Neoplatonism, Beauty, and the Ascent to God

This is the third post in my series on Neoplatonism. To read earlier posts in the series, click here and here.


St. Augustine: From Manichaeism to Neoplatonism to Christianity

St. Augustine of Hippo

From his earliest years growing up in North Africa in the mid fourth century, Augustine learned about Christ through the gentle influence of his mother, St. Monica. As the young Augustine grew, he became exposed to the teachings of the Manichaeans, a heretical group that had made a foothold in North Africa. Under the influence of this heresy, Augustine drifted away from the faith of his upbringing.

The Manichaean heresy was based on the teachings of Mani, an Iranian born in 216 whose parents had belonged to a Gnostic sect known as the Elcesaites. Mani retained much of his parents’ Gnosticism but reworked it within a new religious philosophical system that came to be known as Manichaeism. Mani built on the negative outlook towards the material world that pervaded the various Gnostic sects, but then he added a twist of his own: the universe is a theatre of a cosmic battle between good matter and bad matter. Good matter included the soul and light. Specifically, the Manichaeans associated Christ with the light of the sun and moon. Bad matter included the human body and things that are dark. According to this dualistic worldview, the soul is captive to the body, trapped in the impurity of the bad stuff.

While the Manichaeans were crudely materialistic through associating divinity with corporeal elements, they presented themselves as more spiritual than the Orthodox Christians of North Africa, who they alleged were in bondage to the physical body and the things of this world. For the young Augustine, Manichaeism promised to be a sophisticated and more “spiritual” alternative to Catholic Orthodoxy.

Augustine’s Manichaean beliefs began to be challenged after he moved to Milan, where he hoped to further his career as a rhetorician. Milan was the cultural epicenter of the empire in the late fourth century, and a hotbed of Neoplatonism. Significantly for the young Augustine, Neoplatonism posed a formidable challenge to many of his Manichaean assumptions. Neoplatonism had been developed in the prior century by the pagan philosopher Plotinus (204-270), who systematized Plato’s philosophy into an integrated spiritual vision. (This reflected the fact that, in those days, there was no distinction between philosophy and spirituality.) Many Christian thinkers picked up on Neoplatonism and integrated it into their theology, leading to a rich synthesis of Biblical revelation and Greek philosophy.

There is much we could say about Neoplatonism in both its pagan and Christian varieties. However, what is relevant for the present discussion is how Neoplatonism helped Augustine understand how God can be non-bodily or incorporeal. Recall that the Manichaeans associated divinity with corporeal bodies such as the sun and moon.

Plato had made a distinction between two types of perception. On the one hand, we perceive corporeal entities (plants, animals, heavenly bodies, etc.) with our senses. On the other hand, we perceive non-bodily entities (virtue, wisdom, love, the forms, etc.) with our understanding or, as it is sometimes called, our “intelligible faculties.” To understand the philosophical significance of this distinction for Platonists, it may be helpful to review the discussion of triangles from the previous post. Recall that specific instances of triangles in our world come into being and go out of being within time. As such, these specific triangles are less real than the perfect form of a triangle that we see with our mind’s eye. We can call the first type of triangles “sensible triangles,” because they are perceived by the senses, and we can call the second type of triangle an “intelligible triangle,” because perceived by the intellect. Crucially for Plato and the Neoplatonists, the intelligible triangle is eternal, and thus has more being (greater existence) than the sensible triangle.

If you think about it, the eternality of intelligible triangles is just common sense. Consider that if I draw a triangle in the sand, it ceases to exist as soon as the waves come and wash over it, whereas the eternal essence of a triangle that we perceive with the intellect has never come into being and will never go out of being. What is true of the eternal triangle (for example, the Pythagorean theorem) would still be necessarily true even if no particular triangles existed in the corporeal world, and it would still be true even if there were no creatures around to recognize the truth. Another way of describing the relationship between the two types of triangles would be to say that the sensible triangle is an imitation of, or a participation in, the eternal intelligible triangle. For Plato, what we can say of triangles is also true of eternal essences like Goodness, Beauty, Courage, Wisdom, Love, and so forth. The intelligible essences or eternal patterns of things are more spiritual and more real than their sensible imitations within the corporeal world.

