The marriage of Joseph and Mary

Super Flumina

under the patronage of St Joseph and St Dominic

By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept, remembering Zion;
on the poplars that grew there we hung up our harps. . . Ps 136

St Dominic


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Professor Solomon's Introduction to Philosophy

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In the Church’s proclamation of the principles of the Catholic faith with the support of the terms of sacred scripture she makes a distinction, which appears clearly in the Latin but is hidden in the English translation, between ‘heaven’ when the term refers to that place where God resides, if one may so speak (convertible with the Godhead itself), and when the term refers to that thing God created in the beginning, as witness the very first of Genesis.  This ‘heaven’ we have argued elsewhere is identical with Aristotle’s ‘heavenly body’ or aether, St Thomas’s ‘first altering body’ - “through which all other (bodies) are sustained” - the immense sea, material but invisible, in which subsist sun, moon, stars, ‘wandering stars’ (i.e., the planets), shooting stars and comets.[1]  This ‘heaven’ is convertible with the universe.


The distinction appears in the Latin through the differing uses of singular and plural number.  When ‘heaven’ refers to that entity God created at the beginning of time the singular caelum is used.  When ‘heaven’ refers to that place where God resides, caelum is used in the plural, generally in the ablative (caelis).


Now to this rule there are exceptions but these exceptions can, I think, be explained.


Curiously, one never finds in classical Latin the neuter plural of caelum in the nominative or accusative cases (caela in both).  In ecclesiastical Latin—the Church’s Latin—the noun is treated as if it is masculine (caelus, caeli).  The noun appears episodically as a masculine plural, caeli, as in Psalms 18, 96 and 148, in Ezechiel ch. 1, cited below, and in the Te Deum.  This usage (of a masculine plural in the accusative, caelos) has some classical authority: the Roman poet and philosopher, Lucretius (99 – 55 BC), is known to have used it.[2]


Let the reader study the following instances.  The Pater Noster begins—

Pater Noster, Qui es in caelis

It uses the plural for that place (?) where God resides.  In contrast, the first line of Genesis uses the singular for His creation ‘in the beginning’—

In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram…

The Nicene Creed begins—

Credo in unum Deum, Patrem Omnipotentem, factorem caeli et terrae…

God created the (singular) heaven, it asserts, supporting what is said in Genesis.  When adverting to our belief in one Lord, Jesus Christ descending from heaven, it reflects the citation in the Pater Noster in its use of the plural—

Qui propter nos homines et… nostram salutem descendit de caelis, et incarnatus est…

But where the Creed refers to Christ’s Ascension into heaven, it reverts to the singular—

et ascendit in caelum

which is understandable.  The apostles and disciples observed Our Lord ascend above the earth into the heaven that He had created.  Certainly He passed from there into the heaven which is God’s abode: the Church insists, indeed, that He had never left it!


Now, while this dichotomy seems to be a rule there are exceptions when the created heaven is adverted to by use of the plural.  In Psalm 18: 2, for instance, we read—

caeli enarrant gloriam Dei, et opera manuum eius annunciat firmamentum—

Here the reference is to the created heaven expressed in the (masculine) plural.  The context seems to justify it because ‘the heaven’ is extended to include the bodies with which the Creator peopled it – sun, moon, stars, ‘wandering stars’ (the planets), shooting stars and comets.  These, the psalmist asserts, “proclaim the glory of God, and the firmament the works of His hands”.  ‘The firmament’ substitutes, I suggest, for the created heaven which is the setting for these bodies and, in support of my thesis, appears in the singular.


Psalm 96: 6 runs—

annuntiaverunt caeli iustitiam eius et viderunt omnes populi gloriam eius—

“The heavens (masculine plural) proclaim His justice and all peoples have seen His glory”.  Again, this seems to refer not so much to the invisible heavenly body but to its visible occupants.


Psalm 148: 3 - 4—

Laudate eum, sol et luna: laudate eum omnes stellae et lumen.  Laudate eum caeli caelorum… et aquae omnes, quae super caelos sunt, laudent nomen Domini…

The expression caeli caelorum – literally ‘the heavens of heavens’ – again seems to signify the heavenly body by reference to its innumerable occupants.  Later, in v. 13, the author reverts to the singular, which is consistent with the thesis here proposed—

Confessio eius super caelum et terram…

“His praise is above heaven and earth.”  And the first line of the same psalm—

              Laudate Dominum de caelis—

“Praise the Lord from the heavens…” may be interpreted as referring to the heaven’s visible elements.


In Ezechiel ch. 1: 1, the prophet’s narrative runs—

et factum est… cum essem in captivorum iuxta fluvium Chobar aperti sunt caeli et vidi visiones Dei—

“[I]t happened… while I was among the captives beside the river Chobar, the heavens (masculine plural) were thrown open...”  The heavenly body is invisible; it was its visible elements which were thrown open for the prophet to behold the visions of God.


The Te Deum, the Church’s paean in praise of God, runs—

Te aeternum Patrem omnis terra veneratur.  Tibi omnes Angeli, tibi caeli et universae potestates…

That is, “to Thee all the angels, to Thee the heavens and the powers of the universe…”  This suggests advertence to the heavenly body’s visible elements, justifying the use of the plural.  There follows:

Tibi Cherubim et Seraphim incessabili voce proclamant: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth.  Pleni sunt caeli et terra majestatis gloriae tuae—

“The heavens and the earth are full of Thy glory”.  Again one might reasonably interpret the text as referring to the multitude of the occupants of the heavenly body.


Another thought: in the Pater Noster, the second reference to heaven involves the Latin singular—

Fiat voluntas tua sicut in caelo et in terra.

“(May) Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Now, if the thesis I propose is correct, the reference here is not, as might be thought, to the heaven where God dwells: it is to the heaven He has created, the universe with its infinite number of bodies circling eternally in splendour under the influence of that invisible, immutable, undetectable (though material) body, itself immobile, which serves as the fit instrument of the first mover of all creation, Almighty God.


Here is an even more interesting thought.  The will is the appetite of intellect: in other words, there can be no departure from God’s Will by any creature except by one possessed, as is man, of intellect.  Is this not evidence from Divine revelation that in all the universe there is only one being possessing the ability to depart from the Will of God?  In other words, there is no intellectual material being in all the universe save man.



Michael Baker

May 9th, 2023—St Gregory Nazianzen, Doctor of the Church

[2]  De Rerum Natura, Bk. II, lines 1090 et seq.  Lucretius asks rhetorically, quis regere immensi summam… quis pariter caelos omnis convertere…?  “Who is strong enough to rule the sum of the immeasurable… to turn about all the heavens at one time…?