The Book of Nature and the Book of the Word

One of the interesting currents in the tradition of the Church is the idea of the two Books. And by that I do not mean the Old and New Testaments. The two are the “Book of Nature” and the “Book of the Word” (a dual meaning referring to Christ and to the Holy Scriptures). In the beginning there was only need for the book of nature. As our hymns proclaim:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the firmament proclaims the works of his hands
Day unto day pours forth speech;
night unto night whispers knowledge (Ps 19)

This is why even in the later Christian tradition of the Middle Ages, nature was called the “little word” of God – not simply because God had spoken and the world came into being, but also because nature itself speaks in its own limited, declaring the glory of God.

Through free will, sin entered the created order. Sin makes the nature as “little word’” unintelligible to us and thus requires the Word of revelation – both in the person of Christ and in the Scripture. The great scholastic Doctors of the Church, Aquinas and Bonaventure both wrote that it was the gift of the second book, the Book of the Word, that was given – in part – to help reclaim our ability to read the first book, the Book of Nature.

This general understanding that the “first book” has its role is part of our faith tradition. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church proclaims: “The World Was Created For The Glory Of God” (§293).  It continues: “Scripture and Tradition never cease to teach and celebrate this fundamental truth: ‘The world was made for the glory of God.’ St. Bonaventure explains that God created all things ‘not to increase his glory, but to show it forth and to communicate it,’ for God has no other reason for creating than his love and goodness” (§293).  It is in the realm of love and goodness that the Franciscan heart seeks to understand the created order.

Reading the Book of Nature

Before proceeding, hopefully you have picked up on the implied caveat: in order to read the book of nature, it is assumed you are well grounded and rooted in the Book of the Word, else it is the nature of sin to make the “little word” unintelligible.  Or as a friend of mine often says: any text without a context, is just a pretext for what you wanted to say in the first place.

The “book of nature” was something that St Paul was well aware of:

“For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made.”  (Roman 1:19-20)

St Augustine as well:

Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that? Why, heaven and earth shout to you: “God made me!” (St Augustine, De Civitatis Dei, Book XVI)

The citation from the church tradition are consistent even into the time of the Franciscans. St. Bonaventure even reminds us that a failure to see and love creation with God’s eyes can have disastrous consequences for us:

Therefore any person who is not illuminated by such great splendor in created things is blind. Anyone who is not awakened by such great outcries is blind. Anyone who is not led by such effects to give praise to God is mute… Therefore open your eyes; alert your spiritual dear; unlock your lips, and apply your heart so that in all creatures you may see, hear, praise, love, and adore, magnify, and honor your God lest the entire world rise up against you. (Bonaventure, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, II.15)

For Bonaventure – as well the entire Christian understanding – God is love. God expresses God’s self in love and there are two primary expressions of that love given into creation:  The Word made flesh and the world itself.  Bonaventure writes that the world and everything in it becomes, in creation, a little word. Thus the world is sacramental – the world is sacred.

Bonaventure and Franciscan tradition are also clear that God establishes an order in creation, but God created in such a way that there would be one in creation (the human person) who would freely chose God, and in choosing God, become like God – perfected in love. Thus God created in such a way so as to persuade humans to seek final perfection by teaching, moving and giving them joy and amazement.  In other words, God wrote the “Book of Nature” as humanity’s guide to seek God in love and to find perfection in love: “Be perfect, just as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).  In the Greek it says we are to becometeleios  – a word whose primary meaning is whole, complete and which implies a future dimension as goal or destiny.

St Francis’ love of nature was first rooted in his love of Christ. And it is that love that led him to compose his famous Canticle of the Creatures in which he acknowledges Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire, Sister Mother Earth and even Sister Death – as sharing with Francis his own status as created and honoring them “Praise to you….” for their role in helping humans more fully understand the love God has for us.  But is God concerned only for humans? Is creation simply to serve humanity?

But does the created world have its own teleios, wholeness, completion and a perfection appropriate to its nature? In reflecting on the life of St Francis, Bonaventure sees the Saint understood that the world cries out for perfection but is unable to attain this end on its own.

For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19-23)

Bonaventure wrote that even matter has a drive towards spirit but only one who is matter and spirit can united the material world to God. It is for this reason, Bonaventure states, that the human person stands at the center of creation – not to dominate it but to lead creation to perfection. It is the human person, he writes, that uniquely reflects the Trinity in the threefold structure of matter, spirit and the union of these. The material world is dependent upon the human person to attain its destiny in God. In that way the destiny of the material world is bound up with the human journey to God. But in return it is the material world that helps the human person find God. In Bonaventure’s view, neither humanity nor creation can exist apart from each other and attain true relationship with God. Only in mutual relationship is God’s love fully expressed by us

Questions that Linger

One of the problems with many people is that they want to read only one of the “books.” Some would hold that we only need to read the “book of nature” to discern God, or Mother Earth, or Gaia, etc. Some would hold there are no books. It is a materials world only. We live, we die – that’s it.

In the Christian tradition, we hold that humanity is not able to read the “book of nature” without Christ and Scripture. The challenge then becomes to be grounded in Christ and Scripture first – which is a challenge in itself. And then here’s the question – what is our responsibility toward the “first book?”  In other words, while never ceasing to read the “Book of the Word”, should we, must we read the “Book of Nature?” Or can we just stay in the “second book?”

And in addition, if one holds, as does the tradition of the Church, that created nature has its own teleios (even if we are unsure what that would mean), what is our role in seeing nature attain that end?

The attending questions are many, but here in Lent it seems that  one is especially current. If we are called to know Christ and love God, in both Word and nature – and it only in our mutual relationship with nature in God’s love fully expressed by us – what exactly should be the “spirit” of our relationship with nature?

Francis of Assisi figured it out and the effect was to draw him ever closer and more closely bound to Christ and Christ crucified.  In his life, he seemed to experience points that approached the fullness of God’s love that the human condition can sustain; in Francis’ death he composed the last of the verses of the Canticle of the Creatures and found wholeness, completion and salvation in Christ.

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