Papist Orthodoxy

October 13, 2009

Sacred Places: The Significance of the Church Building

Filed under: Sacred & Liturgical Arts — Tags: , — Antiochian-Thomist @ 9:00 pm

By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, currently reigning as His Holiness, Benedict XVI, the Pope of the Catholic Church.

From the Institute for Sacred Architecture.

Even the staunchest opponents of sacred things, of sacred space in this case, accept the Christian community needs a place to meet, and on that basis they define the purpose of a church building in a non-sacral, strictly functional sense. Church buildings, they say, make it possible for people to get together for the liturgy. This is without question an essential function of church buildings and distinguishes them from the classical form of the temple in most religions. In the Old Covenant, the high priest performed the rite of atonement in the Holy of Holies. None but he was allowed to enter, and even he could do so only once a year. Similarly, the temples of all the other religions are usually not meeting places for worshippers, but cultic spaces reserved to the deity. The Christian church soon acquired the name domus ecclesiae (the house of the Church, the assembly of the People of God), and then, as an abbreviation the word ecclesia (“assembly,” “church”) came to be used, not just of the living community but also of the building that housed it. This development is accompanied by another idea: Christ himself offers worship as he stands before the Father. He becomes his members’ worship as they come together with him and around him. This essential difference between the Christian place of worship and the temples of other religions must not, of course, be exaggerated into a false opposition. We must not suggest a break in the inner continuity of mankind’s religious history, a continuity that, for all the differences, the Old and New Testaments never abolish. In his eighteenth catechesis (23-25), St. Cyril of Jerusalem makes an interesting point about the word convocatio (synagoge-ekklesia, the assembly of the people called together and made his own by God). He rightly points out that in the Pentateuch, when the word first makes its appearance with the appointment of Aaron, it is ordered towards worship. Cyril shows that this applies to all the later passages in the Torah, and, even in the transition to the New Testament, this ordering is not forgotten. The calling together, the assembly, has a purpose, and that purpose is worship. The call comes from worship and leads back to worship. It is worship that unites the people called together and gives their being together its meaning and worth: they are united in that “peace” which the world cannot give. This also becomes clear in relation to that great Old and New Testament archetype of the ekklesia, the community on Sinai. They come together to hear God’s Word and to seal everything with sacrifice. That is how a “covenant” is established between God and man.

But instead of continuing with these theoretical considerations, let us look more closely at the process by which church buildings took concrete form. Using the research of E.L. Sukenik, Louis Bouyer has shown how the Christian house of God comes into being in continuity with the synagogue and thus acquires a specifically Christian newness, without any dramatic break, through communion with Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord. This close connection with the synagogue, with its architectural structure and liturgical form, does not in any way contradict what we said about the Christian liturgy not just continuing the synagogue but also incorporating the Temple. For the Jews saw the synagogue in relation to the Temple. The synagogue was never just a place for instruction, a kind of religious classroom, as Bouyer puts it. No, its orientation was always towards the presence of God. Now, for the Jews, this presence of God was (and is) indissolubly connected with the Temple. Consequently, the synagogue was characterized by two focal points. The first is the “seat of Moses,” of which the Lord speaks in the Gospel (cf. Mt 23:2). The rabbi does not speak from his own resources. He is not a professor, analyzing and reflecting on the Word of God in an intellectual way. No, he makes present the Word that God addressed and addresses to Israel. God speaks through Moses today. What the seat of Moses stands for is this: Sinai is not just a thing of the past. It is not mere human speech that is happening here. God is speaking.

The seat of Moses, then, does not stand for itself and by itself, nor is it simply turned towards the people. No, the rabbi looks—as does everyone else in the synagogue—toward the Ark of the Covenant, or rather the shrine of Torah, which represents the lost Ark. Up to the Exile, the Ark of the Covenant, was the only “object” allowed inside the Holy of Holies. That is what gave the Holy of Holies its special dignity. The Ark was seen as an empty throne, upon which the Shekinah—the cloud of God’s presence—came down. The cherubim—representing as it were, the elements of the world—served as “assistants at the throne.” They were not self-subsistent deities, but an expression of the created powers that worship the only God. God is addressed as “thou who art enthroned between the cherubim.” The heavens cannot contain him, but he has chosen the Ark as the “footstool” of his presence. In this sense, the Ark embodies something like the real presence of God among his own. At the same time it is an impressive sign of the absence of images from the liturgy of the Old Testament, which maintains God in his sovereignty and holds out to him, so to speak, only the footstool of his throne. During the Exile, the Ark of the Covenant was lost, and from then on the Holy of Holies was empty. That is what Pompeius found when he strode through the Temple and pulled back the curtain. He entered the Holy of Holies full of curiosity and there, in the very emptiness of the place, discovered what is special about biblical religion. The empty Holy of Holies had now become an act of expectation, of hope, that God himself would someday restore his throne.

