Praying with Nature in “The Penance of Adam and Eve”

My post about “Why Everyone (and Especially Christians) Should Believe in Fairies” has been opened over 1600 times and climbing. That is a whole lot more than most posts on this little blog. I’ve gotten some critical feedback in a few places where it was shared. However, the pushback has—predictably, I suppose, given my informal format—been rather weak. In a fun turn of events, I’ve also won over several of those responding negatively with just a few brief interactions. People honestly don’t even seem to realize that this is a legitimate topic in either our “sophisticated and knowing” modern lives or in good Christian circles where we believe the Bible. Some folks, evidently feeling nervous or superior, just throw out vague accusations like “that’s some real New Age junk” or “that’s an abuse of the Bible.” Such comments often come in the shortest possible format and with a question mark in the typical social media style of interacting whereby we just cast the vaguest possible aspersion and move on with our social media lives.

On the positive side of the ledger, an even greater number of readers have said that the essay blessed them substantially. Simple comments like “so warmly blessed” gladden my heart in this extraordinarily isolated and lifeless modern world of ours. Sustained faith and enjoyment of anything is really brutally difficult. I’m reminded of some very wise words by a very wise dog:

And so, in an age of unbelief, everyone is an unbeliever to some degree. Belief now requires a decision, and a tacit application of will that never for a moment relents. That’s why the fiercest forms of faith in the modern world are actually just inverted forms of faithlessness—forms of desperation masquerading as faith. Arch-traditionalism, I mean, and of course fundamentalism, which are in fact manifestations of a morbidly impoverished power of belief, a faith wasted away by inanition and hardened by desiccation, and of a frantic attempt to hold onto relics or remains that one mistakes for living possibilities. …Well, the regress is infinite. It’s simply the case now that almost everyone of your race today—in the modern world, I mean—even the most devout and convinced of them, is more profoundly an infidel. Real, guileless faith in the divinity that shows itself in the evident forms of creation has become catastrophically attenuated, like the fading scent of a chipmunk on the porch after two days of rain. And that’s a tragic condition to be in, because the divine dimension is real, and is moreover the deepest truth of your own natures. To be estranged from it is to be shattered within yourselves… to become something less than machines… fragments of machines… a heap of springs and sprockets. [Roland in Moonlight, page 328.]

We must somehow learn to carry the burden together of all being infidels. How do Christians learn to do this when we have contributed as much as any other category of people or school of thought to our current Godless, secular, and utterly lonely world? (And Christianity has most likely contributed very much more, to be honest, but the Christian origins of our post-Christian and post-religious world is probably best left for some other essay.)

At any rate, blogging has its little place, I suppose. One way that we can carry the burden together of our universal faithlessness is by sharing stories and fragments whereby we might find ways to see something again, to live together in ways that allow us to work hard together with the same people and in the same place for many years, to stand in silence together when the world is so beautiful that there is nothing to say. Again, I’m reminded of the wise dog who I’ve grown to love in the past year. He shares this (within a very lengthy philosophical meditation) while sitting on the back porch with his owner and watching the setting sun:

We see one and the same world, you and I, because our spirits are looking not at sensations but at reality, and the physical transaction between the world and our optic apparatus is just the occasion for an act of discovery and unveiling that is, in reality, an event of direct spiritual communion. [Roland in Moonlight, page 157.]

Jesus says that if humans do not praise him, the very stones of the earth will shout out. The morning stars sing over creation. Time and again in the Bible, God describes himself as commanding the elements of nature, not by pushing them or shaping them, but by giving them orders that they obey. Countless psalms speak of the seas lifting up their voice to declare “God is mighty!” and many other truths. (Some phrases here borrowed from the friend who I mention in the next paragraph.) Even tough-minded Bible exegetes like John Calvin will say that “all creatures are animated by angelic motion” because “God exerts and diffuses his energy in a secret manner, so that no creature is content with his own peculiar vigor, but is animated by angels themselves.”

