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St. Augustine and Intellectual Vision

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Gerard Seghers (attr). The Four Doctors of the Western Church, Saint Augustine of Hippo

ST. AUGUSTINE, in several works, but most famously in Book 12 of On the Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Gen ad lit), developed a typology of ‘vision’ that became very influential throughout the Middle Ages, and which still merits our interest today. His main concern is not vision per se, but rather to use vision as a metaphor for knowing or cognition, and especially mental insight and knowledge of divine things.  His basic scheme is a tripartite division:

Corporeal vision.  The lowest form of vision is ordinary seeing by means of the eye, or bodily vision (visio corporalis). By this vision we see objects in the material world.

Spiritual vision. Above this is the mental vision by which we see images in the mind, either as memories of past sense experience, or products of the imagination. This he calls spiritual vision (visio spiritualis) — but this term requires an explanation. This vision is not spiritual in the sense that we understand that word today.  Rather, the connection with ‘spirit’ derives from ancient theories of perception, wherein it was believed that sense experience involved stimulation of a semi-material fluid (pneuma) that permeated the body.  Therefore a more apt term might be imaginative vision.

Intellectual vision. This all leads up to what really interests Augustine: the highest level of vision, which he calls intellectual vision (visio intellectualis). Unlike the other two forms of vision, intellectual vision sees things that have no connection with physical objects or their images.  It includes what a Platonist or Neoplatonist might call the ‘intellection of Forms’ (noesis): for example, by intellectual vision we can ‘see’ that bisecting a triangle always produces two triangles, and that 5 is greater than 4.  But for Augustine, intellectual vision is much more than Platonic or Plotinian noesis, and includes a wider range of cognitive activity, including what today we would call insight or (some kinds of) intuition.

Intellectual vision is, in fact, a pivotal concept in Augustine’s philosophy.  It plays an important role for him in contemplative ascent to God, in the relationship of Jesus Christ to the individual soul, and in understanding what faith means.  Hence he takes care to supply examples so readers can understand intellectual vision and observe it at work in their own minds.  It probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that Augustine’s notion of intellectual vision is critical to understanding his important role not only in Christian philosophy, but in the history of human consciousness.

In De Gen ad lit 12 Augustine supplies many examples of intellectual vision.  These include the ability to see and understand virtues (12.24.50; 12.31.59), truth (12.26.54), love and (within limits) God (12.28.56; 12.31.59).  He also suggests that it’s by means of intellectual vision that we can recognize allegorical meanings of Scripture, and distinguish valid from spurious spiritual visions and understand the meanings of the latter.

De videndo Deo

We also learn more about intellectual vision in a book-length letter Augustine wrote to Paulina, known as On seeing God (De videndo Deo). He is trying to help Paulina understand what it means to ‘see God,’ with particular reference to certain verses of Scripture, such as Matthew 5:8 (Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.)  More specifically, he wishes to help her see God herself.

The letter reveals in a most remarkable way his humanism and pastoral concern.  Having ‘seen’ God himself, he has an intense, earnest desire to help others do the same. (This humanistic and personal view of Augustine stands in contrast with the common modern perception of him shaped by later appropriation and narrow interpretation of his teachings by later Scholastic and academic theologians.)

His concern is to show that God is seen by intellectual, not bodily vision. But first he must help Paulina understand what intellectual vision is, or, rather, to witness its operation in her own mind. For this purpose in chapters 38 to 41 he employs a novel and effective device: he has her reflect on her inner response to the various arguments and propositions advanced in his letter up to this point. He asks her to review his preceding discussion, noting which points ones she’s found credible and which she’s doubted; and then to notice the inner ‘vision’ by which the recognizes her varying degrees of belief:

But examine in this whole discussion of ours what you have seen, what you have believed, what you still do not know, either because I have not spoken of it, or you have not understood, or you have not judged it credible. Among the points which you have seen to be true, distinguish further how you saw them: whether it was by recalling that you had seen them through the body, such as heavenly or earthly bodies, or whether you never perceived them by corporeal sight, but, by looking upon them with your mind only, observed that they are true and certain, such as your own will, about which I believe you when you speak, for it is true I cannot see it myself as it is seen by you. And when you have distinguished between these two, notice, too, how you make your distinction. (De videndo Deo 38; italics added)

Whether we believe or doubt, we see that we do so.  We also see that we we find some sources more credible than others.  Paulina does not place equal credence in the opinions of Augustine and Ambrose.  And she instinctively believes Scripture even more:

Note this, therefore, after you have carefully and faithfully examined and distinguished what you see; in making your distinction assess the actual weight of evidence on what you believe in this whole speech which I have been making to you, since I began to speak to you in this letter, and in it note to what extent you lend your faith to what you do not see. You do not put the same faith in me as you do in Ambrose … ; or if you do think that we are both to be weighed in the same balance, of course you will not compare us in any way with the Gospel, or put our writings on the same footing with the canonical Scriptures. …

Therefore, you yield faith to these words [of Ambrose and myself] in one way, but to the divine words in quite a different way. Perhaps some little doubt has crept into your mind about us; that we may be somewhat less than clear about some of the divine words, and that they are interpreted by us, not as they were said, but as we imagine them. … About the divine Scriptures, however, even when they are not clearly understood, you have no doubt that they are to be believed. But you surely observe and see this weighing of belief or non-belief, and the difficulty of knowing, and the storms of doubt, and the devout faith which is owed to the divine utterances; all these you see in your mind as they are, and you do not doubt in the least that they are in your mind in this way, either as I said them, or, preferably, as you knew them yourself. Therefore, you see your faith, you see your doubt, you see your desire and will to learn, and when you are led by divine authority to believe what you do not see, you see at once that you believe these things; you analyze and distinguish all this. (Ibid. 39f.; italics added)

Importantly, he is not equating intellectual vision with her actual beliefs or doubts, but rather with her ability to perceive differences in her degrees of belief.  He then has her note the difference between this faculty and corporeal vision.

