THE FOUR ELEMENTS AND THE CREATION OF MAN

Written by Vladimir Moss

THE FOUR ELEMENTS AND THE CREATION OF MAN

In the service for the Greater Blessing of the Waters, there is a prayer in which we read: “Of four elements hast Thou compounded the creation”…
Some may think that this is proof of the primitive scientific knowledge of the ancients. After all, we know now that the creation is compounded of all kinds of elements at various levels of complexity – molecules, atoms, electrons, subatomic particles, quarks, even the recently discovered so-called “God particle”. In fact, there is no such thing as a single water “element”, for example: there is just a molecule composed of two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen.

However, the ancients were not wrong. If we stop analysing and quantifying for a moment, and just apprehend nature as it appears to us qualitatively, then we will soon realise that there are in fact only four kinds of things: earthy things (solids), watery things (liquids), airy things (gases) and incendiary things (fire). There is nothing material that cannot be classed in one of these categories, or a mixture of them. Moreover, earth, water, air and fire do indeed seem to be the most basic material elements from a qualitative point of view. This does not contradict the scientific point of view: it is just a fact of another, equally valid way of looking at the world – a point of view, moreover, that opens a window into the spiritual world. For, as St. Maximus the Confessor writes, “To those who have eyes to see, all the invisible (spiritual) world is mysteriously presented in symbols of the visible world. And the whole of the natural world depends on the supernatural world.”

The four elements are not just matter to be analysed by science, but also symbols of spiritual realities. Now modern scientific man is inclined to scorn symbols as being merely conventional – useful, perhaps, just as “green light for go” and “red light for stop” are useful conventions for drivers, but not because they offer any insight into the true nature of things. However, this is true only of conventional, that is, man-made symbolisms. Thus there is no real, essential relationships between the colour green and forward movement, and the colour red and arrested movement: the same purpose could be served by reversing the symbolism and making green stand for stop and red for go (as long as everyone was warned beforehand).

Some symbols are a little more than mere conventions, being also signs having a real, psychological basis in human nature. Thus when the poet Robert Burns wrote: “My love is like a red, red rose”, he was exploiting, for aesthetic purposes, a real, psychological link between the colour red and amorous passion. Artists use both purely conventional symbols and the real, psychological effects of certain symbols to create their art.

However, the symbols we are talking about here are more than conventions or psychological signs or triggers: they are real, God-made relationships between certain material things or qualities, such as the four elements, and spiritual reality. Let us look at each of the four elements, especially in relation to the creation of man.

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1. Earth. When God created man, he made him out of earth – but not the fallen earth of our fallen planet Earth, which is composed of millions of rotting dead organisms, but a more primitive, pristine earth or clay that existed before the Fall and death. Since the Fall, however, when our souls became defiled by sin, earth has become equated with dirt, and our first instinct is to rid ourselves of it through washing with water. Earth is the opposite of heaven, and thus stands for that which is low in relation to God and the angels. The Latin-derived English word “humus” means “earth”; and “humility” is therefore the appropriate spiritual state of the earth-born. But the earth is also the source of all our food – under this aspect it is beneficent “Mother Earth”. And earth under the aspect of dirt and sin can be transformed by the blessing of God into the source of life and fertility. On the whole, however, earth signifies sin; earthly thoughts are sinful thoughts; and it is because we sin that God has delivered us to the curse of returning to the earth from which we were made: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”…

2. Water. When God created man, He made him not only of earth but also of water, and scientists have established that 70% of our bodies are made of water. Although also “low” in relation to heaven – water always runs downward toward the sea – water has more positive symbolic qualities. Water is life-giving – without water all organic life quickly dies. Water cleans – tears wash away sin, as does the water of Holy Baptism. Thus the Greek words “to wash” (louein) and “to set free (from sin) (luein) are very similar. Water is gentle and soothing and refreshing, but at the same time powerful – in time it wears away even the hardest stone. Under the aspect of rain, which comes from heaven, it symbolizes grace, which softens the hardest of hearts. Water is not always a positive symbol. The sea, being barren, salty water, is a symbol of the world in its spiritual barrenness, its incapacity to produce true spiritual fruit. And water can also be the instrument of God’s destructive, punishing power, as in the flood of Noah. But when God’s justice was satisfied, God sent light through the water in the rainbow to symbolize His reconciliation with man.

3. Air. When God created man, He infused into his body an airy substance, the soul; for, as we read, “God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2.7). St. Augustine points out that “the Greek [of the Septuagint] does not say πνευμα [spirit], which is commonly used of the Holy Spirit, but πνοην, which is a name more frequently used of the creation than of the Creator” . In other words, the soul is not an extension, as it were, of the uncreated Spirit, but is created. However, the fact that the words for “breath” and “Spirit” are so close in Greek indicates that the soul is closely akin to the Divine Spirit, being truly “in His image and likeness”. “We must believe neither that He made the soul from Himself, nor that He made it out of corporeal elements, when He created it through His inbreathing”. Being airy rather than earthy or watery, the soul’s natural direction is upward, toward God and the angelic realm, and it does not share the fate of the body. “Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God Who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12.7).
The Lord compares the Holy Spirit to a wind “that blows where it wishes” (John 3.8). He can manifest Himself in a gentle breeze, as to the Prophet Elijah on Carmel, or in a mighty wind, as to the apostles on Zion at Pentecost. It lifts to heaven or it dashes to the earth. It is the Creator Spirit, but also the Destroyer Spirit. “Thou wilt take their spirit, and they shall cease; and unto their dust shall they return. Thou wilt send forth Thy Spirit, and they shall be created; and Thou shalt renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 103.31-32).

