Category Archives: Augustine of Hippo

Evangelicals & Augustine’s Confessions


-Augustine’s Confessions


-by Alberto Ferreiro, PhD

“Why do Evangelical Protestants find Augustine’s Confessions so engaging? In the university where I teach, for most students the Confessions is their first encounter with Augustine, and their response is overwhelmingly favorable. (Ironically, when I assign Augustine, most Catholics in my classes are reading him for the first time as well, and some have never heard of him at all.) Many Evangelicals have embraced him in much the same way they have embraced Mother Teresa, Francis of Assisi, and Thomas Merton. Though there are shortcomings of Evangelicals’ reading of the Confessions, Catholics can learn from them.

Let us begin with the pear tree episode, which highlights Augustine’s youthful, restless phase and his emerging recognition that something is dreadfully wrong with the deep impulses of human nature. Augustine describes how his group of “young scoundrels,” hanging out in the street until late, robbed a neighbor’s pear tree of its fruit “not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden” (Confessions 2:4:9).

Evangelicals—whether they are influenced by the Wesleyan, Lutheran, or Reformed view of human nature—have a strong sense of sin and the enormous damage it causes. While many modern Catholic and Protestant teachers minimize sin, Evangelicals tend to overemphasize the Fall and its effects on the individual and his relationship with God. Neither extreme is a healthy one. For Evangelicals it is not a question of simply doing good or controlling one’s destructive behavior; it is, rather, the need to experience a radical transformation of the inner person.

Augustine concluded, as he reflected on the act of stealing and destroying the pears, that there was really no such thing as a benign sin without temporal consequences. A shortcoming of the Evangelical understanding of sin is the lack of distinction between what Catholics call venial and mortal sin. Conspicuously absent in Evangelical preaching is any reference to this distinction as made in 1 Corinthians 3:10–15, and especially as when John says, “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal” (1 John 5:17). What permeates Evangelical preaching and evangelism are Paul’s statements that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), and “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

Where Evangelicals have it right is that they recognize, as did Augustine, that all acts of sin, while they may not be of similar temporal gravity, are reflections of our rebellion against God, and their effects deform us. In the end, neither Catholics nor Evangelicals must allow a loss of the sense of sin to enter into their lives and the life of the Church. If we begin to excuse away venial sin or treat it in a lighthearted manner, chances are in time we will also find justification for mortal sin as well.

One of the distinctive elements of Augustine’s conversion is his direct encounter with Scripture in the garden of Milan, buttressed by Ambrose’s preaching (5:13:23–25). This aspect of his conversion is often cited by Evangelicals. When a Catholic visits an Evangelical gathering for the first time, the one thing that stands out the most—other than the vigorous and copious singing—is the central place preaching takes in their worship. In many Evangelical churches, the eucharist is absent. It is celebrated infrequently with the emphasis on symbolism.

Nevertheless, as a former Evangelical, I can attest to having experienced a profound reverence (expressed through kneeling during the entire communion service), a call to conversion, and tears. But our focus here is on the centrality of the word. The call by Paul to the necessity of the preached word for salvation (Rom. 10:14–17) is heard frequently in Evangelical services.

Evangelicals have developed a consistent and deep understanding of the potent nature of God’s word on an individual, provided one’s heart is open to the action of the Holy Spirit. As Paul reminds us, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Augustine is a model par excellence of the proper attitude one should bring to the private reading of sacred Scripture (the garden in Milan) and in the public proclamation of the word in the gathered body of Christ, the Church (the preaching of Ambrose).

Evangelicals have done well to focus on this most important aspect of the conversion experience of Augustine in the Confessions. God has at his disposal a limitless amount of ways to reach us, but one of the most important ways is through the word of God as contained in the Bible. Like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Augustine came to understand—in the garden and through the preaching of Ambrose—all that Moses, the prophets, and the psalms said concerning Jesus Christ. But it was only a preparation for Augustine. He would soon discover how to fully “see” Jesus through the Eucharist (Luke 24:30–31, 35).

In the Confessions, Augustine singles out his discovery of Paul as of great importance (7:21:27), undoubtedly because of his reading the epistle to the Romans during his conversion in the garden. When in the company of Evangelicals, it does not take long for one to discover the importance of Paul. It is true that Evangelicalism, and historic Protestantism in general, is heavily Pauline. It is not only because Paul wrote a good portion of the New Testament. Paul comes first, and he is the lens through which the Gospels and all else in the New Testament are read. It comes hardly as a surprise, therefore, that this section of the Confessions is of great importance to Evangelicals.

Informed Catholics, on the other hand, read Paul through the lens of the Gospels and not the other way around—just as we are taught to read the Old Testament through New Testament eyes. Augustine himself noted, “The New lies hidden in the Old and the Old is unveiled in the New” (Quaest. in Hept. 2:73). Catholics express the primacy of the Gospels at Mass by standing and singing the Alleluia, by crossing their foreheads, lips, and chests before the reading, and by concluding the reading with the acclamation, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.”

No one who reads the Confessions comes away untouched by Monica and her role in the conversion of her son (9:8:17–37). This section is one of the most moving in the entire work, and Evangelicals single it out as an example of perseverance in faith and the power of intercessory prayer. Many Evangelicals have a rich and profound prayer life, even though until very recently it lacked a contemplative dimension. While Evangelicals still lack the contemplative dimension of prayer, they make up for it with their strong belief in the efficacy of intercessory prayer.

