The Cosmic Liturgy and the Mind of the Creator

by David Clayton on September 29, 2009

He made the moon also to serve in its season, to mark the times and to be an everlasting sign. From the moon comes the sign for the feast days, a light that wanes when it reaches to the full. The month is named for the moon, increasing marvellously in its phases, an instrument of the host on high shining forth in the firmament of heaven.
–Sir 42/43[1]

Look how the floor of Heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold
There’s not the smallest orb that thou beholdest
But in his motion like an angel sings
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubims
Such harmony is in immortal souls

–Lorenzo in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice

The Cosmic Liturgy

The natural order can be described mathematically. Even before the advent of modern science, the ancients were aware of this, as they observed changes and movements of the constellations in the night sky. Most ancient peoples (Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Greek, Roman, Mayan, Inca, and Aztec) observed these in great detail. They believed that the celestial bodies and the seasonal changes were controlled by mysterious powers or gods. For Christians, a single God controls all, but the stars and the planets are signs of the rhythms of heaven, to which the material world points.

The focal point for the meeting of the material and the spiritual is in the liturgy – the formal worship of the Church. All creation participates in a liturgy of praise to God. The book of Revelation describes the timeless heavenly liturgy; the Mass and Divine Office are a participation in this same liturgy. The physical and the spiritual come together in a single point in the body and blood of Christ, in the Eucharist. Everything else unfolds from this. Liturgy is not something that is confined to the services taking place in a church. Creation, through its being, is seen as giving liturgical praise to God. As Erik Peterson writes:

“The worship of the Church is not the liturgy of a human religious society, connected with a particular temple, but worship which pervades the whole universe and in which sun, moon, and all the stars take part…. The Church is no purely human religious society. The angels and saints in heaven belong to her as well. Seen in this light, the Church’s worship is no merely human occasion. The angels and the entire universe take part in it.”[2]

The Canticle of Daniel,[3] which is chanted in the Divine Office, calls upon all of creation to bless the Lord, including the sun and moon, stars of the heavens, clouds of the sky, showers and rain. How can the conformity of the natural world to the patterns of heaven be interpreted as giving praise to the Lord? This becomes clearer when we consider why God made creation. He made it that through our perception of it, we might come to know Him. Creation is made for us and we have a special place within it. The study of Creation and how we perceive it can provide knowledge of its Creator, and it is for example the basis of much of the work of the ancient Greek philosophers on the subject. This knowledge is completed in the Christian Faith by God revealing the full truth to us himself, in the person of Christ. This revelation provides us with those truths that can never be known by reason alone, such as the Trinity, referred to as the ‘mysteries’. Aside from the mysteries, creation speaks to us of the Creator in a way that is perceived at a deep, intuitive pre-conscious level when we recognise its beauty. When creation speaks to us in this way it ‘gives praise’ to the Lord. It is a praise that we are made to hear. As St Athanasius puts it: ‘Because an impress of Wisdom has been made in us and is found in all the works of creation, it is natural that the true creative Wisdom should apply to itself what belongs to its impress, and say: “The Lord created me in His work.”’[4] It is the underlying order of creation, the ‘impress of Wisdom’ that we recognise as beauty.

As a part of God’s creation, albeit holding a special place, mankind and the angels give praise through their existence too. But they have free will and have the additional capacity to praise God, and to offer him thanksgiving through choice. This capacity is something that marks mankind out from the rest of creation, including other animate beings. In discerning how to harmonize his work of praise and gratitude to God – his liturgical activity – to that of heaven, man takes his cue, as it were, from the cosmos.

