Tuesday, February 28, 2006

St. Augustine and Mystical Theology

Here's a lecture I gave to my students to guide their reading of St. Augustine's Confessions. Caution: I do not take as dim a view of the influence of Neoplatonism on his theology as many theologians do, east and west.

The essence of any Christian mystical theology is union with God. But such a union must take place in such a manner that the human soul will always be conscious of itself, and not lost into a cosmic "oneness" which is characteristic of Hindu and Buddhist spiritualities. Indeed, for a Christian mystic, such "spirituality" is false, for it destroys the fundamental distinction that obtains between lover and beloved. Indeed, the Christian notion of union with God is always an "I-Thou" relationship, a union of persons in a bond of love, where God remains uniquely Himself, and man does not lose any of his essential attributes. This is what makes this a union of love-the union between two different persons, a sacro convivio, where love can be dynamically expressed.
Given this dynamic relationship, Christian theology in the patristic period was very much concerned with the dogmatic distinctiveness that would make such a union possible. The Christological controversies between the 4th and 9th centuries were precisely about those elements in Christian dogma that facilitated such a divine-human union. The hypostatic union of divinity and humanity in Christ entails a possibility for humanity to be united to the Triune Godhead. For the Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers, these dogmatic disputes were not mere academic exercises, but serious issues that involved nothing less than the possibility of such a union. If in fact God did not become man in Jesus Christ, then this union is impossible.
This is why much of the richest and most meaningful literature produced by the Cappodocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzen) and the Latin Fathers (Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome) have strong mystical elements. Their dogmatic theology, in this case, forms a harmonious and holistic union with their mystical theology. However, it is also the case that they borrow quite heavily from the philosophic and intellectual currents of their day to expound their unique vision of man's union with God. This was no mere mimicry, since they also sought to go beyond the parameters of these philosophic systems in order to pursuit a more biblical vision, one in which man enjoys an eternal union with the Godhead.
These movements are readily apparent in the mystical theology of St. Augustine, especially as expounded in Confessions and De Trinitate. In Augustine, we have a western Christian writer who takes philosophical and theological notions learned from some Greek and Latin Christian sources, but in turn applies them in very unique ways, influencing the movements of later Latin theology. His importance in the history of western theology is undeniable; however, many of the concerns of western theologians have revolved around his dogmatic reflections on nature and grace, worked out in the red heat of the anti-Pelagian controversies. I would submit that many Augustine scholars have tended to focus on this dimension of his theology in isolation of his mystical theology, a cleavage Augustine himself would not have understood. Like many writers in the patristic period, both east and west, dogma and experience formed an integral whole. If you get the dogmatic dimension wrong, you compromise a whole theology of salvation and experience, and since the whole point of the Incarnation is to bring man into union with God, the one would have adverse effects on the other if certain dogmatic lines were crossed. With Augustine, then, just as with the Cappodocian Fathers and, later, St. Maximos the Confessor, we have to treat his dogmatic concerns in concert with his theology of mystical experience.
Of course, Augustine the Neoplatonist informs many of the mystical movements made by Augustine the Christian mystic, and Plotinus is the key that unlocks some (but I'm quick to say not all) of his mystical reflections. The Platonic universe of Plotinus, as he lays it out in the Enneads, can be seen in three ways, according to Andrew Louth: as a hierarchical structure, as a chain of being, or as an introspective vision of the self (Louth, Origins of Christian Mystical Tradition, p. 37). Seen as a hierarchical structure, there are three principles of being, beginning with the highest, the One ('en), also known as the Good. The second level is nous (nous), or the Intelligence, and then Soul (psukh), which is the realm of sense perception, of logical discourse. The Intelligence is the realm of greater unification, where knowledge is more intuitive and experiential, a higher realm of knowing. This is the realm of Plato's "Forms", and where in essence the mind has an apprehension of those perfect forms, and "knower and known are one". Here knowledge is intuitive, and is based on a direct apprehension of those perfect forms. Yet this cannot be the ultimate reality, for while our minds are united to the forms, there is still multiplicity, and therefore duality. For Plotinus, the One still eludes us, since in the realm of Intelligence, our experience is still one of duality, multiplicity, and while there is a harmonious unity between the Forms, there are still "many Forms". For Plotinus, to achieve real unity is to reach the ultimate level of meaning, where all dualities cease, and there is only the One.
The One, for Plotinus, is the absolute ground of all being, the very source of all that is. It is the realm of absolute simplicity, and is also called the Good in that it has no need of anything else to give it its being, and in fact, goes beyond being itself. Direct apprehension of the Good is impossible, since it is so incomprehensible, but at the same time, it is the source of all being. Now it is important to note that the One is not the source of all things in the sense of the Judeo-Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, for in the Plotinian system the universe is eternal. The only way that the One is understood to be the source of all things is by the very fact that it is eternal, and that creation, or emanation, is part of its intrinsic nature. In other words, the One is "creating" (i.e. emanating) because of an internal necessity to do so. It is from the One that Intelligence and the Soul emanate. Andrew Louth describes this process of emanation very well:
These three hypostases, the One, Intelligence or nous, and Soul, are related by processes of Plotinus calls emanation and return-proodos and epistrophe. Intelleigence emanates from the One, and Soul from Intelligence: out of the utterly simple there comes multiplicity, and that multiplicity is further diversified and broken up at the level of discursive understanding. This process of emanation is a process of "overflowing", the potent simplicity of the one "overflows" into Intelligence, and Intelligence overflows into Soul. (Louth, p. 38)

This process of emanation and return is one in which the One unfolds and discloses its simplicity, and return constitutes the Good drawing all things back to itself, thus creating equilibrium. From the Soul, again, comes discursive logic, but also various embodiments, of which flesh is the lowest. The object of the mind is to rise up beyond discursive logic, and transcend to the Intelligence, where knowledge is more intuitive, and thereby pass on into ecstasy in union with the One. It is at this stage that the soul is taken up, "enraptured", in its contemplation, for the One snatches it up into itself. Porphyry, Plotinus' student and biographer, says that three times he was snatched up into this ecstasy, but that it was only a momentary one, a flight into the "darkness" beyond being, to the source of all things. It is one that cannot be sustained, however, for it is a fleeting moment of absolute clarity and union.
How does one achieve this state in Plotinus' account? The answer comes in the first book, sixth treatise in the Enneads, "On Beauty". After posing the rhetorical question "how can one see the inconceivable beauty", the answer is forthcoming: "Let him who can, follow and come within, and leave outside the sight of his eyes and not turn back to the bodily splendors he saw before" (Enneads Book I:6:8). In other words, withdraw into your own soul, and leave behind the realm of the senses. Whatever beauty you see in the external world is temporary, and partakes of change. Our contemplation of outer beauty should in fact cause us to turn inward, and pursue our true "fatherland".
What precisely is seen in this inner contemplation? Plotinus answers this question in a rather lengthy way, which I will quote in its entirety:
When it is just awakened it is not at all able to look at the brilliance before it. So that the soul must be trained, first of all to look at the beautiful ways of life: then at beautiful works, not those which the arts produce, but the works of men who have a name for goodness: then look at the souls of the people who produce the beautiful works. How then can you see the beauty a good soul has? Go back into yourself and look; and if you do not see yourself beautiful, then, just as someone making which has to be beautiful cuts away here and polishes there and makes one part smooth and clears another till he has given his statue a beautiful face, so you too must cut away excess and straighten the crooked and clear the dark and make it bright, and never stop "working on your statue" till the divine glory of virtue shines out on you, till you see "self-mastery enthroned upon its holy seat". If you have become this, and see it, and are at home with yourself in purity, with nothing hindering you from becoming in this way one, with no inward mixture of anything else, but wholly yourself, nothing but true light, not measured by dimensions, or bounded by shape into littleness, or expanded to size by unboundedness, but everywhere unmeasured, because greater than all measure and superior to all quantity; when you see that you have become this, then you have become sight; you can trust yourself then; you have already ascended and need no one to show you; concentrate your gaze and see. This alone is the sight that sees the great beauty…First the soul will come to its ascent to intellect and essence. That which is beyond this we call the nature of the Good, which holds beauty as a screen before it. So in a loose and general way of speaking the Good is the primary beauty; but if one distinguishes the intelligibles (from the good) one will say that the place of the Forms is the intelligible beauty, but the Good is that which is beyond, the "spring and origin" of beauty; or one will place the Good and the primal beauty on the same level: in any case, however, beauty is in the intelligible world. (Enneads, Book I:6:8)

The meaning of this internal reflection is very clear: you must go further in, in order to ascend further up. However, when contemplating beauty, you have reached the heights of the Intelligible world, but even then the "true beauty" is still beyond you, and it is here that the One snatches you up into itself, and the experience of oneness, beyond dualities and mixture. Now let us turn to Augustine and see how he has appropriated Plotinus, but how, in some important ways, he has departed from him.
Let us begin with the Confessions. St. Augustine here does something that no other writer does before him, but which sets a precedent in subsequent western mystical theology. He writes a history of his own spiritual odyssey, culminating, in many ways, in the mystical experience recorded in Book IX. He begins his masterful work of spiritual self-reflection with these moving words: "Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being 'bearing his mortality with him'…you stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you" (Confessions, Book I:1). This passage shows how, in many ways, Plotinus prepared Augustine for Christianity (a theme he will unpack later). Just as Plotinnus, Augustine is like a restless deer wishing to slake his thirst, finding no satisfaction in the "region of dissimilarity". It is here that Augustine sets out the theme of his work-the soul's search for God, and God's condescension, by grace, to bring him into union with himself. This longing is nothing new in Christian and Platonic literature. Plato certainly expresses similar movements in his desire to transcend the world of becoming for the realm of ultimate being, a theme powerfully taken up by Plotinus. And though "Augustine is deeply indebted to Plotinus", we nonetheless see "that in (Augustine's) hands this longing for God is transformed from a human restlessness to our response to the incredible love and condescension of God (by) the movement of the Holy Spirit Himself in our hearts" (Louth, p. 134). The culminating moment occurs in Book IX, where he records a powerful mystical vision he had in Ostia, in an intimate conversation with his mother Monica:
The conversation led us towards the conclusion that the pleasure of the bodily senses, however delightful in the radiant light of this physical world, is seen by comparison with the life of eternity to be not even worth considering. Our minds were lifted up by an ardent affection towards eternal being itself. Step by step we climbed beyond all corporeal objects and the heaven itself, where sun, moon and stars shed light on the earth. We ascended even further by internal reflection and dialogue and wonder at your works, and we entered into our own minds. We moved up beyond them so as to attain to the region of inexhaustible abundance where you feed Israel eternally with truth for food. . There life is the wisdom by which all creatures come into being, both things which are and which will be. Furthermore, in this wisdom there is no past and future, but only being, since it is eternal…And while we talked and panted after it, we touched it in some small degree by a moment of total concentration of the heart. And we sighed and left behind us "the firstfruits of the Spirit" (Rom. 8:23) bound to that higher world, as we returned to the noise of our human speech where a sentence has both a beginning and an ending. But what is to be compared with your word, Lord of our lives? It dwells in you without growing old and gives renewal to all things. (Confessions, Book IX:24)

Plotinus' impact on Augustine is a very marked one here in this passage, especially in its ascending movement from the heart, to the center of ultimate being itself, which, rather than some vague notion of the Good, is the personal Triune God Himself. As a matter of fact, the whole structure of the Confessions may very well take on this Plotinian format, as we follow Augustine from his youth in the "region of dissimilarity", where his search for fulfillment of soul leads him through sensual pleasure, into Manicheanism. His acquaintance with Plotinus leads him from these false hopes, and fixes his gaze on ultimate being, eternity. Augustine was a good student of Plotinus. In the vision at Ostia, Augustine learned from Plotinus to "climb up" by "internal reflection", and there contemplate the ultimate ground of being itself. He goes inward in order to find the traces of the divine image, but he cannot stop there. The divine image is a stamp on his soul, and this must impel him to go higher. Yet here is where the Plotinian mystic tradition ends, for the One in Plotinus' account is not a personal being, and therefore not relational.
In Book X, Augustine develops his own account, and goes beyond Plotinus, for Augustine's God is very much a relational being-in fact, a person-and he must develop his dynamic theology of mystic experience from that point. The ultimate union with God, the ground of all being, is one of love. Love, of course, presupposes community, a sacrum convivium or communion between lover and beloved. Here the break with Plotinus is complete, for this union is a union of persons, as Augustine's heart ascends, and divine love descends upon him. This is an ascent to communion, not an absorption, into a concrete relationship with a concrete personal being:
My love for you. Lord, but a matter of conscious certainty. With your word you pierced my heart, and I loved you. But heaven and earth and everything in them on all sides tell me to love you. Nor do they cease to tell everyone that "they are without excuse" (Rom. 1:20). But at a profounder level you will have mercy on whom you will have mercy and will show pity on whom you will have pity (Rom. 9:15). Otherwise heaven and earth would be uttering your praises to the deaf. But when I love you, what do I love? It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odour of flowers and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God-a light, voice, odour, food, embrace of my inner man, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannnot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God. (Confessions, Book X:8)

Here Augustine an ultimate ontological break between created and uncreated, as his love for God transcends all physical analogies. No longer do we have the ontological union between the One and the emanations that flow from it. For the doctrine of emanation, Augustine's Christian mystical experience teaches him a radical ontological distinction between divinity and created being-creatio ex nihilo. And yet this ontological distinction is not without the traces of divine being, and this leads him to look beyond, to the source of all things. And though man seeks God, he cannot bridge this gap, for he understands St. Paul's doctrine of sin and grace very well. God's ultimate union with man ultimately requires a special act of grace, a grace which is a supernatural act of God, and not attained in the natural realm of things. It is here that, after the divine condescension, Augustine finds the sacred commerce he so actively craved at the beginning of Book I.
Perhaps Augustine's final break with Plotinus comes in De Trinitate, where he lays out the soul's relationship to the Trinity, and tries to explicate the mystery of the Trinity through a psychological analogy. The cogency of his psychological analogy will not be my focus here, for my main interest is in fact how, in his account, the soul relates to the Trinity. For him, the soul's love for God discloses a trinity-the lover, the beloved, and the love. This, however, is not a real trinity, for "the lover and beloved are distinct persons": "A further ascent still remains for us, a higher realm in which our search is to be pursued, so far as men may. We have found, not the thing itself, but where it is to be sought; and that will suffice to give us a point from which a fresh start may be undertaken" (De Trinitate, VII:X:14, quoted in Louth, p. 150). It is from here that Augustine looks at the very nature of man as an image of God which discloses a trinitarian image. Andrew Louth again explains this process very well: "Augustine begins by considering the mind loving itself. There is now identity between the lover and the beloved, but the trinity of love has vanished, and we have only two terms: the mind and its love. Augustine, however, recalls the interpenetration of love and knowledge: the mind cannot love itself, if it cannot know itself. The trinity has now reappeared, and we have found a trinity in man himself: the trinity of mens, notitia, and amor: mind, knowledge, and love" (Louth, p. 150). This image will reflect God truly only if it is a real image. It must not mistake its own trinity for the divine Trinity. Once the soul thinks itself divine, it ceases to be a real image of the divine Trinity, and its reflective power is damaged.
Here there is a dimension of self-knowledge, which he develops in Book X, and while the mind's knowledge may be imperfect, it is never entirely obscured, because the mind is always present to itself:
Who doubts that he is alive, and remembers, and understands, and wills, and knows, and judges? If one doubts, one lives; if one doubts whether one doubts, one remembers; if one doubts, one understands that one doubts; if one doubts, it is certain that one wills to. If one doubts, one thinks; if one doubts, one knows that one does not know; if one doubts, one judges that one ought not to consent rashly. Whatever anyone doubts, he ought not to doubts these: if it were not so, it would be impossible to doubt anything. (De Trinitate, Book X:x:14)

From this Augustine argues for the spiritual nature of the mind, for "these spiritual properties are certain", since they are true and observable functions of the mind (Louth, p. 152). From these certain functions of the mind (memory, understanding and will), he begins to argue that this triad discloses a trinity, in that the triad reveals not "three lives", but one life, since each It is only as the mind reaches the summit of its memory, understanding and will that it realizes itself as an image of the divine Trinity, and imperfect image, but an image nonetheless. The cure of this image in man must take place as a divine condescension from God Himself, as He sends the Divine Word to take on flesh and open up the possibility of union with the Trinity, and finally realize the fullness of this image in man. Unlike the ecstasy in Plotinus, the restoration of the image is only a beginning, which is initiated at baptism (or purification), but continues in a long process of illumination, and finally in glorification. This process is one that is familiar in the Cappadocians, and in the later mystical theology of St. Maximos the Confessor, for whom this process is necessary for the attainment of true love (See Centuries on Charity, I:1).
From these general contours, it is easy to see why the Pelagian heresy was so repugnant to his sense of mystical union with God. The soul certainly seeks God, but ultimately, it cannot find God without the supernatural intervention of grace, which, apart from the general operations of this world, acts from without, but then works from within, bringing the soul greater illumination and finally glorification, as it comes into union with the Trinity in a communion of love. The Pelagian heresy threatened this dimension of his theology.
So we come full circle to the dogmatic dimensions of Augustine's theology. We began our odyssey, if you will, with some general comments as to what constitutes the content of Christian mystical experience. It is still rather unclear what comes first-the dogma, or the experience of the divine life. As dogmatic teaching develops in response to heresy, especially in these early centuries, it is no accident that many of the most engaging teachers of Christian dogma, writing treatises in defense of the Church's received tradition, have also been virtuoso expounders of mystical poetry and literature, where the drama of the union between God and man, through the incarnate dispensation of the Son of God, takes place in prayer, word and sacrament. It may very well be argued that what the Cappadocians, Augustine, and later St. Maximos the Confessor, was, in addition to the received dogmatic tradition (or in concert with it) was their mystical experience with the Triune Godhead, or perhaps their experience confirmed the truth, for them, on a very personal level, the truth of received dogma. For Augustine, the matter was a question of what made most sense in his contemplation of Scriptures, the received dogmatic tradition of the Church, and his own experience, and though he used his experience as a Neoplatonist to make sense, on one level, of his spiritual journey, the ultimate mystery that he was trying to express was deeply Christian. Augustine the Neoplatonist had truly become Augustine the Christian mystic.

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