Having attended numerous prayer meetings, services, and Bible studies, and having read much of their literature over the years, I can attest that the accent is clearly on intercessory prayer. (At times this can be taken to the extreme of telling God what needs to be done and how to do it.) Evangelicals are fond of citing Scripture passages that highlight intercessory prayer, among the most popular being James 5:16: “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.”

By contrast, I cannot recall hearing a sermon based upon biblical texts that lend themselves to contemplation, such as the Marian text, “But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). The Evangelical fear of Marian piety and devotion, which they label “mariolatry,” steers them away from such passages. As Catholic writer Mark P. Shea has observed, the aversion to and rejection of Marian themes in Scripture explains in part the absence of the contemplative and of silent adoration in Evangelical ecclesial culture.

We Catholics need to learn from our Evangelical brethren to integrate into our private prayer life intense intercessory prayer as much as they need to incorporate contemplative moments into their public and private prayer life. A prayer life without the contemplative runs the risk of becoming an exercise in demands that degenerates into telling God what to do and how to do it. That is a form of idolatry. On the other hand, a prayer life given over mainly to contemplation without an intercessory.aspect likewise tends to degenerate into self-absorbed spirituality focused only on the self. That too is a form of idolatry. From what we can gather in the Confessions, Monica did not fall into either extreme. She teaches and inspires us to persevere in intercessory prayer, which is contemplative fruit.

Most Evangelicals know Augustine only through the Confessions. What he says there is read in isolation from the rest of his theology, especially his theology of the liturgy and ecclesiology. This is understandable; to embrace the whole of Augustine’s writings would entail embracing the Catholic faith. The Confessions are safe in this regard, since they do not really touch upon these two areas of substantial disagreement between Evangelicals and Catholics.

Evangelicals’ reductionist view of the sacraments, above all of the Eucharist, explains their lack of interest in what Augustine has to say about these things. Evangelicals nevertheless need to give serious consideration to what Augustine has to say about the sacraments, ecclesiology, hermeneutics, the canon of Scripture, and the many others areas of theology he influenced decisively.

Conversely, from their reading of the Confessions Catholics can learn much from Evangelicals regarding the word of God. Catholics need to discover that Scripture itself in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament testifies time and again concerning the power of God’s word to transform people’s lives. One of the great pastoral challenges regarding the liturgy since Vatican II is to convince Catholics that the liturgy of the word is of vital importance.

The episode on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35) is a good place for Catholics to see that Scripture is essential to our experience of Christ in the liturgy. Catholics require widespread catechesis to g.asp the transforming power that God’s word carries if we allow the Holy Spirit to burn it into our minds and hearts so that we may proclaim at every Mass, “Were not our hearts burning within us?” Once we realize that sacred Scripture is God’s word, objectively speaking, and that there is a presence of Jesus in it, it changes our attitude altogether to the proclamation of the word and the homily at Mass.

The private reading of the word of God that is so crucial to Evangelical discipleship can also be instructive to Catholics. That private moment in the garden in Milan where Augustine through his direct reading of Scripture met the Lord in a personal way needs to be pondered by Catholics. Since Vatican II there has been an explosion of private devotional reading material to help Catholics experience the word of God, whether individually or in small groups outside of Mass. Long-standing scriptural devotions such as the Liturgy of the Hours are making a return among Catholics around the world thanks to the encouragement of Pope John Paul II.

Even so, many parishes do not have ongoing scriptural catechesis or prayer groups. The biblical illiteracy of many Catholics—indeed, of some priests—is still a major problem. In Evangelical communities, Bible study groups are a central component of their apostolate.

Like Augustine, we need to visit our garden each day, be open to the power of God’s word, and allow the Paraclete to guide us into all truth. Many Evangelicals are experiencing only half of Emmaus (the table of the word) and many Catholics only the other half (the table of the bread). The two are one, the latter being the primary manifestation of Christ’s presence, as the Catechism eloquently affirms: “It is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present” (CCC 1374).

At the Eucharistic table we encounter our Lord once again in a singularly unique presence: his very body, blood, soul, and divinity—the “source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324, Lumen Gentium 11). The Jesus with whom we commune at the eucharistic banquet is the same Jesus who has spoken to us previously from the ambo in the word through the Spirit. The two disciples at Emmaus encountered nothing less than the same Jesus at every step—and so do we at every liturgy.

We Catholics have nearly as much to learn from our Evangelical friends about the word as they have to learn from us about the Eucharist. A major difference is that we have both word and Eucharist; it is a matter of Catholics entering into the fullness of both at every liturgy. Non-sacramental Evangelicals have relegated their eucharist to a distant, secondary role—if not to insignificance—and this is unfortunate.

If Catholics and Evangelicals read Augustine from a purely intellectual or scholarly approach (for which there is a time and a place), we miss out on the real reason as to why the Confessions were written in the first place. Was it not to guide our hearts and minds to the One who can only satisfy our restlessness in through a profound conversion? Do they not have as their goal to fulfill at every Catholic Mass what Paul prayed, “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Eph. 1:18)? Augustine, who was celebrated last year on the occasion of the 1,600th anniversary of the publication of his Confessions, would desire nothing less.”

