Fish Eaters: The Whys and Hows of Traditional Catholicism

``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D

The Elements


This page is presented for fun and for information's sake as the Doctors' and Saints' musings on the minutiae of natural philosophy are not a matter of Church doctrine or dogma. But I find it interesting to read about how our ancestors perceived the natural world, so I present a collection of excerpts from the writings of the Doctors and Saints on the topic of the four classical elements: Air, Water, Fire, and Earth (their glyphs below, in that order).

The history of the categorizing of the elements is interesting for scientific and historical reasons as well. That the ancients saw four elements, and that there are four states of matter that at least metaphorically correspond to them is interesting: compare the element of Earth to the solid state of matter; the element of Water to the liquid state; the element of Air to gas phase; and the element of Fire to plasma. How curious that the realm of Fire was seen to be the heavens, and that modern scientists see plasma -- common in outer space, but relatively rare on earth -- as the most abundant state of matter in the universe!

The elements were seen as being correlated with other things -- such as the bodily humours and the temperaments, the seasons, the Zodiac signs, the "elementals" (gnomes, sylphs, undines, and salamanders) by Paracelsus in the 16th century and by others thereafter, and much, much more -- and they're made use of by the Church in Her rites (e.g., the Water of Baptism; the use of Fire, such as at Eastertime; the use of Air during the exsufflation at Baptism; Earth being the place of Christian burial, etc.).

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St. Isidore
St. John Damascene
St.Robert Bellarmine
St. Basil 
St. Gregory of Nyssa
St. Ambrose

St. Isidore, Etymologies
Elements (De elementis)

1. The Greeks call the primary material of things  (“matter,” also “wood, woodland”), which is not formed in any way, but is capable of underlying all bodily forms; from this material the visible elements (elementum) are formed, whence they took their name from this derivation. Latin speakers have named this
‘matter’ (materia, also meaning “wood”) because every unformed substance, of which something is made, is always called matter. Whence the poets have named it silva (lit. “woodland”), not inappropriately, because materia is connected with woods.

2. The Greeks name the elements  , because they agree with each other in a certain accord and communion of association (cf.   “agree with”). Indeed, they are said to be joined thus among themselves with a certain natural logic, now returning to their origin, from fire to earth, now from earth to fire, since fire ends in air, and air is condensed into water, and water thickens into earth; and in turn, earth is loosened into water, water rarefied into air, and air thinned out into fire.

3. For this reason, all the elements are present in all, but each one has taken its name from whichever element is more abundant in it. The elements are assigned by Divine Providence to the appropriate living beings, for the Creator himself has filled heaven (i.e. the fiery realm) with angels, air with birds, water with fish, and earth with humans and the rest of the living things.

St. John Damascene
An Exposition on the Orthodox Faith, Book II

Chapter 7. Concerning light, fire, the luminaries, sun, moon and stars.

Fire is one of the four elements, light and with a greater tendency to ascend than the others. It has the power of burning and also of giving light, and it was made by the Creator on the first day. For the divine Scripture says, And God said, Let there be light, and there was light. Genesis 1:3 Fire is not a different thing from what light is, as some maintain. Others again hold that this fire of the universe is above the air and call it ether. In the beginning, then, that is to say on the first day, God created light, the ornament and glory of the whole visible creation. For take away light and all things remain in undistinguishable darkness, incapable of displaying their native beauty. And God called the light day, but the darkness He called night. Genesis 1:5 Further, darkness is not any essence, but an accident: for it is simply absence of light. The air, indeed, has not light in its essence. It was, then, this very absence of light from the air that God called darkness: and it is not the essence of air that is darkness, but the absence of light which clearly is rather an accident than an essence. And, indeed, it was not night, but day, that was first named, so that day is first and after that comes night. Night, therefore, follows day. And from the beginning of day till the next day is one complete period of day and night. For the Scripture says, And the evening and the morning were one day.

When, therefore, in the first three days the light was poured forth and reduced at the divine command, both day and night came to pass. But on the fourth day God created the great luminary, that is, the sun, to have rule and authority over the day: for it is by it that day is made: for it is day when the sun is above the earth, and the duration of a day is the course of the sun over the earth from its rising till its setting. And He also created the lesser luminaries, that is, the moon and the stars, to have rule and authority over the night, and to give light by night. For it is night when the sun is under the earth, and the duration of night is the course of the sun under the earth from its rising till its setting. The moon, then, and the stars were set to lighten the night: not that they are in the daytime under the earth, for even by day stars are in the heaven over the earth but the sun conceals both the stars and the moon by the greater brilliance of its light and prevents them from being seen.

On these luminaries the Creator bestowed the first-created light: not because He was in need of other light, but that that light might not remain idle. For a luminary is not merely light, but a vessel for containing light.

There are, we are told, seven planets among these luminaries, and these move in a direction opposite to that of the heaven: hence the name planets. For, while they say that the heaven moves from east to west, the planets move from west to east; but the heaven bears the seven planets along with it by its swifter motion. Now these are the names of the seven planets: Luna, Mercury, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and in each zone of heaven is, we are told, one of these seven planets:

In the first and highest Saturn
In the second Jupiter
In the third Mars
In the fourth Sol
In the fifth Venus
In the sixth Mercury
In the seventh and lowest Luna.