Christian cosmology is the study of the patterns and rhythms of the planets and the stars with the intention of ordering our work and praise to the work and praise of heaven, that is, the heavenly liturgy. The liturgical year of the Church is based upon these natural cycles. The date of Easter, for example, is calculated according to the phases of the moon. The purpose of earthly liturgy, and for that matter all Christian prayer, cannot be understood without grasping its harmony with the heavenly dynamic and the cosmos. The earthly liturgy should evoke a sense of the non-sensible aspect of the liturgy through its dignity and beauty. All our activities within it: kneeling, praying, standing, should be in accordance with the heavenly standard; the architecture of the church building, and the art and music used should all point us to what lies beyond it and give us a real sense that we are praising God with all of his creation and with the saints and angels in heaven.  Pope Benedict XVI is sensitive to this dimension of Christian life and his little book The Spirit of the Liturgy seems devoted to awakening us to this. He discussed the importance of orienting church buildings and the Mass to the East, to face the rising sun, the symbol of the Risen One:

“The cosmic symbol of the rising sun expresses the universality of God above all particular places…But…this turning toward the east also signifies that cosmos and saving history belong together. The cosmos is praying with us. It, too, is waiting for redemption. It is precisely this cosmic dimension that is essential to Christian liturgy. It is never performed solely in the self-made world of man. It is always a cosmic liturgy. The theme of creation is embedded in Christian prayer. It loses its grandeur when it forgets this connection.”[5]

But why would we want to have a liturgical life at all? One reason is the desire of believers to worship him well by giving Him our thanks and praise, as an end in itself simply because we love God. Another reason is that if we participate in the liturgy fully, it becomes an ordering principle for the whole of our lives; that is, by participating in an earthly liturgy that is in harmony with heaven, we receive grace that flows through our lives and overflows into the world. The liturgy is a portal that ushers the presence of God into our lives and (through our participation) the lives of others around us.

If we want to increase our collective ability to conform to grace, we should strive to make our liturgy conform to that in heaven. Canon law is the way that we do this. The rubrics of the Mass are gifts from God that can guide us so that we can love him more, and open us, and so the world, to the grace of God. And number is an essential part of this, through the rhythmical repetitions of prayer and words, through posture, and in the production of beautiful music, art, and architecture that is “liturgical” even when it has a secular use.

The patterns observed in the cosmos are described using number. The beauty of number is that once its significance has been discerned, that symbolism can transferred, so to speak, and applied to any aspect of our lives through the ordering time, space, art, music in accordance with it. This is its special mystery. When we apply the liturgical numbers of the cosmos to the rhythms and actions of our lives extending beyond that part lived in the church building, the whole of life becomes infused with a liturgical rhythm. We can imbue all our activities and work with a heavenly grace and beauty if the application of this symbolism is appropriate to that to which it is applied.

In the sixth century AD, St Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine Order, underlined an aspect of “liturgical number” in chapter 16 of his Rule by looking to the Old Testament: “the prophet says: ‘Seven times daily I have sung your praises’ [Psalm 119:164]. We will cleave to this sacred number if we perform our monastic duties at Lauds, Prime, Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline.” Man cannot address his attention to prayer constantly, but must attend to the needs of life. These seven occasions of prayer during the day are seven portals through which grace pours into the daily life and to the degree we cooperate, sanctifies the times between prayer by integrating them with the cosmic rhythm of the liturgy.

The connection with the mind of the Creator

There are three ways in which one can discern significance in number:

  1. Revelation through scripture.
  2. Observation of the natural world.
  3. Consideration of numbers significant in the abstracted world of mathematics.

The second and third are Christian traditions that stem originally from ancient Greece and the philosopher Pythagoras[6]; but are nevertheless consistent with the principles given in scripture.

Pope Benedict XVI discusses the mathematical ordering of time, space and matter in his book the Spirit of the Liturgy. An extended quotation from this work is justified, in order to sum up and extend all that has been said so far.

“Among the Fathers, it was especially St Augustine who tried to connect this characteristic view of the Christian liturgy with the world view of Greco-Roman antiquity. In his early work ‘On Music’ he is still completely dependent on the Pythagorean theory of music. According to Pythagoras the cosmos was constructed mathematically, a great edifice of numbers. Modern physics, beginning with Kepler, Galileo and Newton, has gone back to this vision and, through the mathematical interpretation of the universe, has made possible the technological use of its powers. For the Pythagoreans, this mathematical order of the universe (‘cosmos’ means ‘order’!) was identical with the essence of beauty itself. Beauty comes from meaningful inner order. And for them this beauty was not only optical but also musical. Goethe alludes to this idea when he speaks of the singing contest of the fraternity of the spheres: the mathematical order of the planets and their revolutions contains a secret timbre, which is the primal form of music. The courses of the revolving planets are like melodies, the numerical order is the rhythm, and the concurrence of the individual courses is the harmony. The music made by man must, according to this view, be taken form the inner music and order of the universe, be inserted into the ‘fraternal song’ of the ‘fraternity of the spheres’. The beauty of music depends on its conformity to the rhythmic and harmonic laws of the universe. The more that human music adapts itself to the musical laws of the universe, the more beautiful it will be.

