Tracts for the Times
ON THE MYSTICISM ATTRIBUTED TO THE FATHERS OF THE CHURCH
by John Keble
§ vi.-Mysticism as applied to the Works of Nature, and generally to the external World.
Whatever judgment persons may be inclined to form of the early Christian interpretations in themselves, it is clear and certain matter of fact, and surely well worthy of remark, that on all the great divisions of human knowledge the Fathers had, as a school, views of their own. Whether it was history of which they were speaking, or the arts of life, or morals public or private, their measures of things, and the tone they preserved, were widely different from all that had gone before them : hardly more so, however, (it is a startling but true confession,) than they differ from the principles and manner adopted in other ages, especially perhaps in our own, by Christian writers on the same subjects.
But of all branches of human knowledge there is none in which this difference is more strongly marked, than in what relates to the study of nature, and the laws and aspects of the external world. We know how very large a part of modern literature and education, nay, and of modern theology too, is occupied by instruction and research on physical subjects, and in what a tone of self-complacency men praise their times and one another, for the great and rapidly increasing proficiency of the two or three last generations in their knowledge and command of the powers of nature. But when we turn to the first ages of Christian literature, the very first sentiment which strikes us is, the care taken every where to exclude views merely scientific and physical,to prevent our acquiescing in that kind of knowledge, as though in itself it were any great thing. Hear, e. g. the tone in which St. Augustin explains what attention is due from that, which of all physical sciences we are taught sometimes to account the most elevating,to astronomy.
"The knowledge," he says199, "of the rising and setting, and other motions of the stars, though it bind men by no superstition, yet is of little or rather no avail for the explanation of Holy Scripture, but is rather an impediment, by diverting attention unprofitably : and inasmuch as it is closely connected with the most deadly error of the chanters of silly predictions, it is better and more creditable to let it pass." Some might perhaps imagine that in this passage St. Augustin was ignorantly confounding astronomical with astrological science. But the next sentences contradict the suspicion. "It is true," he adds, "that besides the observation of existing phenomena, astronomical science contains in it something, of the nature of history, inasmuch as from the present positions and motions of the heavenly bodies we may, according to certain rules, retrace their movements in times past. Again, it hath certain rules for judging of things future ; not in the way of mere conjecture and omen, but fixed and settled rules ; not such as to authorize our concluding aught from them concerning our own conduct and fortunes, which is the madness of those who calculate nativitiesbut facts appertaining to the heavenly bodies themselves. For as the computers of the lunar motions, observing how old the moon is today, are able to assign its age at any distance of years forward and backward, so concerning any heavenly body whatever, scientific reckoners are wont to give determinate answers."
It was not then from inadequate conceptions of the true province and evidence of astronomy, that St. Augustin assigned to it so low a place in the pursuits of a Christian student ; but it was clearly from a perception that such knowledge was but very remotely connected with the proper duty and happiness of mankind. And St. Augustin was no unlearned man, nor at all apt to set himself fanatically against the use of human knowledge in the interpretation of Divine Truth.
(2.) But in truth he was here only expressing the constant sentiment of the Church, such as we find it laid down in the first and second ages, almost in the form and with the authority of an apostolical canon. Says Irenæus200:
"It is better to know nothing at all, no, not so much as one single cause of any of the things which are made, but to believe in God, and to persevere in love, than to be puffed up with that sort of knowledge, and fall from love, which gives life to man. It is better to seek nothing in the way of knowledge but Jesus Christ the Son of God, who was crucified for us, than to fall into impiety through subtle questions and minute verbal discussions. Suppose, e. g. that any one, more or less elated with efforts of this kind, should take occasion from our Lords saying, The very hairs of your head are all numbered, to make curious inquiry, and search out both the number of hairs in each persons head, and the cause why one has so many, and another so many . . . . and so persons fancying they had discovered the right number, should endeavour to give it a meaning in reference to the teaching which they had devised for their own sect : or again, suppose that any one, upon the saying in the Gospel, Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing, and not one of them can fall to the earth without the will of your Father, should take upon him to enumerate the sparrows which are daily taken in this place and that, and in all places, and make out the reason why so many were caught yesterday, so many the day before, and again so many today and connect the said number of sparrows with his own argument : doth not such an one altogether deceive himself, and are not those who agree with him forced along with him into great impiety ? Men being always forward in such speculations, that they may obtain the credit of having made out each something more than his master.
"Again, suppose a man should ask us, Doth not God know the whole number of all things which have been and are being made? Did not each of these numbers receive by His providence the amount which was suitable to it ? we of course should assent, nothing ever did or doth come into being without the knowledge of God ; that by His providence is assigned to each of them its proper kind, place, number and quantity ; that nothing at all ever was or is made vainly or at random, but with great fitness and a lofty kind of harmony. Whereupon it would follow, that there was something admirable and truly divine in that method, which should be able both to discover and express the said numbers with their proper causes. Suppose him then on receiving from us such allowance and consent, to proceed to enumeration of the sand and pebbles of the earth, yea, also of the waves of the sea, and the stars of heaven, and to invent causes for the number which be fancied himself to have found ; would not his labour be justly judged vain by all considerate persons, and he himself bereft of all sense and reason ? And by how much he employs himself more than others in inquiries of that kind, and the higher opinion he has of his own peculiar inventions, calling others ignorant, and ordinary, and carnal ; so much the rather is be to be judged senseless and stupid, like a planet-struck person, making himself equal with God. Yea, by the knowledge which be fancies himself to have attained, be surpasses God Himself, and aims his speculations higher than the very greatness of His Maker."
It is plain that the author of this impressive warning did not only fear the fanciful application of natural science to the things of God, but also the tendency which it has in itself to make men overweening and irreligious. It is plain also that he did not consider this evil tendency sufficiently disproved by that constant reference to the final causes of things, on which many now seem apt to rely, as taking out the sting of physical studies entirely. His painful intercourse with heresy had taught him, that the fancy of possessing rare insight into the purposes of the Author of Nature is almost as great a snare, as the habit of contemplating nature without reference to any Author. The very attempt to know allthe very dreaming of such a thinghe felt was impiety ; a deep sense of our necessary ignorance, and an humble acquiescence in it, the only safeguard of the inquisitive ingenious mind.