The synagogue, in its shrine of the Torah, contains a kind of Ark of the Covenant, which means it is the place of a kind of “real presence.” Here are kept the scrolls of the Torah, the living Word of God, through which he sits on his throne in Israel among his own people. The shrine is surrounded, therefore, with signs of reverence befitting the mysterious presence of God. It is protected by a curtain, before which burn the seven lights of the menorah, the seven-branch candlestick. Now the furnishing of the synagogue with an “Ark of the Covenant” does not in any way signify the local community has become, so to speak, independent, self-sufficient. No, it is the place where the local community reaches out beyond itself to the Temple, to the commonality of the one People of God as defined by the one God. The Torah is in all places one and the same. And so the Ark points beyond itself, to the one place of its presence that God chose for himself—the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. This Holy of Holies, as Bouyer puts it, remained the “ultimate focus of the synagogal worship” (p. 15). “Thus have all the synagogues, at the time of the Lord and since that time, have been oriented” (p. 15). The rabbi and the people gaze at the “Ark of the Covenant,” and in so doing, they orient themselves toward Jerusalem, turn themselves toward the Holy of Holies in the Temple as the place of God’s presence for his people. This remained the case even after the destruction of the Temple. The empty Holy of Holies had already been an expression of hope, and so, too, now is the destroyed Temple, which waits for the return of the Shekinah, for its restoration by the Messiah when he comes.

The orientation towards the Temple, and thus the connection of the synagogue’s liturgy of the Word with the sacrificial liturgy of the Temple, can be seen in its form of prayer. The prayers said at the unrolling and reading of the scrolls of Scripture developed out of the ritual prayers originally linked to sacrificial actions in the Temple and now regarded, in accord with the tradition of the time without the Temple, as an equivalent of sacrifice. The first of the two great prayers of the synagogue rite comes to a climax in the common recitation of the Kiddush, of which the hymn of the seraphim in Isaiah chapter 6 and the hymn of the cherubim in Ezekiel chapter 3 are a part. Bouyer makes this comment: “But the truth must be that the association of men with these heavenly canticles, in the worship of the Temple, had probably been a central figure of the offering of the sacrifice of incense morning and evening of every day” (p. 22). Who would not be reminded of the Trisagion of the Christian liturgy, the “thrice holy” hymn at the beginning of the Canon? Here the congregation does not offer its own thoughts or sharing in the cosmic song of praise of the cherubim and seraphim. The other great prayer of the synagogue culminates in “the recitation of the Abodah which, according to the rabbis, was formerly the consecration prayer of the daily burnt offering in the Temple” (p. 22). The petition added to it about the coming of the Messiah and the final restoration of Israel may be seen “as the expression of the essence of the sacrificial worship” (p. 22). Let us remind ourselves here of that transition from animal sacrifices to “worship in harmony with the logos” which characterizes the path from the Old Testament into the New. Finally, we must mention the fact that no special architectural form was created for the synagogue. The “typical Greek building for public meetings: the basilica,” was used (p. 17). Its aisles, divided off by rows of columns, enabled people entering the building to circulate around it.

