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.

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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….

12 Responses to “St. Augustine on seeing God”

  1. diane Says:

    Totally off-topic, but inquiring minds want to know — whatever happened WRT the teaching position you were interviewing for? Good news, I hope?

    Praying!

    Diane

  2. bekkos Says:

    Hello, Diane.

    It depends on which teaching position I was interviewing for you mean. Quite some time ago, I visited St. Paul University in Ottawa, which is home to the Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies; nothing seems to have come of that. But, in August, I went out to Cleveland and spoke with some people at a private school there (the Lyceum School); I am supposed to give a lecture there early in December, provisionally titled: “The Filioque: a very basic introduction.” The same lecture is to be given also in Youngstown at a meeting of the Society of St. John Chrysostom, December 5th. So, as to an actual job offer, nothing definite as yet; but I have some reason for thinking that the job in Cleveland may materialize.

    Thanks for praying!

    Peter

  3. diane Says:

    I do hope the Cleveland thing comes through!! Will keep on praying. :)

    My husband completed his PhD in the early ’80s, perhaps THE worst time in recent memory to look for a job in the then-overcrowded professoriate. In American history (not his field), literally hundreds and even thousands of people would apply for the same position — even if it was some non-tenure-track gypsy-scholar thing that paid $18,000 a year. In Byzantine history (hubby’s field), there were a lot fewer applicants — but also a lot fewer jobs. (I suspect you know exactly what I’m talking about.) DH used to joke that, when an opening did crop up, all the Byzantinists came out of the woodwork to apply for it. It did seem that way. Ugh, what a depressing, demoralizing time. I hope and pray things are better now — now that all the graying boomers are finally retiring. Hubby ended up taking a job teaching world history at a state-funded boarding school for gifted teens in Louisiana. He knew the die would be cast — that he’d have a hard time making the transirtion back from secondary-level teaching to college teaching — but he was so demoralized by that point that he didn’t care. Plus, the pay was decent. Well, decent for teaching, anyway, LOL. His adviser semi-jokingly told him that the La School starting pay was better than most associate professors got (back then at least).

    I don’t know why I’ve rambled on and on like this…except that, well, I guess I can relate to academic job searches…vicariously, at least, through my husband.

    Funny thing: Right before he was offered the La School job, we thought we’d be going to Athens. Hubby had a post-doc fellowship from Dumbarton Oaks — just for half a year — which he intended to use researching the Peirs (with which you’re probably familiar–11th-c. legal document) at the University of Athens. My bags were packed, and I was eager to go–our final fling before the responsibilities of adulthood. But then the La School job came through, and my poor demoralized husband just wanted **something** that would actually pay money, so we ended up in Natchitoches, Louisiana, rather than Athens. :-(

    Sorry for the story of my life. But, as I say, I can relate to that academic-jobhunt stuff. VERY best wishes and many prayers@@

    Dianer

  4. diane Says:

    sorry for typos–was typing fast–that would be Peira, not Peirs. Sorry!

  5. diane Says:

    BTW–didn’t mean to hijack your St Augustine thread, especially with my autobiography, LOL. Sorry!! We may now return to Saint Augustine. :)

  6. bekkos Says:

    Dear Diane,

    No need to apologize… nobody is saying much about St. Augustine, anyway. I probably would qualify as a greying boomer myself; that is one of the chief disadvantages of trying to find a new job when one is 50 or older, the recognition, on the part of employers, that one is likely to provide them with only a relatively short period of service, compared to younger candidates for the same position.

    There are many useful lessons to be gained through unemployment. It is a good remedy for egotism and for inflated notions of self-importance. On the other hand, there is much also to be said in favor of making an honest living. I hope to begin doing that soon.

    As for Louisiana vs. Athens, one must say that the idea that God is more present in one place than another deserves to be called a heresy. When we pray to the Holy Spirit, we refer to him as being in all places and filling all things. Athens may well have many old buildings, and much else to recommend it, especially for a Byzantinist; but the idea of a “perfect place” and a “perfect job” is almost always an illusion. The important thing is to serve God wherever He puts you.

    Peter

  7. Jonathan Prejean Says:

    I, for one, was fascinated by the quote from St. Augustine, so your post has not gone unnoticed. :-)

    What kills me in particular is this quote:
    “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….”

