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Stained Glass - Saint Augstine

A God of Paradox

I was quite fortunate this week to attend virtually the first of a year-long series on the Christian mystics led by Bernard McGinn – the preeminent scholar on Christian mysticism. The series is hosted by the World Community for Christian Meditation. This series will occur monthly with Dr. McGinn offering a presentation on a Christian mystic and a second scholar offering a response or further insights on each particular mystic. Dr. Margaret Lane provided the response to McGinn’s first presentation. The first session began appropriately with St. Augustine – often heralded as the Father of Christian Mysticism.

Both Dr. McGinn and Dr. Lane focused on Augustine’s Confessions, often described as a ‘spiritual autobiography’ written when Augustine was the Bishop of Hippo. Since all of the participants were Christian meditators the session began with the over one hundred participants meditating for twenty minutes. This is always the practice whether in person or online.

I was pleased that Dr. McGinn spoke, near the end of his talk, on the many names for God that Augustine placed in the first book of the thirteen books that make up the Confessions. I am drawn to the paradoxical names (aspects) of God that Saint Augustine included in his writing. Although I love Dom Crossan’s description of Jesus ‘as what God would look like in sandals’ I find the unknowability of God is a facet of God that has resonated with me in later years. Augustine found the nature of God to be paradoxical: “most remote and most present, unmoving but ungraspable, unchangeable but changing everything, never new, never old, but making all things new, always active always at rest, gathering in but not in need, searching though you lack nothing, you love, but do not burn with love, you are jealous but carefree, you are angry yet serene, you change your works but do not change your plan.” *

In this fourth chapter of the first book of Confessions, Augustine moves from speaking indirectly to the Holy One to speaking directly to this paradoxical God. “You are never poor but rejoice in what you gain, never greedy but you exact interest, more is paid to you than is owed, but the result is that you owe us. Yet who has anything that doesn’t belong to you? You pay your debts though you owe no one, you remit your debts but lose nothing. And what have we said now, my God, my life, my holy sweetness, or what does anyone ever say in speaking of you?

It is important that we become comfortable with paradox. This is especially true when we attempt to speak of the nature of God. In her book, Silence: A User’s Guide Vol. 2: Application, Maggie Ross speaks of the need for paradox: “It is hard for us, living as we are in an increasingly linear and digitally defined culture that does not allow for paradox and ambiguity, to understand and accept that especially with texts such as those in the Bible there is rarely, if ever, one unequivocal meaning, and that, contrary to what some biblical scholars would have us believe, there is every justification for interpretation that illuminates the personal and the interior, which had a long and honored history in Hebrew religions, Judaism and Christianity.”

Approaching our scriptures, as Augustine did, with a sense of a slow and gradual unfolding, allows us to move beyond a mere literal understanding of the sacred text. And it is in silent contemplation of those texts that we experience a God ‘who wore sandals’ but is equally unknowable. In silence we open ourselves to that paradoxical God.

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