Thomas Berry on the Cosmic Liturgies of Medieval Christianity

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Thomas Berry:

"Such integral association with the natural world is found also in the Christian world up through the medieval period. From the decline of Rome to the brilliant medieval civilization, the transition was carried out successfully by dedicated religious persons who integrated Christian belief and ritual with the great cosmic liturgy of the natural world. This was the force that created Western civilization from remnants of the Classical Mediterranean world combined with the energy and the traditions of incoming tribal peoples of central Eurasia.

Few civilizations have been so totally integrated with the great cosmic liturgy as was Medieval Europe. This integration we see with total clarity both in the architecture and symbolism of the great cathedrals and in the colorful rituals that were enacted there almost continuously. It is seen especially in the great poem of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), The Divine Comedy. Here the natural world is seen as primordial scripture, a scripture predating the Bible. The opening language of the Bible itself repeats the creative words that brought the natural world into being. Only when there is a natural world can communication pass between the divine and the human. Indeed humans have no conscious interior spiritual world unless it be activated by the outer world of nature. The natural world and the divine, these were mutually explanatory. Thus the great medieval teachers began their writings with observations on how these two scriptures, the natural and the verbal, explain each other. This we find with special clarity in the brief essay of Saint Bonaventure entitled The Mind’s Road to God. So, too, the daily ritual was coordinated with the diurnal cycle of the sun’s rising and setting. Dawn and sunset, the rise and setting of the sun, the passing from night into day and day into night, these were recognized as moments of special presence of the divine and the human to each other. These are the intimate moments of the day when, as individuals or as families, we offer prayers of thanksgiving and petition to that primordial divine source whence all things come. In the evening parents and children are especially intimate with each other. The Christian liturgy, referred to as the “Divine Office” or the “Divine Worship,” was considered the framing context for daily life. The word itself “liturgy” is derived from two words meaning “public work” or “public activity” because such recognition of the divine was considered society’s primary daily activity. The carrying out of this “primary public work” was assigned principally to monks, men who, since early Christianity, had daily ritually chanted the psalms of the Bible and sung sacred hymns, composed later by persons such as Saint Bernard (1090?–1153) and Saint Hildegard (1098–1179). In this context, the term “work” has more affinity to artistic or musical production than to the activities of an ordinary day-laborer.

Besides the daily insertion of the human project into the day–night sequence, there was the even more dramatic seasonal cycle whereby the springtime renewal of life after the winter quiescence was celebrated throughout the society. This festival, known in the Western world principally as the Easter Resurrection festival, was determined in its time of celebration as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. The religious calendar of Christians depended on these dates determined by the position of the sun and the moon in relation to the Earth. The other most solemn Christian festival, known as “Christmas,” was celebrated at the winter solstice, the time when the sun was lowest in the sky. The date celebrated is 25 December because that was considered by the Romans as the solstice moment. This was the time for celebrating the meeting of the divine and the human in the person of Christ.

While such moments of the diurnal and seasonal cycles in the natural world determine the larger context of religious celebration in much of the world, there are other more intimate aspects of personal spiritual life developed in intimate association with nature. In the Western world, for example, we find personalities such as hermits living in uninhabited regions regarded as sacred. In India, their counterparts are forest dwellers or homeless wanderers. In Buddhism there are also monks living in the depths of the natural world."