Love,
Matthew

Go ask your Father: the Early Church was Catholic


-by Marcus Grodi

“For the first forty years of my life, it never crossed my mind that I needed anything else but the Bible to know what I needed to believe to be a faithful Christian. When I was in seminary and preparing to become a Protestant pastor I studied the history of Christianity, but with a certain slant that skirted any acknowledgment of the historical importance of the Catholic Church. For me, as well as most of my fellow seminarians, the important history essentially ended with the closure of the New Testament and picked up again with the sixteenth century Protestant reformation.

I certainly knew of some significant Christian figures and events from those “lost” fifteen hundred years, but for me and the congregations I pastored, all that was important was the Bible—which had been “saved” from the clutches of the “Whore of Babylon” through the courage of the Reformers. The few references I had read from the writings of the early Christian writers (I don’t remember referring to them as early Church “Fathers”) were selectively chosen to demonstrate that the early Church was more like Protestantism than Catholicism.

Then, by God’s grace, my eyes were opened to the problems of Protestantism. Without question, it was my discovery of the witness of the early Church Fathers that most opened my heart and mind toward the Catholic faith. Fortunately, God provided helpers to assist me in finding and working my way through the few available collections of the Fathers, most of which were out of print and some badly skewed by anti-Catholic translators. Through their witness, the Catholicism of the early Church became so obvious that my family and I knew that if we were to follow the truth then we had no option but to become Catholic.

A large majority of Christians today believe that all one needs to know about the early Church can be gleaned from the book of Acts, and that beyond that, the essence of early Church structure, liturgy, and praxis is somehow a prototype of what they experience in their modern-day Protestant churches.

But if the inspired words of the New Testament do not contain all that the Apostles taught the early Christians, then how does one discover the rest of what these early Christians believed? The answer to this—at least for hundreds of modern Protestant ministers who have surprisingly found their way home to the Catholic Church—is in the writings of the early Church Fathers.

How, though, can we access such a large corpus of writings, especially when they were written in languages that most of us today have not had the patience to learn?

For this, we are particularly blessed by the release of Jimmy Akin’s superbly compiled synopsis of the writings of the early Church Fathers.

There are other collections, which have helped many discover the beauty and importance of what these early writers reveal about the expanding and persecuted early Church. But Akin’s finely selected and categorized collection provides a far more accessible introduction into the full Catholicity of the early Christians. As a convert himself and a well-honed apologist, Jimmy knows the topics that are most crucial for those wanting and needing to know what the early Church believed—especially in those doctrinal areas where Catholics and non-Catholics bump heads.”

ST. AMBROSE OF MILAN

Born around 338; died 397. Bishop of Milan, Italy. One of the four original Doctors of the Church. Originally, he was a government official. After the death of the local bishop, the Catholics and Arians got into a vehement conflict about who should be the new bishop.

Ambrose was trying to keep the peace and settle the two groups down when someone—allegedly a small boy—began chanting “Ambrose, bishop!” Soon the two groups began chanting together that Ambrose should be the new bishop. (The Arians, apparently, felt that although Ambrose was Catholic in belief he would be a kinder bishop than they otherwise would likely get.) Yet, Ambrose was not even baptized yet!

Culturally well-educated but at the same time ignorant of the Scriptures, the new Bishop briskly began to study them. From the works of Origen, the indisputable master of the “Alexandrian School”, he learned to know and to comment on the Bible. Thus, Ambrose transferred to the Latin environment the meditation on the Scriptures which Origen had begun, introducing in the West the practice of lectio divina. The method of lectio served to guide all of Ambrose’s preaching and writings, which stemmed precisely from prayerful listening to the Word of God.

The future St Augustine, converted to Christianity by St Ambrose, meanwhile, had come to Milan as a teacher of rhetoric; he was a sceptic and not Christian. He was seeking the Christian truth but was not capable of truly finding it.

What moved the heart of the young African rhetorician, sceptic and downhearted, and what impelled him to definitive conversion was not above all Ambrose’s splendid homilies, although he deeply appreciated them. It was rather the testimony of the Bishop and his Milanese Church that prayed and sang as one intact body. It was a Church that could resist the tyrannical ploys of the Emperor and his mother, who in early 386 again demanded a church building for the Arians’ celebrations.

In the building that was to be requisitioned, Augustine relates, “the devout people watched, ready to die with their Bishop”.   This testimony of the Confessions is precious because it points out that something was moving in Augustine, who continues: “We too, although spiritually tepid, shared in the excitement of the whole people.” (Confessions 9, 7).  St Monica, the tearful Christian mother of her wayward son Augustine, followed her son to Milan.  The customs for worship in Thagaste, Northern Africa, where they were from, were different than in Milan and Rome.  When she asked Ambrose what to do, he replied, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.”  Very practical advice.

ST. ANTHONY OF EGYPT

Born around 250 at Herakleopolis Magna; died 356. A layman who lived in a variety of places in Egypt. Though hailed as “the Father of Monasticism,” he was not the first monk, but he was one of the first (if not the first) ascetics known to retire to the desert. A biography of him by St. Athanasius of Alexandria helped spread his style of monasticism.

ST. ATHANASIUS OF ALEXANDRIA

Born around 295; died 373. A Doctor of the Church. As a deacon he accompanied St. Alexander of Alexandria to the Council of Nicaea I. He succeeded Alexander as patriarch of Alexandria and was a tireless defender of Trinitarianism and foe of the Arians. His time as bishop was stormy, and he was expelled from his see five times but regained it each time.