The course which the Creator appointed for them to run is unceasing and remains fixed as He established them. For the divine David says, The moon and the stars which You established , and by the word 'established,' he referred to the fixity and unchangeableness of the order and series granted to them by God. For He appointed them for seasons, and signs, and days and years. It is through the Sun that the four seasons are brought about. And the first of these is spring: for in it God created all things , and even down to the present time its presence is evidenced by the bursting of the flowers into bud, and this is the equinoctial period, since day and night each consist of twelve hours. It is caused by the sun rising in the middle, and is mild and increases the blood, and is warm and moist, and holds a position midway between winter and summer, being warmer and drier than winter, but colder and moister than summer. This season lasts from March 21st till June 24th. Next, when the rising of the sun moves towards more northerly parts, the season of summer succeeds, which has a place midway between spring and autumn, combining the warmth of spring with the dryness of autumn: for it is dry and warm, and increases the yellow bile. In it falls the longest day, which has fifteen hours, and the shortest night of all, having only nine hours. This season lasts from June 24th till September 25th. Then when the sun again returns to the middle, autumn takes the place of summer. It has a medium amount of cold and heat, dryness and moisture, and holds a place midway between summer and winter, combining the dryness of summer with the cold of winter. For it is cold and dry, and increases the black bile. This season, again, is equinoctial, both day and night consisting of twelve hours, and it lasts from September 25th till December 25th. And when the rising of the sun sinks to its smallest and lowest point, i.e. the south, winter is reached, with its cold and moisture. It occupies a place midway between autumn and spring, combining the cold of autumn and the moisture of spring. In it falls the shortest day, which has only nine hours, and the longest night, which has fifteen: and it lasts from December 25th till March 21st. For the Creator made this wise provision that we should not pass from the extreme of cold, or heat, or dryness, or moisture, to the opposite extreme, and thus incur grievous maladies. For reason itself teaches us the danger of sudden changes.

So, then, it is the sun that makes the seasons, and through them the year: it likewise makes the days and nights, the days when it rises and is above the earth, and the nights when it sets below the earth: and it bestows on the other luminaries, both moon and stars, their power of giving forth light.

Further, they say that there are in the heaven twelve signs made by the stars, and that these move in an opposite direction to the sun and moon, and the other five planets, and that the seven planets pass across these twelve signs. Further, the sun makes a complete month in each sign and traverses the twelve signs in the same number of months. These, then, are the names of the twelve signs and their respective months:—

The Ram, which receives the sun on the 21st of March.
The Bull, on the 23rd of April.
The Twins, on the 24th of May.
The Crab, on the 24th of June.
The Virgin, on the 25th of July.
The Scales, on the 25th of September.
The Scorpion, on the 25th of October.
The Archer, on the 25th of November.
Capricorn, on the 25th of December.
Aquarius, on the 25th of January.
The Fish, on the 24th of February.

But the moon traverses the twelve signs each month, since it occupies a lower position and travels through the signs at a quicker rate. For if you draw one circle within another, the inner one will be found to be the lesser: and so it is that owing to the moon occupying a lower position its course is shorter and is sooner completed.

Now the Greeks declare that all our affairs are controlled by the rising and setting and collision of these stars, viz., the sun and moon: for it is with these matters that astrology has to do. But we hold that we get from them signs of rain and drought, cold and heat, moisture and dryness, and of the various winds, and so forth , but no sign whatever as to our actions. For we have been created with free wills by our Creator and are masters over our own actions. Indeed, if all our actions depend on the courses of the stars, all we do is done of necessity : and necessity precludes either virtue or vice. But if we possess neither virtue nor vice, we do not deserve praise or punishment, and God, too, will turn out to be unjust, since He gives good things to some and afflicts others. Nay, He will no longer continue to guide or provide for His own creatures, if all things are carried and swept along in the grip of necessity. And the faculty of reason will be superfluous to us: for if we are not masters of any of our actions, deliberation is quite superfluous. Reason, indeed, is granted to us solely that we might take counsel, and hence all reason implies freedom of will.

And, therefore, we hold that the stars are not the causes of the things that occur, nor of the origin of things that come to pass, nor of the destruction of those things that perish. They are rather signs of showers and changes of air. But, perhaps, some one may say that though they are not the causes of wars, yet they are signs of them. And, in truth, the quality of the air which is produced by sun, and moon, and stars, produces in various ways different temperaments, and habits, and dispositions. But the habits are among the things that we have in our own hands, for it is reason that rules, and directs, and changes them.

It often happens, also, that comets arise. These are signs of the death of kings , and they are not any of the stars that were made in the beginning, but are formed at the same time by divine command and again dissolved. And so not even that star which the Magi saw at the birth of the Friend and Saviour of man, our Lord, Who became flesh for our sake, is of the number of those that were made in the beginning. And this is evidently the case because sometimes its course was from east to west, and sometimes from north to south; at one moment it was hidden, and at the next it was revealed: which is quite out of harmony with the order and nature of the stars.

It must be understood, then, that the moon derives its light from the sun; not that God was unable to grant it light of its own, but in order that rhythm and order may be unimpressed upon nature, one part ruling, the other being ruled, and that we might thus be taught to live in community and to share our possessions with one another, and to be under subjection, first to our Maker and Creator, our God and Master, and then also to the rulers set in authority over us by Him: and not to question why this man is ruler and not I myself, but to welcome all that comes from God in a gracious and reasonable spirit.

The sun and the moon, moreover, suffer eclipse, and this demonstrates the folly of those who worship the creature in place of the Creator Romans 1:25, and teaches us how changeable and alterable all things are. For all things are changeable save God, and whatever is changeable is liable to corruption in accordance with the laws of its own nature.

Now the cause of the eclipse of the sun is that the body of the moon is interposed like a partition-wall and casts a shadow, and prevents the light from being shed down on us : and the extent of the eclipse is proportional to the size of the moon's body that is found to conceal the sun. But do not marvel that the moon's body is the smaller. For many declare that the sun is many times larger even than the earth, and the holy Fathers say that it is equal to the earth: yet often a small cloud, or even a small hill or a wall quite conceals it.

The eclipse of the moon, on the other hand, is due to the shadow the earth casts on it when it is a fifteen days' moon and the sun and moon happen to be at the opposite poles of the highest circle, the sun being under the earth and the moon above the earth. For the earth casts a shadow and the sun's light is prevented from illuminating the moon, and therefore it is then eclipsed.

It should be understood that the moon was made full by the Creator, that is, a fifteen days' moon: for it was fitting that it should be made complete. But on the fourth day, as we said, the sun was created. Therefore the moon was eleven days in advance of the sun, because from the fourth to the fifteenth day there are eleven days. Hence it happens that in each year the twelve months of the moon contain eleven days fewer than the twelve months of the sun. For the twelve months of the sun contain three hundred and sixty-five and a quarter days, and so because the quarter becomes a whole, in four years an extra day is completed, which is called bis-sextile. And that year has three hundred and sixty-six days. The years of the moon, on the other hand, have three hundred and fifty-four days. For the moon wanes from the time of its origin, or renewal, till it is fourteen and three-quarter days' old, and proceeds to wane till the twenty-ninth and a half day, when it is completely void of light. And then when it is once more connected with the sun it is reproduced and renewed, a memorial of our resurrection. Thus in each year the moon gives away eleven days to the sun, and so in three years the intercalary month of the Hebrews arises, and that year comes to consist of thirteen months, owing to the addition of these eleven days.

