The Face of God
December 2017 | Elizabeth Whitehurst
Recently, I was invited to a friend’s for lunch to meet her new granddaughter. When I arrived, eight-week-old Baby Maya was sound asleep, lying sprawled on Grammy Barb’s chest, heart to heart. Dressed in a pink and white striped top, black pants with flowers of all colors gaily spread across them. White anklets on her little feet.
I gasped, gazing at her beautiful rounded head turned to the side in profile, her tiny ear, her chubby cheek, promising dimples like her grammy’s. I marveled at her nose, her precious lips sucking in her sleep, then fading into a smile, then back again. My mother always said, “the angels are kissing her.”
As I gazed at them, both blissfully peaceful, Baby Maya’s upturned face reminded me of a story John Philip Newell told this fall at the School for Celtic Consciousness at Roslyn. He recalled the moment of seeing his own grandchild’s face for the first time, described the holiness of this experience, sensing he was gazing into the face of God. He brought tears to many of us in the telling.
Treasuring my first look at Maya, cradled so tenderly in her Grammy’s arms, I felt the same presence of mystery. Holiness. The face of God.
John Philip and I were certainly not alone in this perception. He taught us about three spiritual giants who would have heartily agreed that in the face of a newborn baby, we can see the face of God: Pelagius (360-430 CE), St. Brigid of Kildare (451-525 CE) and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). All three attested to the indwelling nature of God (the Spirit, the One, the Unity, the Presence) in all things—humanity included. That God resides there.
Pelagius proclaimed—naming many elements of nature, including human beings—“There is no creature on earth in whom God is absent.” He specifically declared that in the face of a newborn child one encountered the face of God.
St. Brigid is the patron saint of midwives who, legend has it, was the midwife for the Christ child in Bethlehem (even though she was born in 451 CE) and some say was the foster mother of Christ. Her eternal fire symbolized the divine spark within all of human life. Her gift of radical hospitality recognized and honored the face of God in each person, especially the stranger.
In Teilhard de Chardin’s many writings, the heart of all matter was God, and it was good. “Each element of the cosmos,” he wrote, “is positively woven from all the others . . . The universe holds together, and only one way of considering it is really possible, that is, to talk of it as a whole, in one piece.”
Each in his or her own way rejected that deadly dualism, which divided matter from spirit. Dualism pervaded the spiritual and philosophical powers-that-be of their time and continues to play itself out to this day. Their unitive vision of reality was not pantheism, as each was charged with, but panentheism, which literally means all in God. For the Celtic sensibility, all life was infused with the holy. A separation of matter and spirit was a non sequitur. Every action, task, living creature and relationship was surrounded by the energy of spirit and prayer, inside and out.
But this belief was dangerous. Very dangerous. Pelagius was excommunicated and banished. Brigid’s sacred wells, dating back to the ancient Celtic goddess with whom she shared a name, were destroyed. Teilhard de Chardin was forbidden to publish any of his spiritual or theological writings and was forced into exile.
I wonder what was so threatening about seeing holiness and goodness in a newborn’s face? Or seeing God in all things, as the Celts did, and finding inherent goodness in matter versus depravity? It seems like science has slowly caught up with what these mystics through the ages have perceived to be the true nature of reality. Einstein, for one, proved them right. E=MC2. As Teilhard (a scientist by training) observed, “matter is only spirit moving slowly enough to be seen.” We know now that matter is energy and that this moving, vital energy unites, enlivens and inhabits all things. Many find it helpful to think of this energy as a coherent field of love, all matter and being a part of it.
Panentheism, the concept of God or Spirit indwelling, a unitive consciousness versus dualism, winds through the wisdom traditions of all faiths. And throughout history, that wisdom has, again and again, been forced underground, its followers disbanded, persecuted or worse. But Wisdom will have her day. She will not be silenced forever. A groundswell of folks are rediscovering, studying and embracing these teachings in John Philip’s Schools for Celtic Consciousness, in Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation and Living School, in Cynthia Bourgeault’s Wisdom Schools, just to name a few. The vision of Pelagius, Brigid and Teilhard is being reclaimed.
Back to Barb and Maya. That peaceful, serene scene I described, leading me to lofty spiritual thoughts, did not last. Baby Maya woke up! Barb turned her when she fussed, setting her snugly in the crook of her arm, supporting her wobbly head. I cooed. Then Maya stared straight into my eyes, with that deep knowing look of babies and of very old, wise people. Yes—there it was, Barb and Maya—my Monday afternoon icon. As we gazed, it wasn’t far to go to quote Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), another wise one, who said, “The eye with which I see God is the same eye which God Sees me. My eye and God’s are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”
Liz Whitehurst has spent many years writing and teaching and has served on the Chrysalis Board.