I have lingered over this description of the synagogue because it exhibits already the essential and constant features of Christian places of worship. Once again we see clearly the essential unity of the two Testaments. Not surprisingly, in Semitic, non-Greek Christianity, the original form of church buildings generally retains the close connection of church with synagogue, a pattern of religious continuity and innovation. (I am thinking here of the Monophysite and Nestorian Churches of the Near East, which broke away from the Church of the Byzantine Empire during the Christological debates of the fifth century.) Christian faith produced three innovations in the form of the synagogue as we have just sketched it. These give Christian liturgy its new and proper profile. First of all, the worshipper no longer looks towards Jerusalem. The destroyed Temple is no longer regarded as the place of God’s earthly presence. The Temple built of stone has ceased to express the hope of Christians; its curtain is torn forever. Christians look toward the east, the rising sun. This is not a case of Christians worshipping the sun but of the cosmos speaking of Christ. The song of the sun in Psalm 19(18) is interpreted as a song about Christ when it says, “[The sun] is coming forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber. …Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them” (vv. 5f.). This psalm proceeds directly from applauding creation to praising the law. Christians interpret it in terms of Christ, who is the living word, the eternal Logos, and thus the true light of history, who came forth in Bethlehem from the bridal chamber of the Virgin Mother and now pours out his light on all the world. The east supersedes the Jerusalem Temple as a symbol. Christ, represented by the sun, is the place of the Shekinah, the true throne of the living God. In the Incarnation, human nature truly becomes the throne and seat of God, who is thus forever bound to the earth and accessible to our prayers. In the early Church, prayer towards the east was regarded as an apostolic tradition. We cannot date exactly when this turn to the east, the diverting of the gaze from the Temple, took place, but it is certain that it goes back to the earliest times and was always regarded as an essential characteristic of Christian liturgy (and indeed of private prayer). This “orientation”1 of Christian prayer has several different meanings. Orientation is, first and foremost, a simple expression of looking to Christ as the meeting place between God and man. It expresses the basic Christological form of our prayer.

The fact that we find in Christ the symbol of the rising sun is the indication of a Christology defined eschatologically. Praying towards the east means going to meet the coming Christ. The liturgy, turned towards the east, effects entry, so to speak, into the procession of history we encounter in Christ. It is a prayer of hope, the prayer of the pilgrim as he walks in the direction shown by the life, Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Thus very early on, in parts of Christendom, the eastward direction for prayer was given added emphasis by a reference to the Cross. This may have come from linking Revelation 1:7 with Matthew 24:30. In the first of these, the Revelation of St. John, it says: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, every one who pierced him; and all the tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.” Here the seer of the Apocalypse depends on John 19:37, where, at the end of the account of the Crucifixion, the mysterious text of the prophet Zechariah (12:10) is quoted, a text that suddenly acquired a wholly new meaning: “They shall look on him whom they have pierced.” Finally, in Matthew 24:30 we are given these words of the Lord: “[T]hen [on the Last Day] will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn [cf. Zech 12:10], and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven [cf. Dan 7:13] with power and great glory.” The sign of the Son of Man, of the Pierced One, is the Cross, which has now become the sign of victory of the Risen One. Thus the symbolism of the Cross merges with that of the east. Both are an expression of one and the same faith, in which the remembrance of the Pasch and of Jesus makes it present and gives dynamism to the hope that goes out to meet the One who is to come. But finally, this turning toward the east also signifies that cosmos and saving history belong together. The cosmos is praying with us. It, too, is waiting for redemption. It is precisely this cosmic dimension that is essential to Christian liturgy. It is never performed solely in the self-made world of man. It is always a cosmic liturgy. The theme of creation is embedded in Christian prayer. It loses its grandeur when it forgets this connection. That is why, wherever possible, we should definitely take up again the apostolic tradition of facing the east, both in the building of churches and in the celebration of the liturgy. We shall come back to this later, when we say something about the ordering of liturgical prayer.

The second innovation in regard to the synagogue is as follows. A new element has appeared that could not exist in the synagogue. At the east wall, or in the apse, there now stands an altar on which the Eucharistic Sacrifice is celebrated. As we saw, the Eucharist is an entry into the liturgy of heaven; by it we become contemporaries with Jesus Christ’s own act of worship, into which, through his Body, he takes up worldly time and straightaway leads it beyond itself, snatching it out of its own sphere and enfolding it into the communion of eternal life. Thus the altar signifies the entry of him who is the Orient into the assembled community and the going out of the community from the prison of this world through the curtain now torn open, a participation in the Pasch, the “passing over” from the world to God, which Christ has opened up. It is clear that the altar in the apse both looks towards the Oriens and forms part of it. In the synagogue the worshippers looked beyond the “Ark of the Covenant,” the shrine of the Word, towards Jerusalem. Now, with the Christian altar, comes a new focal point. Let us say again: on the altar, where the Temple had in the past foreshadowed, is now present in a new way. Yes, it enables us to become the contemporaries of the Sacrifice of the Logos. Thus it brings heaven into the community assembled on earth, or rather it takes that community beyond itself into the communion of saints of all times and places. We might put it this way: the altar is the place where heaven is opened up. It does not close off the church, but opens it up—and leads into the eternal liturgy. We shall have more to say about the practical consequences of the Christian altar, because the question of the correct position for the altar is at the center of postconciliar debate.

