patterns of nature

The Beauty of the Word


A medieval monk depicts the Lord creating the cosmos while employing a builder’s compass. The Creation is no sudden or random act. God proceeds with intention and purpose, and according to pattern. As a result, the pattern of Creation reflects the pattern of divine rationality. Given how we live at a time in history when ‘feelings’ tend to be privileged, this illuminator’s image may be particularly significant.

As John’s Gospel puts it, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being (John 1:1-3).”

Surely, the monk who painted this image had John’s words in mind, as well as a rich appreciation for their meaning. Though this painting is sometimes referred to as “God the Father Measuring the Universe,” another title given for it, “God the Geometer,” may be more accurate. For the image presents a figure in human form that resembles many depictions of the incarnation of the Word, the second person of the Trinity. And so, the identity of the agent of Creation in this image may be secondary to the action of the agent.

In Sister Wendy’s view, “God created out of his own pure goodness; his only motive was to share what he was.” And so the artist depicts a “majestic and beautiful face… wholly concentrated on making the world as good as it can possibly be.” We see “God himself… supremely ordered, a beautiful God in the artist’s imagination… slowly and carefully fashioning a beautiful world.”

Here, in human form, we see the beauty of the divine being. As the Scripture-shaped Tradition of spiritual Reasoning teaches us, we see this beauty in the face of the one who became the Word made flesh.

Several biblical texts come to mind in relation to this image of the divine architect of the cosmos. In citing them, I want to point to how they illustrate this embodied vision of God’s creative handiwork.

Among these texts is Colossians 1:15-17: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible… all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Or consider Hebrews 1:3: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” Among the things that have come into being through him, and which are sustained by his word, is the nature of our humanity. We embody the same human nature as that in which the Word became flesh. The same pattern of divine rationality that is imprinted upon the form of the cosmos is imprinted upon us. Therefore, the Creator and Redeemer intends that the ‘microcosm’ who each one of us is should reflect the macrocosm of the universe, especially as it was beautifully created by the divine Architect. It is no accident that this painting was made at the same time that the great cathedrals in Europe were being built according to the same vision.

Yet, this is not the ‘full story.’ Though I have been made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-28), like all others I have the strange capacity -even the inclination- to be in rebellion against the One for whom and through whom I was made.  In response, God challenges the proclivities of our fallen human nature. This challenge is memorably expressed in God’s rhetorical question to Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding (Job 38:4).”

Yet, God’s final, and non-rhetorical response to our folly is filled with promise and a restatement of purpose. We find this response at the end of John’s Revelation (21:5-6): “See, I am making all things new… It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” We are among those ‘things’ made new. And God’s redemptive work transforms both space and time.

John Keble expressed this vision in the beautiful words of a poem for Epiphanytide: “When souls of highest birth | Waste their impassioned might on dreams of earth, | He opens Nature’s book, | And on his glorious Gospel bids them look, | Till by such chords as rule the choirs above, | Their lawless cries are tuned to hymns of perfect love.”

The Book of Nature has the same ‘author’ as the Book of Scripture. And the nature I inhabit has the same designer as does the Scripture that helps me know and love him. “The earth is the Lord’s for he made it: Come, let us adore him!”


The image above is sometimes titled “God the Geometer,” from The Bible Moralisee, ca 1220. Some homilies of mine, on which prior several prior blog posts were based, may be accessed by clicking here. The quote by Sister Wendy is from her book, Sister Wendy’s Bible Treasury. The verse from the poem by John Keble is found in The Christian Year.



Beauty and Promise

The Promise II_B


She looks out at us from the painting with a relaxed gaze. Her posture communicates calm assurance. But, look at her eyes! They suggest critical attentiveness. The painting’s composition and its egg tempura method reflect an artistic tradition going back hundreds of years. And yet, the subject matter and choice of imagery are thoroughly modern. Though relatively young, Madeline von Foerster’s portfolio displays significant scope and reflects serious engagement with the history of European painting. Equally evident is her abiding concern for the natural world and our relationship with it. You might just be able to see her careful depiction of two endangered species, the Oregon Silverspot Butterfly on the oak tree, and the American Burying Beetle crawling on its roots.

She observes that, “the first promise inherent in the image is the certainty of death,” an idea that initially may strike us as negative. However, she says, “my painting is meant to present a different concept — that of a collaboration with this part of the life cycle, since death is the opportunity for our atoms to rejoin the soil and become new life forms, as they have done countless times before becoming us.  A long held wish of mine is to be buried under a young oak tree, so that as the tree grew, it would literally acquire my atoms.  For me, this seems a sacred privilege which hints at immortality.” To the artist, then, the oak tree represents “a more significant promise” than that of death.

This painting expresses a worldview in continuity with one we discern in much of Scripture. Except for one significant point. Texts like Genesis 1 and John 1 are permeated by a conscious awareness of the Creator’s continuing presence in Creation. Though Madeline von Foerster does not explicitly claim this same awareness, something not far from it is implicit in her work. As we know, nature mediates grace. In this painting, she does not portray a covenant with death, as some might suppose. She portrays a covenant with life, in the face of death. The painter recognizes the theme of promise as implicit in the patterns of nature. Though she doesn’t credit a higher source for it, she can help us see that source even if it’s not her conscious intent.

Madeline von Foerster recognizes how purpose and meaning are intimately bound up with the waves and particles that make up the universe. She marvels at how bits of our physical embodiment have a deep connection with the stuff of Nature, and her comments echo statements made by scientists. People who identify with the Church’s faith would agree, but want to say more. Those same atoms within us have a destiny that includes but also transcends becoming part of other biological life forms. Within us, these atoms have a vocation to be bound up with the spirit of the living God. The promise at the heart of the universe is both spiritual and material, as Teilhard de Chardin spend much of his life working to show.

Promise is therefore more than something implicit in nature. Promise shapes the Creator’s activity.


Madeline von Foerster, The Promise II, 2012 / (C)Madeline von Foerster (used with permission). The longer quote in the second paragraph is from an email sent by the painter, and the shorter one is quoted in an interview that appeared in

This reflection is adapted from my homily for Lent 2 (click here for a link).