(3.) Accordingly, those ancient writers, who have dwelt most on the wisdom of God in the creationsuch as St. Basil, in his Hexaëmeron, and St. Ambrose, his imitator, one might almost say, his translatorhave not thought it enough for piety, to urge every where the final causes of things, as disclosed by natural philosophy and history, but have also, again and again, admonished their readers, that no laws of nature will account for every thing, that the wisest must soon come to a point, where he must stand still, and say, "Thus far I seem to trace things, but I can go no farther ; I can but make acknowledgment with those Egyptian philosophers, This is the finger of God."
Thus St. Ambrose, being about to enter on the detail of Creation in the second days work, prefaces his remarks with a solemn caution201,
"not to weigh what should be said by the traditions of philosophy, and its empty deceit, nor to gather up persuasive probabilities ; but to choose for their standard the rule of truth as expressed in the oracles of the Divine word, and poured into the bosom of the faithful by the contemplation of so high majesty : since it is written, Establish me in Thy words. The ungodly have propounded unto me discoursesd i h g s a n t o a d o l e s c i a z but not after Thy law. All Thy commandments are truth.
"It is not, therefore, by the nature of the elements, but by the nature of Christ, who hath done all according to His will, abounding in the fulness of His Godhead, that we are to order our thoughts of what was made, and our inquiries into that which nature could bring about. Even as in the Gospel, when He was curing the leprous, and pouring light anew on the eyes of the blind, the people present and beholding His works acknowledged not any course of medical cure, but, in admiration of the Lords power, gave, as it is written, glory to God. Nor was it on calculation of the numbers of the Egyptians, the combinations of the heavenly bodies, the proportions of the elements, that Moses stretched forth his hand to the division of the Red Sea, but in simple obedience to the commandment of Gods power. Whence also he saith himself, Thy right hand, O Lord, hath waxed glorious in power; Thy right hand, O Lord, hath dashed in pieces the enemy."
Concludes St. Ambrose:
"That way, therefore,that way do ye lift up your minds, ye who form this holy congregation ; and turn your whole spirit in that direction. God seeth not as man seeth : GOD looketh on the heart, man on the outward appearance. By the same rule, neither doth man see as GOD doth. Thou hearest, that God saw, and approved : far be it then from thee to judge by thine eyes of the things which He made, or by thine own thoughts to argue concerning them; rather, what God saw, and approved, see that thou account not those things matter of free discussion."
This by way of general caution. Afterwards, in a question about the conflux of the waters on the third day, he gives a specimen of the mode in which ancient piety would silence physical objections. He supposes a mere physiologist objecting to the literal truth of the Mosaical statement, that, according to the nature of water, it must have found its level before ; it could not need the special divine command. St. Ambroses answer is, virtually202 :
"How do you know, that before God gave the command it was the nature of the waters so to glide or flow ? For this is a quality which they have of their own, not after the manner of the other elements, but special and peculiar ; not by any certain order of causes, but by the direct will rather, and operation of the Most High God. What He commanded, they hear. Now the Voice of God is that which gives being to nature. The actual operation of things was, and is, but the fulfilment of that Word. Presently water begins to flow, and to pour itself into one assemblage, having hitherto been diffused over the earth, and keeping its place in many different receptacles. I read nothing of its course before ; of its motion, before, I learn nothing; mine eye hath not seen, nor mine ear heard. The water was stationary in divers places ; at the Voice of God it was put in motion. Doth it not appear that its nature was communicated to it by the aforesaid Voice of God ? His creature followed His commandment, and turned His law into an usage. Thus the law of His first establishment of things bequeathed them a form to all future time. To conclude : He made day and night once for all : from that moment continues the alternation and renewal of each of them, throughout so long a time. Even so was the water commanded to run into one assemblage, and from thenceforth it does so run"
This principle obviously applies no less to all the great simple facts in nature: it is the principle of natural piety, "things are such, because God made and keeps them such :" the most skilful analyst, the most dextrous combiner of machinery, must come to this at last : and if he would but be content to refer to it, and realize his dependence on it, throughout, he would go far towards securing himself from the peculiar dangers of his line of study203.
(4.) But the one great and effectual safeguard against such idolizing of the material world, or rather of our own minds acting upon it, is the habit of considering it in that other point of view, to which Christian Antiquity would guide us, as earnestly as it would withdraw us from the speculations of the mere natural philosopher. I mean the way of regarding external things, either as fraught with imaginative associations, or as parabolical lessons of conduct, or as a symbolical language in which God speaks to us of a world out of sight : which three might, perhaps, be not quite inaptly entitled, the Poetical, the Moral, and the Mystical, phases or aspects of this visible world.
Of these, the Poetical comes first in order, as the natural groundwork or rudiment of the other two. This is indicated by all languages, and by the conversation of uneducated persons in all countries. There is every where a tendency to make the things we see represent the things we do not see, to invent or remark mutual associations between them, to call the one sort by the names of the other.
The second, the Moral use of the material world, is the improvement of the poetical or imaginative use of it, for the good of human life and conduct, by considerate persons, according to the best of their own judgment, antecedent to, or apart from, all revealed information on the subject.
In like manner, the Mystical, or Christian, or Theological use of it is the reducing it to a particular set of symbols and associations, which we have reason to believe has, more or less, the authority of the Great Creator Himself.
Now the first peculiarity of the Fathers teaching on this head having been shown to be their jealousy of the merely scientific use of the external world, the next appears to be their instinctively substituting the mystical use in its room; not a merely poetical or a merely moral, but a mystical, use of things visible; according to the exposition of the word mystical just above given.
(5.) To state the matter somewhat differently : If we suppose Poetry in general to mean the expression of an overflowing mind, relieving itself, more or less indirectly and reservedly, of the thoughts and passions which most oppress it :on which hypothesis each person will have a Poetry of his own, a set of associations appropriate to himself for the works of nature and other visible objects, in themselves common to him with others:if this be so, what follows will not perhaps be thought altogether an unwarrantable conjecture ; proposed, as it ought, and is wished to be, with all fear and religious reverence. May it not, then, be so, that our Blessed Lord, in union and communion with all His members, is represented to us as constituting, in a certain sense, one great and manifold Person, into which, by degrees, all souls of men, who do not cast themselves away, are to be absorbed ? and as it is a scriptural and ecclesiastical way of speaking, to say, Christ suffers in our flesh, is put to shame in our sins our members are part of Him ; so may it not be affirmed that He condescends in like manner to have a Poetry of His own, a set of holy and divine associations and meanings, wherewith it is His will to invest all material things? And the authentic records of His will, in this, as in all other truths supernatural, are, of course, Holy Scripture, and the consent of ecclesiastical writers.
