Through Creation to the Creator

by Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia

Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees.

— Revelation 7:3

The saints embrace the whole world with their love.

— St. Silouan the Athonite

On the Holy Mountain of Athos, the monks sometimes put up beside the forest paths special signposts, offering encouragement or warning to the pilgrim as he passes. One such notice used to give me particular pleasure. Its message was brief and clear: “Love the trees.”

Fr. Amphilochios, the geronta or “elder” on the island of Patmos when I first stayed there, would have been in full agreement. “Do you know,” he said, “that God gave us one more commandment, which is not recorded in Scripture? It is the commandment “love the trees.” Whoever does not love trees, so he believed, does not love God. “When you plant a tree,” he insisted, “you plant hope, you plant peace, you plant love, and you will receive God’s blessing.” An ecologist long before ecology had become fashionable, when hearing confessions of the local farmers he used to assign to them a penance, the task of planting a tree. During the long summer drought, he himself went round the island watering the young trees. His example and influence have transformed Patmos: photographs of the hillside near the Cave of the Apocalypse, taken at the start of the twentieth century, show bare and barren slopes, where today there is a thick and flourishing wood.

Fr. Amphilochios was by no means the first spiritual teacher in the modern Greek tradition to recognize the importance of trees. Two centuries earlier, the Athonite monk St. Kosmas the Aetolian, martyred in 1779, used to plant trees as he traveled around Greece on his missionary journeys, and in one of his “prophecies” he stated, “People will remain poor, because they have no love for trees.” We can see that prophecy fulfilled today in all too many parts of the world. Another saying attributed to him — not in this instance about trees — is equally applicable to the present age: “The time will come when the devil puts himself inside a box and starts shouting; and his horns will stick out from the roof-tiles.” That often comes to my mind as I survey the skyline in London with its serried ranks of television masts.

“Love the trees.” Why should we do so? Is there indeed a connection between love of trees and love of God? How far is it true that a failure to reverence and honor our natural environment — animals, trees, earth, fire, air, and water — is also, in an immediate and soul-destroying way, a failure to reverence and honor the living God?

Let us begin with two visions of a tree.

Have we not known, each of us, certain moments when we have started with sudden amazement at the lines before us on the printed page, words of poetry or prose which, once read, have forever remained luminous in our memory? One such moment happened to me at the age of eighteen as I was reading that magical anthology by Walter de la Mare, Behold, This Dreamer , and came across a passage from the book of Edward Carpenter, Pagan and Christian Creeds . “Has any one of us ever seen a tree?” asks Carpenter; and he answers, “I certainly do not think that I have — except most superficially.” He continues:

That very penetrating observer and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau, tells us that he would often make an appointment to visit a certain tree, miles away — but what he saw when he got there, he does not say. Walt Whitman, also a keen observer … mentions that, in a dream trance he actually once saw “his favorite trees step out and promenade up, down and around, very curiously.” Once the present writer seemed to have a partial vision of a tree. It was a beech, standing somewhat isolated, and still leafless in quite early Spring. Suddenly, I was aware of its skyward-reaching arms and up-turned finger-tips, as if some vivid life (or electricity) was streaming through them far into the spaces of heaven, and of its roots plunged in the earth and drawing the same energies from below. The day was quite still and there was no movement in the branches, but in that moment the tree was no longer a separate or separable organism, but a vast being ramifying far into space, sharing and uniting the life of Earth and Sky, and full of amazement.

Two things above all are noteworthy in Edward Carpenter’s “partial vision.” First, the tree is alive, vibrant with what he calls “energies” or “electricity”; it is “full of most amazing activity.” Second, the tree is cosmic in its dimensions: it is not “a separate or separable organism” but is “vast” and all-embracing in its scope, “ramifying far into space … uniting the life of Earth and Sky.”

Here is a vision of joyful wonder, inspired by an underlying sense of mystery. The tree has become a symbol pointing beyond itself, a sacrament that embodies some deep secret at the heart of the universe. The same sense of wonder and mystery — of the symbolic and sacramental character of the world — is strikingly manifest in Peaks and Llamas , the master-work of that spiritual mountaineer, Marco Pallis.

Yet there are at the same time certain limitations in Carpenter’s tree-vision. The mystery to which the tree points is not spelt out by him in specifically personal terms. He makes no attempt to ascend through the creation to the Creator. There is nothing directly theistic about his vision, no reference to God or to Jesus Christ.

