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The Great Chain Of Being


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Fr. Richard Rohr

Francis called all creatures, no matter how small by the name of brother and sister; because he knew they had the same source as himself. -- Saint Bonaventure's Life of Francis

By this image the Scholastic theologians tried to communicate a linked and coherent world (q.v. The Great Chain of Being, Arthur Lovejoy, [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936]). The essential and unbreakable links in the chain include the Divine Creator, the angelic heavenly, the human, the animal, the world of plants and vegetation, the waters upon the earth and the planet Earth itself with its minerals. In themselves, and in their union together, they proclaim the glory of God (Psalm 104) and the inherent dignity of all things. This image became the basis for calling anything and everything "sacred."

What some now call creation spirituality, deep ecology or holistic Gospel actually found a much earlier voice in the spirituality of the ancient Celts, the Rhineland mystics and most especially St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). Women like Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) communicated it through music, art, poetry and community life itself; scholars like St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) created an entire Summa Theologica based on St. Francis' spiritual seeing: "In the soul's journey to God we must present to ourselves the whole material world as the first mirror through which we may pass over to the Supreme (Artisan)" (The Soul's Journey to God, 1, 9 [emphasis added]). The Dominican Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) said the same: "If humankind could have known God without the world, God would never have created the world."

The "Catholic synthesis" of the early Middle Ages was exactly that -- a synthesis that held together, for us, one coherent world, a positive intellectual vision not defined by "againstness" or enemies but by "the clarity and beauty of form." It was a "cosmic egg" of meaning, a vision of Creator and a multitude of creatures that excluded nothing. The great chain of being was the first holistic metaphor for the new seeing offered us by the Incarnation: Jesus as the living icon of integration, "the coincidence of opposites" who "holds all things in unity" within himself (Colossians 1: 15 20). God is One. I am whole and so is everything else.

Sadly we seldom saw the Catholic synthesis move beyond philosophers' books and mystics' prayers. The rest of us Catholics often remained in a fragmented and dualistic world, usually looking for the contaminating element to punish or the unworthy member to expel. While still daring to worship the cosmic Scapegoat -- Jesus -- we scapegoated the other links in the great chain of being. We have been unwilling to see the Divine Image in those we judge to be inferior or unworthy: sinners, heretics, animals, things growing from earth and earth itself. Once the great chain of being was broken, we were soon unable to see the Divine Image in our own species, except for folks just like us. Then it was only a short time before the Enlightenment and modern secularism denied the whole heavenly sphere unknown in any culture except the recent West -- and finally we doubted the Divinity itself!

As the medievalists predicted, once the chain was broken, and one link not honored, the whole vision collapsed. Either we acknowledge that God is in all things or we have lost the basis for seeing God in anything. Once the choice is ours and not God's, it is merely a world of private preferences and prejudices. The cosmic egg is shattered.

Saint Bonaventure, who is called the second founder of the Franciscan Order, took Francis' intuitive genius and made it into an entire philosophy. "The magnitude of things clearly manifests the wisdom and goodness of the triune God, who by power, presence and essence exists uncircumscribed in all things" (The Soul's Journey to God, 1, 14). "God is within all things but not enclosed; outside all things, but not excluded; above all things, but not aloof; below all things but not debased" (V 8). Bonaventure was the first to speak of God as one "whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere." Therefore the origin, magnitude, multitude, beauty, fullness, activity and order of all created things are the very "footprints" and "fingerprints" (vestigia) of God.

"Whoever, therefore, is not enlightened by such splendor of created things is blind; whoever is not awakened by such outcries is deaf; whoever does not praise God because of all these effects is dumb; whoever does not discover the First Principle from such clear signs is a fool.
Therefore, open your eyes, alert the ears of your spirit, open your lips and apply your heart so that in all creatures you may see, hear, praise, love and worship, glorify and honor your God, lest the whole world rise against you" (1, 15).

It is hard to imagine how different the last 800 years might have been if this truly catholic vision had formed more Christians. But instead, as Bonaventure feared, "The whole world has now risen [in judgment] against" us. Our seeing has been very partial and usually prejudicial, and often not seeing at all. The individual has always decided and discriminated as to where and if God's image would be honored. Sinners, heretics, witches, Muslims, Jews, Indians, native spiritualities, buffalo and elephants, land and water were the losers. And we dared to call ourselves monotheists ("one God" tends to move a people toward one world) or "Christ like."

The Divine Indwelling (The union of the human and the divine in one), subject to our whimsical seeing, seems to dwell nowhere except in temples of our own choosing. We have always had a "pro choice movement," it seems. It did not start with the abortion debate.

Until we weep over these sins and publicly own our complicity in the destruction of God's creation, we are surely doomed to remain blind. If not, we will likely keep looking for "acceptable" scapegoats. We always think the problem is elsewhere, whereas the Gospel keeps the pressure of conversion on me. As far as the soul is concerned, no one else is your problem. You are your problem. "You be converted, and live" says the biblical tradition (Deuteronomy 31:20; Mark 1:15).

Jesus tried desperately to keep us within and connected to the great chain of being by taking away from us the power to scapegoat and project onto enemies and outsiders. We were not to break the chain by hating, eliminating or expelling the other. He commanded us to love the enemy and gave us himself as Cosmic Victim so we would get the point -- and stop creating victims. But we are transformed into Christ slowly.

