Beauty Ever Ancient, Ever New

I’ve been reading Thomas Williams’ new translation of Augustine’s Confessions (Hackett 2019), and yesterday I came to my favorite passage. It’s a very famous section, which Williams lays out as a poem.

Late have I loved you, beauty so ancient and so new!
Late have I loved you!
And behold, you were within, but I was outside and looked for you there, and in my ugliness I seized upon these beautiful things that you have made.
You were with me, but I was not with you. 
Those things helped me far away from you — things that would not even exist if they were not in you.
You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness;
you flashed, you shone, and you dispersed my blindness;
you breathed perfume, and I’d ruin my breath and pant for you;
I tasted, and I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I was set on fire for your peace. (Bk10, 27.38)

This prayer comes at the end of a long section during which Augustine is meditating on how he can love God when he knows so little about Him. Augustine is in some ways confident that he does love God because he has been, as he puts it, “pierced” by the word of God; he has fallen in love with God. He sees that all of the wonders of the creation tell him to love God. And yet when he tries to articulate this love to himself, he doesn’t have the right words for it; when he tries to figure out how he ever knows God well enough to love Him, he has no immediate answer. He asks God to make this clear:

But what do I love when I love you? Not physical beauty or transient grace, or the resplendence of light , so pleasing to our eyes; not the sweet melodies of all kinds of music; not the lovely fragrance of flowers and perfumes and spices; not manna and honey; not bodies that we delight to embrace: these are not what I love when I love my God. And yet I do love a certain light and sound and fragrance and nourishment and embrace when I love my God: a light, sound, fragrance, nourishment, and embrace in my innermost self, where there is a radiance upon my soul that no place can contain, a sound that time does not destroy, a fragrance that no wind disperses, a taste that does not grow stale no matter how eagerly I feed, an embrace of which I could never tire, which I could never seek to escape. This is what I love when I love my God. (Bk10, 6.8)

It is a remarkably evocative paragraph, presenting God in purely aesthetic terms. And yet Augustine is not happy with it. He spends more than 20 more paragraphs trying to find out where these experiences of radiance and fragrance and embrace have originated. Do these experiences come to him from the external world? It would seem not. Are they things that happened within himself? In a way, yes. And yet, nothing within himself appears to be the source of the experience. He does not find God as a result of his intelligence, or his great soul, or his memory.

Ultimately, he decides he has had a direct encounter with God. God has initiated this contact by “breaking through” his deafness, recalling him from his distraction with lesser beauties. It is when he reaches this conclusion that he offers his hymn to God as Beauty itself. Unlike most translators, Williams doesn’t capitalize beauty here, but I think it’s helpful to differentiate God as Beauty, the source of all other beauties, unchanging and yet constantly overflowing and renewing, from the beauties of creation. Just as God is not one being among other beings, so He is not one beauty among other beauties. He is the ground of all beings because He is Being itself. He is the ground of all beauty because He is Beauty itself.

Elsewhere in Confessions, Augustine has spoken of the weight or the gravity of love, pulling him both toward God and away from Him. His love for God is like a weight, a gravitational pull that draws him toward God the way something beautiful naturally draws us toward itself. The beautiful, says Thomas Aquinas, is that which attracts when seen. And it is that power of attracting, of pulling, of drawing, of being magnetic that so describes God here in Augustine’s experience. The cause of his experience of God is not within him; it is external to him. But it is also not in the created world. It is in God himself, God who has summoned him through a vision of His glory, through an experience of His sweetness. The overwhelming beauty of God is what woke Augustine up from the slumber of his sin.

Beauty is the right name for God when we are recognizing Him as the One who reveals but also calls and attracts. Beauty entrances and makes us step closer. Beauty participates not only in formal causation as order and design, but also in final causation. Augustine has been chosen and summoned. He has been elected, though the mechanics of predestination are far from his mind in this passage. He has described the experience of having the veil of God’s glory pulled back so that His irresistible beauty is revealed in all its gravitational power.

After the hymn to beauty, Augustine talks again about the weight and pull of the world. Although he has experienced the gravitational power of God’s glory, he has also experienced the gravitational power of other loves. He loves beautiful music; he loves women; he loves good food. The world is full of reflections of God’s glory, but when they are seen as ends in themselves, his love for and attraction to each of these beauties pull him in a different direction. He is like Voldemort ripping up his soul into little pieces and scattering himself around the world. But when he has an overwhelming experience of God’s beauty, recognizing God as Beauty Itself, that experience pulls him completely in one direction, making him again a coherent and gathered self. He describes himself now as continent. He is ordered and integrated by beauty, even as he pours himself out toward God. He is no longer divided, no longer distracted, no longer led astray.

Here at the heart of Augustine’s story of his conversion and of his growing relationship with God is the experience of God’s beauty. And how could we expect anything else? For it is the vision of God’s glory and beauty in the face of Christ that changes the world, calling us to be born again, gathering and integrating us as new creations.

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