But first we must finish what we were saying about the different ways in which Christian faith transformed the synagogue. The third point to be noted is that the shrine of the Word remained, even with regard to its position in the church building. However, there is a fundamental innovation here. The Torah is replaced by the Gospels, which alone can open up the meaning of the Torah. “Moses,” says Christ, “wrote of me” (Jn 5:46). The shrine of the Word, the “Ark of the Covenant,” now becomes the throne of the Gospel. The Gospel does not, of course, abolish the “Scriptures,” nor push them to one side, but rather interprets them, so that henceforth and forever they form the Scriptures of Christians, without which the Gospel would have no foundation. The practice in the synagogue of covering the shrine with a curtain, in order to express the sacredness of the Word, is retained. Quite spontaneously, the new, second holy place, the altar, is surrounded by a curtain, from which, in the Eastern Church, the Iconostasis develops. The fact that there are two holy places had significance for the celebration of the liturgy. During the Liturgy of the Word, the congregation gathered around the shrine of the Sacred Books, or around the seat associated with it, which evolved quite spontaneously from the seat of Moses to the bishop’s throne. Just as the rabbi did not speak by his own authority, so the bishop expounds the Bible in the name, and by the mandate, of Christ. Thus, from being a written word from the past, it again becomes what it is: God’s addressing us here and now. At the end of the Liturgy of the Word, during which the faithful stand around the bishop’s seat, everyone walks together with the bishop to the altar, and now the cry resounds: “Conversi ad Dominum,” Turn towards the Lord! In other words, look towards the east with the bishop in the sense of the words from the epistle to the Hebrews: “[Look] … to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:2). The Liturgy of the Eucharist is celebrated as we look up to Jesus. It is our looking up to Jesus. Thus, in early church buildings, the liturgy has two places. First the Liturgy of the Word takes place at the center of the building. The faithful are grouped around the bema, the elevated area where the throne of the Gospel, the seat of the bishop and the lectern are placed. The Eucharistic celebration takes place in the apse, at the altar, where the faithful “stand around.” Everyone joins with the celebrant in facing east, towards the Lord who is to come.

Finally, we must mention one last difference between the synagogue and the earliest church buildings. In Israel, only the presence of men was deemed to be necessary for divine worship. The common priesthood described in Exodus chapter 19 was ascribed to them alone. Consequently, in the synagogue, women were only allowed into the tribunes or galleries. As far as the apostles were concerned, as far as Jesus himself is concerned, there was no such discrimination in the Church of Christ. Even though the public Liturgy of the Word was not entrusted to women, they were included in the liturgy in the same way as men. And so now they had a place—albeit in separation from men—in the sacred space itself, around both the bema and the altar.


Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, regarded as one of the world’s foremost theologians, has written numerous books and articles on theology and spirituality. He currently reigns as His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.

This article can be found as Part II, Chapter 2 of Pope Benedict XVI’s book The Spirit of the Liturgy, available from Ignatius Press.

1. The word “orientation” comes from oriens, “the East.” “Orientation” means “east-ing,” turning towards the east.

Genesis: St. Jerome’s Prologue

Filed under: Sacred Scripture and Theology — Tags: — Antiochian-Thomist @ 7:34 pm

[Translated by Kevin P. Edgecomb]


I have received the desired letters of my Desiderius, who in a foretelling of things to happen has obtained with Daniel a certain name [see Vulgate Daniel 9.23: quia vir desideriorum es tu, “for you are a man of desires”], beseeching that I might hand over to our hearers a translation of the Pentateuch in the Latin tongue from the Hebrew words. Certainly a dangerous work, open to the barkings of detractors, who accuse me of insult to the Seventy to prepare a new interpretation from the old ones, thus approving ability (or “genius”) like wine. As has very often been testified by me, I, for my part, am able to offer a portion in the Tabernacle of God, without the riches (or “abilities”) of one being damaged by the poverties of others.

