Evan McWilliams on God, time, and space
Where is God? Is He to be found among the worshipping community, floating somewhere indistinctly above our heads? Or, perhaps, in another dimension which intersects with our own – but not in such a way that we can see, hear, and touch it? The question of the location of God and thus the relation of the world to His divine presence is not one of the questions the Church’s liturgy self-consciously aspires to answer. Yet it is a question which we cannot help but ask, and it has been brought again to the forefront of our collective discourse as a result of the recent comments by Cardinal Sarah regarding ad orientem (facing liturgical east) and versus populum (facing liturgical west) Eucharistic celebration; and the flood of opinions supporting one perspective or another that have followed.
Some writers have suggested that the liturgy best expresses the truth of God’s immanence when the congregation gathers around the altar, and that to “turn one’s back to the people” is to deny them a share in the priesthood of all the faithful. Others have argued that for priest and people to face east together in hopeful anticipation of the parousia best recognises the transcendence of God; and that centring the liturgical action within the ecclesial gathering is tantamount to philosophical navel-gazing. In both of these reactions to human physicality there is recognition of the fact that how we order our worship influences how we understand God, and how we perceive our relationship to Him.
There is, however, a significant problem with starting from a premise of perception. In focussing on a particular liturgical action the key quality of the liturgy as a unified action, with rite and ceremonial in harmony, is minimised. It is not merely the “how” of celebration, but the “what”. This provides a framework within which to understand God, both transcendent and immanent: God on His throne of glory, and God come down in our midst in the scriptures and the breaking of bread. To put it another way, the prayers of the liturgy order our understanding of the liturgical character of the cosmos just as much as the way in which we pray.
If one were to ask what the cosmos looks like, most of us would probably instinctively default to a vertical, linear image where God is “up there” in heaven at the top, hell is “down there” at the bottom, and the earth is sandwiched somewhere in between. Like the angels on Jacob’s ladder, things go up and down and occasionally intersect. This image is bolstered by a simplistic interpretation of the scriptural language of a throne “on high” and “going down” to the deep. The value of such an image is clear: everything has a place. The universe is set, fixed, and stable. When we perceive the ordered cosmos not to move, we may feel that we can safely pursue our earthly life without fear of being unsettled by God.
It is easy for the debate between ad orientem and versus populum to play into the static image of a vertical linear cosmos. If God is up and slightly in front of us we are justified in facing Him to celebrate the Eucharist. Similarly, if God is just floating in the centre of us we might feel that versus populum celebration better reflects the truth of God’s presence in the midst of His people.
To conceive of God in a spatial relation to us is inevitable; it will be done whether it is intended or not. But to imagine that the entirety of the cosmic order is dependent on the fixed point that is us – the earth, humanity’s frail and temporary home – is a desperately futile thing. And that is precisely what we do when we orientate to the east because God is up and ahead. It is also what we do when we orientate to the centre because God is hovering there in the midst. This does not mean that the direction of Eucharistic celebration is inevitably destructive of meaning no matter the direction, but it does mean that if liturgical direction is chosen on the wrong premise then we have failed to see the true form of the cosmos in which God Himself is the centre, and we but the reflective motes orbiting His undimmed majesty.
Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64) wrote that “God is a circle with its centre everywhere and circumference nowhere.” The Platonists believed that the circle or the sphere was the best shape with which to compare the cosmic order; but Nicholas recognised that God’s being was uncontainable, a “sea without a shore”. The “rolling spheres, ineffably sublime” were a manifestation of the Maker’s perfect intellect; but only by analogy. The divine cannot be contained, and exists both within and without the bounds of creation. As the anonymous author of the Theologica Germanica put it, “He is the substance of all things, and is in himself unchangeable and immoveable, and changeth and moveth all things else.”
Evelyn Underhill, in describing “the ‘Table of Holy Desires’, with its cross and ritual lights stand[ing] on the very frontier of the invisible” captures the discomfort of being caught up in the motion of all creation orbiting the One who sits enthroned at its philosophical centre, the changeless Unmoved Mover. At the angels’ cry of “Holy, Holy, Holy” the veil set between our sight and the death that comes from looking into the face of God is at its thinnest and, as we behold the Word made flesh, we come near to toppling over the precipice into the heart of the cosmos: the throne room of God, which is neither up nor down but “further in”.
The motion of the cosmos, spinning with ordered joyful harmony around the Triune Majesty, is an inverse of Dante’s geocentric universe – where a frozen hell sits at the centre and God dwells in the Empyrean, outside space and time. Still, to a universe in constant orbit around its life-giving Sun, up and down have only relative meaning. In such a context, the movement of the liturgy is merely a reflection of the movement of all things back to the God who made them and set them in their places. The life of the cosmos is a constant pulse of energy from the Creator and back to Him: life and death ebb and flow, and so the Church is restless in her liturgical expression, in a vain attempt to contain the uncontainable at which only prayer can truly grasp.
An earthly Communion with the very Being who made us will ever be imbalanced until we attain to that “house and gate of heaven […] where there shall be no ends nor beginnings but one equal eternity”. Despite this, it is such a vision that the liturgy must attempt to make manifest. In worship rightly understood, the Church orientates herself in spirit towards a God who is the “centre of all circumferences” and attempts to transcend the limitations of fallen humanity. Ad orientem celebration may best capture our efforts to attain to the transcendent vision of God’s ubiquitous, perfect love; but the reason for this correspondence must be clear. If we see God merely as “over there”, or “dwelling among us”, then we have missed the point.
Dr Evan McWilliams is an ordinand at Cranmer Hall, Durham.