“St Augustine first took up this theory and then deepened it. In the course of history, transplanting it into the worldview of faith was bound to bring with it a twofold personalization. Even the Pythagoreans did not interpret the mathematics of the universe in an entirely abstract way. In the view of the ancients, intelligent actions presupposed an intelligence that caused them. The intelligent, mathematical movements of the heavenly bodies were not explained, therefore, in a purely mechanical way; they could only be understood on the assumption that the heavenly bodies were animated, were themselves ‘intelligent’. For Christians, there was a spontaneous turn at this point from the stellar deities to the choirs of angels that surround God and illumine the universe. Perceiving the ‘music of the cosmos’ thus becomes listening to the song of angels, and the reference to Isaiah chapter 6 (‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ Isaiah 6:1-3) naturally suggests itself.

“But a further step was taken with the help of the Trinitarian faith, faith in the Father, the Logos, and the Pneuma. The mathematics of the universe does not exist by itself, nor, as people now came to see, can it be explained by stellar deities. It has a deeper foundation: the mind of the Creator. It comes from the Logos, in whom, so to speak, the archetypes of the world’s order are contained. The Logos, through the Spirit, fashions the material world according to these archetypes. In virtue of his work in creation, the Logos is, therefore, called the ‘art of God’ (ars = techne!). The Logos himself is the great artist, in whom all works of the art – the beauty of the universe – have their origin. To sing with the universe means, then, to follow the track of the Logos and to come close to him. All true human art is an assimilation to the artist, to Christ, to the mind of the Creator. The idea of the music of the cosmos, of singing with angels, leads back again to the relation of art to logos, but now it is broadened and deepened in the context of the cosmos. Yes, it is the cosmic context that gives art in the liturgy both its measure and its scope. A merely subjective ‘creativity’ is no match for the vast compass of the cosmos and for the message of beauty. When a man conforms to the measure of the universe, his freedom is not diminished but expanded to a new horizon.”[7]

The beauty of the cosmos and the Beauty of God

An artist who seeks to tap into a creativity that draws on the ‘vast compass of the cosmos and for the message of beauty’ could do well to take this last point to heart. It is hard to see how any artist can truly reunite his art with the principle of liturgical number and ultimately all beauty if he is not himself living a life infused with liturgical rhythm. Abbot Suger who built St Denis, the first gothic church, in France in the 12th century, wrote as much when he described the process of the design and creation of the building. He drew on the theology of Dionysius the Areopagite as received through the works of John Scotus Erigena and Maximus the Confessor. As Otto von Simson wrote, Suger believed that ‘the mystical vision of harmony can become an ordering principle for the artist only if it has first taken possession of his soul and become the ordering principle of all its faculties and aspiration…For Suger, as to his master St Augustine, this process is not so much the physical labour as it is the gradual edification of those who take part in the building, the illumination of their souls by the vision of divine harmony that is then reflected the material work of art’[8]. For Catholics, this starts with the Mass and the Divine Office. From that foundation in Christ, we may begin to integrate all the other aspects of life. Underlying this argument is the assumption that the cosmos is beautiful; and the beauty that it possesses points to an even purer beauty, the heavenly beauty and ultimately to Beauty itself, God.