One especially kind and sensitive reader, Justin Coutts, pointed me to another extraordinary example of a Christian bishop who had a deep understanding of praying with creation. Justin is using excerpts of what he shared with me in his forthcoming book Psalter of the Birds, 150 poems arranged into a format that can be read as poetry or chanted in prayer like the psalms. He shared a passage from a very early Irish saint and bishop who wrote about Adam standing in prayer in the Jordan after being banished from the garden:

Then the stream gathered together every living creature that was in its womb, until the whole number of the living creatures were around Adam. All of them prayed, Adam, the stream, and the multitude of animals; mournfully they poured forth their noble lamentation to the perfect host of the nine holy grades.

This passage from “The Penance of Adam and Eve” reminded Justin and me both of the hymn “Adam’s Complaint” by Theophanes the Branded (cited in the first few lines of my fairy essay). While these two passages were written in distantly separated places and in different languages, they clearly share the same Christian understanding of our world. When I read material like this, I am saddened at how out of line we are as Christians today with a large number of our own Christian ancestors. The author named on “The Penance of Adam and Eve,” Saint Óengus of Tallaght (or Aengus the Culdee), was a Christian bishop, a serious-minded reformer, and a writer who labored in the first quarter of the 9th century, dying about 824. (His March 11 feast day should be easy for me to remember as it falls the day before my birthday.)

It was common practice for saints in this bishop’s tradition (and many others) to stand in the ocean or in rivers or in deserts and to join all of creation in prayer. See these images below of Saint Cuthbert (634-687, feasted March 20) praying in the sea. One popular story from his life is that, late at night, after his fellow monks had fallen asleep, he would sometimes sneak out of the monastery and head to the sea, to wade into water up to his neck, raise his arms to the sky, and pray with the rhythm of the waves. One night another monk decided to follow him discreetly. He saw Cuthbert wading deep into that cruelly cold North Sea, praying in his customary fashion. He prayed throughout the night, and at dawn returned to the shore and knelt for more prayer. However, when Cuthbert emerged from the sea, he was not alone. Two otters followed him, breathing on the saint’s feet to warm them and dry them, as well as wrapping themselves around his body to sustain him. The otters stayed with Cuthbert as he finished praying, kneeling before him in the sand. They did not depart until he offered them his blessing. (Story adapted from a few popular versions of the hagiography by Bede.)

“The Penance of Adam and Eve” was recorded in the Saltair na Rann in the 10th century and attributed to Bishop Óengus. It’s a long work in the typical fashion of retelling ancient scriptural stories (often with local stories incorporated into the biblical material, much as J. R. R. Tolkien did for us with The Silmarillion). It portrays an Adam and Eve that is, at one level, very familiar in their “every-day” human needs and also a representation of how all of us are connected together and in a network of life-giving relationships with each other (whereby we are literally each other’s life). Its theology is actually very traditional (even rigorous), and it’s not at all a “touchy-feely” narrative. But I’m not here to analyze this work in full. Here, for those who might enjoy it, is a more extended excerpt just focused on this prayer scene from a rather antiquated-sounding 1912 translation by Eleanor Hull.

Adam was a week yet 
after his expulsion out of Paradise,
weary, without fire, without dwelling,
without drink or food or clothing. 

Because they were impoverished
they went into the midst of the field,
great was the mutual reproach perpetually
between Eve and Adam. 

“…There is no good in our life, O Adam,”
said she, said Eve;
“without clothing, without warm dwelling,
without food, we shall perish of hunger.”

“We had food, we had garments,
as long as we were without sin;
since our fall and our going astray,
we have neither clothing nor good food.”

​“O Husband, make a circuit without fail
by a pleasant path on every hand,
to learn if thou canst get as a feast
of food for us something that we would eat.”

Adam went on a well-marked course
near by, and far away;
he did not find, after all,
any wholesome food but herbs of the ground. 

Herbs of the soil, green their colour,
food of the senseless animals;
they are not tender for us as a meal,
after the pleasant food of Paradise.

[Adam speaks]

“O Eve, let us with sincerity
make lasting penance and repentance,
that we might cleanse away before the King of Justice
something of our sins, of our transgressions.”