ST. AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO

Born 354; died 430. One of the four original Doctors of the Church. Of Berber descent, he was born to a pagan father (Patricius) and Christian mother (St. Monica), in Thagaste (modern Souk Ahras, Algeria). He spent some time as a Manichean before becoming a Christian. He was baptized by St. Ambrose of Milan. Before becoming Christian, St. Augustine fathered a son (Adeodatus) by a concubine. After baptism, he became bishop of Hippo Regius, Numidia (now Annaba, Algeria). The most prolific of the Church Fathers, and one of the most important theologians in history.

POPE ST. CLEMENT I

Probably wrote in early 70. Various ancient sources place him as the first, second, or third successor of St. Peter. (Most commonly, he is held to be the third, after Linus and Cletus.) He was the author of a single surviving Letter to the Corinthians, which is often dated around 95, but this is too late a date.

William Jurgens points to internal evidence that places it no later than 80 or so (the date he favors) and possibly up to ten years earlier. John A. T. Robinson shows internal evidence that places it in the first part of the year 70. Specifically, Clement refers to sacrifices still being offered at the temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed in July of 70. Clement also refers to the repeated crises that have prevented him from writing to the Corinthians until now, which is a likely reference to the violent “year of four emperors” in 69, a time of civil war that followed the forced suicide of Nero in 68. In it Galba, Otho, and Vitellius were successively acclaimed emperor and then killed or forced to commit suicide before Vespasian finally took office.

The epistle may or may not have been written before Clement was pope. He was, in any event, a major figure of the period, as demonstrated by the fact that a number of later works were attributed to him or written about him. Also referred to as “Clement of Rome.”

CONSTANTINE I

Born around 272; died 337. The first Christian emperor—an office he shared with Licinius from 306 until 324, when he became sole emperor. His conversion was prompted by a private revelation in which he was told to conquer in the sign of the cross. He moved the capital of the empire to Byzantium, which was rebuilt as Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). In 313 he and his co-emperor issued the Edict of Milan, which proclaimed religious toleration. He did not, however, make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. In 325 he convoked the Council of Nicaea I to deal with the Arian crisis. Though the council endorsed Trinitarianism, it did not stop the controversy. Constantine was eventually baptized by the Arian bishop of Nicomedia, the city in which he lay dying. Sometimes called “Constantine the Great.”

ST. CYPRIAN OF CARTHAGE

Born around 205; died 258. He was bishop of Carthage (now a suburb of Tunis, Tunisia). He presided at the Council of Carthage of 256. He got along well with Pope St. Cornelius I but had a falling out with Pope St. Stephen I over whether baptisms performed by heretics were valid (Cyprian wrongly held that they were not). For a time he had to shepherd his flock while in hiding due to persecution. Eventually he was martyred by beheading.

ST. CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA

Died 444. A Doctor of the Church. Patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt, Cyril was a harsh man who dealt cruelly with his enemies, including Jews, Novatians, St. John Chrysostom, and Nestorius. A mob of his followers brutally murdered the female pagan philosopher Hypatia, though there is no evidence that they did so at his direction. Despite his flaws, he was an important theologian and papal legate to the Council of Ephesus.

POPE ST. GREGORY I

Reigned from 590 to 604. One of the four original Doctors of the Church. Though born to a wealthy family, he sold his possessions and established monasteries, one of which he dwelled in. He practiced asceticism to the point that he damaged his health. Reluctantly, he was drawn from the monastery into the service of the pope. Eventually, he was elected pope himself, though for a time he sought to avoid the office. He guided the Church during a crucial period of transition between antiquity and the Middle Ages. Commonly referred to as “Gregory the Great.”

ST. HILARY OF POITIERS

Born around 315; died around 367. A Doctor of the Church. He converted from paganism and, though he was married, he was also elected bishop of Poitiers in what is now France. A strong opponent of the Arians, he is sometimes referred to as “the Athanasius of the West.” Like St. Athanasius of Alexandria, he was for a time exiled, but he regained his see.

ST. IGNATIUS OF ANTIOCH

Died around 110. He was the third bishop of Antioch (near the current city of Antakya, Turkey). He heard the apostle John. In the reign of the Emperor Trajan, he was taken to Rome and martyred. On the way he wrote six letters to various churches and one to St. Polycarp of Smyrna. These letters are an invaluable resource concerning early Christianity. They also exist in a long form that includes interpolations of the fourth century, and there is an abridgement of them in Syriac.

ST. IRENAEUS OF LYONS

Born around 140; died around 202. Originally from modern Turkey, where he heard St. Polycarp of Smyrna, he ended up becoming the second bishop of Lyons (now Lyon; then called Lugdunum), in what is now France. He intervened in a dispute between Pope St. Victor I and Bishop Polycrates of Ephesus on the date on which Easter should be celebrated. He also wrote against Gnosticism in his masterwork, Against Heresies.

ST. JEROME

Born around 347; died around 419. One of the four original Doctors of the Church. Originally from Dalmatia (located mostly in modern Croatia), he was educated in Rome and traveled extensively. He attended the Council of Rome in 382 and became the secretary of Pope Damasus, who instigated Jerome’s most famous work—the translation of the Bible in Latin known as the Vulgate. This gradually replaced previous Latin translations of Scripture. After the death of Damasus he moved to Bethlehem, where he continued his translation work. Jerome made many enemies as a result of his explosive temper and his ability to hold grudges even after the death of his opponents.