But that I may have dared, the effort of Origen provoked me, who mixed the translation of Theodotion to the ancient edition, with asterisk and obelus, that is, star and spit, a work distinguishing everything, while he either makes to shine those things which were previously lacking, or he slays and pierces through everything superfluous. And especially by the authority of the Evangelists and the Apostles, in which we read many things from the Old Testament which are not found in our books, as it is (with): “Out of Egypt I have called My Son,” and “For He shall be called a Nazarene,” and “They will look on Him Whom they have pierced,” and “Rivers of living waters shall flow from his belly,” and “Things which no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor has arisen in the heart of man, which God has prepared for those loving Him,” and many others which are desiring a proper context (or “book” [Jerome uses a Greek word here: συνταγμα]).

Therefore let us ask them where these are written, and when they are unable to say, we may produce them from the Hebrew books. The first witness is in Hosea, the second in Isaiah, the third in Zechariah, the fourth in Proverbs, the fifth is also in Isaiah, of which many are ignorant, the follies of apocrypha being followed, preferring Iberian dirges to authentic books.

The cause of the error is not for me to explain. The Jews say it was done wisely in deliberation, so Ptolemy, the worshipper of one god, might not yet discover a double divinity with the Hebrews; he made them (do so) chiefly for this reason, because he was seen to fall into the dogma of Plato. Accordingly, wherever anything sacred in Scripture is witnessed of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, they are either translated otherwise, or they have passed over all in silence, so they might both satisfy the king, and might not divulge the secret of the Faith.

And I don’t know who was the first author to construct with his lying the seventy cells in Alexandria, into which were divided those who wrote, with Aristeas the champion [another Greek word: υπερασπιστης] of the same Ptolemy, and many after the time of Josephus having reported no such thing, but rather (for them) to have gathered in groups, writing in one basilica, (and) not to have prophesied.

For it is one thing to be a seer, another to be an interpreter. In that one the Spirit predicts things to come; in this one by his learning and abundance of words he translates those things he has understood. Unless Tullius (Cicero) is understood to have translated, by inspiration of the spirit of rhetoric, the Economics of Xenophon, the Protagoras of Plato, and the For Ctesiphon by Demosthenes. Or the Holy Spirit wove together the witnesses of these books one way through the Seventy interpreters and another way through the Apostles, so that what they passed over in silence, what was written by these was invented [? – obscure].

Therefore, what? We condemn the ancients? By no means! But after those earlier in the House of God, we work at what we can. They are interpreted before the coming of Christ and what they didn’t know, they tranlated in ambiguous (or “uncertain”) sentences. We write after His Passion and Resurrection, not so much prophecy as history. For in the one are told what things were heard, in the other what were seen. What we understand better, we also translate better.

Hear, therefore, O rival; listen, O detractor! I do not condemn, I do not censure the Seventy, but I confidently prefer the Apostles to all of them. Christ speaks to me through their mouth, who I read were placed before the prophets among the Spiritual gifts, among which interpreters hold almost the last place. Why are you tortured by spite? Why do you incite ignorant souls against me? If anywhere in the translation I have been seen by you to err, ask the Hebrews. Consult the teachers of the many different cities. What theirs have of Christ, yours do not have. It is another matter if they have afterward removed the testimonies used by the Apostles against them, and the Latin copies are more correct than the Greek, (and) the Greek than the Hebrew! Truth is against these enviers.

Now I pray you, dearest Desiderius, so that in such a great work which you have made me undertake and take up a beginning from Genesis, you might help in (your) prayers, how I might, by the same Spirit by Whom the books were written, be able to translate them into Latin words.


From the Tertullian Project.

