“Late have I loved you, beauty so ancient and so new.” St Augustine’s heartfelt cry of recognition that he has at last found his heart’s desire is surely one of the most famous of all passages in the writings of the Fathers. He explains: “You were within, but I outside, seeking there for you, among the comely things you have made.” And then a complicated thought: “They held me back far from you, those things which would have no being were they not in you.”
It was this echo of the Prologue of St John’s Gospel – “All that came into being had life in him, and that life was the light of men” – which suddenly made me realise that this was a Christmas sentiment, a theology of the Incarnation.
In the section preceding this most-quoted part of the Confessions, Augustine has developed a complex idea, that in order to see the truth about himself, in order to enter the innermost places of his own being, he needs a special kind of light. This light is no ordinary, created light, not a “light of the mind”. Yet nor is it something which strikes him as completely alien or extrinsic. It is, he says, as though ordinary created light were shining so powerfully that it could fill the whole universe, could illumine the vast darkness of space.
Nevertheless, the light is not “above my mind” in the way that oil floats on water or the sky is above the earth. It was “superior” he says, (in the Latin sense of exalted, placed above), “because by it I was made. Anyone who knows truth knows this light.” Another echo from the Gospel for Christmas morning.
Augustine expresses perfectly what we mean when we say that the Son of God took our nature. We can only understand what our nature is in the light of his having taken it. He came down to share our nature in the likeness of what our nature was created to be, the image of God. It allows us to understand the dignity of our nature inasmuch as we see nature in the light of the Incarnation, rather than vice versa.
This truth, that I can only know myself if God is in me, and God is in me because I am created by God, is initially startling. It is not the complacent “I am a spiritual person” of modern cliché. Rather, it opens Augustine himself to the limitations of his nature and even his religious experience. It shows Augustine that “while that which I might see exists, indeed, I was not yet capable of seeing it.” He articulates a sense of exile from the world around him – or at least from a wholesome relationship with it, from his true self and from the God whom he desires. As he draws nearer to the light, so it blinds him more.
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