“We did not make ourselves”

Benozzo Gozzoli: Death of St. Monica

Yesterday we celebrated the feast of St. Augustine. The day before that was the feast of his mother, St. Monnica, who emerges from his writing as a forceful and brilliant example of early Christian piety. Chapter IX of The Confessions ends with a long description of the death of Monnica, reaching an ecstatic vision that is possibly Augustine’s finest passage of writing. Here he’s a portion of it, rendered as verse by translator Sr. Maria Boulding in order to emphasize the poetry:

 Then we said, “If the tumult of the flesh fell silent for someone,
and silent too were the phantasms of earth, sea and air,
silent the heavens,
and the very soul silent to itself,
that it might pass beyond itself by not thinking of its own being;
if dreams and revelations known through its imagination were silent,
if every tongue, and every sign,
and whatever is subject to transience were wholly stilled for him —
for if anyone listens, all these things will tell him,
‘We did not make ourselves; he made us who abides for ever,’—
and having said this they held their peace
for they had pricked the listening ear to him who made them;
and then he alone were to speak,
not through things that are made, but of himself,
that we might hear his Word,
not through fleshly tongue nor angel’s voice,
nor thundercloud,
nor any riddling parable, hear him unmediated,
whom we love in all these things, hear him without them,
as now we stretch out and in a flash of thought
touch that eternal Wisdom who abides above all things;
if this could last,
and all other visions, so far inferior, be taken away,
and this sight alone ravish him who saw it,
and engulf him and hide him away, kept for inward joys,
so that this moment of knowledge—
this passing moment that left us aching for more—
should there be life eternal,
would not Enter into the joy of your Lord
be this, and this alone?
And when, when will this be?
When we all rise again, but not all are changed?”

The passage, particularly the final lines, echo St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:

Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

In Augustine’s words, to “hear him unmediated” means the direct experience of God. This is what the mystics reach for, and what Augustine thirsted for. All of our experience of God is mediated through created things, even the theophanies of scripture, even the highest mystical experiences. We are limited by flesh. In his deep and profound meditation on his mother’s death, Augustine knows that she no longer experiences a mediated God. She no longer sees through a glass darkly, but face to face.