Of course, you will not make any sort of comparison between your bodily eyes and these eyes of your heart, with which you perceive that all this is true and certain, with which you observe and distinguish what is invisibly present to you. (Ibid. 41)

Augustine is turning what might otherwise be an abstruse and sterile technical discussion about ‘seeing’ God into a spiritual exercise and practical demonstration. He is helping Paulina integrate her intellectual vision more fully into her rational consciousness. Before, she, like all of us, engaged in intellectual vision, but somewhat subliminally, as something not fully in awareness.  But by drawing her attention to it, the faculty now becomes more consciously accessible and more acute, even enlarged.  By this means she will be able to eventually exercise it in subtle perceptions of God’s presence and activity in her mind.

As we investigate the meaning of intellectual vision — and especially by observing our own mental operations — it gradually becomes clear that this is no mere abstract epistemological category, but an entire dimension or plane of psychological experience.  We begin to appreciate the reality, vastness and importance of an entire inner reality, a realm perhaps as as vast as the entire universe of sense experience.

Yet despite its importance, intellectual vision operates for most people only subliminally, in the sub- or pre-conscious mind. We constantly apply these subtle mental operations of inner vision, discernment and judgment and could not adaptively function otherwise. But by becoming more conscious of them, we may better integrate this dimension of our being into our rational mental life and social activity, so that both our outer and inner life becomes more holy, virtuous and spiritually authentic

Richard of Saint-Victor

Augustine’s concept of intellectual vision became a staple of medieval Latin Christina thought, and is especially prominent in the writings of Hugh and Richard of Saint-Victor, 12th century writers. To give but one example, Richard’s Adnotationes mysticae in Psalmos 143 distinguishes several distinct aspects of discretion [discretio]:

(1) diiudicatio is the right judgment that directs virtues toward their ends; it is the light that leads us to truth (lucerna cordis iudicium discretionis);

(2) deliberatio makes the distinction between what should and should not be done in a specific situation, taking into account the particular circumstances;

(3) dispositio considers the proper ordering of means for attaining an end;

(4) dispensatio distinguishes what’s appropriate and inappropriate, and reexamines a first judgment when required;

(5) moderatio determines the right measure of the action.

Considering that discretion is only one part of intellectual vision, we can begin to get an idea of the complexity and richness of our subtle mental life.

By the end of the 12th century, the Augustinian tradition had achieved a remarkable synthesis of rationalism and mysticism (and also, though we have not discussed this aspect here, charity as an organizing principle of social life).  This progress halted as Scholasticism and rationalistic dogmatism became a dominating force in the 13th century and beyond, even to present times.  As the rational separated itself from the mystical element of Christianity, so the mystical separated itself from the rational: Pseudo-Dionysian and ‘apophatic’ mysticism submerged the intellectual mystical tradition of Augustine.  This split between rationalism and mysticism remains today.  Augustinian intellectual mysticism may potentially supply a more integral form of Christianity for present times.


Augustine of Hippo. Epistolae 147. De videndo deo. Patrologia Latina 33:596−622. J. P. Migne. Paris, 1841.

Augustine of Hippo. De Genesi ad litteram. Patrologia Latina 34:245−486. J. P. Migne. Paris, 1841.

Cary, Phillip. Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self: The Legacy of a Christian Platonist. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Clark, Mary T. (tr.).  On Seeing God (De videndo Deo; Letter 147. In: Augustine of Hippo, Selected Writings. Classics of Western Spirituality. Paulist Press, 1984; pp. 361−402.

Fraeters, Veerle. Visio/Vision. In: Amy Hollywood & Patricia Z. Beckman (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism, Cambridge University Press 2012; pp. 178−188.

Hill, Edmund (tr.). The Literal Meaning of Genesis. In: Augustine, On Genesis, New City Press, 2002; ch. 12, pp. 464–475.

Meagher, Robert E. Augustine: On the Inner Life of the Mind. Hackett, 1998.

Parsons, Wilfrid (tr.). Letter 147: Augustine to Paulina (De videndo Deo). Saint Augustine: Letters Vol. 3. Fathers of the Church 20. New York, 1953; pp. 170−224.

Ragazzi, Grazia Mangano. Obeying the Truth: Discretion in the Spiritual Writings of Saint Catherine of Siena. Oxford University Press, 2013; p. 126.

Richard of Saint-Victor. Adnotationes mysticae in Psalmos. Patrologia Latina 196:265−402. J. P. Migne. Paris, 1855. (196:381d−382a)

Schlapbach, Karin. Intellectual vision in Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram 12, or: seeing the hidden meaning of images. Studia Patristica 43, 2006, 239−244.

Taylor, John H. (tr.). Saint Augustine: The Literal Meaning of Genesis. Ancient Christian Writers 41 and 42. Paulist Press, 1982.

Zycha, Joseph (ed.). De Genesi ad Litteram libri duodecimo. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL) 28.1. Critical text. Vienna, 1894.

1st draft, 23 Feb 2020

The Great Prayer of St. Augustine

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Art: Unknown.

BETWEEN the time of his conversion and his baptism, St. Augustine retired with his family and friends to a villa in Casciago in the beautiful lake region north of Milan. There he wrote several dialogues in the manner of Cicero, including the Soliloquies. Years later Augustine described his conversion in the Confessions, but here we have, as it were, a direct window into his mind at this important period of his life. The Soliloquies opens with an inspired and impassioned prayer — full of phrases from the Neoplatonist Plotinus and the Bible.

While I was turning over in my mind many and divers matters, searching ceaselessly and intently through many a day for my very own self and my good, and what evil should be avoided, all at once a voice spoke to me— whether it was myself or another inside or outside of me I do not know, for that is the very thing I am endeavoring to find out. Reason thereupon spoke to me as follows:

Reason. Now then, suppose you had discovered something, to what would you consign it, in order that you might proceed to other matters?

