One of my favorite parts of going to local bookstores is stumbling upon an unforeseen literary gem. This past week, I had one of those moments as I found a new book that is a collection of retreat notes from Saint John Paul II titled, In God’s Hands: The Spiritual Diaries of Pope Saint John Paul II.
As I paged through the collection of retreat notes, my first thought was, “This will be perfect for someone who wants to understand Saint John Paul II, but has no background in theology!” Unlike Saint John Paul II’s official writings that are heavily influenced by the philosophy of phenomenology and presented in the mystical tone of Saint John of the Cross, these journals contain simpler language that, at times, feels like you are given a glimpse into how Saint John Paul II first worked through his basic ideas in prayer before refining them to be included in his professional writings.
My second thought was, “His vision of the relationship between God and the cosmos sounds a lot like his Theology of the Body.” The Theology of the Body is arguably his most recognizable contribution to theology. One of the core themes is how a married couple make of themselves a complete gift of self to each other through the sex act. The language of “self-gift” is also at the heart of his view of the cosmos, reflecting the self-gift of Trinitarian love in and through creation. In the diary notes from July 4-8, 1975, while on retreat in Bachledowka, Saint John Paul II reflected upon this love driven creation.
Meditation 2: I thank Thee, Father, Creator (Lord) of heaven and earth, that Thou hast hidden these things from the great and reveled them to babes.” – The truth about creation and the truth about God as the Creator is the first step the human mind takes towards God. This first step seems very difficult to many people today due to certain cognitive assumptions that have developed in the modern understanding of the world. This understanding is devoid of transcendence. “The great” in a way become the slaves of such an understanding. In the same reality, ‘babes’ discover being, beauty, goodness, coincidence, creativeness – all that St Thomas so successfully described in an objective way. Man indispensably needs this first step through the visible creation (the world) towards the invisible Creator (compare Wisdom, Romans).
The discovery of the Creator is not only the belief in the First Cause, which is Esse Subsistens [Being Itself]. It is also – and first and foremost – the discovery of love. To create means not only to reveal power, omnipotence that surpasses all, but also it means: to give being, existence and goodness, therefore – to love! (In God’s Hands. p. 99)
This meditation is impactful on many levels. First of all, I deeply appreciate his observation that God is not merely a stoic First Cause, but a dynamic God who has passion and love for creation. Further, this language of love impressed upon me that creation was not merely “made,” like putting together a structure from a two-dimensional blue print, but creation was something “given” from the very heart of Trinitarian love. Of course, all analogies limp, affirming that there is a greater dissimilarity than similarity when comparing the love of husband and wife with the love shared within the Trinity. Nevertheless, Saint John Paul II presents to us a cosmology of not only brilliant mathematics, but of divine desire and passion that is reflected through the cosmos, reaching its highpoint in love.
The next main insight from this meditation is how Saint John Paul II speaks of awareness of the visible creation as the “first step” we must take toward the invisible Creator. This language of discovering beauty and transcendence in the created world speaks to awe and wonder, intimately connected with the gift of the Holy Spirit known as Fear of the Lord. Unfortunately, we live in a time where the disposition of the modern world is to look no further than the “visible creation.” The presumption of nothing existing beyond the material locks one’s self into a world of limitations.
What is needed in our modern times is a new language of transcendence to set the materialist heart free to explore the limitless transcendence of God’s love. To borrow from my reflections on Maximus the Confessor, this new language of transcendence needs to lift the human heart out of the monochromatic, mechanistic view of creation and color our understanding of the world with the vibrant contrast of creation that not only displays mechanistic brilliants and elegance, but also displays love, passion, beauty, meaning, and purpose. In the diaries of Saint John Paul II, this view of a vibrant creation is found through the language of creation as “gift.”
The essence of the mystery of creation does not consist only in creation out of nothing. It is present more fully in givenness: Existence is a gift – it becomes a gift in creation. And it reaches man as a gift. In him the act of creation signifies such dynamism of givenness on the part of the Creator that cannot be exhausted in existence, life or even spiritual likeness. Through all this and beside all this, God gives Himself to man in such a way that is possible only in friendship. The dynamism of creation leads to grace. At the same time, friendship attains the features of a covenant: There cannot be any friendship without certain expectations. Nevertheless, the created man remains in the fullness of the dynamism of givenness and enters the communion (communio) with God-man (Adam-Eve), and the communion entails a gift and mutual givenness. Sin – the breaking of the covenant – destroys this order. Concupiscence is in a way a renunciation of the gift.
