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Great Chain of Being

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Nature: Week 2

Great Chain of Being
Sunday, November 13, 2016

I would like to reclaim an ancient, evolving, and very Franciscan metaphor—the Great Chain of Being—to name the nature of the universe, God, and the self, and to direct our future thinking.

Using this image, medieval theologians tried to communicate a linked and coherent world. The essential and unbreakable links in the chain include the Divine Creator, the angelic heavenly host, the human, the animal, the world of plants and vegetation, and planet Earth itself with its minerals and waters. In themselves and in their union together the links proclaim the glory of God (see Psalm 104) and the inherent dignity of all things. This image became the ontological basis for calling anything and everything sacred. Without it, the idea of “sacred” is subject to the feelings and whims of the individual.

Saint Bonaventure, who is called the second founder of the Franciscan Order, took Francis of Assisi’s intuitive genius and spelled it out into an entire philosophy. He wrote: “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.” [1] 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.” [2] Bonaventure spoke of God as one “whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” [3] Therefore the origin, magnitude, multitude, beauty, fullness, activity, and order of all created things are the very “footprints” and “fingerprints” (vestigia) of God. Now that is quite a lovely and very safe universe to live in. Welcome home!

Bonaventure said further:

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. [4]

It is hard to imagine how different the last seven hundred years might have been if this truly catholic (kata holos, or “according to the whole”) vision had formed more Christians. Instead, our seeing has been partial and usually prejudicial. We have hardly seen at all. The individual decided where and if God’s image would be recognized and honored.

The primary losers according to this labeling system were “sinners,” variously defined: heretics defined by the empowered group; witches, usually defined by males; Muslims and Jews; indigenous peoples and religions; buffalo, whales, and elephants; land, water, and air itself. Finally, the Divine Presence ended up being almost nowhere except in gatherings of our own small group—and even there we had levels of worthiness! No wonder we live in a secular and empty world where hardly anything seems sacred.

How can we call ourselves monotheists if we cannot see that “one God” unites our world? How can we call ourselves Christians if we don’t believe that being “Christ-like” means loving “the least of the brothers and sisters” (Matthew 25:40)?

Once the Great Chain was broken, and even one link withdrawn, the whole catholic/universal vision collapsed. It seems that we either honor God in all things or we soon lose the basis for seeing God in anything.

Gateway to Silence:
Praised be You, my Lord, through all your creatures. —Francis of Assisi

[1] Bonaventure, Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey to God, 1, 14, trans. Ewert Cousins (Paulist Press: 1978), 65.
[2] Ibid., 5, 8, 100ff.
[3] Ibid., 5, 8, 100.
[4] Ibid., 1, 15, 67-68. 

Adapted from Richard Rohr with John Feister, Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety (Franciscan Media: 2001), 135-137.

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