St. Augustine on seeing God
October 2, 2009
Below is presented a passage from an important letter of St. Augustine’s on the subject of the vision of God, epistola 147 To Paulina.* The letter, written probably in the year 413, often goes by the title de videndo Deo “On Seeing God”; with 54 enumerated paragraphs, it is long enough to be a small book. The letter deals largely with the question of how, if many people in the Old Testament had visions of God, and if it is promised that the Christian faithful shall “see him as he is” (1 John 3:2), it is nevertheless true that, as the Evangelist John says, “no man hath seen God at any time” (Jn 1:18). The selection here translated consists of §20 and the beginning of §21 of that letter (= chapter VIII and the beginning of chapter IX); the Latin text is taken from vol. XI of the Obras de San Agustin (Madrid, 1953; edited by Fr. Lope Cilleruelo, O.S.A.), pp. 218, 220; the translation is my own.
*For some reason, Frederick Van Fleteren, in an article on this letter in the encyclopedia titled Augustine through the Ages (Allan D. Fitzgerald, ed., 1999, p. 869), speaks of it as though it were addressed to Paulinus of Nola; but the letter begins by addressing the famula Dei Paulina, the handmaid of God Paulina, who is clearly not the same person as that bishop and poet.
|20. Invisibilis est igitur natura Deus, non tantum Pater, sed et ipsa Trinitas, unus Deus. Et quia non tantum invisibilis, sed et ipsa Trinitas, unus Deus. Et quia non tantum invisibilis, verum etiam incommutabilis; sic apparet quibus voluerit, in qua voluerit specie, ut apud eum integra maneat eius invisibilis incommutabilisque natura. Desiderium autem veraciter piorum, quo videre Deum cupiunt, et inhianter ardescunt, non opinor, in eam speciem contuendam flagrat, qua ut vult apparet, quod ipse non est; sed in eam substantiam, qua ipse est quod est. Huius enim desiderii sui flammam sanctus Moyses, fidelis famulus eius ostendit, ubi ait Deo, cum quo ut amicus facie ad faciem loquebatur: Si inveni gratiam ante te, ostende mihi temetipsum. Quid ergo? ille non erat ipse? Si non esset ipse, non ei diceret, ostende mihi temetipsum; sed, Ostende mihi Deum: et tamen si eius naturam substantiamque conspiceret, multo minus diceret, ostende mihi temetipsum. Ipse ergo erat in ea specie qua apparere voluerat; non autem ipse apparebat in natura propria, quam Moyses videre cupiebat. Ea quippe promittitur sanctis in alia vita. Unde quod responsum est Moysi verum est, quia nemo potest faciem Dei videre, et vivere; id est, nemo potest eum in hac vita videre vivens sicuti est. Nam multi viderunt; sed quod voluntas elegit, non quod natura formavit. Et illud quod Ioannes ait, si recte intelligitur, Dilectissimi, nunc filii Dei sumus, et nondum apparuit quod erimus. Scimus quia cum apparuerit, similes ei erimus; quoniam videbimus eum sicuti est: non sicut eum homines viderunt, quando voluit, in specie qua voluit, non in natura, qua in semetipso, etiam cum videretur, latuit; sed sicuti est, quod ab eo petebatur, cum ei diceretur, ostende mihi temetipsum, ab eo qui cum illo facie ad faciem loquebatur.||20. Therefore God is by nature invisible, not only the Father, but the very Trinity itself, the one God. And because he is not only invisible, but also immutable, he thus appears to whom he wills, in whatever form he wills, in such a way that his invisible and immutable nature remains with him intact. Still, the desire of pious people who genuinely yearn to see God and are on fire for this with breathless longing does not, I think, burn to behold him in that form which, although he appears in it as he wills, he himself is not; rather, it longs to see him in that substance which itself is what he is. For the holy man Moses, his faithful servant, showed the flame of this desire for him when he said to God — with whom, as a friend, he was wont to speak face to face — “If I have found grace in thy sight, show me thyself” (Exod 33:13 LXX). What then? was it not he himself [with whom he spoke]? If it were not he himself, he would not have said to him, “show me thyself,” but, “show me God.” Yet, at the same time, if he had had clear sight of his nature and substance, much less would he have said “show me thyself.” He was, therefore, in that form in which he had willed to appear; he did not appear in that proper nature of his, which Moses yearned to see. That, in fact, is promised to the saints in another life. For this reason, what was said to Moses in reply is true, that no one can see God’s face and live (Exod 33:20): that is, no one, living in this life, can see him as he is. For many have seen; but they saw what the will chose, not what the nature has shaped. And that thing which John says, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2) — that is, we shall see him, not in the way that people used to see him, when he willed, in whatever form he willed, not in his nature, in which, even when he was seen, he remained hidden in himself; but as he is — if this is rightly understood, that is what was requested of God when it was said to him “show me thyself” by the one with whom he used to speak face to face.|
|21. Non quia Dei plenitudinem quisquam, non solum oculis corporis, sed vel ipsa mente aliquando comprehendit. Aliud est enim videre, aliud est totum videndo comprehendere….||21. Not that anyone ever comprehends the fulness of God, whether with the eyes of the body, or even with the mind itself. For it is one thing to see, and another thing, in seeing, to comprehend the whole….|