Early in the Confessions, when he is recalling his days of wandering from God, Augustine makes a remarkable observation in passing: God had not only with been him, but was more aware of the future saint’s true self than he was.
As Augustine puts it, “You were more inward to me than my most inward part and higher than my highest” (Confessions 3.6.11). (In the Latin, the statement is interior intimo meo et superior summo meo.)
The line, which is one of the most memorable and oft-quoted of the Confessions, is packed with theological insight. Augustine, at the time, was “wandering away from” God. His separation from God also entailed estrangement from his very self. As Augustine describes it, his soul had become dislocated “beyond its portals, dwelling in the eye of my flesh.” While he had abandoned God, His Creator had not abandoned him. He had forgotten his true self, while God had not.
The implication, then, is that in order to find God, Augustine must turn inward, away from the enticements of worldly pleasures or dependency on naked reason alone to find the truth. One could also say that in order to find his true self, Augustine must seek God.
But why is this so?
In Augustine’s words we find an echo of the Old Testament. In particular there is Psalm 139,
Lord, you have probed me, you know me:
you know when I sit and stand;
you understand my thoughts from afar. …
Even before a word is on my tongue,
Lord, you know it all.
Behind and before you encircle me
and rest your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
far too lofty for me to reach.
Where can I go from your spirit?
From your presence, where can I flee?
If I ascend to the heavens, you are there;
if I lie down in Sheol, there you are.
If I take the wings of dawn
and dwell beyond the sea,
Even there your hand guides me,
your right hand holds me fast.
You formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, because I am wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works!
My very self you know.
My bones are not hidden from you,
When I was being made in secret,
fashioned in the depths of the earth (verses 1-2, 4-10, 13-15).
This psalm points to two reasons as to why God is present to us in our innermost being. First, there is the divine attribute of omnipresence: God is everywhere. If His omnipresence stretches all the way up to the heavens and all the way down to Sheol, the underworld, then it surely includes the heights and depths of our innermost being.
But God also is with us because He created us. Each of us was “formed” and “knit together” by God. We are therefore “wonderfully made.” In a sense, because we are not self-made, we can never know ourselves fully. This is why the psalm suggests that knowledge of our being is something secret, as if we’d been molded in the bowels of the earth, out of sight of all living creatures.
This explains the second half of Augustine’s statement in the Confessions: “You were … higher than my highest.” Even as God is closer to us than we are to our inmost selves, so also He is beyond us just as full knowledge of our inner being is beyond us.
Turning inward, then, as Augustine suggests, does not mean our experience of God is subjective or that God becomes for us whatever we imagine Him to be in our thoughts, as some modern pop spirituality might have it. Rather, the turn inward only properly orients us outward toward God.
Augustine elaborates on this in Book 10 of the Confessions. He acknowledges that man cannot fully know himself, only God does. The best way to knowing oneself, then, is to seek God. Where might God be found?
I asked the earth; and it answered, I am not He; and whatsoever are therein made the same confession. I asked the sea and the deeps, and the creeping things that lived, and they replied, ‘We are not your God, seek higher than we.’ I asked the breezy air, and the universal air with its inhabitants answered, ‘Anaximenes was deceived, I am not God.’ I asked the heavens, the sun, moon, and stars: ‘Neither, say they, are we the God whom you seek (10.6.9.)’
And so Augustine turns inward. He quickly concludes that God is not in the general powers of the body or the soul. But then he is particularly struck by the wonder of memory. Could it be here that he discovers God?
I will soar, then, beyond this power of my nature also, ascending by degrees unto Him who made me. And I enter the fields and roomy chambers of memory, where are the treasures of countless images, imported into it from all manner of things by the senses (10.8.12). …
And men go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, the extent of the ocean, and the courses of the stars, and omit to wonder at themselves (10.8.15).
Augustine proceeds with a lengthy exploration of all the aspects of his memory. But, as wonderful as it is, the saint realizes that God is still beyond it:
Great is the power of memory; very wonderful is it, O my God, a profound and infinite manifoldness; and this thing is the mind, and this I myself am. What then am I, O my God? Of what nature am I? A life various and manifold, and exceeding vast. … So great is the power of memory, so great the power of life in man, whose life is mortal. What then shall I do, O Thou my true life, my God? I will pass even beyond this power of mine which is called memory — I will pass beyond it, that I may proceed to You, O Thou sweet Light. What sayest Thou to me? Behold, I am soaring by my mind towards You who remainest above me (10.17.26).
And yet, paradoxically, memory is the key to his quest. For if he did not remember God, Augustine says, how could he go looking for Him?
But where in my memory do You abide, O Lord? Where do You there abide? What manner of chamber have You there formed for Yourself? What sort of sanctuary have You erected for Yourself? You have granted this honour to my memory, to take up Your abode in it; but in what quarter of it You abide, I am considering. For in calling You to mind, I soared beyond those parts of it which the beasts also possess, since I found You not there among the images of corporeal things; and I arrived at those parts where I had committed the affections of my mind, nor there did I find You. And I entered into the very seat of my mind, which it has in my memory, since the mind remembers itself also — nor were You there. For as You are not a bodily image, nor the affection of a living creature, as when we rejoice, condole, desire, fear, remember, forget, or anything of the kind; so neither are You the mind itself, because You are the Lord God of the mind; and all these things are changed, but You remain unchangeable over all, yet vouchsafe to dwell in my memory, from the time I learned You. But why do I now seek in what part of it You dwell, as if truly there were places in it? You dwell in it assuredly, since I have remembered You from the time I learned You, and I find You in it when I call You to mind (10.25.36).
In the end, Augustine arrives at a mystery: God is beyond him — ‘higher than his highest’ — yet God is also dwelling within Him — ‘more inward to me than my most inward part.’ Precisely because He is so far beyond us—not merely in a spatial sense, but more importantly, in terms of the excellence of His being — God is also able to dwell so intimately within us.