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The Great Chain of Being

The Cosmic Christ: Week 1

The Great Chain of Being
Wednesday, March 29, 2017

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 (1217-1274) [1]

We must rebuild from the very bottom up, and that means restoring the inherent sacrality of all things—no exceptions. We can no longer leave it to individuals to decide what is sacred and what is not sacred. Most people are excluded when we create small circles of sacredness around church boundaries, holy days, totems, and members of our group. Did it ever strike you that Jesus, a good Jew, did most of his work on the Sabbath to show that Saturday was not really any more holy than Tuesday or Thursday? It was just a good social tradition that kept the group together—which is why we Christians felt completely free to move it to Sunday. But then, darn it, we did the same thing with Sunday!

By the image of the great chain of being, Scholastic theologians tried to communicate a linked and coherent world. The essential and unbreakable seven links in the chain included the Divine Creator, the angelic/heavenly, the human, the animal, the world of plants and vegetation, the waters upon the earth, and the earth itself with its minerals. In themselves and even more in their union together, the links proclaimed the glory of God (Psalm 104) and the inherent dignity of all things. If we eliminated even one link, the whole chain would fall apart—which is exactly what happened. Now many doubt all seven of the links as sacred!

What some now call creation spirituality, deep ecology, or holistic Gospel found a much earlier voice in the spirituality of the ancient Celts, the Rhineland mystics, and most especially Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). Scholars like Bonaventure created an entire world view based on 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].” [2] 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.” [3]

The “Catholic synthesis” of the early Middle Ages saw one coherent world. It was a positive intellectual vision not defined by being against something but by the clarity and beauty of form and the relationship between those forms. God is One. I am whole and so is everything else. How different from the postmodern morass we now live in.

Sadly, we seldom saw the Catholic synthesis move beyond philosophers’ books and mystics’ prayers. The rest of us Catholics remained in a fragmented and dualistic world, usually looking for the contaminating/heretical element to punish or the unworthy member to expel. Once the great chain of being was broken, we were soon unable to see the Divine Image even in our own species, except the few folks who were just like us. Then it was only a short time before the Enlightenment and modern secularism denied the whole heavenly sphere, and finally doubted Divinity itself and “God was dead.” Many now live in such an un-enchanted universe, and the results are not pretty.

Either we acknowledge that God is in all things, or we have lost the basis for seeing God in anything.

Gateway to Silence:
In the beginning . . . and the end.

[1] Bonaventure, The Life of Saint Francis, trans. Ewert Cousins (HarperCollins, 2005), 84.
[2] Bonaventure, Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey to God, I, 9, trans. Ewert Cousins (New York: Paulist Press, 1978) 63.
[3] Meister Eckhart, The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, ed. by Maurice O’Connell Walshe, revised by Bernard McGinn (New York: Crossroad, 2009), 275.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, “The Great Chain of Being,” Radical Grace, Vol 20 No 2 (CAC: 2007); and
Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (Jossey-Bass: 2013), 117.

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