Aphrahat on Cosmology and Ascent in Demonstrations 14

This is the first follow-up to the post, “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens“.

Aphrahat the Persian (circa A.D. 280-345) writes, in his Demonstrations 14.34-36, that

34. Great are the works of God; deep and wondrous are his thoughts. He suspended the sky without pillars, and made firm the earth without supports. He gathered the waters together into pools, and confined winds and hurricanes within the storehouses of his will. He stretched out the firmament in the middle, as a division between the waters [above] and the waters [below]. He separated [337] the dry land from the sea. He set lights in the firmament. He set up mountains on the earth. He separated the day from the night and light from darkness and summer from winter. He established the sand as a boundary for the sea, and enclosed the seas in an ocean; the surging waves do not go past the boundary. The sun travels without feet, and the moon proceeds in succession. The clouds race without wings, the wind blows without a means to fly, and water flows without a living soul. The earth is suspended on the waters, and the waters are gathered together as foundations. The wind has no vision, the air has no sense of touch, the sky has no shape, and the clouds have not been given knowledge. The creatures of the sea are powerful, but the monsters in it are without speech. The arms of intelligence are stretched out, and the wings of thought are extended; the senses of the mind explore, and the eyes of the conscience gaze intently. The openings of the sense of hearing fly to perceive and to understand the inquiry. But even all of these together do not comprehend.

Aphrahat’s understanding of the saint is that of a human being who is a living temple, is that of a person who can ascend, in his or her thoughts, to God’s temple, so that the mind flies upwards and is contained in that court, and the praises of the heavenly court are contained in the heart/mind of the ascetic. Bp. Alexander Golitzin has written an article on this passage, noting that it has resonances with the heavenly ascent of 1 Enoch and the Enochic literature in general. Aphrahat continues this chapter of Demonstration 14 with this “interiorized ascent” (Golitzin’s phrase, I believe):

35. Who perceives the place of knowledge? Who comprehends the foundation of wisdom? Who discerns the place of understanding? It is  hidden from every living thing, and from the thoughts of all flesh. It cannot be bought with gold by the foolish. Its treasure is opened and permitted to those who ask. Its light exceeds that of the sun; its glory is more beautiful and attractive than the moon. The inner chambers of the mind search it out, the faculties of thought acquire it, and the fullness of the intellect inherits it. The one whose heart has an open door finds it, and the one who extends the wings of his intellect inherits it. It lives in those who are diligent, and is planted in the midst of the heart of the one who is wise. The ligaments of [his heart] are set firmly in their sources, and in it he possesses hidden treasure. His thought flies to every height, and his reflection goes down to every depth. [Wisdom] paints wonders in the midst of his heart, and the eyes of his senses see across oceans. All created things are enclosed in his thought; the inclination [of his thought] is enlarged, in order to receive [all things]. He is  the great temple of his Creator, and the High King enters and lives in him. [The King] carries his mind to the heights, and his thought flies to his sanctuary; he shows him all kinds of treasure. His intellect is absorbed with vision, and his heart is captivated by all its senses. [The King] shows him that which he did not know. He gazes on that place and examines it; his mind marvels at all that he sees: all the watchers pursue [the King’s] service, and the seraphim sanctify his glory, flying on their swift wings with white and beautiful garments. They hide their faces from his brightness, and their course is more swift than the wind. There the throne of the kingdom is set up, and the Judge is preparing the court. Seats are set up for the righteous to judge the wicked on the day of judgement. When the wise man sees in his mind the place of his many treasures, then his thought is elevated, and his heart conceives and gives birth to all good things, and he meditates on all that has been commanded. His form and his vision are on the earth, but the senses of his intellect are above and below.

What is above the sky seems to be seen only through “the senses of [the] intellect”, which implies that they can be seen with the eye of the mind, but are not material things seen with the eyes of the body. One may be forgiven for thinking that, in Aphrahat, there may be sensory impressions generated by what the mind perceives: “[Wisdom] paints wonders in the midst of his heart, and the eyes of his senses see across oceans.” What follows makes it clear that these senses are not imagination or vision, however, but thought: “All created things are enclosed in his thought; the inclination [of his thought] is enlarged, in order to receive [all things].” We might make a similar mistake –thinking that internal imaginative impressions are generated by this ecstatic ascent of the mind above the sky– when reading: “[the sage’s] intellect is absorbed with vision, and his heart is captivated by all its senses”. This is unclear, though: the “heart” seems paralleled here with “intellect”, so that “senses [of the heart]” and “the senses of [the sage’s] intellect” may be the same thing. If so, there are no sensory images corresponding to the forms perceived with the intellect, just knowledge, thought, understanding. After all, the sage’s “vision” is “on the earth”. The metaphors strongly incline to nothing being seen in the imagination, but, rather, forms seen by the intellect. As we see below, “What his ears do not hear he sees, and what his eyes do not see he senses.” As we saw above, it seems to be the mind alone that sees, for (to repeat what we typed above):

