Momentous Deities: Part 1


[original post on 4/17, reposted for solidarity]

I've been reading Ernst Cassirer's Myth and Language recently and I've been taken with his description of 'momentous deities.' I've also been reading Augustine's Confessions for my class and we have Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments scheduled for our final two classes. For both of these authors the moment is a pivotal, integral, essential phenomenon.

Augustine's pivotal moment occurs during the scene in the garden where he, for the first time, gives up his own futile attempts to achieve salvation and turns to God, supplicant and chastened. In reading this scene I see humility, sacrifice -- a 'letting go' of the self, of reason's endlessly circuitous activity, and of Augustine's own desire to control his salvation. He wants to find God, to figure out the mysteries of creation, and to cure himself of the 'warring' tendencies he sees in his own soul. And yet he realizes that he cannot give himself chastity, that he cannot reach to God but can only prepare himself and wait for God to recognize his readiness.

But the moment itself, that is always incomprehensible to me -- I can understand it in certain senses, I can see how the child's voice signifies innocence, how the passage from Romans signifies chastity and temperance, and how Augustine, through a unique intersection of phenomena, was finally ready for salvation.

But at the same time, I have to wonder why it was this particular intersection of phenomena -- why this moment -- why does that specific passage from Romans, which must have been well-known to Augustine, why does it now affect him so strongly as to make him repent and turn completely to God?

What's amazing to me is that Augustine does not examine the whys and wherefores of this moment. The man who gives us an elaborately reasoned account of Genesis and the meaning of time, who examines his childhood theft from the pear trees, who probes the problem of evil on earth and refutes the popular and established beliefs of the Manicheans, who unceasingly examines every philosopher that he comes across -- demanding truths, explanations, reasons -- this man does not once stop to ask when the significance of the moment in the garden is. He accepts it, wholly, gratefully, penitently.

Later, in his description of one of his final conversations with his mother, Augustine seems to return again to the momentary and momentous communion with the divine:

And while we spoke of the eternal Wisdom, longing for it and straining for it with all the strength of our hearts, for one fleeting instant we reached out and touched it. Then with a sigh, leaving our spiritual harvest bound to it, we returned to the sound of our own speech, in which each word has a beginning and an ending -- far, far different from your Word, our Lord ...

Suppose, we said ... that he alone should speak to us, not through them [our flesh, mind and spirit] but in his own voice, so that we should hear him speaking, not through any tongue of flesh or by an angel's voice, not in the sound of thunder or in some veiled parable, but in his own
voice, the voice of the one whom we love in all these created things; suppose that we heard him himself, with none of these things between ourselves and him, just as in that brief moment my mother and I had reached out in thought and touched the eternal Wisdom which abides over all things; suppose that this state were to be removed, so that this single vision entranced and absorbed the one who beheld it and enveloped him in inward joys in such a way that for him life was eternally the same as that instant of understanding for which we had longed so much.

This brief touch -- a brush with the divine -- a moment of illumination and communion -- in this moment, time seems to be abrogated -- consciousness arcs above its normal subject matter and into a realm where any awareness seems to be simultaneously whole and null -- Augustine seems to know some phenomenon intensely, totally, and transcendentally -- and in the same instant his knowledge seems to be annihilated.

Just trying to find the words with which to understand this phenomenon seems to me to be incredibly difficult.