The structure of creation as free givenness (out of nothing) and the dynamism which follows from this allow us to introduce an evolutionary theme (creation is immanently directed toward fullness) into our considerations of the mystery. (In God’s Hands, p. 101)
Again, these brief reflects are loaded with impactful imagery that moves the reader. When Saint John Paul II speaks of creation as a self-gift from God rooted in friendship, calling humanity to reciprocate that relationship through our pursuit of friendship with God, what we find is a relational vision of God and the world that is rooted in passion and love, not a passive observer of the world’s calamities. It is God’s self-gift to us that wires the human person to make ourselves a self-gift to one another and God.
This dynamic, relational view of God and the world naturally leads us to Saint John Paul II’s understanding of creation from nothing, ex nihilo, as an act of “free givenness.” This is a far cry from the traditional, philosophical understand of creation from nothing, summarized in the phrase, “There was nothing, now there’s something.” However, if we combine the classic language of creation from nothing with Saint John Paul II’s language of free givenness, we begin to see how from nothing came the gift of freely given love. When I think of nothingness leading to a given reality of love, I can’t help but be reminded of the witness of the widow’s mite in Sacred Scripture.
He (Jesus) sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” (Mark 12:41-44)
When viewing her simple act of giving what she had from her poverty, it is clearly a metaphor not only about monetary donations, but how we are to see in her a pattern of giving every part of our life to God. The more I think about it, the more I feel the widow’s mite becomes a beautiful metaphor for the self-gift of God through creation from nothing – From the widow’s nothingness is given a complete gift of self out of love of God just as the God of nothingness gives creation as an act of Divine, self-giving love.
When allowing these images to roll around in my prayer, I am reminded of a lecture given years ago by Francis Cardinal George at Mundelein Seminary. He was on the Bishop’s Committee that was retranslating the Rite of the Installation of a Bishop. At one point of the installation, the Bishop is asked to “take” his crosier, or shepherd’s staff. The Latin word used in this request to “take” is accipite. Cardinal George explained that accipite in this context is more properly translated as “receive.” The difference between “take” and “receive” was clear to us, with “take” communicating more of a possessive voice while “receive” implied a humbler disposition of reception of the office of Bishop as gift.
Since accipite is also the first Latin word used in the words of institution at Mass, “Take this, all of you, and eat of it,” a faculty member asked Cardinal George if a similar switch from “take” to “receive” was ahead for the Eucharist. Cardinal George stated this would not be the case, choosing to keep the language of “take.” Nevertheless, on a personal level, I found my relationship with the Eucharist begin to change as I approached this Sacrament as an invitation to “receive” his body instead of “taking” his body. This reception spoke more clearly of the relational dimension of the Eucharist in contrast with a possessive stance of “taking” the Eucharist for myself.
I share this because seeing creation as “free givenness,” in the words of Saint John Paul II, speaks to me of a creation we receive and foster a relationship with. A creation that is simply “made” communicates more of an image of creation that is a collection of things to be “taken” or left alone. Receiving creation, similar to receiving Christ’s body, communicates a deeper level of creation in which I find myself as part of a web of essential relationships that both impact me on a personal level, but also point to a responsibility I have to be aware of and care for these relationships in a life that is profoundly outward focused. This outward focused life is the cornerstone of what Scripture means when it calls Christians to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perfect, in this sense, is not understood as never doing anything wrong, but fulfilling what God has called us to be.
For man is called to fulfillment through participation in God, who is love. God – Trinity is the self-contained fullness, above all fulfillment of the world and the human heart. At the same time, this fullness outlines the horizon of fulfillment for all creation in the human being. At the end of his life, men will be judged by the ways in which he served the fulfillment of the world, whose transcendent end is God as fullness. This fulfillment find its realization in the partaking of God, which will lead to God being all in everything. The foundation of this fulfillment is not personal transcendence, but grace, which ingrains the participation in God’s life, which is fullness, in this transcendence. (In God’s hands. p. 104)
One of the dangers of exploring a theological vision through the diary of a great thinker is that the diary is incomplete. The very next line in Saint John Paul II’s diary is: Many themes are still to be developed here. Therefore, we must be reminded that these are not finished thoughts, but the beginning seeds of a prayer driven vision of God and creation. Nevertheless, as I have been searching for a new language that can affirm both faith and science through the vision of a creation of vibrant contrast, the language of creation as “givenness” helps deepen my understanding of creation.
How do you view the cosmos? Do you see the heavens as merely bodies moving through a seemingly endless void? Do you see the created world as being infused with God’s goodness and love? And do you see in yourself a type of cosmos that is dynamic and alive with God’s love? Pray with these questions this week and, together, may we come to know God through creation, being in contact with and stewards of God’s self-gift of love.