Augustine. To memory, of course.

R. Is memory of such virtue that it well preserves all that has been thought out?

A. That is difficult; in fact, it is impossible.

R. It must be written down, then. But, what are you going to do now that your poor health shirks the task of writing? These matters ought not to be dictated, for they demand real solitude.

A. You speak the truth. Wherefore, I really do not know what I am to do.

O God, the Founder of the Universe, grant me first of all that I may fittingly supplicate Thee; next, that I may so act that I may be worthy of a hearing from Thee; finally, I beg Thee to set me free.
O God, through whom all those things, which of themselves would not exist, strive to be.
O God, who dost not permit to perish even that which is self-destructive.
O God, who from nothing hast created this world which every eye sees to be most beautiful.
O God, who dost not cause evil, and who dost cause that it become not most evil.
O God, who, to those few who have their refuge in that which truly is, dost show that evil is nothing.
O God, through whom the universe, even with its sinister side, is perfect.
O God, by whose ordinance the uttermost discord is as naught, since the less perfect things are in harmony with the more perfect.’
O God, whom everything loves which is capable of loving whether knowingly or unknowingly.
O God, in whom are all things—and yet the shamefulness of every creature does not shame Thee, their wickedness does not harm Thee, nor docs their error deceive Thee.
O God, who hast not willed that any save the pure should know the True.
O God, the Father of Truth, the Father of Wisdom, Father of True and Supreme Life, Father of Happiness, Father of the Good and the Beautiful, Father of Intelligible Light, Father of our watching and our enlightenment, Father of the covenant by which we are admonished to return to Thee.

I call upon Thee, O God the Truth, in whom and by whom and through whom all those things are true which are true.
O God, Wisdom, in whom and by whom and through whom all those are wise who are wise.
O God, True and Supreme Life, in whom and by whom and through whom all those things live which truly and perfectly live.
O God, Happiness, in whom and by whom and through whom all those things are happy which are happy.
O God, the Good and the Beautiful, in whom and by whom and through whom all those things are good and beautiful which are good and beautiful.
O God, Intelligible Light, in whom and by whom and through whom all those things which have intelligible light have their intelligible light.
O God, whose domain is the whole world unknown to sense.
O God, from whose realm law is promulgated even in these regions.
O God, from whom to turn away is to fall, to whom to turn is to rise again, in whom to abide is to stand firm.
O God, from whom to depart is to die, to whom to return is to be revived, in whom to dwell is to live.
O God, whom no one loses unless deceived, whom no one seeks unless admonished, whom no one finds unless he is purified.
O God, whom to abandon is to perish, whom to heed is to love, whom to see is to possess.
O God, to whom Faith moves us, Hope raises us, Charity unites us.
O God, through whom we overcome the enemy, Thee do I pray.
O God, through whom we obtain that we do not altogether perish.
O God, by whom we are admonished to be ever watchful.
O God, through whom we discern the good from the evil.
O God, through whom we flee evil and follow after good.
O God, through whom we are not overcome by afflictions.
O God, through whom we fittingly serve and fittingly rule.
O God, through whom we learn that that is alien to us which once we thought was meet for us, and that is meet which we used to think was alien.
O God, through whom we cling not to the charms and lures of evil.
O God, through whom deprivations do not abase us.
O God, through whom what is better in us is not under the dominion of our lower self.
O God, through whom death is swallowed up in victory.
O God, who dost convert us, stripping us of that which is not and clothing us with that which Is.
O God, who makest us worthy to be heard.
O God, who strengthenest us; who leadest us into all truth.
O God, who speakest to us of all good things; who dost not drive us out of our mind, nor permittest that anyone else do so.
O God, who callest us back to the way; who leadest us to the gate; who grantest that it is opened to those who knock.
O God, who givest us the bread of life.
O God, through whom we thirst for the cup, which when it is drunk we shall thirst no more.
O God, who dost convince the world of sin, of justice, and of judgment.
O God, through whom we are not shaken by those who have no faith.
O God, through whom we denounce the error of those who think that the merits of souls are naught before Thee.
O God, through whom we do not serve weak and beggarly elements.
O God, who dost cleanse us, who dost make us ready for divine rewards, graciously come to me.

Whatever I have said, come to my aid, Thou, the one God, the one, eternal, true substance in whom there is no strife, no disorder, no change, no need, no death; where there is supreme harmony, supreme clarity, supreme permanence, supreme fullness, supreme life; where there is no deficiency and no excess; where the One begetting and the One begotten is One.
O God, who art served by all things which serve, who art obeyed by every good soul.
O God, by whose laws the poles revolve, the stars follow their courses, the sun rules the day, and the moon presides over the night; and all the world maintains, as far as this world of sense allows, the wondrous stability of things by means of the orders and recurrences of seasons: through the days by the changing of light and darkness, through the months by the moon’s progressions and declines, through the years by the successions of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, through the cycles by the completion of the sun’s course, through the great eras of time by the return of the stars to their starting points.
O God, by whose ever-enduring laws the varying movement of movable things is not suffered to be disturbed, and is always restored to a relative stability by the controls of the encompassing ages.
O God, by whose laws the choice of the soul is free, and rewards to the good and chastisements to the wicked are meted out in accord with inexorable and universal destiny.
O God, from whom all good things flow even unto us, and by whom all evil things are kept away from us.
O God, above whom, beyond whom, and without whom nothing exists.
O God, under whom everything is, in whom everything is, with whom everything is.
O God, who hast made man to Thine image and likeness, a fact which he acknowledges who knows himself.
Hear, hear, O hear me, my God, my Lord, my King, my Father, my Cause, my Hope, my Wealth, my Honor, my Home, my Native Land, my Salvation, my Light, my Life.
Hear, hear, O hear me, in that way of Thine well known to a select few.

