The Nicean and Chalcedon Counsels (4th and 5th centuries) established the view and faith that Jesus of Nazareth is a fully human person, but he is also the embodiment of the eternal Word (Greek: Logos) in history and on earth. As a person, Jesus is subject to all the time and space limitations of existence, but as the Word he is also living what scripture calls “eternal life,” beyond these limitations.
Contemplative Christians believe that this Person/person, Jesus Christ, is telling all human beings that it is possible in this life, to live the simultaneity of time and eternity that Jesus lived. We, like St. Paul, are being called to live this radiant new Self that causes us to proclaim “Now, not I, but Christ in me,” and to realize that we ourselves are the mystery, mind and heart of Christ being birthed in our finite lives.1
Augustine’s profound and remarkably modern memoir, Confessions, echoes this theme. This memoir is unique in the way that Augustine weaves his way through personal stories–as in his relationship with his mother–to intrapersonal reflections on his spiritual journey from Manichaeanism to Christianity. He sails freely from vulnerable outpourings of devotion and praise, to psychological spelunking, to Scripture study and sermonizing, and then on to abstract theological visions of matter and spirit. and a trinitarian understanding of the soul. It is truly the work of a spiritual genius and highlights many dimensions of the Second Person, I-Thou relationship, and how it resonates with one’s mortal I-thou relationships.
By the time he had written his Confessions, Augustine’s beloved mother had passed away. And yet, she is a presence throughout his book, and part of his imagined audience. When Augustine had gone astray, his mother continued to pray for him, and when he made the passage to become a Christian, she became an active partner in spiritual conversations and a bit of a mentor to him. In one particularly striking entry, Augustine describes a night when, on the shores of Africa, he tells his mother that he must go to Rome. He has received a spiritual call to help teach the faith to Roman Christians, but his mother desperately wants him to stay. In her fright that she might lose him, she physically restrains him, but he will not be dissuaded. His community needs him. And so he decides to lie to her. He tells her to go to bed, and not to worry, that he needs to stay up late to speak with a friend. But after she has gone to bed, he sets sail for Rome, knowing that when she awoke she would wail on the shore. He writes,
That night I secretly left. . .And what was it, O Lord, that she, with such an abundance of tears, was asking of Thee, but that Thou wouldest not permit me to sail? But Thou, mysteriously counseling and hearing the real purpose of her desire, granted not what she then asked, in order to make me what she was ever asking. The wind blew and filled our sails, and withdrew the shore from our sight; and she, wild with grief, was there on the morrow, and filled Thine ears with complaints and groans, which Thou didst disregard; whilst, by the means of my longings, Thou wert hastening me on to the cessation of all longing, and the gross part of her love to me was whipped out by the just lash of sorrow. But, like all mothers–though even more than others–she loved to have me with her, and knew not what joy Thou wert preparing for her by my absence. Being ignorant of this, she did weep and mourn. . .And yet, after accusing my perfidy and cruelty, she again continued her intercessions for me with Thee, returned to her accustomed place, and I to Rome.2
In this passage, Augustine shows that he can be circumspect about prayer, understanding that what his mother prays for may be mistakenly perceived, or achieved at a later time. He trusts that she will come through this loss to another depth of trust in God. And Augustine himself, who has strived to always tell the truth to his mother and to stay by her side, feels led by God to take a larger view of his relationship to her. He lies, feels guilty about it briefly, and then sees through his guilt to understand that he is forgiven because his mission to Rome serves a higher purpose. He trusts the “faithful and daily tears of my mother, that I should not perish,”3
In scenes such as these, Augustine allows his readers to see that he is actively struggling with the immediate and concrete I-thou relationship with his mother and that it is somehow taking place within the larger context of his I-Thou relationship with God.
This in-dwelling of the holy I-Thou is further demonstrated when he trusts that the love he has received from his mother is not hers alone–her love is simply a passing along of God’s love to him. His mother’s love is transparent to the Love of God. So, he addresses God about his experience as an infant,
I was welcomed then with the comfort of woman’s milk; but neither my mother nor my nurses filled their own breasts with milk; it was you who, through them, gave me the food of my infancy. . . .they wanted to give me something of that abundance which they received from You [God].4
Augustine spent many years as an adherent to the dualistic Manichaean vision of reality where the forces of light and darkness, body and spirit, good and bad, are constantly at war. He brings this worldview into his Christian life when he writes “And now, my soul, I say to you that you are my better part; you animate the whole bulk of the body, giving it life–a thing which no body can do for another body. . . .It is by my soul herself that I shall ascend to Him”5 Augustine often uses spatial language to “locate” the Thou to whom he speaks, as if God is at a specific “beyond.” And yet, he knows full well that God has no location, no image, no shape. This is the paradox, that the most important Thou, of which nothing can be said, “reaches down” into the material world to be available here and now. God reaches down without ever having been up, because God is everywhere.
Augustine assumes that God knows us better and more deeply than we know ourselves, and this knowledge gives us courage to face the unknown within ourselves and in God. Augustine often compares his paltry knowledge of himself with what God knows about him. There is no comparison. He writes, “You know my lack of skill and my weakness: teach me and heal me. He, your only Son, in Whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, has redeemed me with His blood.”6
Augustine’s Thou knows everything about him–including all his gifts, foibles, joys, mistakes, accomplishments and deliberate sins–and yet loves him and frees him from his attachment to all that is not God. Augustine has total confidence in this I-Thou relationship with his Creator. His relationship with the I-Thou of Jesus is transparent to the I-Thou he has with the Creator. The quality of these ultimate relationships spreads into and colors all his everyday relationships. His Thou is good, trustworthy, patient, and wise and it is available everywhere and with everyone.
Galatians 2:20; Philippians 2:5; 1 Corinthians (2:16); (Col 1:27); (2CO 13:5).
St. Augustine. The Confessions of St. Augustine. trans. Rex Warner. New York: New American Library, 1963 (paperback), Book 5, Chapter 8, pp. 100-101.
Augustine, Confessions, Book 1, Translated and Annotated by J.G. Pilkington, M.A., Vicar of St. Mark’s, West Hackney, The Opinion of St. Augustin Concerning His Confessions, as Embodied in His Retractations, II. 6, Philip Schaff (1819-1893), editor, 1886, digitized in the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, www.ccel.org/print/schaff/npnf101/vi.ii
St. Augustine. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Trans. by Rex Warner. N.Y.: New American Library, 1963, paperback, p. 21.
Ibid, p. 216.
Ibid, p. 256.