When Augustine discovered Platonism in Milan, it helped pave the way for his conversion to Christianity, because it demonstrated how God can exist without being corporeal. Just as the perfect idea of a triangle is real even though it is not extended within space and time, so God is real without being limited to finite matter. Moreover, the Platonic forms, which in Augustine’s day were referred to as “Ideas,” are more real than their sensible imitations by virtue of being eternal, and not coming in and out of being. These eternal forms, Augustine would come to understand, create the template for all that exists within the sensible world, including beauty. Later, when Augustine was explaining Christian Platonism to a North African audience, he would put it like this.

“For the Ideas are certain original Forms or Reasons of things—fixed and immutable, not themselves formed, and therefore eternal, being always the same way—which are contained in the divine intelligence…. So if these Reasons of everything to be created (and everything already created) are contained in the divine mind, and nothing can be in the divine mind without being eternal and immutable, and these original Reasons of things are also what Plato called Ideas—then not only do Ideas exist, but they are true, for they are eternal, remaining the same way and immutable, and whatever exists is the way that it is by sharing [participatione] in them.”

In the same way that one can infer an intelligible triangle from the existence of sensible triangles (for the former is the pattern or template that gives meaning to the latter), so the lovely and delightful things we encounter in this world point towards an ultimate Beauty. Again, as Augustine would later explain it, “You could neither approve nor disapprove of anything you perceive through the bodily senses unless you had within yourself certain laws of beauty to which you refer every beautiful thing that you see outside yourself.” Here Augustine appealed to the Platonic notion of an innate idea of beauty that precedes and gives meaning to sensory experience. The ultimate beauty (what we might call “the Platonic form of beauty,”) that lies behind our ideas of beauty is grounded in God Himself.

Of course, Augustine needed more than simply good philosophy to be converted to Christianity, but the insights from Platonism proved to be a key path on his journey to conversion (or, to use the language of the Symposium, a rung on the ladder towards the Divine). In Book 7 of the Confessions he shared a transitional period when he wavered between cleaving to God and following after lesser beauties. Eventually, he converted to Christianity and gave himself wholly to the pursuit of Divine Beauty and Wisdom rather than their sensible imitations. But what status did that leave to earthly things—to the lower rungs of Plato’s ladder?

How Neoplatonism Helped St Augustine Discover the Goodness of Creation

Christian Neoplatonism, like Plato himself, could be ambiguous about the value of the physical world. In Augustine’s favorite passage from Plotinus, the great Neoplatonist philosopher had urged that the way to behold “extraordinary beauty” is through “leaving the sight of his eyes outside and not turning back to corporeal beauties.” In his earliest post-conversion writings, Augustine followed a similar path to Plotinus by deemphasizing the spiritual significance of the corporeal world. For example, in his early Soliloquies, Augustine encouraged his readers to turn away from external things while proclaiming that he wanted to know nothing but God and the soul. (Soliloquies, 1:2.7.) He even went so far as to reject the testimony of the senses (Soliloquies, 1:3.8). Similarly, in Book 1 of On Free Choice of the Will, written much earlier than Book 3, he urged his readers to turn their love away from temporal things. Clearly the world of sensible things ceased to interest the newly converted Neoplatonist. We might say that he was interested only in the eternal intelligible triangle and not triangles that we perceive with the senses. This move away from corporeal reality came as a natural reaction to the debauchery of Augustine’s youth, as well as a reaction to his early heretical views which conflated the divine with physical objects. Yet as his thought matured, Augustine moved into what Augustine scholar Phillip Cary called “a complex using, believing, and loving of temporal things.”