At one point Jerome needed additional priestly help with the monasteries he ran, and to supply the need St. Epiphanius of Salamis ordained Jerome’s own brother—a monk named Paulinian—forcibly and against his will. (At this point Jerome was at odds with his own bishop, John of Jerusalem—a split which Epiphanius fostered.)

To keep Paulinian from objecting, he was first gagged and then ordained a deacon. A Mass was held, with Paulinian serving the deacon’s part. Then he was grabbed, tied up and gagged again, and ordained a priest.

ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM

Born around 359; died 407. A Doctor of the Church. Originally from Antioch in Syria (now Antakya, Turkey), he eventually and reluctantly became the patriarch of Constantinople. An extraordinary preacher, he was nicknamed Chrusostomos (Greek for “golden-mouthed”). A reformer at Constantinople, he was in conflict both with other churchmen and with the royal court, which twice had him exiled. Though the first time he was quickly brought back (the next day, in fact), the second time he died en route to his place of exile. One of his most famous works, and one that helped earn him his nickname, was a series of sermons he preached on “the incident of the statues.” When he was a newly ordained priest, a mob of tax protestors went on a rampage in Antioch and, in addition to vandalizing the city and the local prefect’s palace, they tore down the statues of the Emperor Theodosius and the late Empress Flacilla and dragged them through the streets. When the riot was over and reality set in, the city was terrified of what would happen next. A series of executions began, and the rumor went round that Theodosius was so enraged that he was contemplating the total destruction of the city, which many began to flee. The local bishop, Flavian, went to appeal directly to the emperor, and while he was gone John preached a famous series of sermons to comfort the population, offer them hope, and prepare them for the afterlife, should Flavian’s mission fail. All ended well when Flavian returned and announced that Theodosius had wept upon hearing his appeal on behalf of the city and that he had decided to spare it. It is suspected that John may have written the eloquent speech Flavian delivered to the emperor.

ST. POLYCARP OF SMYRNA (my parents had friends, who, as a cruel joke on their children, made each one take the Confirmation name “Polycarp”. Catholic love; not always so sweet and tender. 🙂

Born around 68; died around 155. Bishop of Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey). He was a hearer of the apostle John. One of St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letters is addressed to him, and he himself wrote to the Philippians. An account of his martyrdom—The Martyrdom of Polycarp—is an important work of hagiography.

Love,
Matthew

Aug 27 – Tears of St Monica


-“The angel appears to St Monica”, by Pietro Maggi, [1714], painting in Saint Augustine chapel, in the right hand transept of san Marco church in Milan (Italy), please click on the image for greater detail.

Thus you gave another answer through your priest, a certain bishop nurtured in the Church and trained in your books. When that woman implored him to consider speaking with me, to refute my errors, un-teach me evil, and teach me good…he refused her, quite prudently, as I understood later. He responded that I was as yet indocile, that I was inflated with my heresy’s novelty… “but let him be. Only pray for him to the Lord: he will discover by reading what his error is…” She would not acquiesce to what he said but continued imploring… “Go away,” he said, “while you live, the son of these tears of yours shall not perish!” (The Confessions of St. Augustine III, 12)


-by Br Nicholas Hartmann, OP

With these words St. Augustine narrates the exchange between his mother St. Monica and an unnamed bishop. Monica weeps to the saintly bishop, urging him to purge her son of his errant thinking. Because of his intelligence and his studies in rhetoric, Augustine enjoyed worldly success, but his moral profligacy made his inner life tumultuous. He likely hoped Manichaeism—the errors referred to in the above passage—could acquit him of intemperance within the inner court of his conscience.

Monica knew better, or at least she knew that this heresy kept Augustine withdrawn from the true faith. Augustine’s successful career advanced him to Rome and then Milan, but it failed to placate her vexations about his well-being. Monica’s personal piety and progress in Christian virtue informed her to see through that veneer into the rot of his inner life. Indeed, Augustine lived in great spiritual danger, nurturing disordered loves and rejecting the truth of the gospel. He covered over his deep-seated unhappiness and moral fragility with theories of reality he imagined would exonerate him of any moral responsibility.

Monica shed tears over genuine evil. These were not worldly tears of self-pity brooding over failures in her maternal character. Neither did Monica blame the harshness of the world for her son’s character. Monica’s were profitable tears, and she sought a remedy in prayer and through a holy bishop. In her grief she sought to move Augustine to repentance.

The bishop, in his spiritual prudence, knew the best course: his intervention at that time would be inopportune and an impediment to the prodigal Augustine’s future conversion. That her tears did not move the saintly bishop to action does not imply they were in vain. On the contrary, they became a powerful intercessory prayer God was most disposed to answer—and he did. He was disposed to answer not because he needed any convincing, but because it is good for us to seek aid from God and receive it. In this case, Monica sought aid not only for herself, but for another.

Such was the prophecy of the bishop. Because of Monica’s tearful prayers to God for her son, Augustine would not be lost. God is disposed to answer our prayers, especially when we seek virtue for ourselves or others. St. Dominic himself was known to weep while praying: “what will become of sinners!” God is so disposed because it is good for us to seek from him what is truly good for ourselves and others. By doing so we depend on God, the giver of every good thing.

“Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)”

Love, tears of joy,
Matthew

Easter Sermon on the Sacraments – St Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD)

Empty tomb with three crosses on a hill side.

