Drifting Thoughts

  • I think modern Christianity simply doesn’t get “allegorical” interpretation as practiced by the Church Fathers & Mothers and their early medieval interpetive heirs. At its heart, allegorial/spiritual/mystical (the last two were the terms they most frequently used of their own activities…) is an intellectually engaged form of spiritual play. It’s a game—but a reverent, thoughtful one. Spiritual Sudoku. A couple of passages here from Augustine that ground this for me:

7. But hasty and careless readers are led astray by many and manifold obscurities and ambiguities, substituting one meaning for another; and in some places they cannot hit upon even a fair interpretation. Some of the expressions are so obscure as to shroud the meaning in the thickest darkness. And I do not doubt that all this was divinely arranged for the purpose of subduing pride by toil, and of preventing a feeling of satiety in the intellect, which generally holds in small esteem what is discovered without difficulty. For why is it, I ask, that if any one says that there are holy and just men whose life and conversation the Church of Christ uses as a means of redeeming those who come to it from all kinds of superstitions, and making them through their imitation of good men members of its own body; men who, as good and true servants of God, have come to the baptismal font laying down the burdens of the world, and who rising thence do, through the implanting of the Holy Spirit, yield the fruit of a two-fold love, a love, that is, of God and their neighbor—how is it, I say, that if a man says this, he does not please his hearer so much as when he draws the same meaning from that passage in Canticles, where it is said of the Church, when it is being praised under the figure of a beautiful woman, Your teeth are like a flock of sheep that are shorn which came up from the washing, whereof every one bears twins, and none is barren among them? Song of Songs 4:2 Does the hearer learn anything more than when he listens to the same thought expressed in the plainest language, without the help of this figure? And yet, I don’t know why, I feel greater pleasure in contemplating holy men, when I view them as the teeth of the Church, tearing men away from their errors, and bringing them into the Church’s body, with all their harshness softened down, just as if they had been torn off and masticated by the teeth. It is with the greatest pleasure, too, that I recognize them under the figure of sheep that have been shorn, laying down the burthens of the world like fleeces, and coming up from the washing, i.e., from baptism, and all bearing twins, i.e., the twin commandments of love, and none among them barren in that holy fruit.

8. But why I view them with greater delight under that aspect than if no such figure were drawn from the sacred books, though the fact would remain the same and the knowledge the same, is another question, and one very difficult to answer. Nobody, however, has any doubt about the facts, both that it is pleasanter in some cases to have knowledge communicated through figures, and that what is attended with difficulty in the seeking gives greater pleasure in the finding.— For those who seek but do not find suffer from hunger. Those, again, who do not seek at all because they have what they require just beside them often grow languid from satiety. Now weakness from either of these causes is to be avoided. Accordingly the Holy Spirit has, with admirable wisdom and care for our welfare, so arranged the Holy Scriptures as by the plainer passages to satisfy our hunger, and by the more obscure to stimulate our appetite. For almost nothing is dug out of those obscure passages which may not be found set forth in the plainest language elsewhere. (Augustine, On Christian Teaching 2.6.7-8; copied from New Advent’s edition)

14. In all these books those who fear God and are of a meek and pious disposition seek the will of God. And in pursuing this search the first rule to be observed is, as I said, to know these books, if not yet with the understanding, still to read them so as to commit them to memory, or at least so as not to remain wholly ignorant of them. Next, those matters that are plainly laid down in them, whether rules of life or rules of faith, are to be searched into more carefully and more diligently; and the more of these a man discovers, the more capacious does his understanding become. For among the things that are plainly laid down in Scripture are to be found all matters that concern faith and the manner of life—to wit, hope and love, of which I have spoken in the previous book. After this, when we have made ourselves to a certain extent familiar with the language of Scripture, we may proceed to open up and investigate the obscure passages, and in doing so draw examples from the plainer expressions to throw light upon the more obscure, and use the evidence of passages about which there is no doubt to remove all hesitation in regard to the doubtful passages. And in this matter memory counts for a great deal; but if the memory be defective, no rules can supply the want. (Augustine, On Christian Teaching 2.9.14; copied from New Advent’s edition)

For Augustine, the interpretation of obscure parts of Scripture is about pleasure and delight—that’s the language he’s using here. The thrill of intellectual discovery comes when you figure out the puzzle. Have you learned something you didn’t know before? Well, no—not as he sees. it. The obscurities teach nothing that isn’t already said plainly; but it’s a lot more fun to find it in the obscurities!

The other key thing here is the place of memory. Read so as to memorize, and then you can ruminate on those passages that are obscure to you (or, sometimes, that you choose to treat as obscure even if they may have some easier referents…). Spiritual readings are the result of a lengthy process of mental mastication; you have to chew on them for a long time with great attention to detail.

There’s a lot more to say on this topic, particularly with regard to the aims and boundaries of interpretation—i.e., keeping readings on track and what constitute valid and invalid spiritual readings, that I won’t get into except to note that Augustine explicitly orients all good reading on an axis of either 1) promoting charity or 2) restraining vice and that he envisions it within a community of practice bounded by worship: the creeds and sacraments are the ultimate controls.

  • I’ve seen a number of references on Facebook and elsewhere to a Guardian piece on Matthew Crawford that you should definitely read if you haven’t already.   The key pull-quote here is: “Distraction is a kind of obesity of the mind.” When I read this, my mind jumped immediately to John Cassian’s Institutes. In his treatment of the eight principal vices and the corresponding virtues, he starts with Gluttony. I’ve been struck by this. Gluttony is one of the sins this least discussed yet most openly practiced by Western consumer culture. While Cassian tends to speak of it in the literal sense with regard to fasting and such, I read it in the broader sense to include all forms of unnecessary consumption. Yes, some consumption is necessary for life—this isn’t gluttony. Gluttony, the vice, is when consumption occurs for its own sake or for a purpose other than the legitimate needs of the corpus (whether individual or communal). I haven’t thought through this yet, but my subconscious informs me that there’s a deep link between what Crawford is saying about distraction and the spiritual ill that is Gluttony.
  • I saw a great image on Twitter today that I had to retweet. https://twitter.com/NCS_Chaucer/status/573905286424961024/photo/1 First, I love this page, its type, and layout! This is from 1896 and I see it in line with the whole pre-Raphaelite/Arts & Crafts/Morris movement that has ties into Victorian medievalism that buoyed catholic sensibilities in the C of E as well as the graphic arts. I can’t see this page without finding in it a great debt to the late medieval Books of Hours tradition. Again—it makes one think…

3 thoughts on “Drifting Thoughts

  1. bm9227

    Reverent devotional “play” is an awesome lens to view patristic/early medieval allegory! I’ve never thought of it that way – we’re so used to seeing these people as kind of austere and self-serious, which leaves us baffled with allegory and makes it seem overly subtle or deceptive. But when we see allegorical exegesis as play, then we see the exegete as someone delighting in the scripture, while grounded in the deep engagement and memory with it mentioned by Augustine. The exegete is reading the Bible with disciplined creativity, like an artist. And in creatively, reverently playing with the scripture, and delighting in the result, the reader is almost participating in the logos of God’s creative power, and God’s own delight for creation.

  2. Ben Miller

    I should also say that the gluttony piece hit me kind of hard. I’m a student and spend a lot of time consuming information rather than engaging with it…

  3. Pingback: Post-post-modern: A Parable | Revealing Words

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