4. Fire. If air, breath, spirit and inspiration are associated with the spiritual realm, and with God Himself, then the association is still stronger is relation to fire. “God is a consuming fire”, says the apostle (Hebrews 12.29). And of the created angels who are filled with the Spirit of God it is said that they are “a flaming fire” (Psalm 103.5). St. John the Baptist, the greatest born of woman, was, in the Lord’s own words, “a burning and a shining light” (John 5.38). These are not just pretty metaphors; they indicate that the angels, and angelic men, are filled with the fire of God’s grace, which warms and enlightens, but also judges and destroys. At the Second Coming the Lord will come in the manifest fire of His Divinity, so that “the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat, both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up” (II Peter 3.10). But this judgement by fire, though destructive, will have an ultimately creative purpose: “a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (II Peter 3.13). Then those men in whom there is the fire of the Divinity will “shine forth like the sun” (Matthew 13.43), “running to and fro like sparks among the stubble” (Wisdom 4).

Some of the Fathers, such as St. Gregory the Theologian, speak of the soul of man as having “the spark of Divinity”. Certainly it was so before the Fall, when the Spirit of God dwelt in man as a constituent part of him. But then man sinned and the spark was lost; for the Lord said: “My Spirit shall not remain with man forever, for he is indeed flesh” (Genesis 3.5). So in his original constitution man can be said to have been made up of four elements: earth and water (body), air (soul) and fire (grace). But the four elements became three after the Fall, when fire was lost; and at death there is further disintegration as air separates from earth and water, and earth and water from each other. St. Seraphim said something similar in his famous Conversation with Motovilov, when he spoke of the original man as having been made up of four elements: body, soul, spirit and Spirit. Here “spirit” (with a small “s”) signifies the higher part of the soul, its “airiest” part, which communicates with the fire of the Uncreated Spirit (with a capital “s”), and is so united to the Spirit that it becomes “one spirit” with Him. The great tragedy is when the spirit of man is dissociated from the Spirit of God, leading to the disintegration of the whole of human nature. The Apostle Jude calls such people “psychical,… not having the Spirit” (Jude 19).

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The feast of the Nativity of Christ is called “the feast of recreation”, because at His Conception and Birth Christ truly recreated human nature through the virgin earth of the Virgin Mary and the descent of the Holy Spirit, so that in His Person man is again pure earth, water, air and fire. But the grace of recreation and regeneration has to be communicated to the rest of mankind, and with this end in view Christ goes to His Baptism in the Jordan. His Descent into the waters purifies the element of water, driving out the evil spirits that have taken up their abode in it. Fire enters water and purifies it. Of course, this is paradoxical from a material point of view, because in the material world fire is quenched by water – or turns it into steam. But here the Divine fire takes up its dwelling in the water, preserving its natural qualities and making it permanently Spirit-bearing. From now on, it is possible for there to be baptism by water and the Spirit, through which all men can be reborn and recreated to eternal life, receiving the Spirit that was in Adam originally, before the original sin, and thereby delivering them from the punitive fire of the Last Day. For “Christ baptizes in the fire of the Last Day those who are disobedient and believe not that He is God: but through the Spirit and by the grace that comes through water He grants a new birth to all who acknowledge His Divinity, delivering them from their faults”.

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Returning, finally, to the question of the scientific versus the religious-symbolic apprehension of reality, let us listen to the illuminating contrast that the great Serbian Bishop Nikolai Velimirović makes between the “analphabetic” nature worshippers and the “alphabetic” spirit worshippers: “With great pains and labor [those who call themselves philosophers and scientists] scarcely go beyond their childlike repetition of the letters that comprise nature. Very seldom, if ever, do they reach and comprehend the actual meaning and significance of those letters, written in nature in the form of things that comprise the visible universe, or in the scenes of happenings and events. A person well trained in reading, however, reads words without even thinking of the letters of which words themselves are composed, and consciously reads them quickly according to their meaning.

“A school teacher labors long and hard until students are able to read words ‘according to their meaning’. Worshippers of nature are but worshippers of the letters that comprise that nature. Though they have grown up, they are but immature children. When asked what the things in nature or happenings and events mean, they look at you wonderingly, like puzzled children, when asked about the meaning of that they had just read.

“Therefore, it may be said that nature worshippers are analphabetic, and spirit worshippers only are alphabetic. To the mind of the former, things and creatures in the natural world represent an ultimate reality, expressed in their forms, colors, functions and relations. While to the mind of the latter things and creatures are only the symbols of a spiritual reality which is the actual meaning and life and justification of those symbols…”

January 8/21, 2013.

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