Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Friday, October 29, 2004

Spiritual Senses, Part II 

Yesterday I wrote in Part I about Origen's doctrine of the 'spiritual senses,' as applied specifically to the mystical life of the believer. Left to itself, however, Origen's language about these senses might appear to frame a vision of the mystical life which is profoundly individualistic and subjectivist, sort of an unhinged pietism. But Origen never intended it to be so. For him, man's powers - even the divinely-bestowed spiritual senses - could not unite man to God unless God had first united Himself to man. The Incarnation thus establishes the framework for the 'senses' - and for Origen God has 'taken on flesh' not only in Jesus Christ, but also in the pages of Scripture.

The divine Word represents, for Origen, the ultimate expression of the divine nature, its very 'exegesis.' In Him God expresses himself 'in human words,' in a wonderful act of divine condescension. This act takes place directly through the Incarnation, and indirectly through the Scriptures, by which one and the same Word is mediated to us.

Two conclusions result from this. First, Scripture is not a static object to be examined or scrutinized by man. In Scripture man finds himself addressed directly, in the present, as one living subject addressed by another. For this reason, Scripture can never be approached as a mere historical record of past events. For the past is important only inasmuch as it addresses man in the present; otherwise it remains, in Origen's words, 'mere Jewish fables.'

Secondly, as in the Incarnation itself, although the 'flesh' of the written text represents the full expression of the Word, it never does so exhaustively. The meaning of Scripture - constituted by the living Word - surpasses anything the objective text can supply. Now, on the one hand, few Fathers were more fastidious than Origen about establishing the exactness of the literal text. Origen personally traveled to the Holy Land to examine archeological sites, scrupulously compared variant versions of original manuscripts, consulted grammatical and scientific textbooks, and even sat at the feet of a Jewish rabbi for years in order to master the Hebrew culture and language. When an opponent denies the historicity of a biblical text, Origen is the first to spring to its defense.

Yet, on the other hand, this historical meaning, for Origen, exists for the explicit purpose of being transcended. For the fluctuating cause-and-effect relationships which make up human history have, from a cosmic perspective, no intrinsic significance whatsoever, apart from their spiritual significance. Commenting on Genesis 18:8, Origen famously comments, "What does it help me - who have come to hear what the Holy Spirit teaches the human race - if I hear that 'Abraham was standing under a tree'?" Even the biblical authors recognized that many Old Testament events are important primarily for their spiritual value. For St. Paul, the crossing of the Red Sea was essentially baptism (1 Cor. 10), and Hagar and Sarah were the Old and New Covenants (Gal. 4).

But the spiritual sense is more than just an exercise in human flights of imagination. It is 'spiritual' in the fullest sense of the Word - i.e., its exercise depends upon the interpreter's possessing within himself the same Spirit who inspired the authors of Scripture. The possession of this Spirit is made possible by the image of God inscribed within man's being, but is also contingent upon the extent to which this man has united himself to God through ascetic practice, prayer and contemplation. The 'spiritual senses' can only be exercised by the 'spiritual man.'

The actual content of these 'senses,' for me, is less important than the mere affirmation of their possibility. For Origen, they are generally referred to as the 'literal,' 'moral' and 'mystical' (corresponding to man's body, soul and spirit). But Cassian's 'four senses' - historical, typological, tropological and anagogical - correspond more to Origen's actual practice.

More striking than Origen's observations themselves, is the extent to which they diverge so sharply from the way we read Scripture. The rise of so-called 'scientific' exegesis, that is, the historical-critical method, has completely obscured and even eradicated the spiritual. What is degraded in our own day as a 'fundamentalist' reading of Scripture is often nothing but what Origen called its 'spiritual' reading. To read Scripture as if it were actually speaking to man's present, rather than as a record of past events (or even, past legends), to allow one's own moral and spiritual dispositions to guide one through the letter to the spirit hidden within, rather than to enslave oneself to the bare letter and to go no further, cannot not now permitted.

# posted by Jamie : 2:16 PM


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