The Startingpoints and Destinations of the Two Ascents

Let us look closely at the details of the two experiences.3 In both 7.17.23 and 9.10.24 the experience is provoked by a question. But how different the questions are! In Milan Augustine asks how he makes certain intellectual judgments, and he discovers the intellectual standard by which he makes them:

For in asking how I came to appraise the beauty of bodies, whether heavenly or earthly, and what was wholly present to me when I passed judgment on mutable things and said: "This is as it ought to be; that is not"—in asking, that is, how I came to make such judgments when I did make them, I discovered the unchangeable and true eternity of Truth above my changeable mind. (7.17.23)

Here, as throughout Book 7, the emphasis is on the immutability of the Truth that Augustine discovers above his mind. Perhaps because the immutability of Truth makes it seem alien to our changeable minds, Augustine seems to have no sense of how Truth might be related to his mind other than as providing a standard for judgment. He finds, in fact, that he is exiled from Truth in "the land of unlikeness," and he hears Truth speaking to him "from on high" and "from far away."

When he comes to the end of the Milan "ascent," he reaches "that which is." Note that what he finds is abstract and impersonal. This is not the "I am who am" of Exodus, but the "that which is" of the Platonists. There is a jarring, almost comical shift in language in the words that conclude this section:

You called from far away, "Indeed, I am who am." And I heard, as one hears in the heart, and there was no longer any room for me to doubt; I could more easily have doubted that I was alive than I could doubt the existence of that Truth which is perceived to be understood through the things that have been made. (7.10.16)

The God of Moses calls out to him, but he hears only the bloodless, featureless God of the philosophers.

Both the starting-point and the destination of the Ostia experience could hardly be more different. Consider the question that provokes the vision at Ostia:

In the presence of that Truth, which you yourself are, we were asking each other what the eternal life of your saints would be like, that life which no eye has seen, no ear has heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man. (9.10.23)

The emphasis in the discussion that follows is again on the immutability of Truth—not, however, as an alien standard of intellectual judgment set over against our changeable minds, but as a place of rest. Eternity is our home, Truth our food, Wisdom our life:

And we entered into our minds and passed beyond them so as to reach that land of never-failing plenty where you feed Israel for ever with the food of Truth, where life is that Wisdom through whom all these things were made. (9.10.24)

Thus at the end he arrives at the eternal food that satisfies, the heavenly banquet of which the Eucharist—which as a baptized Christian Augustine now shares—is a foretaste and a pledge. The "ascent" at Milan, by contrast, left him hungry; being as yet unconverted, he could not eat that food:

I lacked the power to fix my gaze there. My weakness was rebuffed, and I returned to my accustomed ways, taking nothing back with me but a loving memory and the desire for a food that I had smelled but could not yet eat. And I was seeking some way of gathering a strength that would fit me to enjoy you, but I was not to find it until I embraced the Mediator of God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who is God above all, blessed for ever, calling out and saying, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," and mingling with flesh the food that I was too weak to eat. (7.17.23-18.24)

The images of homecoming and banqueting that crown the Ostia narrative emphasize another important divergence from the Milan experience. These are images of fellowship and community. We are no longer dealing with "the flight of the alone to the Alone" (Enneads 6.9.11); here is an ascent of the together to the Together. At Milan Augustine begins in solitude, gets just close enough to Truth that he can hear it calling to him "from afar," and quickly falls back into solitude. At Ostia, however, when he sets out he is already "in the presence of the Truth," not to mention the presence of his mother. Moreover, Monnica is no mere adjunct to the experience; nor do Augustine and Monnica have independent experiences while (coincidentally but irrelevantly) side by side. It is a shared experience arising out of their conversation about the life of their heavenly homeland. Together they "come to a great city that has expected [their] return for years."4 And at the center of the vision is not some abstract truth, imperturbably Alone, but a Master of the Revels, who is the life of the party precisely because it was through him that all these things were made.

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