“…Let us adore the Lord together in silence,
without any communication;
go thou into the strong river Tigris,
and I will go into the River Jordan.”

“Thirty-three days
thou should’st be in the River Tigris,
myself in Jordan under correction
forty-seven clear days.”

“Take with thee a firm flag of stone,
(place it) under thy sitting, under thy gentle feet,
and I shall take with me another stone
equal to it, resembling it exactly.”

“Dispose the stone in the river,
bathe thyself on it;
thou wilt be chosen as thou hast strength to endure
until the water rises to thy throat.”

“Thy locks spread luxuriantly on every hand,
upon the stream on every side;
be thou silent with grief and special sadness,
thy keen eyes towards the heavenly ones.”

“Lift thy two hands every canonical hour
towards the heavenly Lord of the nine grades;
pray . . . , even at the beginning,
forgiveness for thy transgression.”

​“We are not pure to converse with God,
since (our) transgression, since (our) impurity,
for our false, polluted mouths
are not clean, stainless, bright.”

“Let us beseech the whole of the creatures
formed by God through His pure mysteries,
that they implore with us to the King of Justice
that our transgression be forgiven.”

“Perform in this manner thy good work,
and beseech the true Prince;
until He determine clearly
do not stir thyself, do not move.”

Forty and seven days without woe
was Adam in the River Jordan;
thirty and three days was gentle Eve
in the stream of the River Tigris.

Angels of God each day from heaven
from God to succour Adam,
instructing him, as was permitted,
to the end of nineteen days.

Then Adam sought a mighty boon
upon the River Jordan;
that it would “fast” with him upon dear God,
with its multitude of creatures.

The stream stood still
in its course, in its onward motion;
the kingly stream paused from its flow
that He might give forgiveness to Adam.

Then the stream gathered together
every living creature that was in its womb,
until the whole number of the living creatures
were around Adam.

All of them prayed,
Adam, the stream, and the multitude of animals;
mournfully they poured forth their noble lamentation
to the perfect host of the nine holy grades.

That all the grades, openly,
might beseech their Lord on their behalf
that God should give full forgiveness,
and should not destroy Adam.

The nine grades with their array
prayed to God who controls them
for forgiveness now for Adam
for his peril, for his sin.

God gave to His grades
full pardon for the sin of Adam,
and the habitation of the earth at all times
with heaven, holily noble, all-pure.

And He pardoned after that
their descendants and their peoples,
save him alone who acts unrighteously
and transgresses the will of God unlawfully.

P.S. This kind of material can also help us to better understand passages such as Romans 8:19-22.

2 thoughts on “Praying with Nature in “The Penance of Adam and Eve”

  1. “It portrays an Adam and Eve that is, at one level, very familiar in their “every-day” human needs and also a representation of how all of us are connected together and in a network of life-giving relationships with each other (whereby we are literally each other’s life).”

    Except we aren’t. Your life is nothing but the death and consumption of other life, whether you be the purest carnivore or the most stringent of vegans. Every day, your continued existence is paid for in the lives of the plants and animals you eat, the billions of microorganisms your immune system slaughters in the never-ending battle to repel infection, and the billions more you kill absentmindedly merely in the process of sanitization. Even the lives of plants are merely parasitism on the slow death of a star, drinking in its castoffs as it slowly but inevitably burns through its fuel before meeting its final end.

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    1. I really wouldn’t have anything to add here beyond my invitation to you in my reply just now on our first and longer thread over on my fairy post. However, if you happen to be interested in some material that I love regarding the connectedness of humans (which inevitably includes the connectedness of everything real and good in our cosmic history), here are a three links that you can browse:

      https://copiousflowers.wordpress.com/2021/06/14/humanity-created-after-the-image-fo-god-in-the-beginning-was-nothing-less-than-the-totality-of-all-human-beings-throughout-time-united-in-a-single-body-divinized-joined-to-christ-and-thoroughly-plung/

      https://copiousflowers.wordpress.com/2020/01/17/it-is-precisely-and-solely-this-full-community-of-persons-throughout-time-that-god-has-elected-as-his-image/

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