The Church Father who is credited, along with Augustine, with bringing these ideas into Christian thought is a Catholic martyr, canonized as St Severinus Boethius, but usually known simply as Boethius. Pope Benedict XVI made a special point of drawing our attention to Boethius in a general audience in Rome on 12th March 2008. Boethius was born in Rome in about 480. Recognized as a brilliant scholar at an early age, he wrote manuals on arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, the four liberal arts of a traditional education, called collectively the ‘quadrivium’. The manual on arithmetic and part of that on music survive. He used the categories of Greek philosophy to present the Christian faith, seeking a synthesis between the Hellenistic-Roman heritage and the Gospel message. Boethius has been described as the last representative of ancient Roman culture and the first of the Medieval intellectuals. His most famous work is De Consolatione Philosophiae, [The Consolation of Philosophy]. It was written while in prison to help explain his unjust detention at the hands of the Ostrogothic Emporer, Theodoric. In this work he draws extensively, though not exclusively, on the philosophy behind the quadrivium. His insight in applying the lessons of the study of something as abstract as arithmetic to the practical considerations of life – and adversity that, please God, few of us will have to face – can only be marveled at. Boethius was executed on 23 October 524. The date of his martyrdom is commemorated as his feast.

The influence of Boethius’s work lasted well beyond his life. For example, his works are seminal in the rise of the 12th-century schools, especially that of Chartres; Dante, who structured his work according to numerical symbolism, read him[9]; Geoffrey Chaucer translated his work into middle English and thereafter he structured his literary works, for example, Troilus and Creseyde and The Knight’s Tale[10], around the ideas that Boethius had proposed.  More recently, CS Lewis in The Discarded Image listed the Consolation as one of the few volumes that shaped his philosophy of life[11]. It has recently been proposed, and broadly accepted, that a unifying principle of Lewis’s seven chronicles of Narnia is Christian cosmology[12].

The reason for incorporating a Christian cosmology in these works is deeper than a superficial desire to conform to an ancient symbolism that only a few will recognize. The assumption is that human beings are hardwired to pick up information presented in accordance with the pattern of the divine mind. Nature appears beautiful because we recognize in it the thumbprint of the Creator. When the work of man is structured in the same way, we see the mark of inspiration from the Creator and we are drawn to it. This can be at different levels. If the dimensions of the page of a book, and the print within it conform to these proportions, then the eye finds it easier to take the information in. If the dramatic structure of the story being told within it conforms also to this divine model, then the author can decide to place those moments of high drama within the structure in such a way that they will have an even greater impact than the narrative alone would give. Lewis himself refused to explain the structures his stories, although it is known that he employed them, saying that they should work for the story without the reader being aware that they are there.

For both Augustine and Boethius, number and due proportion hold a special key to the order of heaven and ultimately the ‘mind of the Creator’. Mathematics might be described as the science of pattern. As already mentioned, philosophically it is seen as a stepping stone that leads the mind to contemplation of the spiritual because it can be considered as a descriptor of the material world; and can be conceived in the abstract without application to physical quantities in its own ‘world’ of mathematics. Modern science makes use of its power to quantify. The ancients saw this too, but they took it further. They equated sensible beauty (that is beauty as perceived through the senses) with the symmetry, and harmony of relationships in the non-sensible mathematical world. So for the ancients a beautiful harmony in music reflected a harmonious mathematical relationship (derived from the consideration of the relative lengths of string that produced the notes when plucked).

Number reflecting hierarchy in creation

Many modern mathematicians see a beauty in the form of a perfect mathematical solution to a problem regardless of whether or not it has a material application. But the Church Fathers saw in this a hierarchy, consistent with the hierarchy of God’s creation. The more perfect the symmetry or harmony in the relationship, the more beautiful. So this gave rise to special regard to certain numbers and certain mathematical relationships. This was confirmed for them by the fact that the writers of the bible consistently highlight the number of days, the dimensions of buildings, the number of repetitions of acts. As God’s revelation, the bible can be considered an independent and authoritative source of significant numbers. These ‘governing’ numbers could be used to classify and order the observed patterns in the universe. Indeed, the view was taken that the bible could not be interpreted properly without knowledge of the hierarchical nature of number. St Augustine wrote:

‘An unfamiliarity with numbers makes unintelligible many things that are said figuratively and mystically in scripture. An intelligent intellect, if I may put it thus, cannot fail to be intrigued by the meaning of the fact that Moses and Elijah and the Lord himself fasted 40 days. The knotty problem of the figurative significance of this event cannot be solved except by understanding and considering the number, which is four times 10, and signifies the knowledge of all things woven into the temporal order. The courses of the day and the year are based on the number four: the day is divided into the hours of morning, afternoon, evening and night; the year into months of the spring, summer, autumn and winter. While we live in the temporal order, we must fast and abstain from the enjoyment of what is temporal for the sake of eternity in which we desire to live, but it is actually the passage of time by which the lesson of despising the temporal and seeking the eternal is brought home to us. Then the number 10 signifies the knowledge of the Creator and creation: the Trinity is the number of the Creator, while the number seven symbolises the creation because it represents life and the body. The former has three elements (hence the precept that God must be loved with the whole heart, the whole soul, and the whole mind [Matt 22:37] and as for the body, the four elements of which it consists are perfectly obvious [Fire, earth, water, air]. To live soberly according to the significance of number 10 – conveyed to us temporally (hence multiplied by the number four) – and abstain from the pleasures of the world; this is the significance of the 40-day fast. This is enjoined by the law, as represented by Moses; by prophecy, as represented by Elijah; and by the Lord himself, who to symbolize that he enjoyed the testimony of law and the prophets, shone out in the midst of them on the mountain as the three amazed disciples looked on. [Matt 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-6]’[13]

Even though Augustine describes at length the root of the significance of 40 in the 40-day fast, he assumes an acquaintance with the basic ideas of significant number beyond that of most modern readers. The next article on the NLM website will explain in greater detail how the significance of certain numbers is established. The reader might assume that modern science will have undermined the understanding of nature of the Church Fathers. If this were the case we should certainly modify in some way also our reading of the significance of number. However, I am not aware of a situation where this is so once one understands how the Fathers understood what these numbers reveal. Sometimes increased knowledge can lead to an adaptation of what was described without destroying the fundamental idea. Taking just one example: the four ‘elements’ quoted by St Augustine are described also by Aristotle. The modern scientist, when considering the word ‘elements’, would look to the periodic table and see more than four and so, perhaps, reject the significance of four as constituting the material world. But if one takes element to mean fundamental part, then all matter can still be reduced to the four states, as best as the ancients were able to describe them, in Aristotle’s four elements, in the form of solid, liquid, gas and energy.

Numbers govern nature as much as the other way around. This is illustrated by the number six. Six has significance in arithmetic because it is a ‘perfect number’. A perfect number is one that is numerically equal to the sum of its aliquot parts. The aliquots of six are those numbers that can be multiplied by a whole number to give six. So the aliquot parts of six are 1, 2 and 3. Six is perfect because it is the sum of 1, 2 and 3. It has a higher degree of perfection in that it is also the product of 1, 2 and 3. It is both the product and the sum of its aliquot parts. The number six has biblical significance also because the work of creation was carried out in six working days. St Augustine notes the connection between the two and sees the arithmetic principle as the governing principle. In the City of God he says:

‘Six is a number that is perfect in itself, and not because God created the world in six days: rather the contrary is true. God created the world in six days because this number is perfect, and it would remain perfect, even if the work of the six days did not exist.’[14]

The application of this understanding is the ordering of human time into seven-day weeks, with one day of rest, mirroring the work pattern of God in creation.

Beauty and Love

There is an even deeper meaning of that ‘meaningful inner order’ referred to by Pope Benedict XVI. For the Christian it is Love, or God –  the two are the same. The poem in Book 2 of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy is worth quoting. It describes how this ordering principle of harmony of both heaven and earth can be identified with the ordering principle of harmonious human relationships, pure love – ‘Love’ – that is God:

‘Why does the world with steadfast faith
Harmonious changes put in train?
Why do the ever warring seeds
Eternal treaties yet maintain?

Why does the sun in golden car
Inaugurate the rose-red day?
Appoint the moon to rule the night
Once Hesperous[15] has led the way?