“You are yourselves what you receive.”

“I haven’t forgotten my promise. I had promised those of you who have just been baptized a sermon to explain the sacrament of the Lord’s table, which you can see right now, and which you shared in last night. You ought to know what you have received, what you are about to receive, what you ought to receive every day.

That bread which you can see on the altar, sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. That cup, or rather what the cup contains, sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ. It was by means of these things that the Lord Christ wished to present us with His body and blood, which He shed for our sake for the forgiveness of sins.

If you receive them well, you are yourselves what you receive. You see, the apostle says, We, being many, are one loaf, one body. (1 Cor 10:17) That’s how he explained the sacrament of the Lord’s table; one loaf, one body, is what we all are, many though we be.

In this loaf of bread, you are given clearly to understand how much you should love unity. I mean, was that loaf made from one grain? Weren’t there many grains of wheat? But before they came into the loaf they were all separate; they were joined together by means of water after a certain amount of pounding and crushing. Unless wheat is ground, after all, and moistened with water, it can’t possibly get into this shape, which is called bread.

In the same way, you too were being ground and pounded, as it were, by the humiliation of fasting and the sacrament of exorcism. Then came baptism, and you were, in a manner of speaking, moistened with water in order to be shaped into bread. But it’s not yet bread without fire to bake it. So what does fire represent? That’s the chrism, the anointing. Oil, the fire-feeder, you see, is the sacrament of the Holy Spirit.

Notice it, when the Acts of the Apostles are read; the reading of that book begins now, you see. Today begins the book that is called the Acts of the Apostles. Anybody who wishes to make progress has the means of doing so.

When you assemble in church, put aside silly stories and concentrate on the scriptures. We here are your books. So pay attention, and see how the Holy Spirit is going to come at Pentecost. And this is how He will come; He will show Himself in tongues of fire.

You see, He breathes into us the charity, which should set us on fire for God, and have us think lightly of the world, and burn up our straw, and purge and refine our hearts like gold. So the Holy Spirit comes, fire after water, and you are baked into the bread, which is the body of Christ. And that’s how unity is signified.

Now you have the sacraments in the order they occur. First, after the prayer, you are urged to lift up your hearts; that’s only right for the members of Christ. After all, if you have become members of Christ, where is your head? Members have a head. If the head hadn’t gone ahead before, the members would never follow.

Where has our head gone? What did you give back in the creed? On the third day He rose again from the dead, He ascended into heaven, He is seated at the right hand of the Father. So our head is in heaven. That’s why, after the words Lift up your hearts, you reply, We have lifted them up to the Lord.

And you mustn’t attribute it to your own powers, your own merits, your own efforts, this lifting up of your hearts to the Lord, because it’s God’s gift that you should have your heart up above.

That’s why the bishop, or the presbyter who’s offering, goes on to say, when the people have answered We have lifted them up to the Lord, why he goes on to say, Let us give thanks to the Lord our God, because we have lifted up our hearts. Let us give thanks, because unless He had enabled us to lift them up, we would still have our hearts down here on earth. And you signify your agreement by saying, It is right and just to give thanks to the one who caused us to lift up our hearts to our head.

Then, after the consecration of the sacrifice of God, because He wanted us to be ourselves His sacrifice, which is indicated by where that sacrifice was first put, that is the sign of the thing that we are; why, then after the consecration is accomplished, we say the Lord’s prayer, which you have received and given back.

After that comes the greeting, Peace be with you, and Christians kiss one another with a holy kiss. It’s a sign of peace; what is indicated by the lips should happen in the conscience; that is, just as your lips approach the lips of your brothers or sisters, so your heart should not be withdrawn from theirs.

So they are great sacraments and signs, really serious and important sacraments. Do you want to know how their seriousness is impressed on us? The apostle says, Whoever eats the body of Christ or drinks the blood of the Lord unworthily is guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. (1 Cor 11:27)

What is receiving unworthily? Receiving with contempt, receiving with derision. Don’t let yourselves think that what you can see is of no account. What you can see passes away, but the invisible reality signified does not pass away, but remains.

Look, it’s received, it’s eaten, it’s consumed. Is the body of Christ consumed, is the Church of Christ consumed, are the members of Christ consumed? Perish the thought! Here they are being purified, there they will be crowned with the victor’s laurels.

So what is signified will remain eternally, although the thing that signifies it seems to pass away.

So receive the sacrament in such a way that you think about yourselves, that you retain unity in your hearts, that you always fix your hearts up above. Don’t let your hope be placed on earth, but in heaven. Let your faith be firm in God, let it be acceptable to God.

Because what you don’t see now, but believe, you are going to see there, where you will have joy, without end.”

Given c.411-415

Love, & Easter Joy, forever and ever,
Matthew

Dec 28 – Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs, “They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ”


-detail of Une Scene du Massacre des Innocents (A Scene of the Massacre of the Innocents), Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre (1714-1789), undated

[Feast of the Holy Innocents, also called Childermas, or Innocents’ Day, festival celebrated in the Christian churches in the West on December 28 and in the Eastern churches on December 29 and commemorating the massacre of the children by King Herod in his attempt to kill the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:16–18). These children were regarded by the early church as the first martyrs, but it is uncertain when the day was first kept as a saint’s day. At first it may have been celebrated with Epiphany, but by the 5th century it was kept as a separate festival. In Rome it was a day of fasting and mourning.