In his career as a Christian thinker and churchman, St. Augustine continued to wrestle with the central question of Neoplatonism: how are things within the corporeal world related to things in the intelligible world? Unlike his early Christian writings which followed the more “Gnostic” strain of Neoplatonism, Augustine began taking a deep interest in the good things of creation, particularly beauty and friendship.

In his work On the Immortality of the Soul, written in 387, Augustine experimented with the idea that lesser grades of goodness and beauty are truly real because they participate in God’s being. His writings also began to show a fascination with how we can ascend from lower grades of being to higher. He started to understand that the things of this world are genuinely real and good, and only become idols when we treat them as the heart’s final resting place. To enjoy something idolatrously is to love it for its own sake instead of as a means for drawing us to the ultimate happiness found only in God.

In his book On Christian Doctrine (397/426), Augustine compared our life on earth to a wanderer voyaging to his homeland. The traveler needs various supplies if he is to complete the journey, such as ships and carriages. These supplies are genuinely good, but their goodness is a means towards a higher end. If the traveler gets so attached to these supplies that he ceases to use them for journeying, then they cease to be good but become evil to him. Similarly, the human being is too weak to bear God’s immutable Light, and so His light reaches us with diminished radiance in the things of creation in order that we might use these material things for ascending to Him. The good things of this world—love, health, security, friendships, joy, etc.—become evil when we cease to use them on our ascent towards God, or as means for preparing for the age to come. To put it in contemporary terms, such idolatry would be like someone who has become so attached to his beaten-up Ford that he baulks at the idea of letting it go so it can be renovated and renewed. What we need is not for our loves to diminish, but for our loves to be renewed and rightly ordered. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, our loves can become oriented towards God, the proper object of all longing.

These reflections reached their climax in Augustine’s autobiography, the Confessions (397-8). Here the North African Bishop summoned all his poetic eloquence to demonstrate that our longings and desires originate in our heart’s primordial hunger for God. By the time he wrote this work, he had come to believe that created things are not merely good in an instrumental sense as means to ends; rather, all goodness and beauty in this world possesses an intrinsic value because of being from God and participating in Him.

“Let us love him,” Augustine wrote in Book 4 of the Confessions, “for he himself created all these, and he is not far away from them.” He continued:

“The good that you love is from him, and insofar as it is also for him, it is both good and pleasant. But it will rightly be turned to bitterness if whatever comes from him is not rightly loved and if he is deserted for the love of the creature. Why then will you wander farther and farther in these difficult and toilsome ways? There is no rest where you seek it.”

Significantly, as Augustine surveyed his apostate youth in the Confessions, his harshest self-criticism is not that he gave himself over to the pleasures of the flesh, but that his carnal appetites were a symptom of disordered affection. He viewed his youthful self as vainly seeking to satisfy his restless heart with all manner of immanent beauties and joys, imagining that life and rest can be found in such things, rather than understanding that all that is good and beautiful in this world receives its coherence from God, who remains the final telos of the soul’s innermost longings. He offered a particularly vivid description of friendship, where he demonstrates that friendship turns to bitterness and despair when we take it for ultimate happiness instead of looking through friendship to the God behind it. In the end, life is either a journey towards our home, which is the happy vision of God that Paul described in 1 Corinthians 2:9, or a journey towards becoming sub-human and defined by death.

While chasing after beauty as an end in itself, the apostate Augustine had written books exploring the different types of beauty that existed in the world. However, from the vantage point of the Confessions, he saw that the lovely things of this earth had been sinking his soul to the depths, not because these things lacked beauty, but because they were what he calls “inferior beauties.” Not only are the beautiful things of earth inferior to Divine Beauty, but they remain derivative, for “lovely things would simply not be unless they were from thee.” When the soul’s longing for God misfires and fixates on finite goods instead of using these goods on the ascent to Infinite Goodness and Beauty, then the result is more emptiness, and a soul continually unsatisfied. Augustine encapsulated this notion on the very first page of the Confessions, with his oft-quoted remark, “Thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee.” Only after our hearts have come to rest in God, can we love created things—including beautiful bodies—in the right way. As he put it in Book 4 of Confessions, “If bodies delight thee, praise God for them, and reflect thy love upon their Maker, lest, in what pleases thee, thou shouldst displease Him…. Let them be loved, then, in Him.”