Let us turn to a second tree-vision, which is by contrast explicitly personal and theophanic:

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then He said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your Father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Ex 3:1-6)

Comparing the experience of Moses with that of Carpenter, we observe three things: in the first place, the vision described in Exodus reaches out beyond the realm of the impersonal. The burning bush at Horeb acts as the locus of an interpersonal encounter, of a meeting face-to-face, of a dialogue between two subjects. God calls out to Moses by name, “Moses, Moses!” and Moses responds, “Here I am.”

“Through the creation to the Creator”: in and through the tree he beholds, Moses enters into communion with the living God. Nor is this all. On the interpretation accepted by the Orthodox Church, the personal encounter is to be understood in more specific terms. Moses does not simply meet God, but he meets Christ. All the theophanies in the Old Testament are manifestations, not of God the Father — Whom “no one has ever seen” (John 1:18) — but of the pre-incarnate Christ, God the eternal Logos. Visitors to St. Mark’s in Venice will recall that in the mosaics depicting the story of Genesis 1, the face of God the Creator bears unmistakably the lineaments of Christ. In the same way, when Isaiah sees God enthroned in the temple, “high and lifted up” (Isaiah 6:1), and when Ezekiel sees in the midst of the wheels and of the four living creatures “something that seemed like a human form” (Ezekiel 1:26), it is Christ the Logos Whom they both behold.

In the second place, God does not only appear to Moses but also issues a practical command to him: “Remove the sandals from your feet.” According to Greek Fathers such as St. Gregory of Nyssa, sandals or shoes — being made from the skins of dead animals — are something lifeless, inert, dead and earthly, and so they symbolize the heaviness, weariness, and mortality that assail our human nature as a result of the Fall. “Remove your sandals,” then, may be understood to signify: Strip off from yourself the deadness of familiarity and boredom; free yourself from the lifelessness of the trivial, the mechanical, the repetitive; wake up, open your eyes, cleanse the doors of your perception, look and see!

And what, in the third place, happens to us when in this manner we strip off the dead skins of boredom and triviality? At once we realize the truth of God’s next words to Moses: “The place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Set free from spiritual deadness, awakening from sleep, opening our eyes both outwardly and inwardly, we look upon the world around us in a different way. Everything appears to us, as it did to the infant Traherne, “new and strange … inexpressibly rare, and delightful, and beautiful.” We experience everything as vital and living, and we discover the truth of William Blake’s dictum , “Every thing that lives is Holy.”

So we enter the dimensions of sacred space and sacred time. We discern the great within the small, the extraordinary within the ordinary, “a world in a grain of sand … and eternity in an hour,” to quote Blake once more. This place where I am, this tree, this animal, this person to whom I am speaking, this moment of time through which I am living: each is holy, each is unique and unrepeatable, and each is therefore infinite in value.

Combining Edward Carpenter’s living tree, uniting earth and heaven and the burning bush of Moses, we can see emerging a precise and distinctive conception of the universe. Nature is sacred. The world is a sacrament of the divine presence, a means of communion with God. The environment consists not in dead matter but in living relationship. The entire cosmos is one vast burning bush, permeated by the fire of divine power and glory:

Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; but only he who sees, takes off his shoes, the rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Certainly there is nothing in itself wrong about plucking blackberries. But as we enjoy the fruits of the earth, let us also look beyond our own immediate pleasure, and discern the deeper mystery that surround us on every side.

Essence and Energies, Logos and logoi: Does such an approach lead us to pantheism? Not necessarily. As a Christian in the tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy, I cannot accept any worldview that identifies God with the universe, and for that reason I cannot be a pantheist. But I find no difficulty in endorsing pan entheism — that is to say, the position which affirms, not “God is everything and everything is God,” but “God is in everything and everything is in God.” God, in other words, is both immanent and transcendent; present in all things. He is at the same time above and beyond them all. It is necessary to emphasize simultaneously both halves of the paradox beloved of the poet Charles Williams: “This also is Thou; neither is this Thou.”

Upholding this “panentheistic” standpoint, the great Byzantine theologian St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) safeguarded the otherness-yet-nearness of the Eternal by making a distinction-in-unity between God’s essence and His energies. In His essence, God is infinitely transcendent, radically unknowable, utterly beyond all created being, beyond all understanding and all participation from the human side. But, in His energies, God is inexhaustibly immanent, the core of everything, the heart of its heart, closer to the heart of each thing than is that thing’s very own heart. These divine energies, according to the Palamite teaching, are not an intermediary between God and the world, not a created gift that He bestows upon us, but they are God Himself in action; and each uncreated energy is God in His indivisible totality, not a part of Him but the whole.

By virtue of this essence-energies distinction, Palamas is able to affirm without self-contradiction:

Those who are counted worthy enjoy union with God the cause of all … He remains wholly within Himself and yet dwells wholly within us, making us share not in His nature but in His glory and radiance.

