Monday, June 25, 2012

God and the Senses (4): Augustine's "Beauty so old and so new"

The qualities of religious experience mirror those of poetry--and, indeed, some of the best accounts of religious experience are related through poetry (think of St. John of the Cross); as one bends and bursts beyond the typical conventions of language, so does the other.  The most engaging poetry pulls at all five senses.  So too, the expression of religious experience.  I realize that what follows may not be technically be poetry in the sense of ancient meter and verse (though it has some of those things!), but one could easily consider it "prose poetry."  Indeed, St. Augustine of Hippo, trained as a rhetor and as a professor of rhetoric, was a master of style, and his Confessions is a masterwork on many levels including its means of expression. 
Late have I loved you,
Beauty so old and so new:
Late have I loved you.

And see, you were within
And I was within the external world
And sought you there,
And in my unlovely state
I plunged into those lovely created things
which you made
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. 
(Augustine, Confessions X.xxvii (38); trans. Chadwick) 
Henry Chadwick, the translator, writes concerning this passage:  "Augustine's Latin in this chapter is a work of high art, with rhymes and poetic rhythms not reproducible in translation.  He is fusing imagery from the Song of Solomon with Neoplatonic reflection on Plato's Phaedrus and Symposium, and simultaneously summarizing the central themes of the Confessions" (p. 201 n. 25).  The reader can, indeed, sense the searching of the female lover searching for her lover from the Song of Songs in the first sentence, the search that, indeed, stands at the heart of the Confessions as a whole as the soul searches for God, the Beauty so old and so new, before the foundations of the world and yet ever new and renewing the soul.  It is a search one can sense in the opening of Augustine's search:  "our heart is restless until it rests in you" (I.i (1)).  It is the journey of the wandering, erring, and restless soul through astrology, Manichaeanism, Neoplatonism to Christianity; from infancy to adolescence to early maturity to full maturity; from wordless signs to grammar to stories and literature to rhetoric to the Word.  Religious wandering mirror the stages of life and the acquisition of language.

The rising from beautiful things to the Beauty so old and so new, or Beauty in itself, is reminiscent of Plato--and, indeed, much of the ascending qualities I just mentioned with wandering, seem to be modeled on Plato's masterpiece the Symposium (for a full discussion, see Phillip Cary's Augustine's Invention of the Inner Self).

But the reason I have placed this in my "God and the Senses" series is the last bit.  It again resounds with the Song of Songs and the attainment of the goal of one's spiritual ascent of love in the Symposium.  And, as a good piece of poetry (or poetic prose) that mirrors Augustine's spiritual expression, it engages all five senses (cf. Confessions (8)).  Augustine, however, does not just saw that he hears, sees, smells, touches, and tastes God.  Instead, he compares his earlier life to a complete anesthesia.  Finding his divine lover is like hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching all for the first time.  God shatters his deafness; and drives away blindness.  As I have mentioned in earlier posts, moreover, the greatest experiences of intimacy are NOT expressed as vision or hearing.  While vision and hearing are the most common expressions of proximity to God, many authors reserve the far more intimate senses of smell, taste, and touch for the highest expressions of drawing near to God.  It makes a great deal of sense.  One can see and hear from a distance.  Humans, at least, must be closer to smell something.  But tasting and touching are the most intimate expressions that exist for humans.  Augustine, I think, orders his sensual account quite purposely in an ascending order:  first one hears, and one gets a first encounter, but one that is still distant.  Secondly, one can see, a vision crystallizes in one's newly opened eyes, but it is still not a full experience.  Smell, indeed, may be an evanescent quality; yet, it also denotes a greater proximity.  Smell, moreover, has the added quality of being totally encompassing.  One can be saturated with it from without and from within:  it surrounds you, and yet, as Augustine writes, "I drew in my breath and now pant after you."  Here the language again turns erotic--as if the references to the Song of Songs were not enough.  Panting after God as lover.  Tasting has a dual quality.  It heightens the sensuality, the intimacy, the eroticism.  For a Christian, moreover, it would recall the Eucharist, where one feels the divine substance in one's mouth, one tastes the body of Christ, touching the body with one's tongue.  As one pants, one also hungers and thirsts.  This highly erotically charged moment has been primed since the beginning of the search.  Note his sexual language at the beginning of the account:  "How shall I call upon my God, my God and Lord?  Surely when I call on him, I am calling on him to come into me.  But what place is there in me where my God can enter me?" (I.ii. (2)).  After hearing, then seeing, then smelling, and even tasting, after searching, after heightening each sense, the divine lover finally touches, and with a touch sets one's entire being on fire.  One burns, seeking consummation:  peace and rest.

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