(6.) It may be as well here to anticipate an objection, not unlikely to occur on first meeting with the above statement. How, it may be asked, are we to know, whether any particular image in an ancient Christian writer be properly mystical, or merely moral or poetical ? the momentary flight of some pious fancy, the edifying analogy observed by some impressive teacher, or a true token from the Creator of all things, given to our senses, of some truth which He would fix in our hearts? Any given image, on the face of it, may be either of these three : how are we to distinguish, with any certainty, the one from the other?
Now, in the first place, the objection proceeds on the unhappy and untenable supposition, that the truth, if we can at all approach it, must be clear and plain to us throughout, and leave nothing unaccounted for. Surely there may be in the remains of Antiquity a human and a Divine Mysticism, without our being always, or even generally, able to draw the exact line between the two. We ourselves may be unworthy to decypher the writing, or our age may have lost the key to it, and yet we may be sure that it is, in part at least, a communication from the Source of Truth : and the fact may be most desirable for us to know, were it only that we might learn reverence in our way of dealing with the subject.
Is there not something analogous in the case of Holy Scripture itself ? We have reason to think that the personal character and circumstances of the several inspired writers was permitted to influence them, more or less, in their style and mode of composition. But where, and how far, we can have no exact knowledge. It is seldom, if ever, given us to determine, what images were suggested to any Prophet or Apostle by his own ordinary experience, and what were immediately prompted by the Holy Ghost.
If this does not hinder our using the Scriptures to edification, no more need the other prevent our profiting by the imagery of the Fathers, in our mode of considering the visible and external world.
(7.) In effect, however, universal consent will carry us further in this matter, as in many others, than we should be apt beforehand to imagine. There is a wonderful agreement among the Fathers, in the symbolical meanings, which they assign to most of the great objects in nature; such an agreement as completely negatives the supposition of the whole having sprung from mere poetical association. It were against all calculation of probabilities, that so many writers, of various times, nations, and tempers, and in such different lines of life, should either light on the same set of figures independently of one another, or coincide in imitating any one who had gone before them with no special authority; more especially, as many of the symbols are far from possessing, at first sight, that exquisite poetical fitness, which would be required, regarding the whole as a matter of taste ; on the contrary, not a few of them are blamed, by the disparagers of Antiquity, on this very account, that they are so forced, overstrained, and irrelevant, and what classical judges might perhaps call y u c r a .
Thus they complain, not perceiving that the fact on which they rest, if it were granted, tends on the whole to make us suppose a higher origin for the imagery in question, than any mans poetical or imaginative taste. Such writers, for example, as St. Ambrose or St. Cyprian, St. Chrysostom, or St. Gregory Nazianzen, who evince in their remains the most vivid sense of poetical delicacy and beauty ;when we find them all concurring in the use of symbols, such as have now been described, must we not suppose that they drew from a common source, and were guided in their selection by something deeper than imaginative delight in the, beauties of nature, and in the exercise of their own ingenuity.
(8.) The same may be said of the hypothesis (if such should occur to any one) which would make these allusions of the old writers merely moral ; i. e. so many analogies or similitudes selected by themselves, from the course of human life or external nature, to render some truth or precept more forcible and vivid. I do not deny that such analogies occur ; especially when they are employed, as by St. Basil and St. Ambrose, in their Hexaëmeron before mentioned, in descanting on the works of Creation. For example, we may take St. Basils account of a mode which the gardeners bad of correcting the insipid wateriness of certain fruits204.
"Some plant the wild figs close to the cultivated : others bind the fruit of the forest fig to the mild and cultivated sort, and so heal its insipidity, the juice of the wilder having the effect of keeping the other from melting and falling away. Would you know what this riddle, presented to you by nature, signifies ? That we should often do well to resort even to those who are aliens from the faith, and from them assume a kind of steady vigour, for the performance of good works. I mean, should you see any one either living as a heathen, or separated from the Church by perverse heresy, yet behaving soberly and observing discipline generally in his moral conduct, do thou draw more strictly the bands of thine own goodness, and so become like the fruitful fig tree, gathering energy to itself from the presence of its wild kindred, so as both to stay its fruit from failing, and cherish it more effectually to its full size."
It is easy to see that St. Basil produces this particular parable as an invention of his own, claiming no particular authority for it. And this I call the moral way of symbolizing natural objects.
At the same time, it may appear from the phrase t i s o i t o p a r a t h z s u k h z a i n i g m a b o i l e t a i ; that he was speaking as one himself aware, and among persons who made no question, that every part of nature has its appropriate a i n i g m a , if we could but find it out. Now this was an opinion which St. Basil was little likely to frame for himself, through excessive indulgence to his own fancy, since be of all, the Fathers most earnestly protests against the unrestrained use of allegory. We must then conclude that the sacramental or symbolical view of nature which he implies in the last-mentioned clause, had been received by him as an acknowledged, truth, not struck out as a speculation of his own.
In other places indeed he avows it more distinctly : e. g. where he speaks of the heavenly bodies205:
"If the heaven is, vast beyond the measure of human understanding, what mind then shall have power to trace out the nature of the invisible things ? If the sun, which is subject to decay, is so fair, so, large, so swiftly moving, yet so regular in fulfilling its courses,being both for magnitude proportioned to the universe, so as not to exceed the due relation to the whole system, and for beauty a sort of clear eye to nature, the very ornament of all creation,if I say this be a sight of which one can never have too much, what must He be for beauty, who is the Sun of Righteousness! If the blind have a loss in not beholding this our sun, how great is the sinners loss in being deprived of the True Light."
Of this epithet, True, thus applied, more will be said by and by; I will but suggest here, that on consideration it may possibly be found to involve the whole theory here contended for.
