St Augustine: Are You Descending from Yourself and through Him Ascending to Him?

Feast of St Dionysios the Areopagite

Augustine_Square_3.jpgTHE PHILOSOPHERS “were able to judge the world with understanding” even though “they did not find its Lord” (Wisd. 13.9). “For You are great, Lord, You regard the humble things, the exalted You know from far off” (Ps. 137.6). By the proud You are not found, not even if their curiosity and skill number the stars and the sand, measure the constellations, and trace the paths of the stars.

With the mind and intellect which You have given them, they investigate these matters. They have found out much. Many years beforehand they have predicted eclipses of sun and moon, foretelling the day, the hour, and whether total or partial. And their calculation has not been wrong. It has turned out just as they predicted. They have put the rules which they discovered into books which are read to this day. On this basis prediction can be made of the year, the month of the year, the day of the month, the hour of the day, and what proportion of light will be eclipsed in the case of either sun or moon; and it happens exactly as predicted. People who have no understanding of these things are amazed and stupefied. Those who know are exultant and are admired. Their irreligious pride makes them withdraw from You and eclipse Your great light from reaching themselves. They can foresee a future eclipse of the sun, but not perceive their own eclipse in the present. For they do not in a religious spirit investigate the source of the intelligence with which they research into these matters. Moreover, when they do discover that You are their Maker, they do not give themselves to You so that You may preserve what You have made. They do not slay in sacrifice to You what they have made themselves to be. They do not kill their own pride like high-flying birds, their curiosity like “fishes of the sea”, and their sexual indulgence like “the beasts of the field” (fusion of Jn. 2.16 with allegory of Ps. 8), so that You, God, who are a devouring fire (Heb. 12.29; cf. Virgil, Aeneid 2.758), may consume their mortal concerns and recreate them for immortality.

They have not known the Way, Your Word through whom You made the things that they count and also those who do the counting, and the senses thanks to which they observe what they count, and the mind they employ to calculate. Of Your wisdom there is no numbering (Ps. 146.5). The Only-begotten himself was made for us wisdom and righteousness and sanctification (1 Cor. 1.30). He was numbered among us (Is. 53.12) and paid tribute to Caesar (Mt. 22.21). They have not known this way by which they may descend from themselves to Him and through Him ascend to Him. They have not known this way, and think of themselves as exalted and brilliant with the stars. But see, they are crushed to the ground (Is. 14.12-13) and “their foolish heart is darkened” (Rom. 1.21-5). About the creation they say many things that are true; but the Truth, the Artificer of creation, they do not seek in a devout spirit and so they fail to find Him. Of if they do find Him, although knowing God they do not honor Him as God or give thanks. They become lost in their own ideas and claim to be wise, attributing to themselves things which belong to You. In an utterly perverse blindness they want to attribute to You qualities which are their own, ascribing mendacity to You who are the truth, and changing the glory of the incorrupt God into the likeness of the image of corruptible man and birds and animals and serpents. They change Your truth into a lie and serve the creation rather than the Creator (Rom. 1.21-5).

Nevertheless I used to recall many true observations made by them about the creation itself. I particularly noted the rational, mathematical order of things, the order of seasons, the visible evidence of the stars. I compared these with the sayings of Mani who wrote much on these matters very copiously and foolishly. I did not notice any rational account of solstices and equinoxes or eclipses or luminaries nor anything resembling what I had learnt in the books of secular wisdom. Yet I was ordered to believe Mani. But he was not in agreement with the rational explanations which I had verified by calculation and had observed with my own eyes. His account was very different.

Lord God of truth, surely the person with a scientific knowledge of nature is not pleasing to You on that ground alone. The person who knows all those matters but is ignorant of You is unhappy. The person who knows You, even if ignorant of natural science is happy. Indeed the one who knows both You and nature is not on that account happier. You alone are his source of happiness if knowing You he glorifies You for what You are and gives thanks and is not lost in his own imagined ideas (Rom. 1.21).

—St Augustine, The Confessions

Showing 1 reaction

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.