Sacred Cosmology in the Christian Tradition
"We must recognize the failure of all anthropocentric ideologies, which have created in men and women of this century a spiritual void and an existential insecurity, and have led many people to seek salvation in new religious and parareligiou movements, sects, or nearly idolatrous attachments to the material values of this world. Similar are the dangers for the survival of the natural environment. The careless and self-indulgent use of material creation by man, with the help of scientific and technological progress, has already started to cause irreparable destruction to the natural environment. The Orthodox Church, not being able to remain passive in the face of such destruction, invites through us, all the Orthodox, to dedicate the first day of September of each year, the day of the beginning of the ecclesiastical year, to the offering of prayers and supplications for the preservation of God's creation and the adoption of the attitude to nature involved in the Eucharist and ascetic tradition of the Church. " 
"There is a relationship of interdependence, interpenetration, and reciprocity between God, Man, and Creation; and it is the loss by the Christian consciousness of awareness of the full significance of this relationship that is a basic cause of today's ecological crisis. Correspondingly, if the Christian Church is to offer a positive response to the challenge of this crisis, it can only be through reaffirmation of the full significance of this relationship." 
"Abstraction, of course, is what is wrong. The evil of the industrial economy (capitalist or communist) is the abstractness inherent in its procedures – its inability to distinguish one place or person or creature from another.
"On a second level of contemplation, he [the great elder] used to speak of God's Holy Church as a figure and image [ikon] of the entire cosmos, composed of visible and invisible essences, because, like it, it contains unity and diversity... in this way the entire world of beings produced by God in creation is divided into a spiritual world filled with intelligible and incorporeal essences and into this sensible and bodily world which is ingeniously woven together of many forms and natures."
"We have a venerable sacred tradition which asserts that every hierarchy is the complete expression of the sacred elements comprised within it. It is the perfect total of all its sacred constituents. Our own hierarchy is therefore said to embrace every one of its sacred constituents. Talk of 'hierarch' and one is referring to a holy and inspired man, someone who understands all sacred knowledge, someone in whom an entire hierarchy is completely perfected and known." 
In other words, the created order itself -- the universe -- in the Dionysian conception, is a God-given means of fulfillment, salvation and transfiguration for all its constituent parts or members. This is to say that human beings cannot be 'saved' without 'saving' the Creation. In Orthodox Christian terms, without the transfiguration of the cosmos, there is no 'deification' of human beings. Central to this, is the crucial insight that the purpose of the created order is "to enable beings to be as like as possible to God and to be at one with Him." In the understanding of the ancient Church, the universe, far from being either an illusion or a vast mindless material force, is a Divine revelation and a sacred means of salvation, enlightenment and 'at-one-ment'.
St. Maximos the Confessor
1,400 years ago, St. Maximos the Confessor (580-662) brought the 'Logos' paradigm to new heights, creating an unsurpassed synthesis showing that all are representatives of one simple and supreme principle, the Logos Principle which underlies the deep structure of the cosmos.
For Maximos, the perennial integrity paradigm of the cosmos was self-evident. It was the Church as the cosmic 'living symbol'; the house of all horizons and perspectives. The Logos is the eternal, which understands, explains and encompasses all. In the words of St. Paul: "In him, we live and move and have our being"(Acts 17:28)
The essence of this notion, which Maximos termed diakosmesis is this: all we know about humanity and all we know about the universe are reciprocal. This means that how we see the world depends upon how we see ourselves; and, equally, how we see ourselves depends upon how we see the world. The model we have of the universe depends upon our view of ourselves. This means that we live in a participatory universe of incorporeal and corporeal light where the observer and the observed are intertwined and interactive.
This principle is enshrined in Genesis, Chapter One, where we are taught that God made humanity in His own image and likeness as microcosm and mediator. The image-is the perfection of all nature, and our nature as God intended; the likeness is the actual state of our nature; the distance between the image of nature -- the way God made it -- and the likeness of nature -- what we have done with it -- is the source of all disorder and disharmony in the world.
If there is dissonance in this liturgy, it stems from any paradigm of thought or action which enshrines the unnatural disorder and distance between the way things really are according to the Divine creative will; the end to which they are intended (teleology), and what we have made of them and the end to which we actually put them (economy/ecology). There is nothing in the principle of diakosmesis that is superseded by any technological development of the present, including computers and the 'information revolution' that would necessitate an all-out effort to find or declare a new paradigm.
St. Maximos, Liturgising the World
Let us consider the cosmological and ecological functions of liturgy: the act of liturgizing the world. The word liturgy is from the Greek leit-ourgos, which literally means the 'work of the people'. The Byzantine Church of St. Maximos' time recognized liturgy as the topos, or place, of the direct link between human knowing and ethical action, with the wellbeing of the cosmos and the metaphysical transparency of things. The insight that the cosmos itself is a vast liturgy is a revelation of the cosmological dimension to the liturgy of the Church.