In the next paragraph, St. Basil speaks thus of the heavenly bodies in general :
"As the fire is one thing and the lamp another, the one properly having power to enlighten, the other made to conduct the light according to our needs ; so were the lights of heaven now framed as a vehicle for that purest and unmingled and immaterial light. Even as the Apostle calls certain,
Lights in the world, although the True Light of the world is other than they ;such as that by participation of It the Saints became lights of the souls whom they disciplined, delivering them from the gloom of ignorance:so also in the creation was this visible sun, stored with that brightest light, by the maker of all, and kindled in the world."
These, and similar divine parables, so to call them, are evidently introduced in somewhat of a different tone from that before quoted about the cultivation of figs, which was introduced expressly and formally as a new thing ; whereas these assume a certain familiarity, on the hearers part, with the symbolical imagery.
(9.) If one were to call these latter, of the sun and stars, examples of a symbolical or sacramental view of nature, it would perhaps be no improper mode of expressing the fact here intended ; viz. that the works of God in creation and providence, besides their immediate uses in this life, appeared to the old writers as so many intended tokens from the Almighty, to assure us of some spiritual fact or other, which it concerns us in some way to know. So far, therefore, they fulfilled half at least of the nature of sacraments, according to the strict definition of our Catechism : they were pledges to assure us of some spiritual thing, if they were not means to convey it to us. They were, in a very sufficient sense, Verba visibilia.
(10.) This relation of things sensible to spiritual, appears to be indicated by St. Irenæus, who is the rather to be quoted on such a subject, because he seems to be unsuspected of Platonism, or any like forms of opinion, such as are supposed to have biassed the Alexandrian school. He states as follows the analogy between Gods visible dealings with us, and His invisible dispensations206.
"The Word was made the dispenser of the Fathers grace for the profit of men, on account of whom He made so many arrangements; on the one hand shewing God to man, on the other presenting man to GOD ; on the one hand maintaining the invisibility of the Father, lest at any time man should, become a contemner of God, and that he might always have something to reach after and advance towards ; on the other hand, manifesting God to the sight of men by many arrangements, lest man, falling altogether away from God, should cease to be. For, the glory of God is a living man, but the life of man is the vision of God. And if that manifestation of God which is by the creature, supplies life to all things living upon the earth, much more that manifestation of the Father, which is by the Word, supplies life to those who have the sight of God."
This sentiment seems to warrant us in extending to the whole creation the maxim which occurs repeatedly in Irenæus, as concerning the Old Testament. "Nihil enim otiosum, neque vacuum signo, apud Deum." The occasions, indeed, on which this saying is introduced, belong either to the types of the Law, or the history of the Patriarchs. But the saying itself has a proverbial air which gives it a much wider reference. It may seem to answer to that deep sentiment, which appears to run through the philosophical works of St. Augustin, and which he has himself expounded in the Book de Libero Arbitrio, II. 41207.
As the whole life of the body is the soul, so the happy life of the soul is God. . . And in so much as, it is granted us to rejoice in those true and certain goods, gleaming upon us even while yet in this dark journey, consider whether this, be not what is written concerning wisdom ; she will shew herself to them cheerfully in the way, and meet, them with every kind of Providence : i. e. which ever way thou turnest thyself, she speaks to thee by certain traces which she hath impressed upon her works, and when thou slippest back to external things, recalls thee by the very forms of those external things. So that whatsoever delights thee in the body, and allures thee by the bodily senses, thou mayest perceive to be according to certain numbers ; and inquiring its origin, mayest return into thyself, and understand that whatever reaches thee by the bodily senses, cannot be to thee an object of approbation or the contrary, except thou hast within thee certain laws of beauty, to which thou mayest refer whatever seems outwardly fair to thee."
Then, having given instances in the works of nature and of art, in the beauty of motion and of form, and in the science itself of numbers, gradually tracing all to their mysterious origin, God revealing Himself by His Word or Wisdom, he breaks out into the following beautiful admonition208 :
"Woe to those who forsake Thee their guide, and go astray in Thy footsteps; who love Thy beckonings instead of Thee, and forget what Thou intimatest by them, O Wisdom, most delectable light of the purified spirit. For never dost Thou cease to beckon to us, what and how great Thou art, and all beauty in Thy creatures is but so many beckonings of Thine."
Elsewhere, in a vein of stricter argument, he shews how each created thing, in that it is created, is an image or symbol of the Most Holy Trinity209.
All these things then, made as they are by Divine skill, exhibit in themselves both a certain unity, and a certain kind, and a certain order. For whatever of these things exists, is first some one thing, such as are the frames of bodies, and the intellectual powers of souls : next, it is formed according to a certain kind, such as are the figures and qualities of bodies, and the faculties of knowledge or of art, which distinguish souls : lastly, it craves or retains a certain order, to which head belong the weights and positions of bodies, the appetites and delights of souls. It behoves us therefore, looking at the Creator, Who is understood by the things that are made, to form the idea of a Trinity, whereof in each creature, according as it is meet, is to be seen some trace."
(11.) But it is not so much the manner of the Fathers to express their principles of interpretation in set statements, as to be continually referring to them, exemplifying them, and variously bringing them out. Now there is no need, of course, to prove the abundance of mystical allusion in the early Christian writers. It is the very point which has most exposed them to the censure of modern schools. But it may be of use to produce some specimens of it, which, if they be fairly selected, and insufficiently explained by the general statement above, may so far afford a presumption in its favour. Perhaps it will be as fair an experiment as any, if we take the two treatises which have been already cited, the Hexaëmeron of St. Basil, and that of St. Ambrose : if indeed they can properly be denominated two treatises, the one being in many parts but a free translation of the other.
Their peculiar fitness for such a purpose, lies partly in their subject, and partly in the character of their authors. The subject, the history of creation, was one which put them especially on their guard against excess of symbolizing, to the disparagement of the historical sense ; as is proved by St. Basils earnest and repeated protest, cited before in these papers. His habits of thought were moreover of that severe and scrupulous cast, which would least suffer the imagination to take liberties.
The tendency of St. Ambrose, it may be thought, was rather the reverse of St. Basils in this respect. But he too has several observations, implying that be dared not indulge his own or his hearers fancy for mystical expositions, beyond a certain extent. Comparing the literal meaning to simple fare, which it is both charity and good sense to offer, rather than send the guests away hungry ; ha says210 :
"Elisha did not blush to set before them barley loaves : and are we ashamed, when we find things thus designated by their simple and proper names, to understand by them simply the things created ? We read of Heaven, let us take it to be Heaven : we read of earth, let us understand that earth which bears fruit."