Thee alone do I love; Thee alone do I follow; Thee alone do I seek; Thee alone am I ready to serve, for Thou alone hast just dominion; under Thy sway do I long to be.
Order, I beg Thee, and command what Thou wilt, but heal and open my ears, so that with them I may hear Thy words.
Heal and open my eyes so that with them I may perceive Thy wishes.
Banish from me my senselessness, so that I may know Thee.
Tell me where I should turn that I may behold Thee; and I hope I shall do all Thou hast commanded me.
Look, I beseech Thee, upon Thy prodigal, O Lord, kindest Father; already have I been punished enough; long enough have I served Thine enemies whom Thou hast beneath Thy feet; long enough have I been the plaything of deceits. Receive me Thy servant as I flee from them, for they took me in a stranger when I was fleeing from Thee.
I realize I must return to Thee. Let Thy door be open to my knocking. Teach me how to come to Thee. Nothing else do I have but willingness. Naught else do I know save that fleeting and perishable things are to be spurned, certain and eternal things to be sought after. This I do, O Father, because this is all I know, but how I am to reach Thee I know not.
Do Thou inspire me, show me, give me what I need for my journey.
If it is by faith that they find Thee who have recourse to Thee, give me faith; if it is through virtue, give me virtue; if it is by knowledge, give knowledge to me. Grant me increase of faith, of hope, and of charity. O how marvelous and extraordinary is Thy goodness.

To Thee do I appeal, and once more I beg of Thee the very means by which appeal is made to Thee. For, if Thou shouldst abandon us, we are lost; but Thou dost not abandon us, because Thou art the Supreme Good whom no one ever rightly sought and entirely failed to find. And, indeed, every one hast rightly sought Thee whom Thou hast enabled to seek Thee aright. Grant that I may seek Thee, my Father; save me from error. When I seek Thee, let me not find aught else but Thee, I beseech Thee, Father. But, if there is in me any vain desire, do Thou Thyself cleanse me and make me fit to look upon Thee.

With regard to the health of this my mortal body, so long as I am ignorant of its usefulness to me or to those whom I love, I entrust it to Thee, O wisest and best of Fathers, and I shall pray for it as Thou shalt in good time advise me. This only I shall ask of Thine extreme kindness, that Thou convertest me wholly to Thee, and that Thou allowest nothing to prevent me when I wend my way to Thee. I beg Thee to command, while I move and bear this my body, that I may be pure, generous, just, and prudent; that I may be a perfect lover and knower of Thy Wisdom; that I may be worthy of Thy dwelling place, and that I may in fact dwell in Thy most blessed kingdom. Amen. Amen.  (Source: Soliloquies 1.1−6; Migne PL 32 cols 869−872; tr. Gilligan pp. 343−350).


Augustini Hipponensis. Soliloquia (Soliloquiorum libri II). Migne Patrologia Latina vol. 32, cols. 869−904, Paris, 1841. Latin text.

Gilligan, Thomas F. St. Augustine: Soliloquies. In: Schopp, Ludwig (ed), Writings of St. Augustine, Vol. 1.  (Fathers of the Church, Vol. 5). CUA Press, 1947 (repr. 2008); pp. 333−426. English translation.

Contemplative Spirituality: From Plato to the Victorine Mystics

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REMARKABLY, the influential 12th century mystics/theologians of the School of Saint-Victor in Paris (most famously, Hugh and Richard of Saint-Victor) developed a sophisticated and fundamentally Platonic system of contemplative spirituality, but without (except for part of the Timaeus) direct knowledge of Plato’s writings. All was pieced together from St. Augustine, the Benedictine tradition, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Latin Platonic tradition — with exegetical borrowing from Saints Ambrose and Jerome. But uniting everything one senses a high degree of skill and experience with contemplation by the Victorines. The synthesis and systematization, unlike later Scholasticism, is not forced or overly rationalistic, but a harmonious integration of experience and dialectical reasoning.

Not only did the Victorines produce from these multiple strands of influence an original synthesis, but these elements were being synthesized differently by others at the same time (e.g., the School of Chartres):

PERHAPS ONE COULD measure the power of a mind by observing the varied systems of thought which its own intellectual constructions have more or less directly inspired in the course of history. … That one man’s thought should bring forth such varied progeny will seem less paradoxical if one reflects that master-insights never find complete expression in a single conceptual system and consequently they lend themselves readily to further adaptation, even to frank distortion that nonetheless preserves an undeniable kinship with the original.

Plato affords the major instance of this phenomenon, and historians have some difficulty in sorting out the currents of thought traceable to him. These Neoplatonisms that recur century after century comprise a family with little coherence, despite the profound perceptions radically common to them all.

Precisely in the area of Plato’s influence, the twelfth century furnished a spectacle of the clearest debt yet with the most tangled lines of descent. (Chenu, p. 49)


Chenu, Marie-Dominique. The Platonisms of the Twelfth Century. In: Marie-Dominique Chenu, Nature, Man, and Society in the Twelfth Century, trs. Jerome Taylor &, Lester K. Little, University of Toronto, 1997; pp. 49−98.

Coulter, Dale M.  Pseudo-Dionysius in the Twelfth Century Latin West. ORB Online Encyclopedia.  Accessed: 17 October 2019. < >.

Feiss, Hugh; Mousseau, Juliet (eds.). A Companion to the Abbey of Saint Victor in Paris. Brill, 2018.

Gersh, Stephen. The medieval legacy from ancient Platonism. In: Stephen Gersh, Maarten J.F.M. Hoenen, (eds.), The Platonic Tradition in the Middle Ages: A Doxographic Approach, Walter de Gruyter, 2013. (pp. 3−30).

Gregory, Tullio. The Platonic inheritance. In: A History of Twelfth Century Western Philosophy. Edited by Peter Dronke. Cambridge University Press, 1988; pp. 54−80.

Hugh of Saint-Victor. Selected Spiritual Writings. Translated by a religious of C.S.M.V. London: Faber, 1962.  [ebook].