Ultimately, Augustine’s mature Neoplatonism reached its climax in his Christology. Christ, he taught, comes to us as the Virtue of God and the Wisdom of God, showing us how to ascend to the Father, wherein our heart’s restless longings can find satiation. Through creation and incarnation, Gnosticism qua Manichaeism is refuted, and the partial wisdom of Greek philosophy reaches its happy fulfillment.

Beauty and the Heart’s Desire for God

From his perspective as a mature Christian thinker, St. Augustine could reconcile his early love for beauty with his realization that all desire is finally a longing for God. Echoing the argument of Plato’s Symposium, he observed that beautiful things can become key stages on the ascent towards the Almighty. (Augustine is unlikely to have read Plato’s Symposium, and learned most of what he knew about Platonic philosophy from what he called, “some books of the Platonists.”)

“Thus our souls may climb out of their weariness toward thee and lean on those things which thou hast created and pass through them to thee, who didst create them in a marvelous way.”

Augustine’s description of his journey back to God culminated in a beautiful prayer offered in Book 10 of The Confessions. Through this prayer, Augustine meditated on the fact that all his earlier longings, and all his previous affections, had finally found their proper resting place in the Divine Beauty.

“Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved Thee! For behold Thou were within me, and I outside; and I sought Thee outside and in my unloveliness fell upon those lovely things that Thou hast made. Thou were with me and I was not with Thee. I was kept from Thee by those things, yet had they not been in Thee, they would not have been at all. Thou didst call and cry to my and break open my deafness: and Thou didst send forth Thy beams and shine upon me and chase away my blindness: Thou didst breathe fragrance upon me, and 1 drew in my breath and do not now pant for Thee: I tasted Thee, and now hunger and thirst for Thee: Thou didst touch me, and I have burned for Thy peace.”

As this passage so movingly suggests, Augustine understood love to be nothing other than the heart seeking its natural place of rest. He taught that it is natural to our condition as images of God to long for rest in ultimate Beauty and Goodness, in much the same way that plants naturally long for, and seek out, sunlight.

St. Augustine is not alone in this insight. Saint Gregory explained a similar concept by teaching that to truly know God is to love Him, for to know Him aright is to perceive the absolute Beauty of His nature from which all lesser forms of beauty are ultimately derived. Accordingly, God’s own self-love consists in love for His own beauty. Here’s how St. Gregory expressed this profound idea in On the Soul and the Resurrection:

“The life of the Supreme Being is love, seeing that the Beautiful is necessarily lovable to those who recognize it… No satiety interrupting this continuous capacity to love the Beautiful, God’s life will have its activity in love, which life is thus in itself beautiful, and is essentially of a loving disposition towards the Beautiful, and receives no check to this activity of love.”

Understanding God as the archetype of that is truly good and beautiful, helps to contextualize the problem of sin. For the Patristics, sin is a misdirecting of the impulse to long for God, like a lover who becomes so entranced by a portrait of his beloved that he does not notice that she herself is in the room. C.S. Lewis—a thoroughgoing Augustianian—used the example of a bee that is caught buzzing at the window pain, who thinks she sees the way to the flowers and grass on the other side of the window. If left to her own the bee will finally die. Only by submitting to what seems a kind of death—being caught in the handkerchief and taken outside—will the bee reach the freedom for which she longs. Similarly, Lewis suggests, if men and women are left to follow after their heart’s desires, they will settle on lesser goods that point to, but are not the ultimate fulfilment of, what they truly desire. The paradox of the spiritual life is that it is often only by turning away from immediate fulfilment of our longings that we are able to ultimately approach the object of our deepest desires.

