Doctor of the Church and one of the most influential and controversial (I would say, even “easily misunderstood”) figures in Western history, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is known for having lived a licentious youth. As the son of a pagan father and a Christian mother, he was torn between multiple philosophies and worldviews, and before turning to Christianity famously adhered to Manichaeism and later, was influenced by neo-Platonism.
His spiritual autobiography Confessions, written between 397 and 400, when Augustine was in his forties, is one of the two most important documents of his very vast body of written work (other being The City of God). Confessions is the story of the great theologian and bishop’s slow, painful but genuine transition from sinfulness to saintliness and contains much doctrinal information along with prayerful meditations.
Confessions is supposed to have inaugurated a whole new poetic tradition in Western literature. Within Augustine’s system of aesthetics nature was clearly and neatly separated from yet embedded in and penetrated by a greater supernatural order. Because nature was not the ultimate reality, it was not to be worshipped (as in older Greco Roman mythology) or be made the object of excessive sentimentality (as in the Romantic tradition that was to emerge centuries later). Augustine’s biblically-rooted monotheistic poetics encourages one to love flowers and fruits, birds and beasts but frame this love within the mystery of a greater, transcendent Beauty, namely God. There is a paradox here. Just because nature is no longer ultimate it does not become diminished in value rather it turns more enchanting and mysterious for now it is constantly pointing to a hidden but bountiful origin.
Two particular portions of Confessions powerfully pronounce the distinction and work out the relationship between Creator and Creation. One is this:
Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.
Another is this:
And what is this? I asked the earth, and it answered me, “I am not He”; and whatsoever are in it confessed the same. I asked the sea and the deeps, and the living creeping things, and they answered, “We are not thy God, seek above us.” I asked the moving air; and the whole air with his inhabitants answered, “Anaximenes was deceived, I am not God. “ I asked the heavens, sun, moon, stars, “Nor (say they) are we the God whom thou seekest.” And I replied unto all the things which encompass the door of my flesh: “Ye have told me of my God, that ye are not He; tell me some- thing of Him.” And they cried out with a loud voice, “He made us. “ My questioning them, was my thoughts on them: and their form of beauty gave the answer. And I turned myself unto myself, and said to myself, “Who art thou?” And I answered, “A man.” And behold, in me there present themselves to me soul, and body, one without, the other within. By which of these ought I to seek my God? I had sought Him in the body from earth to heaven, so far as I could send messengers, the beams of mine eyes. But the better is the inner, for to it as presiding and judging, all the bodily messengers reported the answers of heaven and earth, and all things therein, who said, “We are not God, but He made us.” These things did my inner man know by the ministry of the outer: I the inner knew them; I, the mind, through the senses of my body. I asked the whole frame of the world about my God; and it answered me, “I am not He, but He made me.”
Featured: Detail from The Conversion of St. Augustine by Fra Angelica (c. 1395–1455), Wikimedia Commons