It is evident that both sun and moon and stars are compound and liable to corruption according to the laws of their various natures. But of their nature we are ignorant. Some, indeed, say that fire when deprived of matter is invisible, and thus, that when it is quenched it vanishes altogether. Others, again, say that when it is quenched it is transformed into air.

The circle of the zodiac has an oblique motion and is divided into twelve sections called zodia, or signs: each sign has three divisions of ten each, i.e. thirty divisions, and each division has sixty very minute subdivisions. The heaven, therefore, has three hundred and sixty-five degrees: the hemisphere above the earth and that below the earth each having one hundred and eighty degrees.

The abodes of the planets.

The Ram and the Scorpion are the abode of Mars: the Bull and the Scales, of Venus : the Twins and the Virgin, of Mercury: the Crab, of the Moon: the Lion, of the Sun: the Archer and the Fish, of Jupiter: Capricorn and Aquarius, of Saturn.

Their altitudes.

The Ram has the altitude of the Sun: the Bull, of the Moon: the Crab, of Jupiter: the Virgin, of Mars: the Scales, of Saturn: Capricorn, of Mercury: the Fish, of Venus.

The phases of the moon.

It is in conjunction whenever it is in the same degree as the sun: it is born when it is fifteen degrees distant from the sun: it rises when it is crescent-shaped, and this occurs twice , at which times it is sixty degrees distant from the sun: it is half-full twice, when it is ninety degrees from the sun: twice it is gibbous, when it is one hundred and twenty degrees from the sun: it is twice a full moon, giving full light, when it is a hundred and fifty degrees from the sun: it is a complete moon when it is a hundred and eighty degrees distant from the sun. We say twice, because these phases occur both when the moon waxes and when it wanes. In two and a half days the moon traverses each sign.

Chapter 8. Concerning air and winds.

Air is the most subtle element, and is moist and warm: heavier, indeed, than fire: but lighter than earth and water: it is the cause of respiration and voice: it is colorless, that is, it has no color by nature: it is clear and transparent, for it is capable of receiving light: it ministers to three of our senses, for it is by its aid that we see, hear and smell: it has the power likewise of receiving heat and cold, dryness and moisture, and its movements in space are up, down, within, without, to the right and to the left, and the cyclical movement.

It does not derive its light from itself, but is illuminated by sun, and moon, and stars, and fire. And this is just what the Scripture means when it says, And darkness was upon the deep Genesis 1:2; for its object is to show that the air has not derived its light from itself, but that it is quite a different essence from light.

And wind is a movement of air: or wind is a rush of air which changes its name as it changes the place whence it rushes.

Its place is in the air. For place is the circumference of a body. But what is it that surrounds bodies but air? There are, moreover, different places in which the movement of air originates, and from these the winds get their names. There are in all twelve winds. It is said that air is just fire after it has been extinguished, or the vapour of heated water. At all events, in its own special nature the air is warm, but it becomes cold owing to the proximity of water and earth, so that the lower parts of it are cold, and the higher warm.

These then are the winds : Cęcias, or Meses, arises in the region where the sun rises in summer. Subsolanus, where the sun rises at the equinoxes. Eurus, where it rises in winter. Africus, where it sets in winter. Favonius, where it sets at the equinoxes, and Corus, or Olympias, or Iapyx, where it sets in summer. Then come Auster and Aquilo, whose blasts oppose one another. Between Aquilo and Cęcias comes Boreas: and between Eurus and Auster, Phœnix or Euronotus; between Auster and Africus, Libonotus or Leuconotus: and lastly, between Aquilo and Corus, Thrascias, or Cercius, as it is called by the inhabitants of that region.

[These , then, are the races which dwell at the ends of the world: beside Subsolanus are the Bactriani: beside Eurus, the Indians: beside Phœnix, the Red Sea and Ethiopia: beside Libonotus, the Garamantes, who are beyond Systis: beside Africus, the Ethiopians and the Western Mauri: beside Favonius, the columns of Hercules and the beginnings of Libya and Europe: beside Corus, Iberia, which is now called Spain: beside Thrascia, the Gauls and the neighbouring nations: beside Aquilo, the Scythians who are beyond Thrace: beside Boreas, Pontus, Męotis and the Sarmatę: beside Cęcias, the Caspian Sea and the Sacai.]

Chapter 9. Concerning the waters.

Water also is one of the four elements, the most beautiful of God's creations. It is both wet and cold, heavy, and with a tendency to descend, and flows with great readiness. It is this the Holy Scripture has in view when it says, And darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. Genesis 1:2 For the deep is nothing else than a huge quantity of water whose limit man cannot comprehend. In the beginning, indeed, the water lay all over the surface of the earth. And first God created the firmament to divide the water above the firmament from the water below the firmament. For in the midst of the sea of waters the firmament was established at the Master's decree. And out of it God bade the firmament arise, and it arose. Now for what reason was it that God placed water above the firmament? It was because of the intense burning heat of the sun and ether. For immediately under the firmament is spread out the ether , and the sun and moon and stars are in the firmament, and so if water had not been put above it the firmament would have been consumed by the heat.

Next, God bade the waters be gathered together into one mass. Genesis 1:9 But when the Scripture speaks of one mass it evidently does not mean that they were gathered together into one place: for immediately it goes on to say, And the gatherings of the waters He called seas Genesis 1:10: but the words signify that the waters were separated off in a body from the earth into distinct groups. Thus the waters were gathered together into their special collections and the dry land was brought to view. And hence arose the two seas that surround Egypt, for it lies between two seas. These collections contain various seas and mountains, and islands, and promontories, and harbours, and surround various bays and beaches, and coastlands. For the word beach is used when the nature of the tract is sandy, while coastland signifies that it is rocky and deep close into shore, getting deep all on a sudden. In like manner arose also the sea that lies where the sun rises, the name of which is the Indian Sea: also the northern sea called the Caspian. The lakes also were formed in the same manner.

