Jerome on the Seraphim in Isaiah 6

Bernardino Luini – St Jerome in Penitence, 1525

I have before my the Isaiah volume of The Church’s Bible, edited by Robert Louis Wilken, a commentary that uses the ancient and medieval sources as a guide to interpretation (like the more famous Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture but, in my opinion, easier to use/read). Here we read from St Jerome’s commentary:

In Hebrew there is some ambiguity whether the pronoun his refers to God or to each seraph. For this reason, it is difficult to determine whether the seraphim were covering their own faces and feet or whether they were covering the face and feet of God. (p. 69)

Jerome, in this instance, takes us back to where we started with Ambrose last time. He goes on to interpret the veiling of God’s face and feet in the same way that, had we continued with Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan also does:

This veiling indicates that we cannot know what happened in the past before the creation of the world and what will happen in the future after the end of the world. Don’t be surprised that some things are veiled to the seraphim, for the apostles revealed the Savior to those who believed, but hid him from unbelievers. Furthermore, there was a veil before the ark of the covenant. (p. 70)

We’ll take a quick look at what the authors in this commentary tell us about the beatific vision shortly…

The Throne of God (What’s going on in Isaiah 6?)

Fresco of St. Ambrose in Sant’Ambrogio, Milan (photo by me!)

One of the most famous parts of Isaiah, one of the few parts of the Bible useful for angelology, and a source for part of the liturgy, Isaiah 6 can be a perplexing place to find oneself, in any language. I was recently reading Ambrose of Milan, On the Holy Spirit, and I noticed that the translator did not provide Isaiah 6:2 as I expected. What I expected was what I grew up with, NIV:

Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.

Instead, where the NIV has ‘their faces … their feet’, I read ‘His face … His feet’. Being smug, I assumed the translator got his Latin wrong and confused the two different Latin words for ‘his’, one which can be rendered ‘his own’, the other which means someone else’s. But I checked Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit 3.160, and found:

et Seraphim stabant in circuitu ejus; sex alae uni, et sex alae alteri, et duabus velabant faciem ejus, et duabus velabant pedes ejus, et duabus volabant

Which is to say that the translator got it right. This is the same text that Vulgate has — the Seraphim are covering the Lord Sabaoth’s face and feet, not their own. My guess is that, since the Geneva Bible, the KJV, the NIV, and the ESV have the Seraphim covering their own feet, the Hebrew has the same. The Greek is vague — each Seraph covers the face and the feet, using the definite article and no possessive. (Unless this is a use of the article someone could detail for me…)

Hence the Old Latin used by Ambrose and the later Vulgate version of this verse.

Therefore, we cannot give priority to the Vulgate/Ambrose text, since the Septuagint (and presumably the Hebrew) needn’t lead that direction.

Nevertheless, the Seraphim covering the Lord of Sabaoth’s face and feet pointed to an important point that I (we?) rarely acknowledge, barely grasp:

Isaiah has had a vision of the throne-room of God, and he presumably saw some sort of anthropomorphic figure seated on a throne and surrounded by six-winged Seraphim.

We probably subconsciously shy away from this due to the fact that the LORD has already told Moses that no one may look on his face and live and that 1 John says that no one has ever seen God. And yet in the Gospel of John Jesus does say that if we have seen him, we have seen the Father.

I think we should confront two possibilities here. I suspect that modern readers who are willing to take Isaiah’s vision as literal (as opposed to those who think it a theological-literary fiction) will go for option number one: God has created an image to project into Isaiah’s feeble, earth-bound, image-driven mind as a means of communicating with the prophet.

The second, and one I do hope has Church Fathers to back it up, is that this is Christ in glory. This one is less popular today either because we don’t like reading the New Covenant into the Hebrew Bible on literary-historical grounds (Isaiah can’t see Jesus because he doesn’t know about Jesus, even if Jesus is the Messiah) or we don’t like the implied supersessionism and appropriation of Jewish Scripture.

But if we actually believe historic Christian orthodoxy, we’ve already appropriated the entirety of Jewish Scripture simply by stating that Jesus is the Christ — Messiah, or that Jesus is Lord. Moreover, we go much further when we affirm Nicene-Chalcedonian orthodoxy and say that Jesus is of one substance with the Father.

Throw eternity into the mix, and we are also affirming that the man Jesus who was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate has also always existed in that body in the throne room of God. Because He is God and exists outside of time.

I find, therefore, a tantalising idea in the throne room vision of Isaiah, and that idea is that Isaiah has seen the risen, glorified Jesus of Nazareth, the Second Person if the Trinity, the pre-incarnate (yet incarnate!) Christ, who is the leader of heaven’s armies and will return on a white horse to bring justice to the earth (cf. Revelation).

Several decades after Ambrose, the goal of the monastic life was the vision of Christ-God, the beatific vision, found through cultivating purity of heart, according to John Cassian. And so ascetic-mystical theology, dogmatic theology, and biblical interpretation embrace.