“The inner chambers of the mind search […] out [the place of wisdom], the faculties of thought acquire it, and the fullness of the intellect inherits it. The one whose heart has an open door finds it, and the one who extends the wings of his intellect inherits it.”

The influence of Platonism on Aphrahat, modifying the kind of Enochic ascent that his sage is said to undergo (the sage does not have visions “whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know” [Paul, 2 Cor], but decidedly through the mind), is noteworthy, and typical, I would say, of the educated Christian writers from at least the 2nd if not the 3rd century onwards.

What is above the sky is a “sanctuary” and a “court”, however; it is really above us in a significant sense. (Here, we seem to be seeing a blending of the top tier in the earlier three-tier cosmology and the Platonic notion of the forms.) The mind ascends to the sky sanctuary, and itself becomes “the great temple of his Creator”.

The sage, thus, becomes a pillar, connecting the realms above the sky above with the earth below it. The sense of “above” and “below” here are not purely metaphorical. There would not be a contrast with “on the earth”, otherwise, unless it really meant “of the flesh”.

His reasoning is more swift than the sun, and its rays fly [faster] than the wind, like a swift wing to all places. The wise man is strong in his mind, [even if] his vision is weak and failing, and [he] is infused and filled up more than a large treasure. In the night, the darkness is illuminated, and he sends his thoughts to all places. His mind explores every foundation and the treasure of knowledge is brought to him. What his ears do not hear he sees, and what his eyes do not see he senses. His contemplation crosses over every sea; strong waves are not a concern for him, since his mind [needs] no ship or sailor. Great and abundant is the storehouse of his merchandise: when he gives from what he owns, he loses nothing, and the poor become rich from his storehouse. There is no limit to the mind of the One who is contained and who lives inside of him. O place where the King lives and is served! Who can count His treasures in you? His revenues and expenses are huge, like a king who needs nothing.

The King lives in the sky; the king lives in the sage; the sage becomes a sky dweller on the earth, becomes a sky temple –in the flesh– hosting and serving God.

Because so much of Demonstration 14 is an attack on corruption, a comparison with the days of Noah become another occasion for us to see this cosmology:

36. […] Behold [these] amazing wonders: the sea is confined by the sand, the waves are imprisoned by the commandment, and all the storms are restrained by the word. They rise up and swell to heaven, they are tormented and press down to the depths, but they cannot go past the limit which has been decreed for them. If someone should say, ‘It is in their nature to be limited’, let that person understand what happened in the days of Noah. When the wrath [of God] brought the water of the flood, he lifted the word from the hands of the depths, and raised the  commandment from the confining sand. The water broke through and crossed over the limit, the floodgates of  heaven opened, the firmament, the boundary between water and water, was pierced, and judgement was passed on the wicked. For he placed the firmament as a boundary between the water which was above the firmament and that which was below, as it is written, “God made the  firmament in the midst of the waters, so that it might distinguish water from water,” and he set lights in it and called it ‘heaven’. And he gathered together the water from the surface of the dry area to one place. The gathering of water he called ‘seas’, and the dry area he called ‘land’. [The Demonstrations of Aphrahat, the Persian Sage transl. Adam Lehto (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2010), 336-339]

In a longer post, this would be a good opportunity to segue into other details about the cosmology that are suggested by Genesis 6; perhaps another time.


Header image is not of Aphrahat, and is found here.

4 thoughts on “Aphrahat on Cosmology and Ascent in Demonstrations 14

  1. Pingback: Ascent & Descent; the Sky & the Earth Kiss | Into the Clarities

  2. Pingback: Paul Tillich on Divine Omnipresence in a Spatially Monistic Universe | Into the Clarities

  3. Pingback: Ascent to the Eighth Heaven in The Apocalypse of Abraham | Into the Clarities

  4. Pingback: Theodoret of Cyrus on The Mash-up of Tiered Cosmology and Philosophical Theology, with An Eye to The Ascension, 1 | Into the Clarities

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