The ocean, then, is like a river encircling the whole earth, and I think it is concerning it that the divine Scripture says, A river went out of Paradise. Genesis 2:10 The water of the ocean is sweet and potable. It is it that furnishes the seas with water which, because it stays a long time in the seas and stands unmoved, becomes bitter: for the sun and the waterspouts draw up always the finer parts. Thus it is that clouds are formed and showers take place, because the filtration makes the water sweet.

This is parted into four first divisions, that is to say, into four rivers. The name of the first is Pheison, which is the Indian Ganges; the name of the second is Geon, which is the Nile flowing from Ethiopia down to Egypt: the name of the third is Tigris, and the name of the fourth is Euphrates. There are also very many other mighty rivers of which some empty themselves into the sea and others are used up in the earth. Thus the whole earth is bored through and mined, and has, so to speak, certain veins through which it sends up in springs the water it has received from the sea. The water of the spring thus depends for its character on the quality of the earth. For the sea water is filtered and strained through the earth and thus becomes sweet. But if the place from which the spring arises is bitter or briny, so also is the water that is sent up. Moreover, it often happens that water which has been closely pent up bursts through with violence, and thus it becomes warm. And this is why they send forth waters that are naturally warm.

By the divine decree hollow places are made in the earth, and so into these the waters are gathered. And this is how mountains are formed. God, then, bade the first water produce living breath, since it was to be by water and the Holy Spirit that moved upon the waters in the beginning Genesis 1:2, that man was to be renewed. For this is what the divine Basilius said: Therefore it produced living creatures, small and big; whales and dragons, fish that swim in the waters, and feathered fowl. The birds form a link between water and earth and air: for they have their origin in the water, they live on the earth and they fly in the air. Water, then, is the most beautiful element and rich in usefulness, and purifies from all filth, and not only from the filth of the body but from that of the soul, if it should have received the grace of the Spirit.

Concerning the seas.

The Ęgean Sea is received by the Hellespont, which ends at Abydos and Sestus: next, the Propontis, which ends at Chalcedon and Byzantium: here are the straits where the Pontus arises. Next, the lake of Męotis. Again, from the beginning of Europe and Libya it is the Iberian Sea, which extends from the pillars of Hercules to the Pyrenees mountain. Then the Ligurian Sea as far as the borders of Etruria. Next, the Sardinian Sea, which is above Sardinia and inclines downwards to Libya. Then the Etrurian Sea, which begins at the extreme limits of Liguria and ends at Sicily. Then the Libyan Sea. Then the Cretan, and Sicilian, and Ionian, and Adriatic Seas, the last of which is poured out of the Sicilian Sea, which is called the Corinthian Gulf, or the Alcyonian Sea. The Saronic Sea is surrounded by the Sunian and Scyllęan Seas. Next is the Myrtoan Sea and the Icarian Sea, in which are also the Cyclades. Then the Carpathian, and Pamphylian, and Egyptian Seas: and, thereafter, above the Icarian Sea, the Ęgean Sea pours itself out. There is also the coast of Europe from the mouth of the Tanais River to the Pillars of Hercules, 609,709 stadia: and that of Libya from the Tigris, as far as the mouth of the Canobus, 209,252 stadia: and lastly, that of Asia from the Canobus to the Tanais, which, including the Gulf, is 4,111 stadia. And so the full extent of the seaboard of the world that we inhabit with the gulfs is 1,309,072 stadia.

Chapter 10. Concerning earth and its products.

The earth is one of the four elements, dry, cold, heavy, motionless, brought into being by God, out of nothing on the first day. For in the beginning, he said, God created the heaven and the earth Genesis 1:1: but the seat and foundation of the earth no man has been able to declare. Some, indeed, hold that its seat is the waters: thus the divine David says, To Him Who established the earth on the waters. Others place it in the air. Again some other says, He Who hangs the earth on nothing. Job 26:7 And, again, David, the singer of God, says, as though the representative of God, I bear up the pillars of it , meaning by pillars the force that sustains it. Further, the expression, He has founded it upon the seas , shows clearly that the earth is on all hands surrounded with water. But whether we grant that it is established on itself, or on air or on water, or on nothing, we must not turn aside from reverent thought, but must admit that all things are sustained and preserved by the power of the Creator.

In the beginning, then, as the Holy Scripture says Genesis 1:2, it was hidden beneath the waters, and was unwrought, that is to say, not beautified. But at God's bidding, places to hold the waters appeared, and then the mountains came into existence, and at the divine command the earth received its own proper adornment, and was dressed in all manner of herbs and plants, and on these, by the divine decree, was bestowed the power of growth and nourishment, and of producing seed to generate their like. Moreover, at the bidding of the Creator it produced also all manner of kinds of living creatures, creeping things, and wild beasts, and cattle. All, indeed, are for the seasonable use of man: but of them some are for food, such as stags, sheep, deer, and such like: others for service such as camels, oxen, horses, asses, and such like: and others for enjoyment, such as apes, and among birds, jays and parrots, and such like. Again, among plants and herbs some are fruit bearing, others edible, others fragrant and flowery, given to us for our enjoyment, for example, the rose and such like, and others for the healing of disease. For there is not a single animal or plant in which the Creator has not implanted some form of energy capable of being used to satisfy man's needs. For He Who knew all things before they were, saw that in the future man would go forward in the strength of his own will, and would be subject to corruption, and, therefore, He created all things for his seasonable use, alike those in the firmament, and those on the earth, and those in the waters.

Indeed, before the transgression all things were under his power. For God set him as ruler over all things on the earth and in the waters. Even the serpent was accustomed to man, and approached him more readily than it did other living creatures, and held intercourse with him with delightful motions. And hence it was through it that the devil, the prince of evil, made his most wicked suggestion to our first parents. Genesis 3:1 Moreover, the earth of its own accord used to yield fruits, for the benefit of the animals that were obedient to man, and there was neither rain nor tempest on the earth. But after the transgression, when he was compared with the unintelligent cattle and became like to them , after he had contrived that in him irrational desire should have rule over reasoning mind and had become disobedient to the Master's command, the subject creation rose up against him whom the Creator had appointed to be ruler: and it was appointed for him that he should till with sweat the earth from which he had been taken.