Saint of the Week: St. Bonaventure

For Lent and part of Eastertide (all of Eastertide?), I shall be alternating Anglicans and mystics for the saints of the weeks. Last week we had our Anglican in Dorothy L. Sayers, and this week we get a mystic.

St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) is one of the bright lights of the thirteenth-century. He was born five years before the death of St. Francis of Assisi (saint of the week here) and lived to carry on the great Franciscan tradition of mysticism and preaching as a biographer of St. Francis and as minister general of the Order of Friars Minor.

Ewert Cousins writes that “he flourished during that brief period when spirituality and speculation were not yet separated.” (2) This is to say, before dogmatic and mystical theology became separate discourses in the West, a separation never fully achieved in the East, as seen in the brilliance of St. Gregory Palamas (on whose conception of God, see here). Hopefully, by making acquaintance with saints like Bonaventure we can reunite these two aspects of the Christian reality in the West.

Bonaventure was baptised as John (he took the name Bonaventure when he took holy orders) and grew up in Bagnoregio, a small central-Italian town. In Bagnoregio, he is reputed to have received primary education from the Franciscans who had established a friary* there. As well, Bonaventure suffered from a serious illness when a boy from which his mother’s vows to the newly-canonised St. Francis snatched him. His contacts with the Franciscans are early, then.

He studied at the University of Paris in 1234 where he met the active Franciscan intellectual tradition founded by Alexander of Hales at that university. In 1243 Bonaventure became Bonaventure — ie. joined the Franciscan Order — and continued studying theology under Franciscan theologians there, whose combination of learning and intellect with the simplicity of St. Francis was very attractive to Bonaventure. 1248 saw Bonaventure licensed to lecture on the Scriptures, and in 1253-4 he became a master in theology. He took over the Parisian Franciscan school.

In 1257 he was elected minister general of the Order of Friars Minor (aka “Franciscan Order” — except that they have subsequently splintered like all Christian groups). He came to head the Order in large part because he was an antidote to the apocalyptic teachings of Joachim of Fiore (these teachings were so notable that they were denounced at Church Councils later on). He tried to regulate the Order through moderation.

In 1274, as a Cardinal present at the Council of Lyons, he passed from this life.

St. Bonaventure spent his entire career, even amidst the busy-ness of life as minister general, writing. He wrote his lectures at Paris, he wrote scholastic treatises, he wrote of things spiritual. All of these are a part of the whole of who Bonaventure was and what Bonaventure did. We must not divide the scholastic from the mystic, as so many often do. Indeed, the experience of the mystic is what grounds the scholastic — and vice versa.

Nonetheless, I’m around 550 words into this post, so we’ll focus on Bonaventure the mystic.

Bonaventure’s spiritual masterpiece is The Soul’s** Journey Into God, written around 1259. It’s inspiration was St. Francis’ vision of the sing-winged seraph when the Saint received the stigmata. St. Francis’ vision was itself a symbol of the ecstasy of St. Francis’ contemplative life. There are, then, six stages of the soul’s journey, with a seventh chapter of this work focussing on the goal of this journey.

The starting-point of this journey of the soul is Christ crucified, for good Christian mysticism is always focussed on Christ (without Christ we’d all just be Ians, which isn’t so bad, I s’pose…). The starting-point of this journey is not the world of the detached intellectual. No, this is the world of the burning love of the incarnate God who chose death so that we might live. The world of fierce glory that chooses painful suffering to bring others into that glory. Our souls have a place, as does our rational aspect, but mere cognition will not do. Not here.

We enter through the door of the crucified God and find Him through the contemplation of His creation (cf. my thoughts on the “Canticle of Brother Sun”). From contemplation of the created, material order, we move further along the journey into the world of sensation, thence to the spiritual aspect of our soul, and from there into God.

A lot like St. Teresa (saint of the week here), eh? These exact steps are not necessary for the soul, but they are certainly laid out as a typical path by Bonaventure. This is not unsurprising. God has revealed Himself to us everywhere. The Heavens declare the glory of God, after all. Furthermore, we were made in His image. And most of Christian history thought that meant our nous was the bit that looked like God.

How can we not, then, find God within us? The Kingdom of Heaven is, after all. The Kingdom of Heaven is also at hand. Furthermore, Christ is the Logos, the rational, ordering principle that rules and guides the universe. He is to be found in all men in all places.

This is not a plea for universalism. Neither Francis nor Bonaventure was a universalist. This is a call to remember that in hesychia, in quiet, in peace, after we have got beyond the lizards (Teresa), after we have ascended Mt. Carmel (John of the Cross), after we have entered the cloud atop Mt. Sinai (Gregory of Nazianzus), after we have united our heart and our soul (Gregory Palamas), the God who was manifest as Christ will be known to us. And we will discover that it was his grace drawing us to Him all along.

*A friary is like a monastery, only inhabited by Franciscans or Dominicans; these mendicant (“begging”) orders traditionally use the friaries as bases for their operations in the world, whereas Benedictines and other cloistered orders live within the monastery and do not necessarily enter the world for mission purposes (but they have been known to do so).

**Soul = mens = nous = untranslateable into English. That inner part of you that can connect with God.