Louth, Andrew. The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys. Oxford, 1983 (repr. 2003).

Zinn, Grover A. (tr.). Richard of St. Victor: The Twelve Patriarchs, The Mystical Ark and Book Three of The Trinity. Paulist Press, 1979.

The ‘Our Father’ Explained by the Church Fathers

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Patristic Commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer

The following is a list of Patristic commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer, with links to original-language versions and English translations.

The Lord’s Prayer is a pearl of great price, a treasure of Christianity, the value of which is often obscured by its very familiarity. Tertullian rightly called it “truly the summary of the whole Gospel.” (De oratione 1; Migne PL 1,1155). More than a simple prayer, the Our Father constitute a spiritual exercise, a form of meditation and contemplation, and a complete philosophy of life, all contained in a few lines.

It is vital that Christians learn to pray it reflectively, with understanding. For this we have numerous commentaries of Church Fathers to assist us.

Perhaps no better preface for the following can be found than the following remarks of St. John Cassian, taken from Conferences 9 (full citation supplied below).

[3] … and the soul kept free from all conversation and from roving thoughts that thus it may little by little begin to rise to the contemplation of God and to spiritual insight. …

[4] For the nature of the soul is not inaptly compared to a very fine feather or very light wing, which, if it has not been damaged or affected by being spoilt by any moisture falling on it from without, is borne aloft almost naturally to the heights of heaven by the lightness of its nature, and the aid of the slightest breath: but if it is weighted by any moisture falling upon it and penetrating into it, it will not only not be carried away by its natural lightness into any aerial flights but will actually be borne down to the depths of earth by the weight of the moisture it has received. So also our soul, if it is not weighted with faults that touch it, and the cares of this world, or damaged by the moisture of injurious lusts, will be raised as it were by the natural blessing of its own purity and borne aloft to the heights by the light breath of spiritual meditation; and leaving things low and earthly will be transported to those that are heavenly and invisible. …

[25] This prayer then though it seems to contain all the fullness of perfection, as being what was originated and appointed by the Lord’s own authority, yet lifts those to whom it belongs to that still higher condition of which we spoke above, and carries them on by a loftier stage to that ardent prayer which is known and tried by but very few, and which to speak more truly is ineffable; which transcends all human thoughts, and is distinguished, I will not say by any sound of the voice, but by no movement of the tongue, or utterance of words, but which the mind enlightened by the infusion of that heavenly light describes in no human and confined language, but pours forth richly as from copious fountain in an accumulation of thoughts, and ineffably utters to God, expressing in the shortest possible space of time such great things that the mind when it returns to its usual condition cannot easily utter or relate.

Compilation of the list was considerably facilitated by: Petiot, Henri (alias M. Daniel-Rops; editor); Hamman, Adalbert (translator). Le Pater expliqué par les Pères. (2nd ed.) Paris: Éditions Franciscaines, 1962.

Authors are listed chronologically, in order of year of birth.

Notation: Migne PL = J. P. Migne (ed.), Patrologia Latina; Migne PG = J. P. Migne (ed.), Patrologia Graeca.

Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160–c. 225)

On Prayer (De oratione) 1–10

  • Latin: Migne PL 1, 1149–1166
  • English: Thelwall, Sydney. (translator). In: Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (editors), Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. (ANF-03), Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887. (pp. 681–684). (Text)

Origen of Alexandria (c. 184–c. 253)

On Prayer (De Oratione) 18–30

St. Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200–258)

On the Lord’s Prayer (De oratione dominica; Treatises 4)

  • Latin: Migne PL 4, 519–544
  • English: Wallis, Robert Ernest (translator). In: Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (editors), Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5 (ANF-05), Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886. (Cyprian: Treatises, 4, pp. 447–457). (Text)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313–386)

Catecheses mystagogicae 5.11–5.18

St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–c. 395)

On the Lord’s Prayer (De oratione dominica; 5 Sermons)

St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 337–397)

On the Sacraments (De sacramentis) 5.4.18–5.4.30

Evagrius Ponticus (345–399)

Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer (Expositio in orationem dominicam); Clavis patrum graecorum (CPG) no. 2461

St. John Chrysostom (c. 347–407)

Homilies on Matthew (In Mattheum) 19

Explanation of the Lord’s Prayer (Oratio dominica ejusque explanatio)

  • Greek, Latin: Oratio dominica ejusque explanatio; Migne PG 51, 44–48
  • English: ?

Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350–428)

Catechetical Lectures

St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430)

On the Sermon on the Mount 2.4.15–2.11.39

Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament 6–9 (= Benedictine edition 56–59 )

St. John Cassian (c. 360–435)

Conferences 9.18–9.25 (On the Lord’s Prayer, De oratione Dominica)

St. Peter Chrysologus (c. 380–c. 450)

Sermons 67–72

St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580–662)

A Brief Explanation of the Prayer Our Father to a Certain Friend of Christ (Orationis Dominicae expositio)


Ayo, Nicholas. The Lord’s Prayer: A Survey Theological and Literary. Rowman & Littlefield, 2002 (Orig. 1992, Notre Dame University)

Hammerling, Roy. The Lord’s Prayer in the Early Church: The Pearl of Great Price. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Simonetti, Manlio (ed.). Matthew 1-13. (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture). InterVarsity Press, 2001. (pp. 130–139).

Noetic, Sapiential, and Spiritual Exegesis

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I’ve recently written about an approach to biblical interpretation that is, on the one hand, scientific and psychological, and, on the other, non-reductionistic and faithful to Christian teaching (e.g., here, here, and here). It takes as its basic principles: (1) that a central concern in every Christian life is the injunction of St. Paul, Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2); (2) that this transformation must include a psychological metamorphosis that encompasses both the modern meaning of psyche as mind and its classical meaning as soul and, and includes the moral, intellectual, volitional, and desiring aspects of human nature; (3) that the Bible supplies a detailed plan for effecting this psychological transformation; and (4) much of this plan is ‘encoded’ in figurative language and requires careful attention and a contemplative frame of mind to recognize and understand.  The approach I’ve suggested could be described as a more modern version of the allegorical methods used by Philo of Alexandria (Philo Judeaus) and by many Church Fathers, including Origen, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory of Nyssa.  The question considered here is what to call this method.