The Metaphysical & Theological Implications in the Difference Between Ens Simpliciter & Ens Moblile

Filed under: Cosmology -- Philosophical Physics, Metaphysics, Philosophy — Tags: , , — Antiochian-Thomist @ 6:49 pm

Through the natural light of reason by which we come to know the causes of things and through divine revelation gratuitously given for the benefit of corrupted man we know that we composite creatures are not our own existence. However, man sees things even in the material order darkly and dimly, and his powers of perception beyond the material order are feeble at best. Further to work past the material order is a struggle most tedious and tiresome leaving many an individual holding such exercises as distasteful with the result that many resist such attempts to come to understand anything beyond the natural order of things. We are often like the poor souls in Plato’s cave analogy:

And if, said I, someone should drag him thence by force up the ascent which is rough and steep, and not let him go before he had drawn him out into the light of the sun, do you not think that he would find it painful to be so haled along, and would chafe at it..?1

But as distasteful as this exercise can be, it is worth it. What we can know is perhaps little, but what we can know is also certain when understood within their (and our) proper limitations. We exist -this we know. We need not undergo a Cartesian meditation to achieve certitude in this claim. We change -this we also know. Experience shows this to be the fact. But what implications are there in the consideration that existence is not the same as material being, or that there is existence apart from material being? What implications come with the consideration of motion/change? The consequences are literally beyond measure that forces an intellectual concession of a perennial truth accompanied by a moral consequence that necessarily follows upon such an intellectual concession. The fact that ‘to be’ (ens simpliciter) and ‘to be changeable’ (ens mobile) are not the same leads to the metaphysical and theological implication that there is an unchangeable being which we call God and that He is our last end for which we must act. Let us proceed, then, in this exercise by considering changeable being, motion, and then unchangeable being.

Changeable Being.

To maintain any solidity in the endeavor, let us proceed in ways more secure and assured for our purposes by considering first the things we know and then moving to the the things that we either know not, or know very little, or know with less certainty. For as is the common experience of a man when faced with a problem that he must solve and who will analyze the object as a general whole and work back through more particulars until he ultimately reaches that which he was investigating, so let us also proceed from those things more generally known to us to those things more known by nature. As Aristotle says:

The natural way of doing this is to start from the things which are more knowable and obvious to us and proceed towards those which are clearer and more knowable by nature; for the same things are not ‘knowable relatively to us’ and ‘knowable’ without qualification.2

Proceeding thusly we first come to know those things which present themselves to the five senses, for it is through the senses that the soul is informed. Those things that we perceive are first those things which are in some way whole and therefore general in a qualified sense, for it is not usually the case that we first experience the constituent parts of things before we come to know the whole, but that we first have a general perception of the whole and then work toward the constituent parts. In those instances where we encounter parts before the whole, we often walk confusedly until the general whole has been assembled in the mind before we rest in any certitude. Therefore, the wisdom of the Philosopher’s counsels are manifest:

Thus we must advance from generalities to particulars; for it is a whole that is best known to sense perception, and a generality is a kind of a whole, comprehending many things within it, like parts.3

But those general/whole things that we encounter are, quite frankly, things, which is to say that we encounter beings that exist, whether it be ‘man’, ‘dog’, ‘rock’, ‘cup’, etc. The first thing present to the mind via the senses is not so much the ‘thisness’ of the thing as it is the thing itself. Thus the first thing we know is not the existence of the thing but the existent thing. Therefore, we perceive a whole being without necessarily an initial and immediate consideration of the existence of the thing apart from the thing itself, for we could know it otherwise lest somehow we come first know things apart from senses. Furthermore, it can be added that what is first known is known without distinction between the material being and its act of existence. This, then, is our first understanding of being, viz. material being, which can only be known if its is real and is sensed. Thus the Common Doctor asserts that, “nothing can be called a being unless it is something positive in reality.”4

After the first experiences of material beings, we come to know them through the experiences of the senses as changeable or movable. We observe growth and diminution, coming to be and passing from existence, but we are still left with the concept of existence long after the material things’ existence has changed. For example, long after a subject has passed from being, as in death, we can still consider the subject and its act of existence, not only as the subject it was, but as the kind of subject it was, as when we consider Socrates, not as dead or as Socrates, but as man. Further, we notice not only substantial changes but accidental ones as well where the subject persists after the change. An example of this is the man who at one point is ignorant of geometry and later comes to know geometry. The man, as the subject, persists after the change from ignorance to knowledge, but his existence is now of a different quality, viz. that of the geometer. Another example of this is when we consider locomotion. A subject was once at A and is now at B; but after the subject is at B, its previous existence at A can still be considered and ruminated upon, not only as once being at A but as potentially being at A in the future. Finally, where it is that with sense perception also comes imagination whereby sensible things are brought to the intellect via phantasms, man has the ability to contrive things in the imagination that have no substantial existence in physical reality. Such is the case with Aristotle’s famous ‘goat-stag’ or the architect’s future cathedral. It is not real or not yet real; but its existence can be imagined. In these and in nigh-to-innumerable experiences like these, consideration of the experiences themselves and through themselves reveal that existence can be considered apart from material beings, that ‘to be’ is not the same as ‘to be changeable’.