Ambrose then apologised for abiding so much by the letter : Basil strongly reproved those who were for wandering from it too widely. Concerning each therefore, it is evident, that when they, did allow themselves to allegorize, they were proceeding on some principle, not merely pleasing themselves. The one probably would have had more of this sort, the other less, had it not been for the Churchs recognised line of interpretation. As it is, they furnish between them a list of symbols, which ranges through no small portion of created nature.
(12.) First, we have the sum of this visible world declared to be an index or token of the invisible. Observes St. Ambrose211,
"Some understand the word, beginning, in the first verse of Genesis, not in reference to time, but before time : as meaning the chief point, or head, as if one should say in Latin, summa operis ; heaven and earth being the sum of all visible things. And visible things seem to bear relation, not only to the fitting up of this world, but also to the setting forth of things invisible, and to furnish a sort of argument of the things which are not seen ; according to the saying in the Prophet, The Heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth His handywork. After whom the Apostle, in other words, but in the same sentiment, winds up his discourse, saying, That the invisible things of Him are understood by the things which are made. For we readily think of Him as the Author of angels, and dominations, and powers, by the moving power of whose Word this world, so beautiful, was caused to be out of nothing, not having before existed."
(13.) As to particulars : the arch of the sky212 is a canopy spread over the tents and dwellings of the saints. This, in reference to its form : and then, in reference to the material of which the canopy of the tabernacle in the desert was made, the sky again is a scroll, whereon are written "the names of those many, who have attained Christs favour by their faith and devotion ; to whom it is said, Rejoice, because your names are written in heaven."
The flight and hovering of birds, again, is a token that there are Powers in heaven above who watch our proceedings in this world. Hence a well-known saying of our Lords is by St. Ambrose213 as follows :
"'The birds of heaven do behold the face of My Father which is in heaven.' And the clause, 'Birds around the firmament of heaven,' intimates that the Powers which are in that visible space, behold all things in this region, and have all brought under the observation of their eyes."
The waters flowing into the sea, are the people gathered into the Church Of Christ214. Says St. Ambrose,
"The water knows how to be gathered, how to shrink and flee away, when God gives the word.... Let us be like this water, let us recognise one congregation of the Lord, one only Church . . .. To us also it hath been said, Let the water be gathered from every valley, and there hath ensued a spiritual gathering, and one people : the Church hath been replenished from among the heretics and heathens ..... This is the Church which hath been founded upon the seas, and prepared upon the floods. For upon you it is established and prepared, who, like rivers run down into it, clean from a pure fountain : concerning which it is said, The floods have lift up, O Lord ; the floods have lift up their voice through the sound of many waters. And it goes on, Wonderful are the swellings of the sea ; wonderful is the Lord in His high places. Good rivers are ye for ye have drunk of that eternal and full fountain, wherein He flows who saith to you, He that believeth on Me, as the Scripture saith, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water."
In pursuance of this thought, the sound of the sea is the Church service215.
"What else is that concert of waves but a kind of concert of the people ? For which cause it is a true similitude, which is commonly made of the sea to a Church, first receiving or swallowing by all its porches certain waves of people entering in long array, then in the prayer of the whole congregation sounding as with refluent waves, when in harmony to the responsories of the Psalms an echo is made, a breaking of waves by the chanting of men and women, of virgins and children."
(14.) Herbs again, and flowers, are the life and body of man. Says St. Basil216 :
"When thou seest a blade of grass or a flower, let it guide thee to the thought of human nature, remembering the image of the wise Prophet Isaiah, All flesh is grass and all the glory of man as the flower of grass."
But this of course is too obvious to need dwelling on.
Tares and weeds are false principles : not every kind of sin, but wrong and perverse teaching. Remarks the same St. Basil217 :
"Such spurious seeds are produced not by any change the seed-corn, but subsist by an origin of their own, having an appropriate kind. Yea, and they fulfil the image of those who adulterate the doctrines of the Lord, and in no genuine way become disciples of His word, but rather are corrupted by the teaching of the Evil One, yet mingle themselves with the healthful body of the Church."
The smell of flowers is the odour of sanctity. Exclaims St. Ambrose218 :
"How great is the beauty of a well-stored field! What fragrance! What sweetness! What satisfaction to those who till it! How impossible to express it worthily, were we to use our own language! But we have certain testimonies Scripture, wherein we see that the fragrance of a field is compared to the blessing and grace of the Saints ; as saith holy Isaac, The smell of my son is like the smell of a field.'"
Thorns on roses betoken the sting of pleasant sins, as says St. Basil219 :
"The rose at first beginning was thornless, but afterwards to the beauty of the flower the thorn also was superinduced ; that close to the delightfulness of pleasure we might have pain besetting us in every case, remembering sin, on account of which the earth was sentenced to put forth to us thorns and thistles."
Grafting, in its several forms, is moral and devotional improvement. Says St. Basil220 :
"Let no one therefore, as yet living in evil, cast himself away in despair, knowing that as husbandry alters the qualities of plants, so the training of the soul according to virtue is capable of mastering every sort of distemperature."
The myrica, or tamarisk, is the plant chosen by the Spirit through Jeremiah, as an emblem of a double mind : for "as such persons," says St. Ambrose221, "are every where at call, at once professing, with the good, kindness and simplicity, and connecting themselves as closely as possible with the worst of men : so also these shrubs, by a contradictory kind of rule, grow both in watery and in desert places."
The palm is the chosen type of eternal purity.
"[Other evergreens222]the olive, [for instance,] and the pinenever put off their apparel ; yet, however, they often change their leaves, which, keep the tree clothed in beauty, not by perpetual continuance, but by uninterrupted succession. But the palm remains ever green by the preservation and enduring, not the changeful succession, of its leaves. The very first which it put forth, it retains without substitution or fresh supply. Do thou then, O man, become like unto it, that to thee also it may be said, This thy stature is like unto a palm-tree. Preserve the verdure of thy child hood, and of that natural innocence, which thou didst receive in the beginning : that, planted as thou art beside the rivers of waters, thou mayest have thy fruit prepared in thy season, and thy leaf may not fall. This verdure of ever-flourishing grace the Church having attained in Christ, saith, In His shadow I sat down with earnest desire. This gift of verdure in the first instance the Apostles also received, that as no leaf of theirs could ever fall away, so their very shadow should be the healing of the sick."