Below are some alternative terms and various pros and cons of each.  The terms are grouped into three categories.  In the first are several terms that seem basically correct, but perhaps too general.  The second includes those terms which I consider the best of those currently in use.  The third lists several modern terms that are questionable, but which are included for completeness.

I also thought it might be helpful generally to list all the various terms in use today to denote this sort of allegorical exegesis in one place.  The short bibliography at the end contains some references that appear especially pertinent, but is by no means comprehensive.  I hope to add information to this post as I run across new terms or references of interest.  The present, then, could be considered just a down payment or first installment.

General Terms

allegorical exegesis.  This is perhaps the most widely used term today, but it has two drawbacks:  (1) it is nonspecific, as there are a variety of different ways to allegorically interpret Scripture (psychologically, morally, prophetically etc.); and (2) over the centuries, ‘allegory’ has come to mean a figurative story that is not actually true (as in a fable).  Thus, ‘allegorical exegesis’ might imply to some people that what is being interpreted (the Old Testament or the New Testament) is not historically true. This connotation of non-historicity is not implied by the etymology of the word itself, which comes from alla (different) and agora (assembly) – thus allegory literally suggests  ‘that which one would not say in the crowd’ or basically a hidden meaning as opposed to a more obvious one.  Nevertheless, even in ancient times the word allegory tended to imply that something had only figurative meaning.

parabolic interpretation. From the Greek word parabole.  Because of its connection to the word parable, this term may again tend to suggest that the material being interpreted is not literally true.

figurative interpretation.  The principal disadvantage with this term that it is very nonspecific.  It gives no clue at all as to the kind of truths that are being figuratively represented, or the principles by which they are decoded.

nonliteral interpretation.  Even less specific than figurative; too generic to be of much use.

mystical exegesis.  This could, following ancient Greek usage, imply a secret meaning.  That is problematic in itself, because nonliteral meanings, while they may be subtle or hard to see, are not necessarily secret in the sense of being reserved for a few initiates.  Further the term might be understood as denoting a connection with religious mysticism (e.g., withdrawal from the world, pursuit of ‘mystical experiences’ etc.), which is not necessarily or even usually the case with the form of exegesis being considered here.

hyponoia.  Another word used by the ancients, meaning basically ‘knowledge beneath the surface.’  Like the other terms above, this doesn’t indicate the nature of deeper knowledge being sought, or how it is obtained.

Preferred Terms

noetic exegesis.  This term was apparently first used (at least, in connection with Biblical interpretation) by Eric Osborn (1995, 2005), and later by Blossom Stefaniw (2010). ‘Noetic’ here has two relevant aspects.  First it implies a search to uncover meanings in Scripture that help to improve or transform the nous (i.e., the ancient Greek word for what we might call the Intellect or higher Reason, and which in Greek patristic literature is sometimes considered to be the immortal human soul itself).  Second, the method itself can be properly called noetic insofar as it seeks to go beyond literal meanings of words (understood by discursive thought, or dianoia) to the deeper intelligible truths discernible only to the apprehending, nondiscursive part of the mind (nous).

One possible limitation of this term is that the form of exegesis we are considering involves more than just the apprehending, noetic intellect.  Discursive thinking is also involved in relating intuited principles to one another other or to facts and memories, to envision applications in ones life, and so on. For example, reading the story of Cain and Abel, it might strike one as a noetic inspiration that the two figures symbolize competing negative and positive elements of ones mind or psyche.  But then one might go on to compare these two figures with other, similar pairs – Jacob and Esau, Moses and Pharaoh, etc.  To elaborate the noetic insight would involve use of other mental powers.

The term gnostic exegesis, more or less a cognate, has some ancient precedent, but would likely invite unwanted associations to Gnosticism if used today.

sapiential exegesis.  This could serve about equally well as noetic exegesis as a terminological convention.  It implies both that the object of exegesis is to gain wisdom, and that wisdom is needed to apply the method.

anagogical exegesis.  This is a very interesting term, used by some Church Fathers and also in the Middle Ages.  Originally it meant ‘going or being led higher’, which could be understood in this context to mean any or all of the following: seeking a higher meaning in Scripture; using exegesis to attain a higher level of mental/spiritual development; elevating one’s mind by interpreting Scripture; or contributing generally to an uplifting movement or current of thought (Laird, 2007).  In the Middle Ages, “anagogical” exegesis often became focused on finding allusions to the afterlife of the soul in Scripture, a different usage which might conflict with the more sapiential meaning of the term.  Also, even in the older and original sense (i.e., of the Church Fathers), anagogical exegesis spans two somewhat distinct levels of meaning of Scripture:  those corresponding to what Origen called the psychic (soul) versus pneumatic (spiritual) levels. Relative to Origen’s distinction, our principle interest here is psychic level – i.e., the level of psyche: mind, intellect, rationality, will, desire, and emotion.  The other, higher Origenistic sense of anagogy, which suggests a connection to higher mystical states, including an apophatic union with God free from all concepts or thoughts, is not our immediate concern here.

spiritual or pneumatic exegesis.  As suggested above, it could be argued that these terms should be reserved for a level of exegesis that relates to the highest levels of spiritual development and union with God, e.g., apophatic experience.

theoria or theoreia.  This term, often used by St. Gregory of Nyssa in connection with exegesis, has two relevant meanings for us.  First it can mean contemplation in a sense that is basically the same as noesis:  an understanding of the intelligible meaning of Scripture, as opposed to its historical and literal meanings. Second, it can imply what we today might call a theoretical or scientific understanding, i.e., of the rules and principles of our moral purification and spiritual advancement as  figuratively presented in Scripture.