To be a changeable being is to be a being in potency under a certain aspect. In short, it is to be a movable being. But what is motion? Aristotle defines motion as “the fulfillment of what exists potentially, insofar as it exists potentially.”5 St. Thomas states more simply that “motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality.”6 By these definitions, motion encompasses all change and is not merely reduced to locomotion. Therefore, insofar as a being has the potentiality of being something else (qualitatively, substantially, or otherwise), and insofar as that same being is in the process of becoming that something else, it is in motion. Examples of this are easy to come by. The block of marble being carved into a statue, the man walking across the room, the tree that starts as a sapling but is growing into a full oak -these are all examples of motion as each are in potency to what it is becoming and is in the process of being actualized. In short, they are being reduced from potentiality to actuality.

To consider change or motion, one must consider not just the act of motion, which is a coming to be, nor just the thing moved, but one must also consider the mover, for to be a material being, which is to say a changeable or movable being, is to be a moved being. It is therefore clear and manifest that there are things in the world that are moved, either by a mover or, apparently, by itself. However, Aristotle and St. Thomas both assert that whatever is moved is moved by another. Certainly this is clear in the cases of material beings which do not possess a principle of motion in themselves. However, what of those beings that do possess a principle of motion in themselves? Are they moved by another? In short: yes.

In his cogent and concise summation of Aristotle’s Physics, St. Thomas points out a pithy and packed reality pregnant with meaning and implication in his question on the existence of God. The Common Doctor says:

Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again.7

So as stated before, those things which have not a principle of motion in itself are obviously moved by another. But in the quotation above, St. Thomas includes all movables, both those which have a principle of motion in themselves and those which have not, as being subject to a mover apart from the moved. This is better understood when one considers that whatever is moved must itself be divisible.8 In short, those things that are called self-moving are not primarily self moving because they must move in virtue of their parts, for they cannot move through themselves simply. If these self movers could move themselves through themselves primarily, their motion would not be dependent upon the motion of another. But movables are divisible and the moved are so moved through their parts. So, in movable beings, if the part is moved, so is the whole. If the part is at rest, so is the whole. If a man moves by virtue of his feet and legs, the whole man is moving. If the man is to be truly at rest, all of his parts must truly be at rest. But his motion and rest depend on his parts. Thus he moves himself secondarily, as it were, and not through himself primarily. His motion, then, must primarily come from another. Therefore, whatever is moved is moved by another.9

This can be illustrated by an example most pertinent to our designs. Coming to be is a motion for artificial and natural material beings alike. In the case of an artifice such as a cathedral, its motion is received from the architect and the workers. Similarly, the coming into existence of a man and his sustainment therein is not a motion found in the man, for the man does not exist nor is he his own existence. The primary motion is therefore from another.

Though whatever is moved is moved by another, we cannot go on to infinity lest we have that infinite regress by which we would never have the moved. Thus St. Thomas says in the Summa Contra Gentiles:

If it is moved, it is moved by another mover. We must, consequently, either proceed to infinity, or we must arrive at some unmoved mover. Now, it is not possible to proceed to infinity. Hence, we must posit some prime unmoved mover.10

He further states in the Summa Theologica:

But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.11

With the understanding that whatever is moved is moved by another, we rapidly come to the unmoved mover, the cause of all motion.

The Unchangeable Being.