(15.) Proceeding to the works of the fourth day, we have another set of well-known symbols. The Sun, the greater light, is our Lord; the Moon, the lesser light, the Church. St. Ambrose tells us223 :
"He appointed the moon for certain seasons, and the Sun knoweth his going down. This place appears to be commonly understood in a mystical sense concerning Christ and His Church : i. e. of our Lords recognising His own death and passion in the body, when He said, Father the hour is come, do Thou glorify Thy Son : that by such His setting He might give eternal life to all, who till then were oppressed with the setting of perpetual death ; that His Church might have her certain seasons, of persecution, namely, and of peace. For, like the moon, she seems to fail, but fails not indeed. She may be overshadowed, fail she cannot. Thus in persecutions some indeed depart, and cause her to wane, but it is in order to her being replenished by the confessions of martyrs ; and blood shed for Christ makes her bright with its triumphs, and her full orb pours forth more abundantly the glory of her devotion and faith. For the moon is subject to a diminution of her light, not of her orb . . . as may be easily seen when the air is pure and transparent."
A little after he adds224 :
This is the true moon, which, from the never-failing light of her brother borrows for herself the lustre of immortality and grace. For the Church shineth not with her own but with Our Saviours light, and draws to herself splendour from the Sun of Righteousness, that her word may be, It is no longer I that live, but Christ liveth in me."
The Saints are stars in this mystical heaven, as we have seen, in a passage from St. Basil.
The four quarters of the heaven again have their part in this sacred and universal language. What the east stands for is well known : and St. Ambrose, from a passage in Canticles, tells us that the south is the region of the Church225.
"Tell me, Thou whom my soul loveth, where Thou feedest, where Thou abidest in the south : [i. e. as he explains it,] in the region of the Church, where righteousness shines forth, where judgment is dazzling as the noon-day, where no shadow is seen, where the days are longer, because the Sun of Righteousness abides in them more continually, as in the summer months."
And the east and south being interpreted, we know of course the probable interpretations of the two opposite regions ; which however shall not be dwelt on here, as they do not occur in the treatises now under consideration.
(16.) Of the many instances which might be specified from among the works of the two remaining days, it will be enough only to mention three : two of them remarkable as having been constantly employed, by poets and moralists, to represent some portion of those truths, by association with which the Church has made them Mysteries. St. Basil uses the silkworm as an evidence or token of the Resurrection226.
"You, who disbelieve St. Paul, concerning the change when our bodies shall be raised, what say you on beholding so many of the inhabitants of the air, how they change their forms ? As we are told concerning that horned Indian worm, that it first changes into a grub, then goes on and becomes a chrysalis, and neither in this form does it abide, but decks itself with broad and light pinions. When ye women, therefore, sit carding out the produce of their work, I mean the threads which the Seres export to us for the manufacture of soft garments, I would have you take it as a manifest hint of the Resurrection, and not disbelieve the change which Paul announces to all men."
Again, St. Ambrose sanctions the image, now almost trivial among us, of the turtle dove, as representing chaste and holy widowhood. Says he227:
"The Law of God, hath selected the turtle as a gift of chaste and pure sacrifice. In fact, when our Lord was circumcised, this was the offering : a pair of turtle doves, or two young pigeons. For this is the true sacrifice of Christ : bodily chastity, and spiritual grace. Chastity is associated with the turtle, grace with the pigeon. For it is said that when the turtle has been widowed by the loss of her proper mate, she refuses to pair any more .... See how great is the grace of widowhood, which is honoured even in birds."
One instance more may be mentioned, taken from among quadrupeds. The wolf is with St. Ambrose, as in Holy Scripture, the appropriate symbol of the Evil One, wasting the Church or besetting it. Upon this he observes (assuming common notions to be true)228:
If a wolf sees a man before he is seen, the sight takes away the mans voice ; but if he feel that the man saw him first, it takes away his fierceness, and he is unable to give chace.... Do beasts then know how to seek what shall profit them ; and art thou, O man, ignorant of thy proper helps ? Knowest thou not how to take away the courage of the Adversary, that as a wolf seen first he may not escape thee, that thine eye may discern his perfidy, and thou mayest be beforehand with him, and stay the course of his words,blunt his audacity and sharpness of disputation. Whereas, if he anticipate thee, be takes away thy voice. . . . Again, if a wolf rise up against thee, take a stone, and he flies. Thy stone [of defence] is Christ. Betake thee to Christ, and the wolf flies, nor shall be be able to confound thee."
Thus even popular and legendary sayings, on matters at first sight farthest from religion, were made to convey high lessons, and remind men of sacred duties.
(17.) Perhaps this exemplification of the mystical use of all Gods works, in the order of their creation, may be not unfitly crowned with mention of that Image of God, which, as St. Augustin explains, both in his books on the Trinity and in the City of God, man bears in his mind, even in every thought of it. Thus he speaks, in the later and more highly finished of the two works just mentioned :after pointing out bow in all His creatures, and especially in the threefold division of knowledge, which even Gentile Philosophy acknowledged, God had left covert traces of the Father who made all, the Son by whom all were made, the Holy Spirit, or impersonated goodness, for whom all were made ;he proceeds to say229 :
"And we even within ourselves acknowledge a certain image of God, even of that most High Trinity, at unspeakable distance indeed, yet such, that nothing among Gods creatures is by nature more akin to Him ; and we expect yet a new creation, to bring it very near to Him by resemblance also. For, first, we are : secondly, we are conscious of being : thirdly, we delight in this our being and consciousness . . . 230These three we hold for certain of our own ; we trust not for them to other peoples testimony ; we ourselves feel them present, and discern them by an inward and most infallible kind of sight.