Psychological Terms 

Finally to be considered are four modern psychological terms.

psychological exegesis.  This term is appropriate, provided we understand psyche in the traditional sense that includes both mind and soul.  However, left unqualified or taken out of context, the term might be misunderstood to imply a connection with modern, reductionistic psychological theories. An alternative term, following Origen, might be psychic exegesis.

depth-psychological exegesis.  This term has been used in recent decades mainly  by certain German scholars.  However ‘depth psychology’ can have several different meanings.  Most who have used the term have meant it in a fairly restrictive sense as implying a basis in psychoanalytic or Jungian theory;  Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict (2008) made some harsh criticisms of depth psychological exegesis, but he was referring to this more restrictive meaning of the term.

My own view is that the kind of exegesis we are considering here is accurately termed ‘depth psychological’ in the sense that it includes in its scope certain processes in the depths (or heights) of the human psyche, but not in the sense of corresponding to Freudian or Jungian theory.

psychodynamic exegesis.  Most of the problems with the preceding term would apply here as well.

existential exegesis.  A good term in that it implies existential relevance to the individual, but it potentially inherits all the ambiguity associated with the nebulous word ‘existentialism’.


Overall, of all the terms considered here, perhaps the best are sapiential exegesis, noetic exegesis, and anagogic exegesis.

In the end, we might consider that this form of exegesis may be such that it is inherently impossible to define a single term.  Why?  Because perhaps the very mental processes were are investigating here – noesis, intellection, discernment, etc. – are the very ones by which we know intelligible principles and assign or interpret names.  In other words, it may be something of an ‘error of logical typing’  to try to name the very processes by which we name things. I wouldn’t insist on this view, but it does seem like a possibility.  However to the extent it might be true, we may need to content ourselves with a more ‘poetic’ or intuitive approach to naming this style of exegesis:  to have, for example, multiple names, each one highlighting a different aspect, and to use these different names in a fluid and flexible way.

The passage below shows that even as inspired an exegete as  St. Gregory of Nyssa recognized the difficulty of finding a single term for this form of exegesis.  In the passage below, from the Prologue to his Homilies on the Song of Songs, he uses a wide range terms.

In the end, we should not forget that this form of interpretation is not a name or concept, but an experience.

By an appropriate contemplation [θεωρίας] of the text, the philosophy [φιλοσοφίαν] hidden in its words becomes manifest once the literal meaning has been purified by a correct understanding [έννοίαις]. …

I hope that my commentary will be a guide for the more fleshly-minded, since the wisdom hidden (in the Song of Songs) leads to a spiritual condition of the soul [πνευματικήν τε και αϋλον τής ψυχής κατάστασιν]. …

Because some members of the Church always think it right to follow the letter of holy scripture and do not take into account the enigmatic [αινιγμάτων] and deeper meanings [υπονοιών], we must answer those who accuse us of doing so. … If anything in the hidden, deeper [έπικρύψεως έν ύπονοίαις], enigmatic [αινίγμασιν] sense cannot be cannot be understood literally, we will, as the Word [Logos] teaches and as Proverbs says [Pro 1.6], understand [νοήσαι] the passage either as a parable [παραβολην], a ‘dark’ saying [σκοτεινόν λόγον], sage words [ρήσιν σοφων], or as a riddle [αινιγμάτων].

With regards to anagogy [άναγωγής θεωρίαν], it makes no difference what we call it – tropology [τροπολογίαν] or allegory [άλληγορίαν] – as long as we grasp the meaning [νόημα] of (Scripture’s) words. …

They instruct not only through precepts but through the historical narratives: both lead to knowledge of the mysteries [γνωσιν των μυστηρίων] and to a pure way of life [καθαράν πολιτείαν] for those who have diligent minds.

St. Paul also uses exegesis [έξηγήσει] looking to what is most useful, and he is not concerned about what to name the form of his exegesis [έξηγήσεως]. … And there is a passage where he calls the more obscure comprehension and partial knowledge [γνωσιν] a mirror and a riddle [αΐνιγμα ](1 Cor 13, 12).  And again he says the change from literal[σωματικων] meanings to noetic [νοητά] is a turning [έπιστροφην] to the Lord and a removal of the veil (2 Cor 3, 16).  But in all these different figures and names for noetic interpretation [νουν θεωρίας] he is describing one form of teaching to us,  but we must [sometimes] pass over to the immaterial  [αϋλόν] and noetic interpretation [νοητην θεωρίαν] so that more corporeal thoughts are changed into something perceived by the intellect and rational mind [νουν και διάνοιαν], the more fleshly meaning of what is said having been shaken off like dust (Mt 10, 14).

And he says, “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3, 6), because in many passages the historical account does not provide examples of a good life if indeed we stop at the bare facts.

All these and similar examples should serve to remind us of the necessity of searching the divine words, of reading [προσέχειν τη άναγνώσει] them and of tracing in every way possible how something more sublime [ύψηλότερος] might be found which leads us to that which is divine and incorporeal [θειότερά τε και άσώματα] instead of the literal sense [διάνοιαν].

Unless a person contemplates the truth through philosophy [φιλοσοφίας ένθεωρήσειε την άλήθειαν], what the text says here will be either inconsistent or a fable [μυθωδες].

~ St. Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Song of Songs, 5.10-7.5; based on (with a few word changes) McCambley (1987) and Heine (2012), pp.362–363; MPG  44 775ff.; italics mine.


Beier, Matthias.  ‘Embodying Hermeneutics: Eugen Drewermann’s Depth Psychological Interpretation of Religious Symbols‘. Paper presented at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, New Brunswick, NJ, March 1998.

Heine, Ronald E. ‘Gregory of Nyssa’s Apology for Allegory.’ Vigiliae Christianae, 38(4), 1984), pp. 360–370.