In this way, God is revealed and hidden — revealed in His energies, hidden in His essence:

Somehow He manifests Himself in His totality, and yet he does not manifest Himself; we apprehend Him with our intellect, and yet we do not apprehend Him; we participate in Him, and yet He remains beyond all participation.

Such is the antinomic stance of the true panentheist:

God both is and is not; He is everywhere and nowhere; He has many names and He cannot be named; He is ever-moving and He is immovable; and, in short, He is everything and nothing.

What St. Gregory Palamas seeks to express through the essence-energies distinction, St. Maximus the Confessor indicates by speaking in terms of Logos and logoi , even though the specific concerns of Maximus, and the context in which he is writing, are not altogether identical with those of Palamas. According to Maximus, Christ the Creator-Logos has implanted in each created thing a characteristic logos, a “thought” or “word,” which is the divine presence in that thing, God’s intention for it, the inner essence of that thing, which makes it to be distinctively itself and at the same time draws it towards God. By virtue of these indwelling logoi , each created thing is not just an object but a personal word addressed to us by the Creator. The divine Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Wisdom and the Providence of God, constitutes at once the source and the end of the particular logoi, and in this fashion acts as an all-embracing and unifying cosmic presence.

Anticipating Palamas, Maximus speaks of these logoi, as “energies,” and at the same time he likens them to birds in the branches of a tree:

The Logos of God is like a grain of mustard seed: before cultivation it looks extremely small, but when cultivated in the right way it grows so large that the highest principles (logoi) of both sensible and intelligible creation come like birds to revive themselves in it. For the principles or inner essences (logoi) of all things are embraced by the Logos, but the Logos is not embraced by any thing.

According to the interpretation of Maximus, then, the cosmic tree is Christ the Creator-Logos, while the birds in the branches are the logoi of you and me and all the created things. The Logos embraces all the logoi, but is not Himself embraced or circumscribed by them. Here Maximus seeks — as does Palamas in his use of the essence-energies distinction — to safeguard the double truth of God’s transcendence and His immanence.

Whether we speak, as St. Maximus does, of the indwelling logoi , or prefer to use the Palamite word “energies” — and we can of course choose to employ both terms — our basic meaning and intention remain the same. All nature is theophanic. Each created person and thing is a point of encounter with “the Beyond That is in our midst,” to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s phrase. We are to see God in everything and everything in God. Wherever we are and whatever we are doing, we can ascend through the creation to the Creator.

After listening to our two Eastern witnesses, Maximus and Palamas, let us also hear a Western prophet, St. Hildegard of Bingen, who is equally definite about the “panentheistic” character of the universe. In The Book of Divine Works she affirms, “All living creatures are, so to speak, sparks from the radiation of God’s brilliance, and these sparks emerge from God like the rays of the sun.” Elsewhere in the same treatise she records the remarkable words addressed to her by the Holy Spirit:

I, the highest and fiery power, have kindled every living spark and I have breathed out nothing that can die … I am … the fiery life of the divine essence — I flame above the beauty of the fields; I shine in the waters; in the sun, the moon and the stars, I burn. And by means of the airy wind, I stir everything into quickness with a certain invisible life which sustains all. For the air lives in its green power and its blossoming; the waters flow as if they were alive. Even the sun is alive in its own light … I, the fiery power, lie hidden in these things and they blaze from Me, just as man is continually moved by his breath, and as the fire contains the nimble flame. All these things live in their own essence and are without death, since I am Life … I am the whole of life — life was not torn from stones; it did not bud from branches; nor is it rooted in the generative power of the male. Rather, every living thing is rooted in Me.

The approach adopted by Palamas, Maximus, and Hildegard has two important consequences for our understanding of God’s creative power. First, when we speak of God creating the world, we are to envisage this, not as a single act in the past, but as a continuing presence here and now; and in that sense it is legitimate to speak in terms of continual creation . Second, and closely linked with the first point, we should think of God as creating the world, not as it were from the outside, but from within .

In the first place, when it is said, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1), the word “beginning” is not to be interpreted in a temporal sense. Creation is not a once-for-all event happening in the remote past, an initial act that constitutes a chronological starting point. It is not a past event but a present relationship. We are to think and to speak not in the past but in the present tense; we are to say, not “God made the world, once upon a time, long ago,” but “God is making the world, and you and me in it, here and now, at this moment and always.” “In the beginning” ( en arche ), then, does not signify, “God started it all off, billions of years ago, and since then He has left things to keep going by their own momentum.” It means, on the contrary, that God is at each and every instant the constant and unceasing arche , the source, principle, cause and sustainer of all that exists. It means that, if God did not continue to exert His creative will at every split second of time, the universe would immediately collapse into the void of non-being. Without the active and uninterrupted presence of Christ the Creator-Logos throughout the cosmos, nothing would exist for a single moment.