Through the distorting influences of sin, we are continually led away from our primal longing for God’s beauty, being misled by finite goods that promise an original goodness or an intrinsic beauty. But at best these finite goods are meant to kindle a desire for the fullness of what they only possess in part. That is to say, finite goods point towards God who is both the source and the goal of all that is Good, True, and Beautiful. For example, our desire to unite with another human being in physical intimacy is a dim reflection of the more primordial desire to unite with God. Or again, our instinct to seek out and enjoy the beautiful things of creation is implanted within us so that we might use creation as rungs on the ladder in our ascent towards God, the source and goal of all beauty, goodness, and love. Ultimately, human love and beauty portend something beyond the confines of earthly experience, pointing us towards heaven in which all human longing finds its natural resting place (or, to use the more Biblical language I prefer, human love and beauty point us towards the age to come when we will be resurrected to enjoy perfect union with God and mankind in the new heavens and new earth). C.S. Lewis discussed these primordial longings in his sermon “The Weight of Glory.” He movingly described the desire we all feel that no earthly experience can satisfy but which so much of our experience hauntingly portends.

“We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”

In the same sermon, Lewis went on to suggest that this desire will ultimately be fulfilled when we inhabit our glorified bodies. “What would it be,” he asked, “to taste at the fountainhead that stream of which even these lower reaches prove so intoxicating? Yet that, I believe, is what lies before us. The whole man is to drink joy from the fountain of joy.”

This notion that earthly beauty and love portend a Divine Beauty and Love, is central to the theology of Platonic Love that has developed in the Christian tradition. Let us look more closely at the theology of Platonic Love through the insight of the poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321).

Platonic Love from Dante to Donne

Dante Alighieri

Thirteenth-century Florence was a hub of art, culture, and politics. But it was also a center of debauchery, with experiments in sin that could rival anything today. The city’s population included a brotherhood of poets that claimed to take a high view of love, and who reverenced the god of romantic love. Among these was a young poet named Dante Alighieri, whose early poetry was devoted to the cult of romantic love.

As Dante grew and his thinking became sanctified, he never renounced romantic love but used it as a portal to journey closer to God. Dante’s more sanctified thinking about love came to focus in his love for Beatrice Portinari, a girl he met when he was nine and only saw one on one other occasion. Beatrice married someone else and died at age twenty-five. Although Dante’s love for Beatrice was never consummated, he was able to use his love for her as a means for ascending to God. This ascent from human love to divine love was vividly portrayed in Dante’s three-part narrative poem, The Divine Comedy, in which Beatrice served as a guide to lead Dante from hell to heaven.

During the first part of the journey as he travelled through hell, Dante saw souls in torment who damned themselves through pursuing transitory goods as ends in themselves, rather than pursuing them as means towards the Good of God. In this we see the influence of St. Augustine, and his teaching that the things of this age should not be clung to for their own sakes, but should be received as signs of, or stepping-stones towards, eternal realities.

In one vivid passage in Inferno, Dante has a conversation with Francesca de Rimini, who was murdered when her husband, Giovanni, caught her in adultery with his brother Paolo. Now in hell, she exclaims, “Love brought us to one death.” Francesca’s love for Paolo is set in contrast to Dante’s love for Beatrice. In the one case, the lover is dragged down to hell, and the love relationship is subsumed in death; in the latter case, the lover ascends to heaven, and the love becomes transfigured in God. But Dante had to learn to love Beatrice in this sanctified, heaven-pointing way. While traveling in purgatory, Beatrice told Dante,

And when my death brought that best joy to naught,

What mortal thing should there have been, whose clutch

Could draw thee to it in thy hankering thought?

Here Beatrice is suggesting that if Dante had seen her rightly, he would have turned from all lesser goods to pursue God alone. Commenting on this passage in his book How Dante Can Save Your Life, Rod Dreher noted that “what he responded to in her was the presence of God shining through her. If he had seen her rightly, after she died he would have dedicated himself to the pursuit of God, not of lesser goods.” Dante had to move from youthful passion to the type of mature love that sees the beloved as an icon of heavenly beauty. Dreher describes the transformation that took place in Dante’s heart towards Beatrice, as his love for her became spiritual:

…mistaking his exalting youthful passion for Beatrice for true love, and Beatrice for a kind of deity, led Dante astray, into the dead end symbolized by the dark wood at the Commedia’s beginning.