Laird, Martin. Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Lauro, Elizabeth Ann Dively. The Soul and Spirit of Scripture within Origen’s Exegesis. Leiden: Brill, 2005.

Martens, Peter. Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life. Oxford University Press, 2012.

McCambly, Richard Casimir. ‘Notations on the Commentary on the Song of Songs by Gregory of Nyssa.’  < >  Accessed 23 Nov. 2013.

McCambly, Richard Casimir. Saint Gregory of Nyssa: Commentary on the Song of Songs. Hellenic College Press, 1987.  ISBN 0917653181

Norris, Jr., Richard A. Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on the Song of Songs. Society of Biblical Literature, 2012. (Introduction)

Osborn, Eric Francis. ‘Philo and Clement: Quiet Conversion and Noetic Exegesis.’ Studia Philonica Annual, 10, 1998, 108–124.

Osborn, Eric Francis. Clement of Alexandria. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. ‘Biblical Interpretation in Conflict.’ In: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (author), José Granados (editor), Carlos Granados (ed.), Luis Sánchez Navarro (ed.), Opening Up the Scriptures: Joseph Ratzinger and the Foundations of Biblical Interpretation, Eerdmans, 2008.

Stefaniw, Blossom. Mind, Text, and Commentary: Noetic Exegesis in Origen of Alexandria, Didymus the Blind, and Evagrius Ponticus. Peter Lang, 2010.

St. Augustine – You Will See Light Itself

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A treatise of St Augustine on St John’s gospel

You will come to the spring and see light itself

We Christians are the light, at least by comparison with unbelievers. Thus the Apostle says: Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk then as sons of the light. And elsewhere he says: The night is far spent, the day is drawing near. Let us therefore lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us walk uprightly as in the day.

Nevertheless, since the days in which we are now living are still dark compared to the light which we shall see, hear what the apostle Peter says. He speaks of a voice that came from the Supreme Glory and said to the Lord Jesus Christ: You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. This voice, he says, we heard coming from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain. Because we ourselves were not present there and did not hear that voice from heaven, Peter says to us: And we possess a more certain prophetic word to which you do well to attend, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

When, therefore, our Lord Jesus Christ comes and, as the apostle Paul says, brings to light things hidden in darkness and makes plain the secrets of the heart, so that everyone may receive his commendation from God, then lamps will no longer be needed. When that day is at hand, the prophet will not be read to us, the book of the Apostle will not be opened, we shall not require the testimony of John, we shall have no need of the Gospel itself. Therefore all Scriptures will be taken away from us, those Scriptures which in the night of this world burned like lamps so that we might not remain in darkness.

When all these things are removed as no longer necessary for our illumination, and when the men of God by whom they were ministered to us shall themselves together with us behold the true and dear light without such aids, what shall we see? With what shall our minds be nourished? What will give joy to our gaze? Where will that gladness come from, which eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, which has not even been conceived by the heart of man? What shall we see?

I implore you to love with me and, by believing, to run with me; let us long for our heavenly country, let us sigh for our heavenly home, let us truly feel that here we are strangers. What shall we then see? Let the gospel tell us: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. You will come to the fountain, with whose dew you have already been sprinkled. Instead of the ray of light which was sent through slanting and winding ways into the heart of your darkness, you will see the light itself in all its purity and brightness. It is to see and experience this light that you are now being cleansed. Dearly beloved, John himself says, we are the sons of God, and it has not yet been disclosed what we shall be; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.

I feel that your spirits are being raised up with mine to the heavens above; but the body which is corruptible weighs down the soul, and this earthly tent burdens the thoughtful mind. I am about to lay aside this book, and you are soon going away, each to his own business. It has been good for us to share the common light, good to have enjoyed ourselves, good to have been glad together. When we part from one another, let us not depart from him.

Written by John Uebersax

November 24, 2009 at 4:46 pm

St. Augustine – Christ is the way to the light

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Reading From a treatise on John by Saint Augustine, bishop

Christ is the way to the light, the truth and the life

The Lord tells us: I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. In these few words he gives a command and makes a promise. Let us do what he commands so that we may not blush to covet what he promises and to hear him say on the day of judgement: “I laid down certain conditions for obtaining my promises. Have you fulfilled them?” If you say: “What did you command, Lord our God?” he will tell you: “I commanded you to follow me. You asked for advice on how to enter into life. What life, if not the life about which it is written: With you is the fountain of life?

Let us do now what he commands. Let us follow in the footsteps of the Lord. Let us throw off the chains that prevent us from following him. Who can throw off these shackles without the aid of the one addressed in these words: You have broken my chains? Another psalm says of him: The Lord frees those in chains, the Lord raises up the downcast.

Those who have been freed and raised up follow the light. The light they follow speaks to them: I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness. The Lord gives light to the blind. Brethren, that light shines on us now, for we have had our eyes anointed with the eye-salve of faith. His saliva was mixed with earth to anoint the man born blind. We are of Adam’s stock, blind from our birth; we need him to give us light. He mixed saliva with earth, and so it was prophesied: Truth has sprung up from the earth. He himself has said: I am the way, the truth and the life.

We shall be in possession of the truth when we see face to face. This is his promise to us. Who would dare to hope for something that God in his goodness did not choose to promise or bestow?

We shall see face to face. The Apostle says: Now I know in part, now obscurely through a mirror, but then face to face. John the Apostle says in one of his letters: Dearly beloved, we are now children of God, and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be. We know that when he is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. This is a great promise.

If you love me, follow me. “I do love you,” you protest, “but how do I follow you?” If the Lord your God said to you: “I am the truth and the life,” in your desire for truth, in your love for life, you would certainly ask him to show you the way to reach them. You would say to yourself: “Truth is a great reality, life is a great reality; if only it were possible for my soul to find them!”

via Universalis: Office of Readings.

Written by John Uebersax

March 22, 2009 at 8:51 am