    Do you ever see anybody asking WHY St. Augustine said this? Gallons of ink are spilled on condemning St. Augustine’s belief that the divine essence can be seen as crypto-Eunomianism and the obverse belief that the divine is not seen directly in this life as heretical. But nobody thinks to ask why St. Augustine, who knew Aristotle and Plotinus pretty well, would think that the divine essence could be really known even if it was not comprehended. It is, remarkably enough, easier for them to accept the thesis that St. Augustine simply hadn’t thought of it because he didn’t have to deal with Eunomius than to consider the more plausible explanation that he simply disagreed with the notion that “seeing” or “knowing” something as an object *necessarily* meant “comprehension.”

    The places people spend their argumentative zeal continue to mystify me. But thank you kindly, Mr. Gilbert, for trying to put the focus where it ought to be.

  8. diane Says:

    Jonathan, that’s the quote that popped out at me, too. I am happy to realize that I kinda-sorta got it — even though I wouldn’t know Eunomius from a hole in the wall. :)

    Mr. Gilbert — thank you for the very kind reply. And I do agree that one can find God as readily in Natchitoches, Louisiana, as in Athens. But I’m not sure one can have quite as much fun, especially when one is young (as we were at the time). On the other hand, though, Louisianans are pretty fun-loving, too, and I still have fond memories of Lasyone’s Meat Pie Kitchen.

    God bless, and thanks so much for this website!

    Diane, another graying boomer (well, OK, the gray’s been covered by hair dye, but it still lurks at the roots)

  9. Veritas Says:

    I agree with the above; your posts never go on unappreciated. Perhaps I should be more vocal on the blog in stating that. Either way, great post Peter. St. Augustine, so it seems to me, is case in point #1 on reading the man’s words personally first, before going on to read all those monographs on the man.

    -Veritas

  10. Veritas Says:

    Peter,

    Thanks again for posting your translation of this text, it has been one of the texts that I have been focused in on lately. I have a question for you. Can you explain a bit about St. Augustine’s view of “intellectual vision.” Dr. Bradshaw seems to think that St. Augustine (in the same text, Ep. 147.31-32) states that Moses and St. Paul were able to see “the very substance of God” in their earthly lives, although, for Augustine, states Bradshaw, they needed to be taken up out of the body because corporeal senses constrict the vision. I guess, in the end, I’m just a little confused as to St. Augustine’s actual take on the whole matter. Is his views on the vision of God radically different from that of the Greek fathers?

    And one last question, do you know if Epistle 147 is available in an English translation anywhere?

    Thanks for any help you can provide.

    God bless,

    -Veritas

  11. bekkos Says:

    Veritas,

    I’ll attempt to answer your easier question first. There exist two complete English translations of St. Augustine’s letters that I know of. One of them is the translation in five volumes by Sister Wilfrid Parsons, in the Fathers of the Church series (vols. 12, 18, 20, 30, and 32), published between 1951 and 1955, supplemented more recently by the late Fr. Robert B. Eno’s translation of 29 additional letters (1989). I unfortunately don’t know in which of these volumes Letter 147 is translated. There is also a more recent complete translation of St. Augustine’s letters, in four volumes, part of the New City Press project to produce a new translation of Augustine’s complete works; the translator is Roland J. Teske, S.J. It appears that Letter 147 is translated in the second of these four volumes (Letters 100-155). Here is a link to New City Press’s web page that shows the books.

    As to your more difficult question, I will simply say that, at present, no, I cannot expound St. Augustine’s view of intellectual vision. This is not meant to put off your question. It is simply an acknowledgment that I have not made any special investigation of the question, and, until I do make such an investigation, I do not feel prepared to comment on Dr. Bradshaw’s interpretation, either for it or against it. I do know that St. Augustine, in his Confessions X vi (8), speaks of our having, not only a kind of spiritual vision, but various spiritual senses. I will merely quote the passage here, in Henry Chadwick’s translation:

    “But when I love you, what do I love? It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odour of flowers and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God—a light, voice, odour, food, embrace of my inner man, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.”

    I’ll only add that, no, I don’t think St. Augustine’s views on the vision of God are radically different from those of the Greek fathers.

    Peter

  12. Veritas Says:

    Peter,

    Thanks for the information about the translations. I appreciate it.

    -Veritas


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