"Because therefore we are men, made after the image of Him who created us, to whom appertains True Eternity, Eternal Truth, Love both Eternal and True; and He is the very Trinity, Eternal and True, and Beloved, neither confounded, nor separated : in those things of course which are beneath us, feeling as we do, that they neither could at all exist, nor be contained under any idea, nor either seek or maintain any order, except they were made by Him who in the highest sense Is, in the highest sense is Wise, in the highest sense is Good : let us trace out His footsteps, so to call them, impressed on all the things which He hath made, though on some more, on some less ; but in ourselves contemplating the Image of Him, even as that younger son in the Gospel, let us arise and return to ourselves, in order that we may return to Him, from whom by transgression we had withdrawn ourselves. There our being shall no longer incur death ; nor our knowledge error ; nor our love, disappointment231."
(15.) Yet further : as the soul of man appears to be, in this sense, an image of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity, so his body is divinely adapted to the expression of the several virtues and graces, which God would new-create in him. St. Ambrose, in the end of his treatise so often referred to, has worked out this idea in considerable detail. He says232 :
"The Forehead is an image of the soul, speaking in the countenance ; it is a sort of ground or tablet of Faith, on which day by day the Name of the Lord is inscribed and retained233."
Again, alluding to the Kiss of Peace in the Holy Communion234, he says:
"By the Lips, Piety and Charity are pledged, the faithful affection of entire love is expressed."
"The Hand is that whereby we both work and dispense divine mysteries : by the name whereof the Son of God did not scorn to be designated, where David says, Thy right Hand, O Lord, hath wrought mightily : Thy right Hand, O Lord, hath exalted me."
Thus he makes the Hand the symbol of active devotion.
Lastly, the Foot by the same statement236 expresses humility and diligent obedience.
(19.) Upon these examples, taken collectively, one or two observations may be made.
First, it will have been seen that the great majority of them, the most important, and those of which the writers speak most positively, are gathered out of Holy Scripture itself ; a circumstance which singly would afford some presumption, that in the rest of their imagery, not so immediately Scriptural, they did not altogether indulge their own private fancies.
Again : if the figures used by any writer appear at first sight irreconcileable with those used by another, or by himself elsewhere : this also may be paralleled in Scripture, and in both will generally admit of explanations by tracing the original allusion a little farther back. E. g. Water, as is well known, is the o i k e i o n , the choice image, both in Scripture and in the Fathers to express Gods Holy Spirit communicated to His Church. But St. Ambrose, as we have seen, makes the same waters the emblem of Christs people flowing into the Church : as St. Cyprian237 had done before him, where he teaches that the water in the Eucharistical cup is the token of the Christian people. But these two meanings are not inconsistent, if we conceive the Blessed Spirit to be graciously identifying Himself with the people whom He sanctifies ; representing the change wrought in them as so entire, that henceforth they, the whole being of each of them, may be considered as effects and gifts from Him. Or, if no such explanation occurred, still the incongruity would not be greater than that which is found in the different applications of this same symbol of water in the Holy Scripture itself : comparing, e. g. that living Water, which represents the Unspeakable Gift, with the waters on which the mystical Babylon sate, representing "nations, and kindreds, and peoples, and tongues."
(20.) Thirdly, It may seem strange that some of these mystical allusions should be grounded on fable, not on fact : that to the Phoenix238, for example, and to the conception of the Vulture239 without a mate (which is alleged in association with the Immaculate Conception). And the scorn is inexpressible, with which the old ecclesiastical writers, from St. Clement of Rome downwards, have been visited, among modern critics, on this ground especially.
But in the first place, these supposed facts, many of them,- are brought forward not merely as providential intimations of mysterious Truths, but as arguments also from analogy, to silence gainsayers. St. Clement, for example, says in effect, "You believe this history of the Phoenix ; why should a resurrection be thought incredible by you ?" It is clear that the force of this depends not on the absolute truth of the statement, but on its general acceptance by those to whom he was addressing himself.
Further; this also is one of those topics on which objectors had need look well to themselves, lest they find that unawares they have been dealing irreverently with the undoubted Word of God. What are we to make, on their principle, of the inspired direction to go to the ant, consider her ways, and imitate her forethought, now that , it appears to be held among naturalists, that the common notion of that insects frugality is no better than a common error240 ? Whatever account can be given of that passage in Scripture, may be given, apparently, of like allegations, now found erroneous, in the writings of the Fathers.
(21.) Lastly, no doubt a considerable number of the above cited instances of Mysticism in things visible, will appear to some very cold, strained, and unnatural. Of these, however, not a few will be found, on closer examination, to be no more than developments, applications, or extensions, of imagery authorized by Scripture itself, or by the Universal Church. And even where that cannot be made to appear, it is dangerous surely so to assume the contrary, as to indulge any light disrespectful thoughts of such similitudes or associations, or of the writers who pointed them out ; considering how many such things may unquestionably be found in Gods own Word, which, if we lighted upon them in any other book, we should be tempted to treat with the same kind of disrespect. Here, as in every part of our patristical studies, it may be well to bear in mind the dream of Jacob, that we may not to our fear and shame have to awake by and by, and say, "Surely the Lord was with us in so many places, betokened by so many of His creatures, and we knew it not, but treated the thought unworthily."
- In 1631
- Pref.. § 2. ed. 1714.
- Pref. p. xxxii
- Bishop Law, as quoted by Middleton, p. 57.
- Bp. Van Mildert, B. L. 239, ap. Horne, Introd. ii. 724; Macknight, oil St. Pauls Ep. iv. 439.
- Pref. p. 8, 9.
- Whitby, pp. 201-3
- Ibid. Pref. lxxvi-lxxviii.
- p. 57
- C. xvi.
- C. xii.
- Ep. S. Barnab. C. ix.
- For example, S. Clem. Alex. Strom. vi. 84 ; S. Ambr. de Fide, i. init. and § 121; S. Aug. Quæst. in Jud. 37; S. Hil. de Synod. 86.
- Compare Gen. 17:27; 14:14
- See Isai. 56:7; Jer. 7:11.
- Strom. vi. 11.
- In loc. S. Barn.
- De Doct. Christ. ii. 22.
- De Civ. Dei, xviii. 43.
- Heb. 9:15-20.
- S. Aug. ubi sup.
- Prolog. in Gen. t. ix. p. 10. Ed. Vallars. Venet. 1770.
- I Cor. 12:28.
- De Cor. Mil. c. 3.
- De S. S. Interp. p. 9.
- See S. Jerome on Ezek. ix.4. t. v. pars i. P. 95,6
- S. Barnab. Ep. c. xi.