And greedy sea confine its waves
Within the boundaries it has set
Forbidding the encroaching lands
Extend the coastline further yet?

The power that contains this chain
Of natures orderings is Love.
Love governs lands and seas alike
Love orders to the heavens above.

Should Love once slacken tight its rein
And cease to order near and far
The mutual love which all things show
Will in a moment turn to war.

With beauteous motions Nature’s parts
In fond compact invigorate
The fabric of the universe
Which else they’d strive to dissipate.

Such love embraces nations too;
In hallowed pacts it them combines
With chaste affections man and wife
In solemn wedlock it entwines.

Love’s laws most trusty comrades bind
How happy is the human race,
If Love by which the heavens are ruled,
To rule men’s minds is set in place!

When we apprehend beauty, it stirs in us that which causes us to love. When they spoke of love, the Fathers were not referring so much to a feeling or emotion (although these are not unconnected), as to the inclination to act on behalf of others before oneself. A true loving relationship is one of mutual self-sacrifice rather than the alignment of self-interest. As well as defining the covenantal relationship with God, it applies to all human interaction, such as the love of a child by a parent, or even the service a public servant might give to the community. Romantic love, as we might term it, can be true love too, if directed towards the good of the other, rather than the possession of the other for pleasure. Human love has no power or meaning if it is not intimately connected with our love for God and, more importantly, His love for us. God’s love for us is already there, constant and unmoving. With us it’s not so much a question of whether or not we love. We all do. It’s more a question of what we love. Do we love what is good, or what is not good; or as St Augustine put it, what is God, or what is not God? When mankind loves, one might describe rightly ordered love as free will in harmony with God’s will.

Moral and Spiritual Beauty Reflects the Same Order

The principle of beauty relates as much to abstract principles of truth as it does to the proportions of a beautiful building. This leads to the idea that a good life is also a beautiful life for its possession of spiritual and moral beauty. The abstract world of arithmetic is seen as a stepping stone for the mind in its contemplation and grasping of morality. The mind that is formed, through a good education, in the symmetry and beauty of number, is more likely to reach instinctively for objective moral truth because it will be attracted by its beauty. St Thomas Aquinas stated that three qualities are required for beauty:

‘In the first place integrity or perfection, since incomplete things, precisely because they are such, are deformed; due proportion and harmony among parts is also required; finally clarity or splendour [claritas].[16]

‘Integrity’ or ‘perfection’ relates the form of something to its intended purpose. One might refer to this as a kind of harmony also – the harmony between what an object is and the original idea, conceived in the creative intellect, of what it ought to be. Since the Fall, the order that pervaded the material universe has been ruptured so that it is no longer perfect. This has created disorder – there is no order outside the divine order. Ugliness appears where there is disorder. Just as disorder is not a thing in itself, but the absence of order; ugliness is not a thing in itself, but a lack of perfection in regard to beauty. In general, however, we would say that although the universe is not perfect, and not as beautiful as when redeemed at the final judgement, it is still good and still beautiful.

Claritas is the means by which the harmony and integrity of the object become graspable, that is knowable, by our intellects. When something is beautiful, it ‘speaks’ to us of its harmonious nature. During this life, beautiful things usually ‘speak’ to us for the most part through interaction with the senses. Claritas is often equated with a literal splendour of bright light, or bright colour. Aquinas himself used this example to illustrate the point and said that we describe things whose colours are clear and brilliant as beautiful. However, something can be beautiful in concept, even if its interaction with the senses is not literally dazzling – we can be attracted to the beauty of an idea of something described in writing, even if written in a dull, moth-eaten book. Also we can perceive a moral beauty in the actions of a good man. Perhaps even a man whom we have not met or seen, but simply have been told about by another. When we are told of the lives of the saints, their action possess harmony with the will God and claritas, a brilliance that communicates itself to us. We grasp through the relating of the story that the abstract principles of morality revealed in their actions relate to the standards of goodness and truth that we know. Quoting St Thomas again:

‘Spiritual beauty consists in the fact that the conduct and the deeds of a person are well proportioned in accordance with the light of reason.’[17]

As mentioned, claritas includes conventional optical light, but can also be equated with the ‘uncreated’ light that is described as shining from the transfigured Christ and in the book of Revelation as illuminating heaven for Saint John in his vision, and for us also, if we reach that heavenly state. All of creation exists for us to know. And each harmonious form that exists has its own divinely orchestrated package of ‘claritas’ that characterises its unique beauty and makes the truth of what it is knowable and communicable to our minds. If we are ever united with God in heaven then we will know all beauty fully.

