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Kingdoms of God
By Kevin Hart
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2014 Kevin Hart
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In Priora Extendens Me
Confessiones, IX. x. 23–25
"Augustine is for me the Prince of Mystics, uniting in himself, in a manner I do not find in any other, the two elements of mystical experience, viz. the most penetrating intellectual vision into things divine, and a love of God that was a consuming passion." Thus Dom Cuthbert Butler in a commanding book of 1922. Not everyone would agree with him, and some readers of Christian mystical literature would give the palm to John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, or one of several others, Thomas Aquinas not being an outrider. Dom Cuthbert's book is entitled Western Mysticism, though we are not to suppose a contrast with the mysticisms of Buddhism and other Eastern religions. He is concerned entirely with the Latin West, and the adjective in his title serves to exclude Orthodoxy. Not that he proposes a comprehensive survey of the mysticism of all Latin Christianity, for by "Western mysticism" he means that of "Cassian, Gregory, and Bernard," finding that "St Augustine's mysticism stands somewhat apart" from theirs. The Prince stands to the side of his people. Of course, Cassian's teaching draws deeply from Eastern Christianity, and one might point out that the Eastern Church veers away from lauding individuals and their experiences. The Orthodox would be unlikely to use an expression such as "Prince of Mystics" and might also question the completeness of the "two elements." But let the claim stand, let the criteria not distract us, and let us focus sharply on Augustine.
Dom Cuthbert is thinking of passages in eight texts: De anima quantitate (387–388), 74–75; Enarrationes in Psalmos (392–422), xli; Confessiones (397–401), VII. xvi. 22, IX. x. 23–25; De Genesi ad litteram (401–415), xii; Contra Faustum Manicheum (404) xxii. 52–58; De videndo Deo (Ep. 147) (413–414); De civitate Dei (413–427), xix. 1, 2, 19 (413–427); and Sermones, ciii, civ (dates uncertain). Other texts could be cited, especially with respect to one or another aspect of contemplatio: De Ordine (386–387), II. ii. 51, De musica (387–391), VI. xii. 36–37, De Genesi adversus Manicheos (387), I. xxv. 43, and De trinitate (399–422/426), i. 17–18, 31 all come to mind. Taken together, these texts span Augustine's mature life as a Christian and establish a wider range than Dom Cuthbert's talk of "two elements" suggests. They pass from a delineation of the seven levels of the soul and further gradations of rapture and vision, to testimony of direct experience of God, to a meditation on the passage from the visible to the invisible, to pondering the various merits of the vita activa and the vita contemplativa, to making a case for the leisure to engage in contemplation, to reflection on whether we shall see God with the eyes of the flesh, and to the statement that the sole reason for philosophizing is devoting oneself to the ultimate good. Yet Dom Cuthbert devotes sustained attention to only two passages: Enarrationes in Psalmos, xli, and Confessiones, IX. x. 23–25. The former includes a fundamental piece in the history of contemplatio, and the latter has become a major text in the history of what we moderns call "mysticism."
I wish to offer a commentary on the latter text, knowing all too well that I am far from being the first to do so: it is one of the most celebrated yet most intensely debated short documents in the history of Christianity. I begin by drawing attention to a distinction entertained by Dom Cuthbert in his choice of texts and his discussion of those he selects, namely, that between "mystical experience" and "contemplation." It will send me back to some of the other passages that he lists. Are "mystical experience" and "contemplation" different ways of saying the same thing? Or are they quite different things? Or is it that "mystical experience" is the end point, for some, of "contemplation"? I leave these questions to resonate for a while, as I do the question at the heart of the commentaries I have mentioned: the character of the experience, if it is one, that Augustine and his mother appear to have had. Is it Christian, Neo-Platonic, or somehow both at once? Yet rather than be guided by questions that come from reflections by other readers of the text, I shall take my cues from the text itself and seek to re-phrase, if need be, and answer the questions in the light of what it reveals of itself.
The piece begins, as is well known, with a reference to Monica, Augustine's mother. The preceding pages have recalled her childhood, her weakness for wine, her marriage, and her widowhood; and this evocation of her entire life is introduced by her death ("my mother died" [IX. viii. 17]) and, within only a few words, by an allusion to Augustine's birth or, better, double birth ("into the light of time ... into the light of eternity" [IX. viii. 17]) and to what he can give birth ("whatever my soul may bring to birth" [IX. viii. 17]), which includes the Confessiones, his other writings, and what we know to be their immense heritages. Now, in the scene to which he turns, there is just mother and son, albeit a son who has already styled himself as a mother. Like all the Confessiones, the passage is addressed to God, and the reader is placed in the awkward position of overhearing someone else's prayer. What do we hear when we listen in to Augustine's prayer? We pick up his testimony of significant events in his life, and in this paragraph we apprehend two entwined testimonies, one about his mother's death and another about his long desired ascent to God who, he has come to realize, is the God of Jesus Christ:
The day was imminent when she was to depart [erat exitura] this life (the day which you knew [tu noveras] and we did not). It came about, as I believe by your providence through your hidden ways, that she and I [ego et ipsa soli] were standing leaning out of a window overlooking a garden. It was at the house where we were staying at Ostia on the Tiber, where, far removed from the crowds, after the exhaustion of a long journey, we were recovering our strength for the voyage [ubi remoti a turbis post longi itineris laborem instaurabamus nos navigationi]. (IX. x. 23)
At least three journeys are mentioned here, with two others in play, one of which will soon become the focus of the narrative. Two journeys have already taken place, one is anticipated, and another was not known at the time being recalled. God knew it then, as Augustine freely acknowledges, and Augustine knows it now as he dictates his story, preparing to give it his full attention. Monica and Augustine have traveled to Ostia, the port of Rome, from Milan, where he had been baptized, and so we are quietly reminded of an earlier journey, Augustine's conversion from Manichaeism to Catholicism, which itself bespeaks a difficult journey from pride to humility, and which was enabled by philosophy. For it is philosophy that has already brought Augustine into the "harbor of tranquility," as he puts it in De beata vita (386). Now mother and son are waiting in Ostia, place of openings, before returning to their home in northern Africa, where they intend to work for the Church. ("We looked for a place where we could be of most use in your service; all of us agreed on a move back to Africa" [IX. viii. 17].) That voyage across the Mediterranean will not take place for Monica, for she will depart on another journey, from this life to the next, and before she does so she and her son will take another path, one that centuries later Bonaventure will call itinerarium mentis in deum, the mind's journey into God.
Augustine credits God with arranging for Monica and him to meet alone (Chadwick does not translate soli here), apparently by chance, in their house by a window that overlooks a garden. The location is significant: if the window suggests light streaming in, the garden discreetly evokes paradise. Having leisure, and being undisturbed, they are free to talk as delicately prompted by the connotation of window and garden, and as led by the Holy Spirit:
Alone with each other, we talked very intimately [conloquebamur ergo soli valde dulciter]. "Forgetting the past and reaching forward to what lies ahead" (Phil. 3: 13) [praeterita obliviscentes in ea quae ante sunt extenti], we were searching together [inter nos] in the presence of the truth which is you yourself. (IX. x. 23)
Again Augustine stresses that he and his mother are alone: this time soli is translated. This is a scene of searching, though we are not permitted to examine it closely, as we are in, say, Gregory of Nyssa's dialogue with his sister Macrina, On the Soul and the Resurrection. There we see a Christian Platonic dialogue that recalls Plato's Phaedo. The conversation between mother and son begins in the presence of God, now lauded as "the truth," and who serves in the narrative as the guarantor that they will not stray into error. Augustine alludes to Paul's recognition of his imperfection and his desire to be perfect, his single-minded focus on stretching into the future: "forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead" [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] (Phil. 3: 13b). The prize Paul seeks is "the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3: 14b). We tend to associate this "straining forward" with Gregory of Nyssa, especially with his homilies on the Canticle, yet it is also central here for Augustine. Both Monica and he have put their pasts behind them and strain toward what is to come: less the journey to Africa, and their anticipated work for the Church, than for being eternally with God in Kingdom come. Their intimacy is only an index of a greater closeness to come with God and so with one another as well.
Already in their conversation they have crossed from life to death or, better, from earthly life to eternal life. Twice born, Augustine anticipates coming into the fullness of his second birth. It is an active expectation, requiring intense mental concentration:
We asked what quality [qualis] of life the eternal life of the saints [vita aeterna sanctorum] will have, a life which "neither eye has seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man" (1 Cor. 2: 9). But with the mouth of the heart wide open, we drank in the waters flowing from your spring on high, "the spring of life" (Ps. 35: 10) which is with you [sed inhiabamus ore cordis in superna fluenta fontis tui, fontis vitae, qui est apul te]. Sprinkled with this dew to the limit of our capacity, our minds attempted in some degree to reflect on so great a reality [ut inde pro captu nostro aspersi quoquo modo rem tantam cogitaremus]. (IX. x. 23)
Mother and son are engaged in a conversation, one apparently oriented by question and answer in lieu of an exchange of opinions, about the nature of eternal life with God (and not about the immortality of the soul, such as was conducted by Gregory and Macrina), yet as reported the discussion immediately touches a limit. Nothing about the life of the saints in heaven has been revealed, as Paul points out in his first letter to the Corinthians. We do not know if the scripture was quoted in the conversation or was added in the report of the colloquy. (Augustine says a little later about a related topic, "I said something like this, even if not in just this way," which inclines us to minimize the difference between event and report.) Certainly Augustine and Monica drink the waters of life in order to reflect on the great reality: the ut clause gets lost in the translation. But if scripture is part of their conversation, it is not rooted in it. No attention is given to what Jesus says in the Gospels about heaven. In fact he says very little there about what the life of the saints is like; his concern is to bring on the Kingdom by having men and women follow the two great commandments and so to please God and not to worry about what life will be like with God after death. Yet Augustine and his mother do not begin by gathering what scripture says about heaven as a place of joy and reward (Matt. 25: 13–30), a Kingdom of justice (Luke 16: 19–31), and a community without marriage (Luke 20: 35). No reference is made to Jesus's powerful saying, "In my Father's house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?" (John 14: 2). Nor do they start by citing any scripture about the general resurrection.
Instead of beginning with revealed scripture, or even with the nature of sanctity, Monica and Augustine go in search of idipsum, Itself or Selfsame, which Henry Chadwick translates a little too boldly as "eternal being itself," words that carry more freight than the Latin will bear alone, as we shall see. Idipsum bears some relation with the One of Plotinus that is beyond all categories and consequently unable to be described. It is this general Neo-Platonic orientation that suggests that the son takes charge of the conversation, using Neo-Platonism as the vehicle of Christian truth, but we are to remember how in De Ordine (386–387) Augustine encourages Monica to take part in philosophical discussions, saying first to her, "There were plenty of philosopher-women in ancient times, and I rather like your philosophy" and then, later, to the reader, "no other person seemed to me fitter for true philosophy." In their conversation they become receptive to the "spring of life [fons vitae]," which is with God. Here sprinkling does not allude to the rite of asperges in which, outside Eastertide, during the principal Sunday mass, the altar, priests, and congregation are sprinkled with holy water while part of Psalm 51 (50) is intoned (Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor). That ritual was developed no earlier than the eighth century. Yet reciting the psalm at the foot of the altar before mass is a tradition that Augustine probably knew, and in his exegesis of Psalm 51 (50), written a decade after the Confessiones, he interprets hyssop as humility. "You will be sprinkled with hyssop, because the humility of Christ will cleanse you." There is a difference between the human power of reasoning and the humility of Christ, and the conversation between Augustine and Monica falls between the Neo-Platonic and the ecclesial by virtue of Augustine's newfound humility and purity after his baptism. Humility and cognition are not opposed to one another. "Sprinkled with this dew ... our minds attempted in some degree to reflect on so great a reality [tantam cogitaremus]." Mother and son are trying hard to understand: cogitaremus is the first-person plural imperfect active subjunctive of cogito.
Augustine underlines that the event befalling him and his mother is conducted by way of a conversation, one that seems to have a teleology running through it:
The conversation led us towards the conclusion [Cumque ad eum finem sermo perduceretur] 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 [the Latin, however, is erigentes] by an ardent affection towards eternal being itself [nos ardentiore affectu in idipsum]. Step by step [perambulavimus gradium] we climbed beyond all corporeal objects and the heaven itself, where sun, moon, and stars shed light on the earth. We ascended [ascendebamus: imperfect] even further [adhuc: to that point] by internal reflection and dialogue and wonder at your works [ascendebamus interius cogitando et loquendo et mirando opera tua]. (IX. x. 24)
This ascent is not simply intellectual, for their minds are raised by affection for God, here seen by way of idipsum rather than truth or beauty. It is orderly and gradual; they rise "step by step," and their wonder is what they have seen in their ascent (and not, as Chadwick's translation suggests, at the heavenly beings, which have been surpassed).
Excerpted from Kingdoms of God by Kevin Hart. Copyright © 2014 Kevin Hart. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
Part I. Inward Life
1. In Priora Extendens Me: Confessions, IX. x. 23-25
2. Inward Life: On Fichte and Henry
Part II. Aspects of the Kingdom
3. "An Infinite Relation to God": Hegel and Beyond
4. Homo Humanus: Kierkegaard on Loving in the World with Constant Reference to Aquinas
5. Bonhoeffer's Religious Clothes
Part III. Manifestations
6. The Manifestation of the Father
7. Phenomenology of the Christ
8. Notes Toward a Supreme Phenomenology
Part IV. Traces
9. Kingdoms of God: On Kant and Derrida
11. Four or Five Words in Derrida
Part V. Coda
12. Guilty Forgiveness
13. Our Father
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