Creation: Week 1
The Great Nest of Being
Wednesday, February 14, 2018
The “Catholic synthesis” of the early Middle Ages had its limitations, but at its best it held together one coherent world. It was a positive intellectual vision that was not defined by opposition or enemies, but by the clarity and beauty of form. Such coherence is visible architecturally in the European cathedrals in Salisbury, Cologne, Orvieto, and Vézelay. This synthesis was a cosmic egg of meaning, a vision of Creator and a multitude of creatures that excluded nothing.
The Great Chain of Being (or The Great Nest of Being, as I prefer to call it, to give an image that doesn’t depend on higher and lower but simply ever greater capacity to include) is a 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. God is whole, and everything in creation—from minerals, stones, plants, animals, people, planets, and angels—can be seen as a holon (a part that mimics, replicates, and somehow includes the whole).
Sadly, the Catholic synthesis seldom moved beyond philosophers’ books and mystics’ prayers and some architecture, art, and music. Most Christians 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 We have been unwilling to see the Divine Image in those we judged to be inferior or unworthy: so-called sinners and heretics, women, LGBTQ individuals, people from other races and ethnicities, the poor, those with disabilities, animals, non-Christians, and the Earth itself.
Once the great chain (each level protected and held by its inherent connection to the previous link) was broken or disbelieved, we were soon unable to see the Divine Image in our own species either, except for those who look and think just like us. We were all on our own! The dominant view—“patriarchy” (usually white, educated, or land-owning men)—formed the mentality of most “developed” cultures. It becomes a contest, of sorts, and the patriarchs (in whatever form) decide who is worthy, who is holy, and who is not. Then the strangely named Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and modern secularism denied the heavenly and divine links altogether—an attitude unknown in human history until recently. The coherence fell utterly apart, and this is the disenchanted world you and I live in today. It is hard to trust our own holiness if we are cut off from the Source.
As the medieval teachers predicted, once the Great Chain of Being is broken or denied, and any one link is not honored and included, the whole cosmic vision collapses. It seems that either we acknowledge that God is in all things or we lose the basis for seeing God in anything, including ourselves.
Adapted from Richard Rohr with John Feister, Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety (Franciscan Media: 2001), 136.