What was in the beginning? Depending upon your personal interests, there are numerous ways to explore this question. The astronomer might be interested in exploring the inner workings of the Big Bang, making the discovery of gravitational waves, for example, an exciting doorway, hoping to shed light on the moment when the singularity ceased to be a singularity and expanded into the known universe. For the theologian, their mind may turn to the prologue of the Gospel of John, reflecting on the poetic strophes that affirm, In the beginning was the Word. As many theologians have commented, one of the distinctions between the creation story of Genesis and other creation stories of the same genre is that most mythologies depict creation as acts of violence between warring gods while Genesis presents creation as a “Word Act” of non-violence. In both of these examples, I am fascinated by both the scientist who is listening for insight into the moment of creation and the Christian who listens for the voice of God who first spoke all things into existence and whose fecund Word continues to speak to this day. In both instances, there is a disposition of attentive listening for the first moments of our genesis.
Now, I must be careful not to misrepresent the two events of gravitational waves and the prologue of John as being one and the same. Truth be told, as we understand how scientists listen for gravitational waves and how Christians listen for God, there is a greater dissimilarity than similarity between these two explorations of God’s creation. Despite this dissimilarity, I can’t help but see in their parallel themes a hint of C.S. Lewis who depicts creation as a song in his fictional work, The Magician’s Nephew.
In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it…
Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count. They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale: cold, tingling, silvery voices. The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. They didn’t come out gently one by one, as they do on a summer evening. One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out—single stars, constellations, and planets, brighter and bigger than any in our world. There were no clouds. The new stars and the new voices began at exactly the same time. If you had seen and heard it, as Digory did, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves which were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing….
The earth was of many colours: they were fresh, hot and vivid. They made you feel excited; until you saw the Singer himself, and then you forgot everything else. It was a Lion. Huge, shaggy, and bright, it stood facing the risen sun. Its mouth was wide open in song and it was about three hundred yards away. (C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew. selections from pages 85-88 on the PDF text. If you have the time, click the link and read the entire section. It’s quite beautiful.)
Creation as song is a beautiful image for someone like myself who was first trained to be a musician. However, at a more basic level, we also need to appreciate the fact that we can reflect on such mysteries in the first place. Do we appreciate the fact that we are able to be aware of ourselves, our neighbor, our world, worlds beyond our world, and, lastly, the deepest of all questions, where did all of this come from in the first place? Between the moment of our beginning and our current moment of becoming is the realization that, without our consciousness, none of this exploration would be possible.
Consciousness is a great mystery in and of itself. Our consciousness allows both the astronomer and the theologian to listen for the moments of our beginning. The “celestial music” of gravitational waves is able to be measured when events like collapsing black holes occur. This and other observable phenomena lead to the creation of equations and symbols to make sense of what is observed, developing a language for science that is then handed on to others. For theology, to speak of a creative Word that was in the beginning points to a First Utterance or First Expression that speaks things into existence in a way that cannot be fully expressed in human language, but is still documented as oral Tradition becomes written Tradition. In both instances, scientific and theological, our consciousness emerges as our inner wiring to take what is experienced in creation and express it in a manner that is both understandable to the individual and able to be shared with the broader community for the good of the community.
Consciousness was a central theme of exploration for French Jesuit and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin. In his understanding of “complexification,” Chardin observes that as matter organizes and becomes more complex, it also displays various levels of consciousness. The more complex a thing becomes, the deeper levels of consciousness a thing displays. At the highest levels of complexification, Chardin argues that what is found is matter seeking to become spirit or “spirit-matter.” Though Chardin argues against two, distinct realms of matter and spirit, we can see that self-consciousness explores the material and spiritual aspects of creation in different ways. Science has created a language which expresses what we can call a “natural consciousness,” or the things that can be observed and measured. Religion, too, has a distinctive language which expresses what we can call a “meta-consciousness” or our ability to not only comprehend creation and Creator, but also to share or participate in the very life of the Creator. This distinctive language of religion is found in profound ways through acts of Worship.
In regard to the language of worship, Dr. Catherine Pickstock, Anglican theologian and faculty at the University of Cambridge, presents one of the more fascinating treatments of the “traditional Mass” (the Tridentine Rite) in her work, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. Arguing against the mentality that justified the reform of the traditional Mass from the standpoint of simplifying that which had become overly complex, Pickstock argues that the repetitive nature of the traditional Mass does not present a cumbersome linguistic stumbling block to authentic worship, but provides the worshiper with an experience of “liturgical stammer.” This stammer sees in the repetitive linguistic structure of prayer both a moment of awe in the presence of that which is beyond us, but also creates a constant moment of “beginning again” or re-creation through God’s closeness to us in the Eucharist. Though I am indifferent about the Tridentine Rite on a personal level, I do find Pickstock’s thought as an interesting parallel to Chardin in that “comflexification in liturgy” does not always mean that something needs to be changed or simplified in our act of Worship, but can actually give voice to the complex mystery of how our spirit-matter encounters the spirit-matter of Christ in the Eucharist. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI gave voice to this dynamic of Chardin’s understanding of complexification and the Eucharist in a homily given at Vespers on July 24, 2009.
“Let Your Church offer herself to You as a living and holy sacrifice”. This request, addressed to God, is made also to ourselves. It is a reference to two passages from the Letter to the Romans. We ourselves, with our whole being, must be adoration and sacrifice, and by transforming our world, give it back to God. The role of the priesthood is to consecrate the world so that it may become a living host, a liturgy: so that the liturgy may not be something alongside the reality of the world, but that the world itself shall become a living host, a liturgy. This is also the great vision of Teilhard de Chardin: in the end we shall achieve a true cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host. And let us pray the Lord to help us become priests in this sense, to aid in the transformation of the world, in adoration of God, beginning with ourselves. That our lives may speak of God, that our lives may be a true liturgy, an announcement of God, a door through which the distant God may become the present God, and a true giving of ourselves to God. (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Homily at Vespers, July 24, 2009)
What was in the beginning? As long as the human person is able to contemplate the big questions of life, we will apply our senses to try and gain insight into our origins. What is amazing is that whether it is through the music of gravitational waves or the divine utterances of the Word made flesh, our consciousness points us to not only the things of the tangible world, but also the transcendent. One of the great mysteries of creation is that the song that sung us into existence also put within the human person the ability to participate in the Divine Chorus of the Trinity. At the center of this Hymn of love is the Eucharist, the fruit of the Cosmic Liturgy, which is our source and summit, our food for eternal life, and that which brings about a true change within the recipient to become what we receive. I would encourage you to pray this week to understand your beginning, your becoming, and how God is calling you to participate in Trinitarian love. Together, let us join our voices to the chorus of creation, seeking to understand our place in the universe.
This video is something that I offer simply for your prayerful enjoyment. The song speaks, in contemporary musical language, of creation and recreation through the love of Christ.
The artist is Audrey Assad, a Catholic convert and daughter of a Syrian refugee. We had the privilege of hosting a concert with Audrey this spring at St. Joseph Parish in Menomonie, Wisconsin. I hope you enjoyed it and I pray you have a great week!