But even now wild beasts are not without their uses, for, by the terror they cause, they bring man to the knowledge of his Creator and lead him to call upon His name. And, further, at the transgression the thorn sprung out of the earth in accordance with the Lord's express declaration and was conjoined with the pleasures of the rose, that it might lead us to remember the transgression on account of which the earth was condemned to bring forth for us thorns and prickles.

That this is the case is made worthy of belief from the fact that their endurance is secured by the word of the Lord, saying, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth Genesis 1:22 .

Further, some hold that the earth is in the form of a sphere, others that it is in that of a cone. At all events it is much smaller than the heaven, and suspended almost like a point in its midst. And it will pass away and be changed. But blessed is the man who inherits the earth promised to the meek Matthew 5:5 .

For the earth that is to be the possession of the holy is immortal. Who, then, can fitly marvel at the boundless and incomprehensible wisdom of the Creator? Or who can render sufficient thanks to the Giver of so many blessings ?

[There are also provinces, or prefectures, of the earth which we recognise: Europe embraces thirty four, and the huge continent of Asia has forty-eight of these provinces, and twelve canons as they are called. ]

St. Robert Bellarmine
The Mind's Ascent to God on the Ladder of Created Things
(introductions to Steps III, IV, V, and VI)


We have considerd the world of bodies in general: proceed we now to an examination of the principal parts thereof and make them instrumental in carrying us up to the Creator.

The first that presents itself is the Earth, which though it hath the meanest situation, and appears less than the other elements, yet is not really less than the Water, but is in worth and dignity superior to them all.

Upon this account it is that we frequently read in holy writ that God made Heaven and Earth, as the principal parts of the world, to which the rest are subservient: for He made the Heavens, as it were a palace for Himself and Angels: and the Earth a palace for men. "Heaven," saith the Psalmist, "even the Heavens are the Lord's, but the Earth hath He given to the children of men"; therefore you see the Heavens beset with bright stars, and the Earth impregnated with variety of rich metals, and precious stones, abounding with herbs, trees, and animals of divers kinds; but the water to be stored only with fishes, and Fire and Air to be almost empty, unfurnished elements. But to omit these things, the Earth offers three things to our Consideration, which duly attended to, do naturally elevate our Minds to God.

In the first place, it is the most solid and firm foundation of the universe, without which man could neither walk, nor sit still, nor dispatch business, nor, indeed, any ways subsist. "The Lord," saith the Psalmst, "hath established the world that it cannot be moved; and He hath laid the foundations of the Earth that should not be removed for ever."

Secondly, the Earth like an indulgent nurse of men, and other creatures, constantly produceth herbs, corn, grass, fruits from trees, and numberless things of like sort. For this account the Almighty gives, "Behold I have given you every Herb bearing seeds which is upon the face of all the Earth, and every tree in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seeds to you it shall be for meats and to all that live upon the Earth."

Thirdly, the Earth furnishes us with stones and wood to build houses, and helps us to brass and iron for various purposes, supplies us likewise with silver and gold, of which we coin money, which is an Instrument that readily purchases for us all the conveniences of life.

Now that first property of the Earth, viz., that it is a place in which our bodies rest, which they cannot do in any of the other elements, is a symbol of the Creator, in Whom alone the soul of man can find a resting place. "Thou, O Lord," saith St. Austin, "hath created us for Thyself, and our Heart is restless 'til it centers in Thee."  King Solomon, as much as every man, was in pursuit of rest by dominion, amassing up treasures, and contriving variety of pleasures and delights. He had a very spacious kingdom, and that in a state of perfect peace and tranquillity, for as the Scriptures acquaint us, "He had dominion overall the region on this side the river from Tophsah even to Assah, over all the kings on this side the river; and had Peace on all sides about him." Such besides was the vastness of his wealth, that he maintained fourty thousand stalls of horses for his vhariots, and twelve thousand horsemen. And we read that his navy brought gold from Ophir in such quantity, that silver was of no account, that at Jerusalem the stones in the street were not more common than that. As for Pleasures he seemed to have ingrossed them. "We read that he was in love with many strange women, that he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines. But hear him speaking for himself, "I made me 'great works, I builded me houses, I planted me vineyards. I made me gardens and orchards, I planted trees in them of all kinds of fruit. I made me pools of water to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees. I got  me servants and maidens, and had servants bom in my House; also I had possessions of great and small cattle, above all that were in Jerufalem before me. I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasures of kings, and of the provinces; I got me men-fingers, and women-fingers, and the delights of the senses of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts. So I was great and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem, also my wisdom remained with me, and whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy, for my heart rejoiced in all my labours and this was my portion of all my labour."

This account he gives of himself: and certainly, if quiet and satisfaction is to be met with here below, he could not have come short of it. He had dominion, and wealths and pleasures at command, and had a greater share of humane wisdom, which is generally had in great esteem, than ever any Mortal was possessed of: And to make all these relish the better, he enjoyed, for a long time, an uninterrupted peace.

Inquire we now whether in this affluence of good things, he found satisfaction, and could thence fill the capacities of his soul. I looked, saith he, on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour wherein I had wearied myself and behold! all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the Sun.