Years later, with Dante in exile, it was through Beatrice’s memory that God spoke to the mature Dante’s broken heart. The poet came to see that he had made an idol of Beatrice and of Love instead of seeing them as icons through which the Divine shines and God calls us back to himself. This is how Dante found his way back—or, rather, was led back—to faith, truth, and wholeness.

What Dante offered in The Divine Comedy is a portrait of true Christian Platonic love, which rises from earthly beauty and love to heavenly beauty and love, and which sanctifies the former by understanding its participation in the latter. C.S. Lewis beautifully articulated the understanding of Platonic love when he observed that,

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“Only by being in some respect like Him, only by being a manifestation of His beauty, loving-kindness, wisdom or goodness, has any earthly Beloved excited our love. It is not that we have loved them too much, but that we did not quite understand what we were loving… All that was true love in them was, even on earth, far more His than ours, and ours only because His.”

As one might guess from our discussion of Dante, Platonic love has often been associated with chastity, and with good reason. Platonic love sees the presence of God shining through the beloved, but then leapfrogs over the beloved to enjoy a direct union with Christ who remains the origin and goal of the heart’s most noble longings. But chastity, like fasting, only makes sense in an eschatological context. Fasting underscores that God is the ultimate source of life and human flourishing, even when our stomach is sending us the message that we cannot flourish without food, and even if—God forbid—we die from lack of food. As such, fasting anticipates the eschatological reality when we will be sustained directly by God’s pneuma, and not the soul-powered body that we experience this side of resurrection (see the discussion of 1 Corinthians 15:44 in my earlier post, “Rediscovering the Power of Resurrection for a Time of Implicit Gnosticism.”). Similarly, chastity is a way of acknowledging that the good things of this world do not possess life in themselves, but are derivative from that primordial beauty that is the source and final horizon of all human love, and towards which we may begin to cleave even in this age. In this sense, chastity is a foretaste of the heavenly reality described by C.S. Lewis when he we pass from the prototype to the type, from the shadow to the reality, from the symbol to the thing symbolized:

“In Heaven there will be no anguish and no duty of turning away from our earthly Beloveds. First, because we shall have turned already; from the portraits to the Original, from the rivulets to the Fountain, from the creatures He made lovable to Love Himself. But secondly, because we shall find them all in Him. By loving Him more than them we shall love them more than we now do.”

Christian thinkers—including many saints—have often fallen victim to crypto-Gnostic conceptions of chastity. This is ironic since chastity is the ultimate anti-Gnostic assertion of the sacramental and participatory nature of creation. Chastity is a way to heed Beatrice’s warning to turn from lesser goods, and to directly pursue the God from whom those lesser goods are ultimately derived. Just as a portrait of the beloved is a lesser good that derives its appeal from the lover’s desire to unite in marriage to the actual woman the portrait signifies, so marriage itself is a lesser good that derives its appeal from those whispers of the divine love and beauty that permeate human love and in which marriage sacramentally participates. The pursuit of chastity may sometimes be motivated by the Gnostic denial that human love derives its integrity from divine love and beauty, yet when rightly pursued, chastity arises from a desire to achieve a closer undistracted union with the fountainhead from which even the bottom reaches prove so intoxicating—to more directly seek out the divine love and beauty that lends human intimacy its particular intensity.

Chastity may be more difficult than marriage and may offer the illusion of loss, just as marriage may be more difficult than contemplating a portrait of the beloved and may also offer the illusion of loss (after all, contemplation of the portrait does not involve having to take care of a real human being, or needing to pay bills, restrict one’s autonomy, change dirty diapers, and ultimately watch the loss of the beloved’s outward beauty to slow aging and finally death). But chastity, properly understood, does not involve loss any more than fasting involves loss, for both chastity and fasting voluntarily forego one type of good in order to embrace another type.

