"Nature's Living Energy": How is God Present in His Creation?

O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth,
Who art everywhere present and fillest all things,
Treasury of blessing and Giver of life,
Come and abide among us
and in Thy goodness, save our souls.
                     - “usual beginning” of the Greek Christian rites

Nature’s Living Energy

Someone asked me once, “What do people mean that say essential oils are ‘nature’s living energy’?” I avoided a direct answer because I didn’t know what was meant by that. But, recently I was reading, Physica, by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179 A.D.) and her text shed some light on this concept. Hildegard was recently recognized as a 'Doctor of the Church' by Pope Benedict XVI, (which, by the way, has raised a few eyebrows among orthodox Catholics because some of her writings are rather unusual.) 

   My purpose in introducing Hildegard, however, is not to raise controversy but to look at a Christian Theologian, poet, and herb master of the medieval world who has something very interesting to add to our conversation. Some New Agers have tried to claim Hildegard as ‘one of their own’, but Hildegard ought to be interpreted within the context of her own Christian tradition. She is ‘one of our people.’

   Hildegard, like the monks and nuns of her day, were not only prayer warriors and farmers, but scholars and doctors, as well. The medieval monastery always had an herb garden. Monastics were the most highly educated men and women of their time and they would have kept the wisdom of the ages regarding medicine in addition to the other human sciences.

   In Physica, Hildegard discusses the medicinal qualities of various plants, animals, and minerals. 

I found Hildegard’s "Introduction to Plants" wise and practical:

With earth was the human being created. All the elements served mankind and sensing that man was alive, they busied themselves in aiding his life in every way. And man in turn occupied himself with them. The earth gave its vital energy, according to each person’s race, nature, habits, and environment.

   Assuming this is a good translation of Hildegard, from German dialect into Latin into English, let’s look at what Hildegard is saying, because her statements are very interesting for our case study in essential oils. This statement, “the earth gave its vital energy” is similar to the “nature’s living energy” quote earlier . . . but one thing at a time.

   First, she acknowledges the hierarchy of God’s creation and the interdependence of creatures. Our tradition confirms our human experience: We depend upon plants and they depend on us. Without each other we could not exist. We give them carbon dioxide, they give us oxygen. All creatures complete and serve each other according to God’s design.

   Then Hildegard speaks as if the elements have intelligence and free-will which enable the elements to volitionally “busy themselves in aiding [man’s] life in every way.” I have heard aromatherapists make claims that sound similar to this – that essential oils know where the body needs them to go, or that the oils only attack bad bacteria, but leave the good bacteria alone.

   Do Essential Oils Have Intelligence?

   There is a principle in classical philosophy that says, “a thing is received (known) according to the nature of the receiver.” Humans are gifted by God with the capacity to know and understand so much more than the other creatures. Humans can apply calculus to engineering, learn multiple languages, study history, and understand themselves philosophically. {Warning: The next few paragraphs are very philosophical. Feel free to read the bold and skip to the next section.}

   In the example of a pet dog looking at a pond this means the animal knows water as something useful to drink or swim in, but a human, because of his rational nature, can receive the idea of water into the intellect and contemplate water both poetically and scientifically. Just as we looked at the sensitive powers of the soul, it is useful to quickly look at the different ways material beings know according to their nature:

   To better understand how plants ‘know’ we must first look at how lifeless bodies (minerals) communicate. By contrasting the ways that minerals and plants know, as Aquinas understood ‘knowing’, we will better understand the powers and limitations of plants. Water communicates with rocks, for example, as it flows over them and around them - pulled downstream by gravity. This communicating between water and rocks is restricted to immediate physical contact. It is literally what we call superficial communication. A pail receives sand; the stream bed receives water, but no mineral changes substantially in the process of knowing another mineral. If the communication becomes more intimate, as in the union of hydrogen and oxygen, the mineral molecules lose their identity and become something else – in this case, water.

   Plants have a richer nature than lifeless minerals. Plants can take on minerals and light from the elements and make them their own without losing their plant identity. But because trees and plants can’t get up and walk around like the animals, their ‘knowing’ is limited to direct physical contact. Animals, on the other hand, know things in immediate relationship but also at a distance so they are vastly superior to plants and minerals, but they are limited by their senses. They are submerged in a sea of feelings and instincts (i.e. they lack reason to sort through their feelings).

   Only man’s soul is able to transcend the limitations of physical existence and know things as universals. 

   Only man can chose between good or bad, because only he can make that judgement. We will study this in depth in the next section, so let’s get back to Hildegard. What could she be saying?

   Do plants or their oils have intelligence to rationally discern such things on their own?! 
No; it is not in the nature of plants (or plant oil) to be rational. So what does Hildegard mean? She must be referring to God’s intelligent presence in creation.

   Considering Hildegard is an orthodox Christian and a highly educated Doctor of the Church, let’s start by eliminating two things she cannot be saying. She is obviously not a Deist. Deism is the belief that God put all of creation in motion and then disengaged and had no more to do with it, like a clockmaker who engineers his clock with gears and gadgets and then winds it up and lets it run, without interfering. 

   Hildegard is also not a pantheist or even a panentheist. New Agers would like to think she is, but she isn’t. She can’t be a pantheist or a panentheist because those ideas are not compatible with orthodox Christianity. We have already looked at pantheism, but a look at panentheism would be very helpful at this point.