Our inclination to break the chain -- to decide who is good and who is bad -- seems to be a basic control mechanism in all of us. We actually are a bit worried about the God that Jesus believes in: "Who causes the sun to rise on bad as well as good, who lets the rain fall on the honest and the dishonest alike" (Matthew 5:45). If we dishonor the so called inferior or unworthy members of creation, we finally destroy ourselves, too. Once we stop seeing, we stop seeing. Like nothing else, spiritual transformation is an all or nothing proposition. Like Jesus' robe, it is a "seamless garment." He wore it and then offered it to us.

Saint Paul did for Jesus exactly what Saint Bonaventure did for Francis. He took the life lived and made it into a philosophy/theology. The seamless garment is still intact in his most quoted analogy of the body:

If one part is hurt, all parts are hurt with it, if one part is given special honor, all parts enjoy it ... and it is precisely the parts of the body that seem to be the weakest which are the indispensable ones, and it is the least honorable parts of the body that we must clothe with the greatest care (I Corinthians 12:26, 22).
Paul, the former mass murderer Saul, knew well religion's power to create hate and violence toward other people and other links in the great chain of being. He left no room for scapegoating in his teaching: "There is one God and Creator of all, who is over all, who works through all and is within all" (Ephesians 4:6).

For those given sight by the Gospel, there is only one world -- God's world -- and it is all supernatural! We may no longer divide the world into sacred and profane. There is cosmic symbolism in the tearing of the temple veil from top to bottom at the death of Jesus (Matthew 27:51). In the one world liberated by Christ, our need to divide and discriminate has been denied us and frankly, we don't like it. For some reason, we want to retain the right to decide where God is, who we must honor and whom we may hate. A rather clever guise actually, for
I can remain autonomous and violent while thinking of myself as holy. But, as Jesus reminds us, any branch cut off from the vine is useless (John 15:5). We either go to God linked or it seems we don't go at all. How easy it is to avoid the searing and sacramental mystery: "Listen, Israel, the Lord your God is One" (Deuteronomy 6:4).

Jewish monotheism became the basis for one coherent and cosmic world, where truth is one, and there is no basis for rivalry between the arts, science and religion. If it is true it is true, regardless of its source. It is such truth that will set us free (John 8:32).

In his brilliant contemporary synthesis, A Brief History of Everything, Ken Wilber sounds like a post-modern Thomas Aquinas or Bonaventure. He concludes that "everything is a holon" -- something that is simultaneously
whole within itself and yet also part of something larger. He demonstrates at great length (see Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Shambala, 1995) that everything in the physical, biological, psychic and spiritual universe is a "holon." It really is one connected universe of meaning. And in relation to the arrogance of modernism and the cynicism of post modernism, Wilber only adds that "No epoch is finally privileged. We are all tomorrow's food." Agreeing with the genuinely traditional Catholic, he reminds us that even our moment in time is a holon, a small chain link in something still larger. A "Great Catholic" -- one who embraces the whole Tradition -- would call it the Cosmic Christ, before whom no institution, no moment of time, no attempt at verbalization will be adequate. Virgil's Aeneid ends with Aeneas leaving burning Troy, carrying his father on his shoulders, with his son in one hand and clutching his gods in the other. We all enter the future carrying our only past and with the future and our God in our hands -- or we do not enter the future at all.

Those who continue to look through microscopes and telescopes are surrendering to the mysteries of an infinite, creative spectrum. The chain of being is even longer and bigger than we church folks imagined -- and we had best come to the telescope and microscope with our shoes off and ready to live the emptiness of not knowing. Maybe we are just beginning to see how broad the "communion of saints" might be and whether we really want to believe in it.



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Feb 23, 2012
United Kingdom
Wow! kaurhug

I didn't expect to find this trailing through past threads on SPN - a wonderful, eloquent illustration of the great "Chain of being" from my own religious tradition of Catholicism; indeed from no lesser mind than the great priest Fr Richard Rohr.

Thank you very much for this SPN admin, it was a delightful and deep read! peacesignkaur

I thin this quote from a later Catholic mystic also relates to some of the ideas raised in the article:

"...The more enlarged our minds are when we contemplate nature, the more we discover of that inexhaustible wisdom which is the soul of the universe. Then do we see the Infinite Creator represented in all his works, as in a mirror, to the contemplation of his intelligent offspring...Oh my God! while so many of thy children are unconcious of thy presence in this glorious scene of nature that you present to them, still you are not far from any one of them...You discover yourself everywhere but men do not see you. All nature speaks of you and resounds with your most holy name; but its voice is uttered to defeaned ears - they will not hear. You are near them and within them but they fly from themselves and from you. They would find you, oh thou eternal and holy light, fountain of all pure and unfailing felicity, life of all true existence, if they would see thee within their souls...What do I see in all nature? God! God in everything, and God alone! Who does not see thee, has seen nothing. He is as if he were not, and his whole life is as a dream. Sorrow to the soul, that has not seen thee, that is far from God..."

- Archbishop Francois Fenelon (1651 – 1715), Catholic mystic
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