This is an odd turn of phrase that appears in today’s first reading from the Daily Lectionary.
The full sentence is:
But the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.
It strikes me as odd because it is the very nature of the sea to be covered with water. Without water, the sea would simply be a valley or a large hole in the ground.
In the same way, God is the very nature of the universe itself. Theologian Paul Tillich referred to God as “the Ground of Being”. St. Thomas Aquinas similarly wrote that it is more appropriate to say that God is “existence” than that God is an object that “exists”.
As a self-described panentheist (not to be confused with pantheism), I would agree with Tillich and Aquinas. Here is how I would say it: God is in all things because, more accurately, all things exist in God.
One of my favorite images of God is the pregnant mother. God creates the universe, distinct but not entirely separate from God. The universe is growing within the divine womb.
When a baby grows inside of her mother, it would not be inaccurate to say that her mother is her whole world. Ask a fetus, “Where is Mom?” And the child would answer (if she could), “Mom is everywhere.”
Does this mean that the mother only exists within the child or the womb that carries her? No, that would be an incomplete statement (although it is certainly reflective of the child’s limited experience). It would be more accurate to say the opposite: That the child exists within her mother, who loves her and sustains her growth.
I believe the same to be true of our relationship to God.
We are not wrong to say that “God is everywhere.” In a sense, we are also justified, based on our limited experience, in saying that “God is in all things.” But I tend to believe the opposite, that “All things exist in God,” just as a fetus grows in her mother’s womb.
This, I think, is at the root of Habakkuk’s vision that the divine shekhinah covers the earth “as the waters cover the sea.” This is the fetus waxing eloquent about the mother.
Even more interesting is the context in which this revelation arises.
If the universe exists within the Divine womb, then it must certainly be a troubled pregnancy. The prophet describes a world gone awry, rife with social stratification where the rich have isolated themselves from the poverty they create by their indulgence:
Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses, setting your nest on high to be safe from the reach of harm! You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life.
The entire economic system is founded on violence and indulgence:
Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed, and found a city on iniquity!
He describes it as an act of rape:
Alas for you who make your neighbors drink, pouring out your wrath until they are drunk, in order to gaze on their nakedness!
The destruction extends even to the earth itself. The prophet warns of mass extinction emerging from human exploitation of the environment:
For the violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you; the destruction of the animals will terrify you– because of human bloodshed and violence to the earth, to cities and all who live in them.
Yet, the central truth remains: That the universe exists within the Divine womb.
We have only forgotten it. Unable to see the mother’s face directly, we have decided that we homo sapiens are the be-all, end-all of existence. We have decided that this womb, the amniotic fluid, the umbilical cord, and our magnificent selves are the product of some unknown, random accident.
Believing ourselves to be the only intelligence in the cosmos, we try to set ourselves in the place of God, and quickly discover that we are bad at the job. Destruction ensues.
Habakkuk invites us to return to our roots by way of contemplation. He writes:
I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.
But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!
The prophet interrupts his descriptions of violence with repeated calls to “watch” and “wait” in silence. The dual-practice of prayer and meditation empowers us to disconnect from the mindless flow of chaos around us and see reality more clearly.
A fighting couple stop their arguing momentarily to take a deep breath, and suddenly the situation becomes clearer.
Gandhi famously said that, if only one percent of the world’s population would meditate, there would be peace on earth.
The practice of contemplative spirituality might not change the world directly, but it does change those who practice it. It changes our perspective and relationship to the world. It frees us from the endless cycles of violence so that we (as Gandhi also said) can “be the change we wish to see in the world.”
Contemplation reconnects us to the Ground of Being. It increases our conscious awareness of the Divine presence, which “covers the earth as the waters cover the sea.”
This deepened relationship with God is the fruit of contemplative prayer. It is what the prophet refers to as “the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.”
“The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!”