Solomon, you see, found no satisfaction amidst so great riches, and pleasures, wisdom and honour; nor indeed could he have attained it, tho' he had possessed them in a much greater measure, for the mind of man is immortal, but these are vain and transitory things. The soul is of an immortal angelic nature, and a soul capable of an everlasting happiness, can never acquiesce in that which is but temporary. As therefore a human body cannot rest in the Air, though never so spacious, nor in the Water, be it never so deep, because the Earth, and not those Elements is its centre, so the soul of man can never meet with rest in aerial honours, nor in riches, that have their original from Earth and dirt, nor in waterish, that is, unstable and muddy pleasures, nor in the false dplendor of humane Knowledge, but must expect it from God alone, Who is  the soul's Centre, the true, and only Place of rest. Well therefore doth the Father of Solomon cry out, "Whom have I in Heaven but Thee, and there is nothing in Earth I desire in comparison of Thee. God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever." As if he had said, I can meet with nothing either in Heaven or Earth, or in any other creature under Heaven, or above Earth, which can procure me true quiet and happiness. Thou only, my God, art a firm and solid rock to my heart; in Thee, and none but Thee, can I find resting place; Thou only art my portion, mine inheritance, mine all, the universe, abstracted from Thee, is infignificant to my ease and happiness. And as Thou alone art the Giver of rest, so the rest Thou conferres is not for a little time, but for ever; Thou alone, I say, conferrest eternal rest, all other things are insufficient to content me one day. Art thou yet willing to acknowledge, my soul, that God only is thy Rock, on which thou mayest securely rest; that other things are vanity and vexation of spirit; that they are not realities but illusions, which do not comfort, but afflict, as being purchased with labour, possessed with fear, and lost with grief and lamentation? Therefore, my Soul, if thou art wise, slight all fading and transitory things, lest they involve thee in the same ruin : abide constant and close to him Who is the Rock of Ages, and continues to eternity. Lift up thy soul to God on high, that it putrefy not on Earth.

Learn true wisdom from the multitude of fools, in whose person the wise man thus speaks, "We have erred from the way of truth, and the light of righteousness hath not shined upon us. We have wearied ourselves in the way of wickedness and destruction,and have gone in difficult ways, but the way of the Lord have we not known. What good hath pride done us? what  advantage have we from boasting of our riches? All these things are passed away like shadow, and we are consumed in our own naughtiness."


Water, another of this world's elements, is next in dignity to Earth, which likewise, duly considered, will furnish a fecond step of ascension. And first we will consider Water in general, and then from fountains infer a special ascension to God.

Water is moist and cold, and hence hath five properties; for it washeth, and takes off spots, extinguishes fire, cools and mitigates the heat of thirst, unites many and different things, and lastly, ascends as high as it descends.

All these are manifest symbols, or representations of the universal Creator. Water washeth corporeal spots, God washeth the foulness of the soul. "Thou shalt wash me," saith David, "and I shall be whiter than snow." For though contrition, sacraments, God's ministers, alms, and other works of piety, do wash the pollutions of the heart, I mean sins; yet all these are but instruments, and preparatives, the whole work of purification must be ascribed to God as to the sole Author thereof. "I, even I," saith God by Esaias, am He that blotteth out thy transgressions for Mine own sake."

And therefore the Pharisees that said with indignation, reflecting upon Christ, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" were under no mistake in attributing the power of remission thereof to God alone; but in their not believing Him to be God, and hence there happened a mixture of truth and blasphemy.

Nor doth God only warn the defilements of the heart, after the similitude of Water, but is also pleased to be termed Water. For St. John thus writes, "He that believeth on Me," as the Scripture saith, "out of his belly shall flow rivers of living Water. But this he spake of the Spirit, which they should receive who believed on Him, for the Holy Ghost was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified." Therefore the Holy Spirit, who as He is God, is also living Water, and of this Water Ezekiel speaks, "I will pour upon you clean water, and ye shall be cleansed from all your filthiness." And because that celestial, uncreated Water, far surpasses the virtue of this earthly created Water, I cannot therefore but take notice of the different effects of one, and the other, in three respects.

This elementary Water washeth off bodily spots, but not all, for many will not yield to it, unless assisted with soap, and such applications. The supernatural Water leaves not so much as one spot behind it; for thus we read in the now cited place, "And ye be be cleaned from all your filthinesss. Created Water doth rarely so throughly take off spots, but that some print or shadow remains. Uncreated Water doth so purify that what is washed therewith becomes more white, and beautiful, than it was in its Native Purity.

"Thou shalt wash me," saith David, "and I fall be whiter than snow." And the Lord greets us thus comfortably by Esaiah, "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow;  though they be as crimson, they shall be as wool. Created Water, (to give one instance more) washeth away natural stains, which offer no resistance to the cleanser; uncreated Water washeth away voluntary spots, which yet are not done away, unless the Soul concur to its own cleansing. But so admirable is the power of this supernatural Water, that it insensibly sinks into stony hearts, and therefore the hardest cannot reject it, because it forceth its way, as St. Augustin very well observes. "Who can comprehend," saith he, "in what a wonderful manner thou inspirest faith into the hearts of unbelievers, infusest humility into the hearts of the proud, and insinuatest charity into the breasts of Thine enemies, insomuch that he who a little before did breath out threatnings and slaughter, and persecuted Thee in Thy disciples, being on a sudden changed into another Man, could quietly hear the threatnings, and patiently endure the slaughters of persecutors  for the sake of Thee, and Thy Church. It is far out of my reach to dive into the bottom of these secrets, and I had rather experience than curiously inquire into the efficacy of thy grace. And since I am assured that this Water of Thine is a voluntary rain, set apart for Thine inheritance, as Thy holy prophet hath declared; therefore I most humbly beg that I may be found amongst Thine inheritance, and that it would please Thy grace to descend into the soil of my heart that it may not continue dry and barren, as a land that hath no Water, such as it naturally is of itself, being unable so much as to think a good Thought."


The aery element may prove an excellent teacher of morality to mankind, if its nature and properties be duly observed. Nor is it only adapted to teach moral philosophy, but also to discover the mysteries of sacred theology, and to raise up our minds to God, if we attend to those several benefits, which, by divine appointment, it incessantly affords mankind.

Air, in the first place, as it administers to respiration, preserves the life of man, and all earthly creatures. In the next place it is so absolutely necessary in order to our seeing, hearing, and speaking, that if it should happen to be wanting, tho' we have all other requisites, blindness, deafness,and dumbness would presently seize on us all. And finally, such is the necessity of Air, that men and other creatures may be able to move, that take it away, and there's an end of all Motion; all Arts and Sciences are useless, and all the business of mankind is at a stand. To begin
with the first.