Secondly, it follows from this that Christ as Creator-Logos is to be envisaged, not as on the outside, but as on the inside of everything. It is a frequent fault of religious writers that they speak of the created universe as if it were an artifact of a Maker Who has, so to speak, produced it from without. God the Creator becomes the celestial Clock-maker Who sets the cosmic process in motion, winding up the clock, but then leaving it to continue ticking on its own. This will not do. It is important to avoid such images as the divine architect, builder or engineer, and to speak rather in terms of indwelling (without thereby excluding the dimension of divine transcendence). Creation is not something upon which God acts from the outside, but something through which he expresses Himself from within. Transcendent, He is also immanent; above and beyond creation, He is also its true inwardness, its “within.”

Double Vision: If we adopt the sacramental understanding of the world implied in our “tale of two trees,” we shall gradually find that our contemplation of nature is marked above all by two qualities: distinctiveness and transparency.

Distinctiveness . If we are to see the world as sacrament, then this signifies that, first of all, we are to discover the distinctive and peculiar flavor of each created thing. We are to perceive and to value each thing in and for itself, viewing that thing in sharp relief, appreciating what in the Zen tradition is called the special “Ah!” of each thing, its “is-ness,” or haeccitas . The point is vividly expressed by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame … each mortal thing does one thing and the same … selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells; crying What I do is me: for that I came.

To see nature as sacred is, in the first instance, to recognize how each thing “selves” and “speaks myself .” We are to perceive each kingfisher, each frog, each human face, each blade of grass in its uniqueness. Each is to be real for us, each is to be immediate. We are to explore the variety and the particularity of creation — what St. Paul calls the “glory” of each thing: “There is one glory of the sun, and another of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory” (I Corinthians 15:41).

Transparency : Having evoked and savored the particular “is-ness” of each thing, we can then take a second step: we can look within and beyond each thing, and discover in and through it the divine presence. After perceiving each kingfisher, each frog, each human face, each blade of grass in its uniqueness, in its full reality and immediacy, we are then to treat each as a means of communion with God, and so to ascend through the creation to the Creator. For it is impossible to make sense of the world unless we also look beyond the world; the world only acquires its true meaning when seen as the reflection of a reality that transcends it.

The first step, then, is to love the world for itself, in terms of its own consistency and integrity. The second step is to allow the world to become pellucid, so that it reveals to us the indwelling Creator-Logos. In this way we acquire Blake’s “double vision”:

For double the vision my Eyes do see, and a double vision is always with me … May God us keep, from Single vision and Newton’s sleep!

It is vital not to attempt the second step without previously embarking upon the first. We need to recognize the solidity of the world before we can discern its transparency; we need to rejoice in the abundant variety of creation before we ascertain how all things find their unity in God. Moreover, the second level, that of theophanic transparency, does not in any way cancel out the first level, that of particularity and distinctiveness. We do not cease to value the “is-ness” of each thing because we also apprehend the divine presence within it. On the contrary, by a strange paradox the more a thing becomes transparent, the more it is seen as uniquely itself. Blake was right to speak precisely of double vision; the “second sight” that God confers upon us does not obliterate but enhances our “first sight.” Created nature is never more beautiful than when it acts as an envoy or icon of the uncreated Beauty.

Never should it be imagined that this ascent through the creation to the Creator is easily accomplished, in a casual and automatic way. If we are to see God in all things and all things in God, this requires persistence, courage, imagination. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Truly You are a God Who hides Himself” (Isaiah 45:15). When we played hide-and-seek as children, did it not sometimes happen that we concealed ourselves in a marvelously secret spot, but then to our disappointment nobody bothered to come and look for us? After waiting for a long time, we came out crestfallen from our hiding place, only to find that the others had all gone home. As the Hasidic master Rabbi Barukh of Mezbizh observes, we disappoint God in exactly the same way. “I hide,” God says in sorrow, “but no one wants to seek Me.”

This, then, is God’s word to us through His creation: Explore!

Bishop Kallistos is assistant bishop of the Diocese of Thyateira and Great Britain as well as Spalding Lecturer of Eastern Orthodox Studies at the University of Oxford and Fellow of Pembroke College. Perhaps his best known book is The Orthodox Church (published under his lay name Timothy Ware); a revised edition was issued by Penguin in 1993. A new edition of The Orthodox Way has been published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. He is a member of the Advisory Board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. His essay, presented in London in 1996, was the third Marco Pallis Memorial Lecture.