It was one of a series of days known as the Feast of Fools, and the last day of authority for boy bishops. Parents temporarily abdicated authority. In convents and monasteries the youngest nun and monk were allowed to act as abbess and abbot for the day. These customs, which mocked religion, were condemned by the Council of Basel (1431).

In medieval England the children were reminded of the mournfulness of the day by being whipped in bed in the morning; this custom survived into the 17th century.

The day is still observed as a feast day and, in Roman Catholic countries, as a day of merrymaking for children.]


-partially restored and enhanced St Quodvultdeus mosaic portrait (San Gennaro catacombs, Naples), Unknown artist, 5th century

-from a sermon by Saint Quodvultdeus, bishop (Sermo 2 de Symbolo: PL 40, 655) and spiritual student or “directee”, friend, and correspondent of St. Augustine, Second Reading, Office of Readings, Liturgy of the Hours for December 28th, Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs.

“A tiny child is born, Who is a great king. Wise men are led to Him from afar [Matthew 2:1]. They come to adore One Who lies in a manger and yet reigns in heaven and on earth. When they tell of One Who is born a king, Herod is disturbed [cf Matthew 2:3]. To save his kingdom he resolves to kill Him, though if he would have faith in the Child, he himself would reign in peace in this life and for ever in the life to come.

Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a king? He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil. But because you do not understand this you are disturbed and in a rage, and to destroy one child Whom you seek, you show your cruelty in the death of so many children.

You are not restrained by the love of weeping mothers or fathers mourning the deaths of their sons, nor by the cries and sobs of the children. You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart. You imagine that if you accomplish your desire you can prolong your own life, though you are seeking to kill Life Himself.

Yet your throne is threatened by the source of grace – so small, yet so great – Who is lying in the manger. He is using you, all unaware of it, to work out His own purposes freeing souls from captivity to the devil. He has taken up the sons of the enemy into the ranks of God’s adopted children.

The children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The Child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to Himself. See the kind of kingdom that is His, coming as He did in order to be this kind of king. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the savior already working salvation.

But you, Herod, do not know this and are disturbed and furious. While you vent your fury against the child, you are already paying Him homage, and do not know it.

How great a gift of grace is here! To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.

Love,
Matthew

Aug 28 – St Augustine & the heretics


-St Augustine icon, by Joseph Brown, Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY, ~2009

Rev Dwight Longenecker, Fr. Dwight Longenecker is an American who has spent most of his life living and working in England.
Fr Longenecker was brought up in an Evangelical Protestant home in Pennsylvania. After graduating from the Fundamentalist Protestant Bob Jones University with a degree in Speech and English, he went to study theology at Oxford University. He was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest and served as a curate, a school chaplain in Cambridge and a country parson on the Isle of Wight. Realizing that he and the Anglican Church were on divergent paths, in 1995 Fr. Dwight and his family were received into the Catholic Church. In December 2006 he was ordained as a Catholic priest under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy. He now serves as parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, SC.

“A heresy is never totally wrong. Its just that it is never totally right. A heresy is a half truth or a truth twisted. The reason a heresy is attractive is that it always seems to make perfect sense. A heresy is a religious truth you would make up if you were making up a religion. However, Catholic truth is stranger and subtler than that, and it takes sound teaching to expose and battle the heresy.

Heresies are persistent because they are attractive, and they are persistent because they usually console the heretic in some way. In other words, it is easier to believe the heresy than the fullness of the Catholic truth. The fullness of the Catholic truth is either difficult to believe or difficult to obey or both. The heresy always offers an easy way out–either an easier way of believing or an easier way of behaving.

The first heresy Augustine battled was Donatism. The Donatists were a schism in the North African Church that were sort of like Puritanical Protestant or Jansenists. They thought the church should be pure, and should be a church of saints, not sinners. They were unwilling to accept back those Christians who, out of weakness, compromised their faith during the persecutions and they insisted that for sacraments to be valid the priest had to be faultless.

While this sort of rigorism is understandable, it doesn’t take much to see where it leads. It leads to unbearable self righteousness. “We few, we holy few. We are the remnant, the true church, the only real Christians…” Nonsense. If you think the core error of Donatism does not exist today, look a little harder. Although the name “Donatism” is now a footnote of church history there are plenty of rigorist schisms and sects and plenty of the attitude within individuals and groups in many different churches.

The fact is, most heresies, while seeming attractive, can be countered very easily with a passage from the gospel. Donatists should read the parable of the wheat and tares. The sinners and the saints grow together and God will sort it out.

The second heresy Augustine battled was Manicheanism. This false religion was started by a Persian prophet named Mani (274 AD). He blended elements of occult Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity and came up with a complicated New Age kind of religion. His core heresy was dualism. He taught that the physical world was evil and the spiritual world was good. Manicheanism had a huge influence in the 3-4 centuries. We can see it in the harsh asceticism of the early monks for example.

Augustine’s teachings on the nature of evil countered this. He taught that the created world is good because God does not make evil. Instead evil is good twisted, distorted or destroyed.

While Manicheanism is also a footnote in church history, the idea that the physical world is bad and the spiritual world is good continues today. It is present in some New Age teachings and in Eastern religions and philosophies. It also lingers like an echo in elements of Christianity. It is tempting to look down on physical pleasures, and the right embrace of holy poverty can be twisted into a hatred or disgust or guilt about the goodness of the physical world.