Yet Christian Platonic Love is not necessarily non-sexual. True Platonic Love exists wherever love is understood as a portal to Divine beauty. If Dante had married Beatrice, their love could still have been “Platonic” if he used their relationship to draw closer to the Almighty, who remains the pattern on which all human love derives its perfection. Far from downgrading human love, this Platonic/Augustinian vision of love elevates it, situating human love—whether expressed in chastity or marriage—in the lifelong quest for theosis.

We glimpse something of this truth in the wedding service used in Eastern Orthodox churches, which continually emphasizes marriage as a path towards union with God. In his book about the wedding service, Bishop John Abdalah observes that from the very beginning, when God created Adam and Eve, He intended them to love God through loving each other.

“In bringing forth each of them, God presents Adam and Eve to each other, granting them each the opportunity to love one another. Because the other is the image and likeness of God, loving the other allows each to love God, whom they experience in each other…. The other leads us to God.”

Later in the book, Bishop John quotes Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, who remarked that “Through their mutual love and their shared life, the two of them—together with their children, if God has given them offspring—are called to bring one another closer to Christ.” But how can our spouse lead us closer to Christ? Some obvious ways a spouse can lead us to God is through giving us opportunities to practice agape love, helping to raise a godly family, encouraging pious actions like prayer, fasting, church attendance, and so forth. However, the truly Platonic dimensions of marital love occur whenever human affection takes on an iconic quality as a bearer of divine beauty.

Consider activities that probably seem the least “spiritual” of all, such as kissing, or even more intense forms of physical affection and intimacy. Here we can be helped by a line in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, where the Olympic runner, Eric Liddell, declared, “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.” For Liddell, running had a sacramental quality to it—though he would likely have eschewed such language—because through running he connected to the God who was both the origin and goal of his life and abilities. In much the same way, a husband and wife can feel God’s pleasure as their relationship—including all the multitude of ways that relationship finds expression—becomes bathed in the experience of the One from whom their love derives and towards whom their love is ultimately oriented. Indeed, the most noble Christian marriage is one where husband and wife are most fully engaged with God precisely when they are most fully engaged with each other.

This understanding can shed light on the otherwise troubling passage in Luke 14 where we read that anyone who does not hate his wife cannot be Christ’s disciple (Lk 14:26). When discussing this passage, spiritual teachers have explained that Christ is simply emphasizing that no relationship should be disconnected from our love for Him. When commenting on the parallel passage in Matthew 10:37, the Orthodox priest and spiritual guide, Elder Epiphanios of Athens (1930-1989), explained that God is asking for everything, with the consequence that even married couples must dedicate their intimacy to Him. In the context of Christ’s all-consuming love, the earthly and heavenly fuse together, with the former being a participation in the latter. We get a further glimpse of this in the Orthodox wedding service. Much of the liturgy in this service is devoted to meditations on very earthy matters like the fact that the man and woman’s united bodies will produce the fruit of children. This reminds us that properly oriented Christian love echoes the incarnation in being both earthly and heavenly, spiritual and physical, transcendent and immanent. But not only is marriage incarnational, it is also sacramental. As a sacrament, married love can rise from the earthly to the heavenly while still remaining earthly, even as bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ without ceasing to be bread and wine.

Yet human love remains perched on a knife-edge and can just as easily descend to hell as it can ascend to heaven. In the writings of the English poet, John Donne (1572-1631), we confront both sides of this knife-edge.

John Donne

During a youth of debauchery and womanizing, Donne perceived little horizon beyond gratifying his passions and lusts. Unlike the mature Dante who saw love as an icon, the young Donne saw love as an idol, and worshiped at the foot of that idol. One poem, likely written during his early period, worships his mistress’s body as the source of redemption, true freedom, and all joy. Titled, ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed,’ the poem walks the reader step by step through their mutual undressing. Through the first-person verses, he speaks to his lover in an attempt to dispel any shyness she might feel, describing their imminent union as virtuous and salvific. The poem’s excitement builds as he describes each article of clothing that is removed, until Donne’s eyes have finally achieved their desired sight and his “roving hands” can get to work.

‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ inverted the traditions of courtly love that were still quite strong in the Elizabethan period, where romance was integrally connected with an acceptance of restraint and unattainability. In reaction to this ideal, Donne’s poem essentially declares, “Let’s not wait around but get right to it. You exist in order to satisfy my lusts.” In courtly love, the body was left behind to love the soul, whereas Donne declares that just as the soul leaves behind the body at death, so the body must leave behind its clothes:

Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be.

There is nothing ennobling in the type of love described by Donne, for it does not even attempt to dignify fornication with reference to noble ends like self-offering, receptivity, or desire for increased closeness with the beloved. Instead, sex is presented as pure animal instinct, while the satiation of those instincts are is presented in salvific terms.

But that was not the end of the story for Donne. After sailing on naval expeditions against Spain, the thirty-year old Donne married Ann More. Since Ann was only seventeen and their marriage was not approved by her family, they had to marry in secret. The problems started almost immediately: when Ann’s father found out about the secret marriage, he arranged to have Donne thrown into jail and fired from his job. There followed a period of poverty, depression, and the death of five children. The marriage, plagued by hardship, disaster, and poverty, made quite the contrast to the salvific view of woman presented in Donne’s earlier erotic verses. In 1617, Ann herself died. Yet somehow, through all this hardship, Donne turned to God, ultimately becoming a priest in the Church of England.

The poems written in Donne’s later life beautifully depict a Christian-Platonic conception of love, much like what we find in the Orthodox wedding service. His relationship with Ann, though troubled, could still point him to the One in whom all human love and beauty ultimately participates and towards which all human love is ultimately oriented.

When Ann was still alive, Donne wrote a poem for her titled “A Valediction: forbidding mourning.” Written before a diplomatic trip to France in 1611, he used a range of imagery to suggest that their relationship has a solidity that remained impervious to the changes of the world. He also compared the two of them to two parts of a compass that move together and complete each other. Anticipating his coming journey, he urged Ann not to mourn, as would be appropriate if their relationship was only based on “sense” (physical intimacy). Rather, he explains how their union is “refined” by existing also in the mind:

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

“A Valediction: forbidding mourning” recalls what we saw of the ladder of the Symposium in my earlier post “Plato and the Physical Body,” where love and union with a person’s body can lead to love and union with a person’s mind, and ultimately (in Christian Neoplatonism) to the heavenly Person in which such love participates and towards which it is ultimately directed. Donne has not eschewed the physical dimensions of his relationship with Ann, but he sees their union as being more than merely “sublunary” (relating only to the terrestrial world). Sex is no longer an idol for Donne, but an icon, and therefore achieves a greater significance.

This is the same reality that Whittaker Chambers (see the previous post) grasped in that moment of sudden intuition as his baby daughter sat in her highchair and he remarked on “the delicate convolutions of her ear—those intricate, perfect ears.” Like Donne, Chambers was able to move from human beauty to divine beauty, and in the process transform his approach to both. And this is the final answer to Gnosticism. While Gnosticism, in both its classical and implicit forms, leaves behind the earthly to focus exclusively on the heavenly, Christianity offered a way of moving through the earthly to the heavenly, to grasp the heavenly in the earthly, and to pursue a pattern of spiritual ascent that can incorporate, sanctify, and fulfill the heart’s most noble longings. This is also what St. Augustine understood in his journey from Manichaean heresy to Christian Neoplatonism, and which he conveyed so beautifully in his Confessions. Surveying all the impulses and longings of his earlier life, he saw these desires as betokening our primordial desire for God, even as creation itself points towards the final renewal when we will enjoy perfect union with God and each other in the New Earth.

Further Reading

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