Did men understand that there is a respiration as proder, and necessary to the soul, as to the body, many would be saved who now perish. The body needs continual respiration, because the natural heat, by which the heart is inflamed, by the help of the l ungs, attracting the cool Air, and ejecting the hot, is so tempered, that it preserves life , without which respiration, it could not be continued. From which consideration it is, that we usually take living and breathing for the same thing; for every one that breatheth, liveth, and he that ceaseth to breath, ceaseth also to live. And thou, my soul, that thou mayest live a spiritual life, which is the Grace of God, hast need of continual respiration, which is made by sending up ardent sighs in prayer unto God, and by fetching from him fresh supplies of His Holy Spirit. For what else is the meaning of those words of thy Lord, "We ought always to pray and not to faint," but this, thou oughtest always to sigh, and receive new Spirit, that the spiritual life may not be extinguished in thee? Which he repeats again, when he says, "Watch therefore, and pray continually." And the Apostle confirms the same in his former Epistle to the Thessalonians, saying, "Pray without ceasing." With whom accords St. Peter in his former epistle, "Be therefore prudent, and watch unto prayer." For this is true wisdom, that we, who stand in continual need of divine assistance, should continually petition for it. Our Father, indeed knows what things we have need of, and he is ready to furnish us with a plentiful supply, especially of such things as promote our eternal salvation, but he will have prayer the instrument of bringing them to us: for hereby more honour accrues to him, and benefit to us, than if all things should drop into our  mouths, whilst we are stretched out upon our beds of ease, and our hands folded to invite sleep. Therefore our most bountiful Lord exhorts, and earnestly importunes us to ask, when He saith, "I say unto you, ask, and it shall be given you, seek, and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you; for every one that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh it shall be opened." And what that is which we should especially make request for, and which will certainly be granted us, He declares a little after, saying, "If ye being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Heavenly Father give the Holy Ghost to them that ask him?" For this Holy Spirit we should constantly and earnestly petition, and we need not doubt, but prayer rightly qualified, will procure it, whereby we shall have respiration in God, and so preserve spiritual life, as holy David did, who said, "I opened my mouth, and drew in my breath," that is, I opened my mouth in desiring, sighing, and requesting, with groans that cannot be uttered; and I drew in the most delicious Air of the Spirit of God, which allayed the heat of concupiscence, and established me in every good work. Now the case being thus, who will say, that those persons live in a spiritual sense, who spend whole days, nay, months, and years, and never sigh after God, nor send up petitions to him? For it is a certain sign of death not to breathe, and if to breathe is to pray, it will be a sign of death not to pray. Spiritual life, by which we are the sons of God, consists in Love: "Ye see," saith St. John in his epistle, "what Love the Father hath given us, that we would be called, and be, the sons of God." But who is in love, and desireth not to see the person whom he loveth? Who desires, and asks not for what he desires, from Him, Who he knows will give if asked? He then that prays not daily to see the Face of his God, desires not to see Him; he that desires not, loves not; he that loves not, doth not live. What follows then, but that we conclude those to be dead to God, though the world account them the only living, who converse not with him daily in holy prayer, nor lift up their heart towards Him? Neither is he to be reckoned in the number of such as pray, and breathe, and live, that only draws nigh to God with his lips , for wise men define prayer to be, not a beating the Air with the voice, but the lifting up the soul unto God.

Therefore, my soul don't deceive thyself in fancying thou livest to God, if thou do not earnestly seek Him with thy whole Heart and sigh after him day and night. Pretend not that multiplicity of business allows thee not leisure for divine conferences, and prayer. The holy apostles had a great deal of business upon their hands, and that too the work of God, and the salvation of souls, insomuch that one of them could say, "Besides those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the Churches, who is weak, and I am not weak ? Who is offended and I burn not?" And yet this same Apostle, besides his very frequent mentioning of his prayers, writes thus to the Philippians, Our conversation is in Heaven." This he could say, because in the greatest hurry of business, he conversed with Heaven in desire, and did not at any time forget his beloved, otherwise he could not say, "I am crucified with Christ. Nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me."


Fire is an element so very pure and noble that God Himself was pleased to be called by that name according to what both Moses and Paul affirm: "Our God is a consuming Fire." And when God first appeared to Moses, it was his pleasure to be seen in Fire., which seized on a bush, and did not consume it. "God," saith Moses," appeared in flame of Fire out of the midst of the bush and he saw that the bush burned, and was not consumed. And when God likewise came to give His Law to His people, He appeared in the likeness of Fire; for thus saith the same Moses, "Mount Sinai was all on smoak, because the Lord descended upon it in Fire." Agreeably to which Mystery, when the new Law was to be published, the Holy Ghost appeared to the apostles in tongues of Fire. And finally, they who in Heaven make the nearest approach to God are called Seraphim, that is fiery, because they conceive a greater degree of fervour and heat  from that divine and moft ardent Fire than the other Orders of Angels do. It will therefore be no difficult matter to make us a step, from the nature and properties of this element, which by the assistance of prayer and meditation, will advance us nearer to God. It will certainly be less difficult to mount upwards with Elias in a fiery chariot, than to make steps of ascension from either Earth, Water, or Air.