   Panentheism is the belief that the Divine interpenetrates every part of nature – that creation is ‘part of’ God. Literally the Greek means, “all-in-God.” We have demonstrated that the Godhead is distinct from His creation, so this cannot be the answer, either, unless panentheism means something other than the essence of God literally present in creation. So in what way is God present in His creation?

   God’s Energies – Divine Grace
   Basil of Cappadocia (330-379 A.D.), Father of the Church, taught that we experience God in His energies, not His essence. Creation is not wholly separated from God, because creation exists in and from the divine energies. The divine energies are the natural way in which God interacts with his creatures. They are the operations and works of God and, in some sense, they are identifiable with God, but creation is completely distinct from God’s essence. Divine energy is also called ‘grace’ – a more familiar term.

   God’s energies are like sunlight. The sun’s energy is the part of the sun we experience – the part that does the work for us on earth, but the rays of the sun are not the sun itself. The analogy is incomplete, because God is not created light (God can be rightly described as uncreated light). Nevertheless, the sun is often used in Christian tradition as a symbol of God, so it is fitting. God is fully present in His energies, but man only participates in communion with God according to his capacity; like Jesus transfigured on Mt. Tabor who showed His glory to His disciples as far as they were able to bear it.

   We cannot know the depths of divine essence, but we can experience the energies of God. The transcendent nature of God is independent of creation and yet, the Apostle Paul tells us, “Ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature, namely, His eternal power and His deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” (Romans 1:20). Out of love for us, God creates the universe, by His will and from His energies. All of creation is alive to God and God’s graces are present in everything.

   We comprehend the ease by which the devil was able to deceive the ancient pagans into nature worship, mistaking the creature for the Creator. God’s working presence in the flowers, trees, waterfalls, and rocks demand a response from us. All of creation, pulsating with divine energy, demands that we love and worship God and God alone, who is in all and for all and works through all. But God honors our free-will and our imperfect intellect. In our misguided attachments to foolishness and selfishness, we often fail to meet God, even though He is all around us.

   Basil reminds us “He shares His energy in ‘proportion to faith’ (Romans 1:16).” Those who commune with God “enjoy Him to the extent that their nature allows, not to the extent that His power allows.” (Basil, On the Holy Spirit) This means, He is present in creation, sustaining and providing for all things, whether we recognize Him or not, but He is not present in a way that we can capture Him and bottle His power up to use according to our plans and devises. He is beyond our grasp. His energies, rather, invite us to recognize His intelligent design and plan – to give glory, honor, and worship where it is do.

   So we return to Hildegard who says, “The earth gave its vital energy, according to each person’s race, nature, habits, and environment.” What does Hildegard mean?

   God Wills the Interdependence of Creatures

   For essential oil users, Hildegard means that God sustains our life through creation, and particularly plants. We can’t live without food and water – elements of the earth. God, in His wisdom created a variety of foods and herbs so that man and beast might be sustained in their diverse habitats – cold or hot, arid or fertile. This is one of the primary ways God manifests Himself to us daily, by providing for our health and nourishment.

   As Basil demonstrates, God is inaccessible and hidden in His essence but He continually bursts forth from hiding in immanent processions (energies), which communicate Himself to creation and through creation. All of creation falls into a hierarchy according to each member’s degree of participation in the Divine plan.

   God wills the interdependence of creatures: The earth is designed by God to run on His energies, but the building blocks of all visible creation - living and non-living – are the atoms and minerals, the raw material. The plants, according to their created nature, take those minerals and transform them, through the help of the sun and the rain, into food and oxygen that nourish animals and humans. Animals play their part, likewise, according to God’s wisdom; and in all of God’s creatures, man encounters the energies of God - at work for his well-being and his life. So that, even in the simple acts of breathing and eating, we might know that God loves and cares for our every need and desires to be near us.

   So, are essential oils "nature's living energy"? It depends what you mean by that. A positive Christian interpretation would be that, all of creation is alive with the presence of God (Divine energies). Essential oils are a gift from God who intelligently designed the oils to benefit our bodies. (That is where oils get their intelligence.) When we use oils according to God's design and purpose, we receive from His bounty the chemical energy (food/nourishment) necessary for life. The measure we encounter God's grace through food or oil (or any other created thing) is in proportion to our faith.

   Isn’t the truth so much more interesting and liberating than the twisted muddle of misconceived assumptions?! Our Christian duty is to align our views with philosophical truth and Christian revelation. You might have anticipated that reading this post would be an unexciting, backward chore. Maybe you still think that and if you do, I hope I have, at least, begun to demonstrate that the discovery of truth is an adventure. For the faithful Christian the adventure comprises of eternal loving relationship with Jesus, the Lord of all Ages, together with Our Heavenly Father, through the Holy, Life-creating Spirit! 

  We are really just getting started, but before we continue, it is fitting that we pause to worship God, Our Creator, echoing the words Francis of Assisi (1181-1226 A.D.) left us, who exclaimed:

May You be praised, O Lord, in all Your creatures, especially brother sun, by whom You give us light for the day; he is beautiful, radiating great splendor, and offering us a symbol of You, the Most High . . .
May You be praised, my Lord, for sister water, who is very useful and humble, precious and chaste . . .
May You be praised, my Lord, for sister earth, our mother, who bears and feeds us, and produces the variety of fruits and dappled flowers and grasses . . .
Praise and bless my Lord, give thanks and serve Him in all humility.
                                                            – from “Canticle of the Creatures”
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