‘Hence it happens that this universal architecture of the world is an exceedingly great light made up of many parts and many lights to reveal the pure species of intelligible things and to intuit them with the mind’s eye, as divine grace and the help of the reason work together in the heart of the wise believer. When theologians call God the father of Lights they do well, because from him come all things, through which and in which He manifests himself and in the light of His wisdom they are unified and made.’[18]

Spiritual beauty is assumed to posses harmony and due proportion very often perceived intuitively. Virtue, for example, speaks to us of its goodness even if we have never been taught that there are seven cardinal virtues. And due proportion always, in principle relates to a numerical description.

‘Since, therefore, all things are beautiful and to some measure pleasing; and [since] there is no Beauty and pleasure without proportion, and proportion is to be found primarily in numbers; all things must have numerical proportion. Consequently “number is the principal examplar in the mind of the Creator” and as such it is the principal trace that, in things, leads to wisdom. Since this trace is extremely clear to all and is closest to God, it leads us to Him…’[19]

There is a number symbolism running through the Church’s presentation of the spiritual life. We have mentioned some instances already in the ordering of her liturgy, but we have also, for example, seven sacraments, seven deadly sins and seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The seven cardinal virtues can be divided into those revealed by God to St Paul[20] and transmitted through scripture (faith, hope and love) known as the theological virtues and those deduced by reason after observation of the natural world (fortitude, prudence, temperance and justice)[21]. This follows a common division of seven into three and four, where three corresponds to the spiritual or heavenly (and equated with the number of the Trinity) and four corresponds to the earthly (characterised by the four rivers in Genesis taking water to the four corners of the world, just as the four evangelists, through the four gospels, take the good news to the four corners of the world). Catholic artists then manifest these geometrically in the design of their paintings. So Raphael, for example, in his Transfiguration, has the ‘heavenly’ trio of the Christ and the two prophets arranged within a triangle which is the geometric form of three, above the figures of the earthly onlookers whose limbs and shadows trace out the shape of a square the geometric form of four (though less easily discernable). In another example, the octagonal design of his ‘Mond’ crucifixion (right) conveys the significance of the ‘eighth day’ symbolising the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ. One can see the octagon traced out by the heads of the onlookers below and the heads and feet of the two flanking angels. Through this, Raphael communicates spiritual truths, appealing to us at a deep intuitive level with the form that runs through the design of the composition.

Beauty, God’s call that leads us to happiness

For Boethius writing in his Consolation, the desire for happiness is equated exactly with desire for unity with God, when we partake of the divine nature in heaven. The division between heaven and earth is not a chasm between two geographical places that can only be crossed at death; but rather a continuum between two different modes of existence. We can experience the heavenly, divine state here on earth and all of us do to degrees when we are happy. God, he says (reproducing the argument used by other Fathers) is the highest good that can be imagined. He then says that perfect happiness is the highest good that men seek and therefore God is happiness. He then continues:

‘Since men become happy by achieving happiness and happiness itself is divinity, clearly they become happy by attaining divinity. Now just as men become just by acquiring justice, and wise by acquiring wisdom, so by the same argument they must become gods by acquiring divinity. Hence every happy person is God: God is by nature one only, but nothing prevents the greatest possible number from sharing in that divinity[22].

Later he equates this good that we all seek with Love, the source of our life and our final end.

‘Love is that common fount of all
All seek adhesion to that end, the good.
Things cannot otherwise survive
Unless in Love’s renewed embrace, they flow
Back to the source, their fount of Life[23].