Come we then to consider the properties of Fire. Fire is of fuch a Nature, that in different things, it works after a different, and many times, a contrary manner. Such things as wood, hay, and stubble, it forthwith consumes: but gold, silver, and precious stones it purifies, and renders more beautiful. Iron, which is naturally black, cold, hard, and heavy, Fire so transmutes into contrary qualities, that it presently becomes bright and hot, soft and light; nay, that it
shines like a star, burns like Fire, dissolves like Water, lays aside its ponderousness, and becomes so light that the smith can manage it at pleasure. All these things manifestly agree to God. And in the first place, wood, hay, stubble, according to the apostle, in his former epistle to the Corinthians, signify evil works, which cannot bear the Fire of divine judgment. And, indeed, it is not to be imagined how sorely all sins displease God, Who is most pure Fire, and with how great zeal He consumes and destroys them, if they may be destroyed by repentance, that is, if the sinner is in a state that is capable of repentance; for by repentance all sins are done away: but if the sinner is uncapable of repentance, as evil spirits are, and all men after this life, then the wrath of God lights upon the wicked themselves, for as the wise man saith, "The wicked and his wickedness are abomination to the Lord." Now how great and severe this hatred is, which God executes upon the finally impenitent, the Devil can attest, who sinned once, and tho' he was a most glorious angel, and (as some conceive) the Prince of the order of angels, and the most excellent of the creatures of God; yet was presently thrown down from Heaven, stripped of all his supernatural grace and glory, transformed into a most ugly monster, and enslaved to everlasting destruction. Of this Christ is witness, Who came down from Heaven to destroy the works of the Devil, that is, sin: and is therefore called the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world. Now that Christ might destroy the works of the Devil, and make compleat satisfaction to divine justice, who can declare, or so much as conceive, what hardships He endured? "Who being in the form of God, made Himfelf of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant; who when He was rich became poor for sakes;" Who had not a place where to lay His head, tho' He was the Creator of both Heaven and Earth: "He came to His own, and His own received Him not; when He was reviled, He reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not, but committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously; Who His own Self did bear our sins in His own Body on the Tree: He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death; even the death of the Cross: by Whose stripes we are healed." And lastly, being mocked, spit upon, scourged, crowned with thorns, crucified with the greater reproach, and moft grievous pain, shed his Blood, and expired. All this He underwent to destroy the works of the Devil, and to atone for our Sins. To this the Law of God attests, which forbids, and punisheth, sin in general, and leaves not so much as an idle word unaccounted for. And how must He abominate all great and heinous crimes, Who cannot endure so much as an idle word? "The law of the Lord is undefiled and the precepts of the Lord give light"; they utterly dislike impurity and darkness; neither can there be any communion betwixt Light and darkness, nor betwixt righteousness and iniquity. To conclude, Hell itself is witness hereto, which God hath prepared for the wicked, and sinners, who, when they might have been cleansed with the Blood of the immaculate Lamb, either refused or neglected: For it is equitable that there should be no end of punishment to those, whose sins shall everlastingly remain. But what the nature of infernal punishment is, and how great, I dare not so much as consider in my thoughts*. But of this we will say something more in the last step.

St. . Basil
On the Hexaemeron
Homily II

The form of the world is due to the wisdom of the supreme Artificer; matter came to the Creator from without; and thus the world results from a double origin. It has received from outside its matter and its essence, and from God its form and figure. They thus come to deny that the mighty God has presided at the formation of the universe, and pretend that He has only brought a crowning contribution to a common work, that He has only contributed some small portion to the genesis of beings: they are incapable from the debasement of their reasonings of raising their glances to the height of truth. Here below arts are subsequent to matter — introduced into life by the indispensable need of them. Wool existed before weaving made it supply one of nature's imperfections. Wood existed before carpentering took possession of it, and transformed it each day to supply new wants, and made us see all the advantages derived from it, giving the oar to the sailor, the winnowing fan to the labourer, the lance to the soldier. But God, before all those things which now attract our notice existed, after casting about in His mind and determining to bring into being time which had no being, imagined the world such as it ought to be, and created matter in harmony with the form which He wished to give it. He assigned to the heavens the nature adapted for the heavens, and gave to the earth an essence in accordance with its form. He formed, as He wished, fire, air and water, and gave to each the essence which the object of its existence required. Finally, He welded all the diverse parts of the universe by links of indissoluble attachment and established between them so perfect a fellowship and harmony that the most distant, in spite of their distance, appeared united in one universal sympathy. Let those men therefore renounce their fabulous imaginations, who, in spite of the weakness of their argument, pretend to measure a power as incomprehensible to man's reason as it is unutterable by man's voice.

Gregory of Nyssa
On the Baptism of Christ

That which the fathers taught, and which our mind has received and assented to, is as follows:— We recognize four elements, of which the world is composed, which every one knows even if their names are not spoken; but if it is well, for the sake of the more simple, to tell you their names, they are fire and air, earth and water. Now our God and Saviour, in fulfilling the Dispensation for our sakes, went beneath the fourth of these, the earth, that He might raise up life from thence. And we in receiving Baptism, in imitation of our Lord and Teacher and Guide, are not indeed buried in the earth (for this is the shelter of the body that is entirely dead, covering the infirmity and decay of our nature), but coming to the element akin to earth, to water, we conceal ourselves in that as the Saviour did in the earth: and by doing this thrice we represent for ourselves that grace of the Resurrection which was wrought in three days: and this we do, not receiving the sacrament in silence, but while there are spoken over us the Names of the Three Sacred Persons on Whom we believed, in Whom we also hope, from Whom comes to us both the fact of our present and the fact of our future existence.

St. Ambrose
Concerning Virginity, Book II, Chapter 5

St. Ambrose, speaking of tears, explains David's saying, Every night wash l my couch with my tears, and goes on to speak of Christ bearing our griefs and infirmities. Everything should be referred to His honour, and we ought to rejoice with spiritual joy, but not after a worldly fashion.

21. And who can now fail to understand that the holy prophet said for our instruction: Every night will I wash my couch and water my bed with my tears? For if you take it literally for his bed, he shows that such abundance of tears should be shed as to wash the bed and water it with tears, the couch of him who is praying, for weeping has to do with the present, rewards with the future, since it is said: Blessed are you that weep, for you shall laugh (Luke 6:21); or if we take the word of the prophet as applied to our bodies, we must wash away the offenses of the body with tears of penitence. For Solomon made himself a bed of wood from Lebanon, its pillars were of silver, its bottom of gold, its back strewn with gems (Song of Songs 3:6). What is that bed but the fashion of our body? For by gems is set forth the splendour of the brightness of the air, fire is set forth by the gold, water by silver, and earth by wood, of which four elements the human body consists, in which our soul rests, if it do not exist deprived of rest by the roughness of hills or the damp ground, but raised on high, above vices, supported by the wood. For which reason David also says: The Lord will send him help upon his bed of pain. For how can that be a bed of pain which cannot feel pain, and which has no feeling? But the body of pain is like the body of that death, of which it is said: O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death? (Romans 7:24)

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