- Opp. p. 312314.
- Free Inquiry, &c. p. 29.
- p. 367 c.
- 2 Apol. p. 90. B.
- Lamentations 4:20.
- Ep. 86. Ed. Fell, p.231.
- C. xxiii. 29.
- 1 Ep. ad Cor. c. xii.
- i. 18.
- iv. 37.
- Dial. cum Tryph. p. 338. D.; Ed. Paris 1636.
- De Civ. Dei, xvi. 2.
- See Warburton, Int. to Julian, Works, iv. 340, 341. Ed. 1788.
- In Joan. t. x. c. 2.
- Hom. 2. in Gen. § 3.t.ii. 63. A. Ed. Bened. 1733.
- Comm. In Matt. xiv. § 11 t.iii. 629. B, C, E.
- In Matt. xv. § 31 t.iii. 699. B.
- Ep. 137. § 18, t. ii. p. 310.
- III. 5.
- Hexaëm. ix.
- Hooker, E. P. v. 50. 3.
- t. iii. pars 1. p. 90; Ed. Bened. 1702
- Whitby, Pref. in Diss. de Interp. S. S. p. lviii.
- De Genes ad lit. viii. 4.
- Ibid. 5.
- De Princip. iv. 6. t. i. 161.
- § xi. t. i. 168.
- § i. t. ii, p. 205.
- In Matt. Hom. xiv. § 12, t. iii. p. 630. D.
- Strom. vi. c. xv. § 132.
- Apol. pro Orig. p. 36; D. ad calc. Orig. Ed. Bened. t. iv.
- In Matt. xii. 30. ; tom. Iii. 549. A.
- In Gen. Hom. 2. t. ii. p. 5963.
- Ibid. 7, § 2 ; t. ii. p. 78. C, D.
- Ibid. 11, § 2 ; t. ii. p. 90. C.
- Ibid. 8. 10. t. ii. p. 83.
- Ibid. § 9.
- Ibid. 10. 4. t. 11. p. 88.
- On c. 43, 13. t. ii. p. 48. E.
- In Jesu Nave Hom. viii. 7. t. ii. p. 417. B, C.
- Ibid. § 6.
- In Gen. Hom. v. 3. t. ii. p. 74. F.
- In Joan. Comm. x. 2. t. iv. 162. B.
- Ibid. § 3, 4
- In Matt. Comm. Series, § 77. T. iii. p. 892, 3.
- In Exod. I. § 5. t. iii. p. 131. E.
- Comm. in Matt. tom. 16. § 12. t. iii. 732.
- Pref. in t. ii. p. xvil.
- Comm. in Matt. t. xv. 2. tom. iii. 653.
- In Gen. Hom. vi. i. t. ii. p. 76, D.
- In Gen. Hom. x. 2. t. ii. p. 87. F.
- In Exod. Hom. ii. 1. t. ii, p. 133. E.
- Hom. in Gen. vii. 5. t. ii. 80. B.
- Vid. Harduin. Concil. t. ii. p. 286288.
- P. xxiii.
- Hexaëm. Hom. ix. § i.
- In Gen. Hom. xiii. t. i. p. 80.
- Epiph. Epist. ad Joan. Ierosolym. ap Hieron. t. i. 247, &c.; Ed. Vallars. 1766; Hieron. contra Joan. Ierosol. § 7 ; t. ii. 413.
- Hom. 13, in Gen. t. i. p. 80, lin. 29, Ed. Savile.
- t. i. 652, 16.
- In Esai. lib. i. 4 ; t. i. p. 113.
- T. i. p. 2. C. ed. Aubert. Paris. 1638.
- Contra Celsum, iv. 48, 43, 45.
- Ibid. § 44; p. 537, B
- Ibid. § 48; t. i. p. 540
- De Civ. Dei, viii. 7.
- Ibid. cap. 10
- Contra Celsum. Iii. 75.
- Strom. i. 99 ; vi. 44.
- Ibid. i. 38 ; vi. 45.
- Ibid. i. 73.
- Ibid. vii. 87.
- Contr. Faust. Lib. xxii. 26.
- Ibid. xxii. 27.
- Ibid. xxii. 73
- Quæst. in Jud. xlix. 4. t. iii. p. i. 456. D.
- Contr. Faust. xxii. 74.
- Ibid. § 79.
- In I Reg. qu. 34. t. i. 379. Ed. Schulze
- Comm. in Hos. t. iii. 13. C.
- Contr. Faust. xxii. 23.
- Lib. iv. 29. (1 Cor)
- de Mendacio 32. t. vii. p.341.E.
- Contr. Faust. xxii. 24.
- Lib. iv. § 37, p. 333.lin. 32. Ed. Grabe.
- Ibid. iv. 37, p. 336. 26.
- Contr. Cels. iv. 43. t. i. p. 537. C.
- Apol. p. 40. D. t. I ; Paris, 1609.
- Contr. Mendac. ad. Consent. c. 24, t. vi. 337 D
- De Jacob et vita beata, II. 6; t. i. 546
- In Gen. Hom. 43 ; t. i. 415. 7. Ed. Savil.
- De Jacob et vita beata, II. 9; t. i. 546
- Ap. Galland. Bibl. Patr. t. ii. 485. B.
- Serm. iv. § 16 ; t. v. 13. D.
- Ibid. § 152, 23
- Ibid. § 21.
- Ibid. § 24.
- Contr. Faust. xxii. c. 59.
- Lib. iv. c. 38.
- e. g.St. John Chrysostom in Gen. Hom. 29, t. i. 226. Ed. Savil
Whitby, p. 8 ; 345 ; & Pref. p. ix.
"Ride on triumphantly : behold we lay
Our lusts and proud wills in Thy way.
Hosanna ! welcome to our hearts. Lord here
Thou hast a Temple too, and full as dear
As Sion, and as full of sin.
Nothing but thieves and robbers dwell therein
Enter, and chase them forth, and cleanse the floor," etc.
t íz p o q w n o m a x e n w d
e z t o p a n e t h t u m w z ,
m h t i z o n t i n o u k o r v m e n ,
p r o n o i a s i t o u p e p r w m e n o u
g l v s s a n e n t u c a n e m w n ; k . t . l .
when people cross themselves
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