This theoria (contemplation), itself the fruit of natural contemplation (or phusiki, in Maximian terminology ), leads St. Maximos the Confessor to interpret the Divine Liturgy of the Byzantine Church as sacred cosmology in action. We can clearly see this conception fully expressed in St. Maximos' commentary on the Divine Liturgy, the Mystagogia. It starts with a section where he presents his image of the universe as a living symbol in which God, the Church, the cosmos, Holy Scripture and humanity are presented as icons -- or reciprocal symbols -- of one another. He then interprets the actions of the rite of the synaxis (or holy communion) in terms, not only of the life of Christ, but more specifically in relation to the goal of Creation, and most of all, in accordance with the ethical, ascetical, contemplative and mystical transformation of the human soul.
The third section is a contemplation that unites the human image, the image of the cosmos, and the Divine image in and through the Primordial Sacrifice of the Logos. Because the human image and the cosmic image are reciprocal in the thought of the Byzantine spiritual master, the inner constitution and condition of the human soul or microcosmos will be seen to have a direct effect on the outer condition and order of the universe or macrocosmos.
Clearly, St. Maximos understands liturgy to be the attainment of authentic being in knowledge and virtue, leading to 'knowledge', or the identity of knower and known in the experience of truth. This in return leads to 'love', or harmony of being and knowing and doing in Man and to peace (hesychia), or fulfillment of the destiny of Man, in which his deification or salvation and the transfiguration of nature are one and the same experience. To St. Maximos the Confessor, authentic liturgy is sacred cosmology in action. The field of the action is the human person as microcosmos, united reciprocally to the macrocosmos, the universe as a whole.
But even the cosmos as a whole is not seen as the spiritually empty universe of astrophysicists and evolutionists, but the universe understood liturgically and reciprocally as a Cosmic Man.  "The whole world, made up of visible and invisible things, is Man, and conversely... Man, made up of body and soul, is a world."
The action of liturgy is twofold: first, the reconstitution of ordinary space and time into liturgical space and time, wherein the valences of eternity are manifest, as Blake's "infinity in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour." Second, the transfiguration of human nature by uniting mind, heart, will, soul and body into wholeness, which results in a person whose faculties are energized and orientated toward truth, goodness and beauty in self, neighbor and Earth. This cannot but result in a person capable of genuinely feeling the wrongness of the ongoing destruction of the environment.
Enlightened and empowered by liturgy, Mankind's true work in the world, such a person is thus capable as well of responding with ethical and practical effectiveness toward making the necessary sacrifice that will lead to healing and harmony in person and cosmos.
Liturgy, in its authentically Orthodox sense, is the transfiguration of nature (not just human nature but all nature) through the living symbolism of the sacramental act, which unites man and woman, this present world and paradise, earth and heaven, the sensible and intelligible dimensions of creation in its totality, and, ultimately, the Creation and the Uncreated.
In the conception of St. Maximos, which is the view of ancient traditional Christianity, the liturgy is the Divinely-ordained work of the people in which the essence of religion and science is fully embedded in the cosmos because the cosmos is fully embedded in God. Through such liturgy, both the universe as macrocosm and the individual human being as microcosm are transformed, transfigured and deified. This transfiguration and deification is the ultimate destiny of both cosmos and man. Liturgy as sacred cosmology in action is able to accomplish this because of its essence; the communication of and communion with the Archetypal Sacrifice; the very foundation of the universe.
The heart of liturgy is sacrifice, and the purpose of sacrifice is to make holy. Liturgy was conceived as the primary work of all people, and the field of this work was not merely the horizon of the individual soul, but the whole world. The Church was embedded in the cosmos, the cosmos in the Church. The Church's mission, through the Holy Spirit, was to bring about the reciprocal transfiguration of the cosmos and itself as the New Creation. The responsibility of people on the Earth was and is to liturgize the world, and by so doing, to heal divisions in an ecology of transfiguring light.
Clearly, restoration of sacred cosmology at the heart of Christian teaching, is the single most powerful step in an effective Christian effort to reverse the desecration of the cosmos in the next millennium.
Vincent Rossi is an Eastern Orthodox theologian and environmentalist, past director of the Religious Education and Environment Centre in London, UK, and the founder of Epiphany Journal, a quarterly on traditional Christian spirituality. He is an Associate of the World Stewardship Institute in Santa Rosa, California.
References and Notes:
(1.) G. K. Chesterton, What's Wrong With The World, Chapter 5, 1910.
(2.) A term coined by Philip Sherrard. See Human Image. World Image (Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 1992), Ch. 7.
(3.) Excerpt from the Message of the Primate of the Orthodox Church Regarding she Church's Position on the Protection of the Natural Environment, Phanar, Sunday of Orthodoxy, 15 March 1992.
(4.) Ibid., p.243
(5.) Roy A. Rappaport. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 349.
(6.) Thomas Aquinas himself quotes Dionysius some 1700 times in his works.
(7.) Cel. Hier. 3,1. (PG 3-164D).
(8.) Eccles. flier. 1,3,(PG 3-373C.
(9.) Phusiki, or "natural contemplation, is a technical term in the Greek ascetic tradition. It means less the enjoyment of the beauties of nature than a rigorous noetic penetration into the "living symbols" that are all natural forms.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Vincent Rossi