As stated earlier, Aristotle’s use of the term motion encompasses all change. But we have come to the unmoved mover. If the mover is Himself unmoved, we have then come to a being that does not admit of change. If He does not admit of change, then He does not admit of potentiality. A potentiality in material beings is that they potentially could ‘not be’ for they are not the same as their existence. As the unmoved mover does not admit of potentiality in any respect, non-existence is therefore impossible for Him. St. Thomas confirms this:

…The first being must of necessity be in act, and in no way in potentiality. For although in any single thing that passes from potentiality to actuality, the potentiality is prior in time to the actuality; nevertheless, absolutely speaking, actuality is prior to potentiality; for whatever is in potentiality can be reduced into actuality only by some being in actuality. Now it has been already proved that God is the First Being. It is therefore impossible that in God there should be any potentiality.12

However, it was also stated that ‘to be’ is not the same as ‘to be changeable’. For God, the unmoved mover, to be the first cause of motion, He must of necessity be. But in all other cases, coming to be as a motion must be caused by another. In God there is no motion which is to say, as above, He admits of no potentiality. Therefore, God does not differ from His existence. The Common Doctor demonstrates this well:

Existence is that which makes every form or nature actual; for goodness and humanity are spoken of as actual, only because they are spoken of as existing. Therefore existence must be compared to essence, if the latter is a distinct reality, as actuality to potentiality. Therefore, since in God there is no potentiality, as shown above (S.T. I, Q.3, a.1), it follows that in Him essence does not differ from existence. Therefore His essence is His existence.13

There are more necessary conclusions to be drawn about the existence of God, and those relate to the response of rational material creatures to this sublime reality of His existence. In other words, there are moral consequences that necessarily follow upon the recognition of the existence of God. For if God exists -and He does of necessity- and if God is the cause of all things -and He is- then it follows that God is the proper and final end of the entire material order, including that of man. For as all nature acts for an end14 so too does the rational nature of man15 and this he does by the operation of his will. Therefore, as all creatures have their existence by way of a participation, and as the highest object of the intellect of man is the unmoved mover, the first being, God, so too the highest object of the will of man and that for the sake of which man must act must be God. For, as St. Thomas asserts:

It is impossible for any created good to constitute man’s happiness. For happiness is the perfect good, which lulls the appetite altogether; else it would not be the last end, if something yet remained to be desired. Now the object of the will, i.e. of man’s appetite, is the universal good; just as the object of the intellect is the universal true. Hence it is evident that naught can lull man’s will, save the universal good. This is to be found, not in any creature, but in God alone; because every creature has goodness by participation. Wherefore God alone can satisfy the will of man, according to the words of Psalm 102:5: “Who satisfieth thy desire with good things.” Therefore God alone constitutes man’s happiness.16


This exercise provides just the briefest of sketches into the implications of existence as apart from material being from the philosophical perspective and serves as merely the rudimentary summation of a few concepts whose profundity has filled countless volumes of works by intellects of the highest of calibers. It is enough to show that differences between what it is ‘to be’ and ‘to be changeable’ have profound implications that can be knowable from the natural progression of philosophical reasoning which leaves man with little room for excuses. Further, considering the end for the sake of which these considerations show, it makes that steep climb out of Plato’s cave every bit worthwhile, for we can now see the prophetic truth in Plato’s words about the one who escapes the cave:

Well then, if he recalled to mind his first habitation and what passed for wisdom there, and his fellow bondsmen, do you not think that he would count himself happy in the change and pity them?17


Aquinas, St. Thomas. Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics. Notre Dame, Indiana: Dumb Ox Books, 1999.

_______. On Being and Essence. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1968.

_______. Summa Contra Gentiles. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975.

_______. Summa Theologica (in English, 5 vols., Notre Dame, Indiana: Christian Classics,


Aristotle. Physics. (Richard McKeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle, New York: Random

House, 1941.

Plato. Republic. (Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds., The Collected Dialogues of Plato,

Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989.

1Plato. Republic, VII, 515e.

2Aristotle. Physics, I, 184a15.

3Aristotle. Physics, I, 184a25.

4St. Thomas Aquinas. De Ente et Essentia, Chapter 1, paragraph 2.

5Aristotle. Physics, III, 1, 201 a10.

6St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, I, Q.2, a.3.

7St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, I, Q.2, a.3.

8Aristotle. Physics, VI, 4.

9St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, Chapter 13.

10 ibid.

11 St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, I, Q.2, a.3.

12 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, Q.3, a.1.

13 St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, I, Q.3, a.4.

14 Aristotle. Physics, II, 5.

15 St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, I-II, Q.1, a.2.

16 St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, I-II, Q.1, a.8.

17 Plato. Republic, VII, 516 c.