This then reveals the reason for our wishing to conform our lives and our work with the underlying harmony of heaven as revealed in the traditional discipline of arithmetic and applied in all aspects of our lives. In doing so we have joy in our lives and create an environment that tends to influence others to accept that joy too.

For all Christians happiness is achieved by the possession of the Good, God. God has already given himself to us. If we wish to accept that gift we strive to follow God’s will. The life of beauty is one infused with and revealing harmonious relationships that reflect the divine order. The beautiful life is a happy life, because we will have Joy. In order to feel that joy we must also believe that we have it. We are, in truth, as happy as we decide to be[24].

I shall give the last words to Pope Benedict XVI, in his address at Bagnoreggio, Italy on September 7th and speaking of St Bonaventure he said:

‘In addition to being a seeker of God, St. Bonaventure was a seraphic singer of creation who, following St. Francis, learned to “praise God in all and through all creatures,” in which “shines the omnipotence, wisdom and goodness of the Creator” (Itinerarium Mentis in Deum The Journey of the Mind to God, I, 10). St. Bonaventure presents a positive vision of the world, gift of God’s love to men: He recognizes in it the reflection of the highest Goodness and Beauty that, following St. Augustine and St. Francis, assures us that it is God himself. God has given it all to us. From him, as original source, flow truth, goodness and beauty. To God, as on the steps of a stairway, one ascends until arriving and almost attaining the highest Good and in him we find our joy and peace. How useful it would be if also today we rediscovered the beauty and value of creation in the light of divine goodness and beauty! In Christ, observed St. Bonaventure, the universe itself can again be the voice that speaks of God and leads us to explore his presence; exhorts us to honour and glorify him in everything (Cf. Ibid. I, 15). Herein we perceive the spirit of St. Francis, with whom our saint shared love for all creatures.’

This article first appeared in Second Spring (Issue Eight) as well as on the New Liturgical Movement.


Endnotes

[1] Taken from the Office of Readings, Thursday, Week 1.
[2] Erik Peterson, The Angels and the Liturgy (Herder & Herder, 1964), pp. 22, 50.
[3] Dan 3:57-88, 56; and Divine Office: Lauds (Morning Prayer) of Sunday Week 1 and all Solemnities, Feasts and Memorias.
[4] St Athanasius, Or 2, 78-79, taken from the Divine Office: Office of Readings, Wk 30, Thursday.
[5] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2000), pp. 70, 76.
[6] By tradition Pythagoras lived around 550BC. His ideas were conveyed largely through the works of Plato, especially the Timeaus; and through those of Aristotle in works now lost but referred to by later writers, such as Boethius.
[7] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2000), pp. 152-4.
[8] Otto von Simson, The Gothic Cathedral (Harper and Row, NY, 1964), p126
[9] Henry Chadwick, Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology and Philosophy; Clarendon Press, 1990, pp223, 252.
[10] Consolation of Philosophy, in introductory notes page xlvii, by PG Walsh: OUP, 1999.
[11] Consolation of Philosophy, in introductory notes page l, by PG Walsh: OUP, 1999.
[12] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of CS Lewis; OUP, 2008
[13] On Christian Teaching, St Augustine, Book 2, XVI 24-25 (Tr Green, OUP, 1997)
[14] St Augustine, City of God, Book XI, Chapter 30 entitled ‘Of the perfection of the number six, which is the first of the numbers which is composed of its aliquot parts’.
[15] Hesperus is the Evening Star and Morning Star, Venus. In Christian cosmology, Venus is the symbol of the Mother of God.
[16] St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I, 39, 8
[17] St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, II-II, 145, 2
[18] John Scotus Erigena (9th century), Commentary on the Celestial Hierarchy [of Dionysius the Pseudo-Aeropogite], 1
[19] St Bonaventure (13th century), Itnerarium mentis in Deum, 11, 7
[20] 1 Cor 13:13
[21] They were described by Plato in his Republic
[22] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, Bk III, Ch 10.
[23] Ibid, Bk 4, Ch6.
[24] For and extended discussion of this point, see Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven But Never Dreamed of Asking, by Peter Kreeft; Ignatius Press, 1990.

Previous post:

Next post: