The Mystic St Augustine

St Augustine by Antonio Rodríguez

I recently began reading St Augustine of Hippo’s On the Trinity (henceforth De Trin, because why not). St Augustine, especially in Eastern Orthodox circles but amongst some Protestants as well, tends to be degraded and criticised for not being mystical enough. The good Doctor is too logical, too much the hidebound Platonic rationalist. This sort of pitting ‘mystical’ against ‘rational’ has always irked me; everything theological tradition uses reason, and Western theology is no stranger to the mystical — this includes St Augustine.1

Anyway, arguments for St Augustine’s contemplative/mystical side usually turn to his Confessions. And justly so. Nevertheless, it strikes me that St Augustine is firmly within the mystical tradition of the church even when engaging in the task of rationally describing and arguing Christian dogma.

Using the translation of De Trin by Arthur West Haddan, here are some examples:

… the highest good is that which is discerned by the most purified minds, and … for this reason it cannot be discerned or understood by themselves, because the eye of the human mind, being weak, is dazzled in that so transcendent light, unless it be invigorated by the nourishment of the righteousness of faith. (1.4)

In reference to 1 Corinthians 13:12, ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face’ (NKJV), he writes:

For this contemplation is held forth to us as the end of all actions, and the everlasting fulness of joy. For “we are the sons of God; and it doth not ye tappear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is.” (1 Jn 3:2) For that which He said to His servant Moses, “I am that I am; thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel, I Am hath sent me to you;” (Ex. 3:14) this it is which we shall contemplate when we shall live in eternity. … Of this contemplation I understand it to be said, “When He shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father;” that is, when He shall have brought the just, over whom now, living by faith, the Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, reigns, to the contemplation of God, even the Father. If herein I am foolish, let him who knows better correct me; to me at least the case seems as I have said. For we shall not seek anything else, when we shall have come to the contemplation of Him. But that contemplation is not yet. (1.17)

Later, we read:

In that contemplation, therefore, God will be all in all; because nothing else but Himself will be required, but it will be sufficient to be enlightened by and to enjoy Him alone. And so he in whom “the Spirit maketh intercession with groanings which cannot be uttered,” (Rom. 8:26) says, “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that I will seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to contemplate the beauty of the Lord.” (Ps. 27:4) For we shall then contemplate God, the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit, when the Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father … (1.20)

Now, it is difficult to call someone a ‘mystic’, especially in the post-Carmelite world. How do we define the term? As I wrote a few years ago, ‘What is a mystic, exactly?‘ I won’t bog us down, but I think the working definition of a Christian mystic in this case needs to be someone who engages in the Christian spiritual disciplines, and especially ‘contemplation’ and meditation — each of them a way to set aside time within the rhythm of day to purposefully clear the mind and have a fresh encounter with the Most Holy Trinity. Christians who empty their minds and hearts to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

The famous ones, the known ones, will have had experiences, like the people mentioned in footnote one.

Augustine fits this model; first, he leads a disciplined life, such as that in the rule he wrote. Furthermore, he had at least the mystical aspiration. He knew that God, as a person, was beyond mere doctrines and dogmas, and was Someone with whom the Christian can interact. With many of his age, St Augustine, as seen above, believed that the Beatific vision of the age to come was the ultimate goal (telos) of the Christian life.

As Christ says, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ (Mt. 5:8)

All of this leads me to one of the wellsprings of western Christian monasticism and spirituality, St John Cassian. In his First Conference, Cassian discusses the goal and the end of the monastic life. Everything in life has a goal towards which one strives, and this goal often has a particular end. The goal of monasticism is purity of heart, the end of which is to see God. Most will not see God until the next life; some blessed few will experience such grace now, such as the Prophets Moses and Isaiah or St Bernard.

It strikes me that Cassian’s conceptualisation of the monastic life would fit precisely with Augustine’s views on the subject (whatever the differences between these two on the subject of grace!). We will one day see God face to face; we must purify ourselves so that we can see more clearly. Certain things can be said according to reason — such things Augustine has written in his books. But the true experience of the realities behind the writings, the Triune God signified by the signs of reasoned, biblical, prayerful thought — this is beyond reason. This is the domain of mysticism.

There is no dichotomy here. Merely two ways of approaching the Throne of Grace, one of which (the logic) is a preparation of the intellect for the other (the mysticism).


1. Other mystics firmly embedded in the Western Christian tradition: St Bernard of Clairvaux, St Francis of Assisi, St Hildegard von Bingen, St Teresa of Ávila, St John of the Cross, Lady of Julian of Norwich, St Catherine of Siena, et al. Others who seem to have had some sort of mystical experience include St Anselm and St Thomas Aquinas, both of whom are famously rational(ist?) theologians.

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4 thoughts on “The Mystic St Augustine

  1. Matthew, this is wonderful stuff… I love the breadth of your learning, the depth of your devotion, and the very balanced and centred place you arrive at in your distilling of our wonderful heritage of faith, theological reflection and mystical contemplation. Please hurry up and get a job in a seminary somewhere – preferably protestant and evangelical, because they need to have their minds opened to the patristic and orthodox world you have come to love! You will be a fountain of wisdom, learning and encouragement to a new generation of God-hungry young leaders, just as you were when I first was blessed to know you. And keep up the blogging, I am always built up in my understanding and faith when I read your posts.

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