirit's presence will be realized. On earth believers enjoy the firstfruits, i.e., the Spirit, as a guarantee of the total liberation of their bodies from the influence of the rebellious old self (Romans 8:23).”
In the groaning of creation, I have wondered whether it is the presence of God in creation – the Holy Spirit – that “groans” in awaiting the new heaven and new earth, just as Colossians 1:17 says that in Christ “all things hold together.” It allows for a less metaphoric understanding without attributing thought or voice to inanimate objects. However, the text of Romans 8:22-26 does not draw so clear a meaning, and I did not find an exegetical source to either affirm or reject that interpretation. St. John of the Cross does not suggest it. Rather, I raise it as a possibility and invite comment if anyone cares to respond.
St. John of the Cross and the Presence of God in Creation
In The Spiritual Canticle, 11:3, St. John of the Cross described three forms of God’s presence:
(1) Presence by essence is God’s presence in all creatures. “With this presence he gives them life and being. Should this essential presence be lacking to them, they would all be annihilated.”
(2) Presence by grace is God’s presence indwelling the faithful who do not fall into mortal sin.
(3) Presence by spiritual affection is God’s presence to devout souls in ways that refresh, delight and gladden them.
God’s “presence by essence” is like that described in Col. 1:17. In Christ, St. Paul wrote, “all things hold together.” St. John of the Cross wrote, if God’s essential presence were lacking to anything or anyone, “they would all be annihilated.”
In The Spiritual Canticle, 5:4, he mentions another portion of Scripture from which he drew, which is John 12:32: “And when I am lifted up, I will draw everyone to myself.” St. John of the Cross translated it “I will elevate all things to myself.”
He also drew that view in part from Pseudo-Augustine, Soliloquiorum animae ad Deum. In The Spiritual Canticle 5:1, he mentions St. Augustine and adds: “God created all things with remarkable ease and brevity, and in them he left some trace of who he is, not only in giving all things being from nothing, but even by endowing them with innumerable graces and qualities, making them beautiful in a wonderful order and unfailing dependence on one another.” All of this, he says, God did through the Word of God who created them. In 5:2, he adds that “creatures are like a trace of God’s passing. Through them one can track down his grandeur, might, wisdom, and other divine attributes.”
The view of God’s presence by grace and by spiritual affection in The Spiritual Canticle likewise has Scriptural sources. Among those that support those concepts are John 14:17 (the Holy Spirit shall be with you and in you); John 15:5 (abide in me); Acts 2:4 (they were filled with the Holy Spirit); Gal. 2:20 (Christ lives in me); Eph. 2:22 (built together for a dwelling place of God); Eph. 4:6 (One God and Father who is above all, through all, and in you all); Phil. 2:13 (God works in you to will and do of his good pleasure); Col. 2:6 (walk in Christ).
Nature Draws Our Eyes to the Beauty of the Creator
Despite his view of God's presence by essence in all created things -- and somewhat because of it -- the use of nature in spiritual devotion was, for St. John of the Cross, always a means to an end, and never the end itself. Its purpose is always to draw people into a deepening relationship with God who is both omnipresent and present in the hearts of believers. The contemplation of nature is meant to draw people toward contemplation of God and His presence by grace in the heart of the contemplative.
He wrote that those places by which God moves the will include sites with “pleasant variations in the arrangement of the land and trees and provide solitary quietude, all of which naturally awakens devotion.” (The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Book III, 42:1). He encouraged prayer either in the quietness of one’s own room or “in the solitary wilderness, and at the best and most quiet time of night” as Jesus prayed in Luke 6:12 (The Ascent, Book III, 44:4). However, he advised people praying in such places to immediately direct their will to God “in forgetfulness of the place itself” (42:1). They should try to be “interiorly with God and forget the place” (42:2).
As in the case of religious art discussed in a previous post, his interest in nature was in its ability to draw our attention to God’s magnificence, and not to the grandeur of nature itself. “Fasten your eyes on Him alone,” he wrote in The Ascent, Book II, 22:5. The beauty of the place served a purpose only if it leads the viewer to contemplate the beauty of the invisible God.
That view is still valid today. In the Concluding Document of its 2006 Plenary Assembly, the Pontifical Council for Culture devoted part of its attention to nature.
Drawing from Wisdom 13:1-5, the Assembly wrote:
"There is an abyss between the ineffable beauty of God and its vestiges in creation, and the sacred author defines the aim of this ascendant dialogue: ‘through the grandeur and beauty of the creatures we may, by analogy, contemplate their Author.’ (v.5) It is a matter of passing through the visible forms of natural things to climb up to their invisible author, the 'Completely Other', who we profess in the Creed: 'I believe in One God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.'"
Among their Pastoral Proposals was that "particular attention to nature helps discover in it the mirror of the beauty of God" by "listening to creation that tells the glory of God" and by listening "to God who speaks to us through his creation and makes himself accessible to reason, according to the teaching of the First Vatican Council (Dei Filius, Ch. 2, can.1)."
I lift up my eyes to the hills,
From whence does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
- Psalm 121:1-2