Expressing the Incomprehensible

“Have I said anything, solemnly uttered anything that is worthy of God? On the contrary, all I feel I have done is to wish to say something … because God is inexpressible; and if what has been said by me were inexpressible, it would not have been said. And from this it follows that God is not to be called inexpressible, because when even this is said about him, something is being expressed.”

De Doctrina Christiana 1.5 in Augustine and Hill, Teaching Christianity: De Doctrina Christiana.

Ever the Platonist, Augustine elsewhere advises that “if you understand something, it is not God.”[1] Rather, one must go beyond understanding, beyond language, and into the experience of divine silence if one is to know the unknowable God, and by that knowing become one with him. 

Before his baptism, S. Augustine had been reading the Platonists and was particularly impressed by Plotinus. Back in 386 in Milan, he had tried by himself to achieve the mystical heights expressed by Plotinus, who wrote of “the flight of the alone to the alone,”[2] wherein one seeks by inward meditation the grounds of one’s own soul beyond being, and passes to the formlessness of the One beyond all concepts and thinking. Augustine did enjoy some fleeting success, the odd glimpse of eternity, through these Platonic spiritual exercises in which he engaged alone. Yet it was the Christian sermons of the Bishop of Milan, Ambrose, which brought those Platonic spiritual insights to full fruition. Ultimately, Augustine experienced his deepest vision of God not in solitary meditation, but in the shared religious experience of the Church, the community of the saints into which he was baptized. 

The most momentous of these, which marks the real turning point of his Confessions, is the experience of divine silence he received through meditation with his mother, Monica, shortly after his baptism in AD 387 and before her death.[3] They were alone in a villa in Ostia, the port town of Rome near the mouth of the Tiber, looking out onto the garden. They had been discussing spiritual matters, and came to muse on what the eternal life of the saints would be like, “which eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor has risen into the human heart.” From there, together, they embarked upon an extraordinary itinerarium mentis

“We wandered through all bodily things, and to the heaven itself, where the sun and moon and stars shed light over the earth. Still we kept soaring, deeper in thought and speech and wonder at your works. We came into our minds and transcended them, close enough to touch on the realm of unfailing plenty from which you feed Israel forever with the food of truth. There, life is Wisdom, through whom are made all things which ever were or ever shall be; yet she herself is not made, but is just as she was and ever shall be – or to put it better, ‘was’ and ‘shall be’ are not in her, but only Being itself, because she is eternal (for ‘to have been’ and ‘to come to be’ is not to be eternal). And while we were speaking and straining after her, with heart at bursting point, we just about made contact with her – and we breathed. We left the first fruits of the Spirit bound there. We returned to the noise of our own mouth, where a word begins and ends. But what is like your Word, our Lord, which endures in itself without aging and makes all things new?”

Confessions 9.10.24 (my translation)

At first reading, this may seem a rather talkative, even loquacious, way of expressing what I want to maintain is wordless union. It is in conversation that Augustine makes his spiritual ascent, not through fostering a Zen-like indifference to verbal and visual images in silent meditation: in conversation, further, not with great philosophers or sages, but with his unlettered mother of ostensibly simple faith. Together, they soar into the heavens by digging further down into their minds, in thought and speech. Paradoxical as it may seem, this is the practical expression of Augustine’s earlier intuition of God as “higher than my highest height and deeper than my innermost being.”[4] And in this, there is really no paradox at all: it is perfectly consistent with Plotinus’ Platonic logic of all things unfolding from the One. To follow the Delphic maxim and to know oneself truly is to know one’s source and origin. Plotinus would surely sympathize, too, with Augustine’s flight to Wisdom, the pursuit of philosophy, here in her Jewish literary personification. He would also recognize Augustine’s conviction that it is at the point where language begins to fail that one begins to touch upon Wisdom. It happens at that liminal juncture where the usual terms of being and time, “bodily things” and verbal tenses of past and futurity, unravel in the face of Being itself and eternity. For the One beyond being is thereby beyond understanding. 

Augustine speaks – and it worth remembering that ancient texts were written to be read aloud – to express what can be expressed of that which is beyond comprehension. Yet he contrasts two very different kinds of expression. After their experience, he and Monica return to the ordinary everyday speech of the day-to-day world, to the “words of mouth” and their clear beginnings and endings, their grammatical containment and ordering of reality in sentences and syntax. Yet what they experienced, albeit tentatively, was the endless Word without origin, the Word who was made flesh, and whom Augustine identifies here with the creative Wisdom of God: the simple Word from which all words derive. 

Where Augustine differs from Plotinus is in his discovery that we do this not alone, but in communion with one another. Plotinus tries to avoid reducing the multiplicity of words and beings to a philosophical problem to be overcome, this material realm an unfortunate evil of debatable necessity. Sometimes, however, he does stray onto that path, making the realm of beings – which means, among things, one another – something best escaped from. If any mere converse with beings could lead one to the heights of philosophy, it would be converse with elite philosophers, urbane sages of Alexandria or the Academy. One can hardly imagine Plotinus reaching the One in the company of an elderly Christian woman of nomadic Berber stock. Such might be capable of accidentally stumbling onto true opinion and leading others there, but not of expounding the true foundations necessary for firm philosophical knowledge. For Augustine, though, even the simple have recourse to a fount of guaranteed truth – the Scriptures, which are the closest mediation of that unspeakable, unifying Word to which human words can attain. It is in the discussion of these many words that human beings, not despite their multiplicity but through communion with one another, can touch upon divinity.

Yet the meeting point of words and the Word is itself non-verbal. The cardinal point of the experience Augustine relates, it seems to me, is when they finish speaking, and after the eternal instant of a single, pounding heartbeat, they “breathe.” The word might also be translated “sigh,” though this perhaps bears unwanted connotations of mediaeval courtly love or Byronic romanticism. I imagine it more as a breath that has been held some time, perhaps without realizing it, and is finally let out with relief. Before they returned to the world of physical words, articulated by lips, this wordless exhalation united him and his mother with the voiceless Word in a deeper intimacy than either had experienced before. In case I seem to be making too much of a single verb here, the sense is borne out by Augustine’s reference to the “first fruits of the Spirit,” a quotation from S. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (8:23). A few verses later in the same letter, Paul writes of the Spirit helping “us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). It is not by our verbosity, the heaping up of endless phrases, but in the wordless language of the Divine Spirit, the breath of God which carries his silent Word, that we are lifted together into the knowledge which passes all understanding, which exceeds all merely human words, and so brings us into contact with divine Wisdom.

In the silence after words, the incomprehensible Word finds perfect expression. 

[1] Sermon 117.5, on John 1.

[2] Enneads 6.9.11

[3] Confessions 9.10.

[4] Deus interior intimo meo et superior summo, Augustine Confessions 3.6.11.