The firm conviction of John Main that “Jesus has sent his Spirit to dwell within us, making all of us temples of holiness: God dwelling within us….We know then that we share in the nature of God” was shared by the early Church Fathers and brings out the fact that we are therefore essentially good. How could we not be with God dwelling within us? All the early Church Fathers agreed with Clement of Alexandria that: “The word of God became a man, so that you might learn from a man how to become God.”
But by the middle of the 4th century an opposing view of creation arose: God created everything at a specific point of time out of nothing – the dogma of ‘creatio ex nihilo’. The conclusion drawn was that there was therefore no common ground between God and humanity, but instead an unbridgeable gulf between the two – our ‘image’ was irreparably damaged in the Fall and only God’s grace through Christ could save us. There was nothing we could do ourselves to regain our ‘likeness to God’, so even contemplative prayer was no use. This view made the two strands of Christianity we have been exploring move even further apart and again those who advocated contemplative prayer lost out.
St Augustine (354-430) formulated this position in the dogma of ‘original sin’: men and women are basically sinful and even creation itself is flawed. The grace of God could not restore humanity and creation to their original state of essential goodness. This became the official teaching of the Church. Life basically was seen as a battle with the demons and what was required was a life of penance.
But that negative view of humanity and Creation goes counter to the words in Genesis and to the teaching in the first three centuries – therefore also not in line with Jesus’ teaching. In that first view contemplation of creation – a perfect manifestation of God – was considered to be the first step in the ascent to God. It is also at odds with St Augustine’s own beautiful mystical teaching.
It is interesting to note at this point – given John Main’s Celtic background – that in the Celtic tradition the emphasis remained on the image of God within us, thus on our essential goodness, and the beauty and perfection of Creation. It was both Creation and Scripture that manifested the Divine and led us to God, as Clement of Alexandria said: “Christ divinizes us through His heavenly teaching”. John Main is therefore in line with the early Christian Fathers and the Celtic tradition.
Yet the belief that we are basically sinful remains prevalent throughout the centuries up to our time. This was the reason why John Main so regretted that modern men and women “have lost the support of a common faith in their essential goodness, reasonableness and inner integrity.” Meditation, contemplative prayer, leads us again to the awareness “of the potential of the human spirit rather than the limitations of human life.”
Although we are essentially good we are of course not sinless. Our ego, our God-given survival mode of being, does commit sins. The best way to recover our ‘likeness to God’ is to follow Jesus’ encouragement to leave all things behind, that means leave our wounded ego behind with all its thoughts and unfulfilled needs that create a veil of illusion, hiding our essentially Divine centre. In the silence there is healing. Then “we seek to follow Him in the purity of our heart.”, as John Main explains in Word into Silence. This is not something we do by our own effort. For John Main and the early Christians Christ is our mediator and guide, the bridge between creation and the Creator. In contemplative prayer we join His prayer, taking us home, as there is “only one prayer, the stream of love between the Spirit of the risen Jesus and His Father, in which we are incorporate.”