The third heresy is Pelagianism. This is named for the British monk Pelagius (d. 420) His teaching was probably misunderstood, but if so, the misunderstanding was that he taught that the human will was not so tainted by original sin that it lost its power to do good. In other words, you can do good without God’s help. This led to the conclusion that you can get into heaven through good works.

Augustine corrected this heresy with his teachings on grace. It is God’s grace, continually working in and through creation and in and through our own lives that empowers our faith, empowers our good works and empowers the supernatural transformation of our lives.

These three heresies do us the service of bringing to light the true Catholic teaching. The created world is beautiful, good and true. If this is true, then we also, created in God’s image are good. However, that goodness is wounded by original sin. While we don’t have to be perfect at once, that is our destiny, our calling and the hard adventure on which we must embark. God’s good grace gives us the power to do this. Without his grace we are paralyzed by sin and locked in darkness. With his grace we can be free.”

Love, & His grace,
Matthew

Aug 28 – “To praise You is the desire of man…”, Augustine’s ‘Confessions’


-Joos van Wassenhove, 1474, St Augustine, oil on wood, 119 x 62 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris

For my ‘Wisdom of the Saints, Part I of II” class through the Avila Institute, I had to read Augustine’s Confessions; and in a previous life, write an autobiography for the Dominicans and Jesuits. You’ll see.


-by Br Philip Nolan, OP

““Know thyself,” proclaimed the oracle at Delphi.

St Catherine of Siena echoed this teaching with her emphasis on the importance of the “cell of self-knowledge” to the spiritual life. But how can I know myself? This question became especially pertinent when I sat down to write the autobiography required for my application to the Dominican Order. “Know thyself” became “write an accurate autobiography of your life”—a daunting task.

Autobiography as a spiritual exercise takes its highest form in the writings of the saint we celebrate today, St. Augustine. His Confessions reveals an extremely self-reflective person attempting to wrestle with and understand his past decisions and current disposition. But before recounting tales from his own infancy, early education, and on and on until the moment of writing, St. Augustine first begins by declaring that his aim is to praise God—“To praise you is the desire of man.” It seems counterintuitive. In an attempt to praise God, he writes his own life story.

But this approach makes a certain sense. Because lives overlap, we can talk about others and ourselves in the same breath. A best man will tell of experiences he has shared with the groom in order to explain what is admirable and praiseworthy about his friend. And we can tell the story of God’s work in our lives in a similar way. We can recount moments in which we became particularly aware of God’s goodness and providential care. We can name the gifts and talents God has given us and the crosses he has allowed us in order that we may draw closer to him. This is part of what St. Augustine does in the Confessions. Praying, “What are you to me?” he seeks to remember and recount those times when he grew in knowledge of God.

But St. Augustine does not stop there. He continues, “What am I to You that You command me to love You?” He realizes that while we can tell our side of the story—how we became aware of God—the fullest explanation of our lives is God’s side of the story. He acknowledges to God, “I would have no being if I were not in You,” and asks Him, “Lord God, judge of my conscience, is my memory correct?” He asks God, “Have mercy so that I can find words.”

Autobiography for St. Augustine is thus neither self-definition nor simply a timeline. He only undertakes to tell the story of his life because it is a story that he has been given to tell—as St. John puts it, “what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you now” (1 Jn 1:3). God is the author of his life. God first thought of him, brought him to life, fleshed him out and developed his character, and then, in a step beyond the abilities of even the best human author, invited him to share in the understanding and freedom of the divine. With this new knowledge of his place in the world, St. Augustine writes his autobiography as an act of praise to the One Who gave him this life to live.

For Christians, the path to self-knowledge and the path to knowledge of God blur together. Sitting down to write a journal entry or a short autobiography can train our eyes to see more as God sees and to know more as God knows. With St. Augustine we pray, “May I know You, Who know me. May I know as I also am known.”

Love,
Matthew

Why faith AND reason? Faith is reasonable? St Augustine says, “Yes!”

Faith-Reason-Sign

Olson_Carl
-by Carl Olson, Carl grew up in a Fundamentalist Protestant home and attended Briercrest Bible College, an Evangelical school in Saskatchewan, Canada. He and his wife, Heather, were married in 1994 and entered the Catholic Church together in 1997. Their conversion story appears in the book, Surprised By Truth 3 (Sophia Institute Press, 2002).

“Pope Benedict XVI dramatically underscored the importance of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) recently. In a series of general audiences dedicated to the Church fathers, Benedict devoted one or two audiences to luminaries such as St. Justin Martyr, St. Basil, and St. Jerome, while dedicating five to Augustine.

One of the greatest theologians and Doctors of the Church, Augustine’s influence on Pope Benedict is manifest. “When I read Saint Augustine’s writings,” the Holy Father stated in the second of those five audiences (January 16, 2008), “I do not get the impression that he is a man who died more or less 1,600 years ago; I feel he is like a man of today: a friend, a contemporary who speaks to me, who speaks to us with his fresh and timely faith.”

The relationship between faith and reason has a significant place in Augustine’s vast corpus. It has been discussed often by Benedict, who identifies it as a central concern for our time and presents Augustine as a guide to apprehending and appreciating more deeply the nature of the relationship. Augustine’s “entire intellectual and spiritual development,” Benedict stated in his third audience on the African Doctor (January 30, 2008), “is also a valid model today in the relationship between faith and reason, a subject not only for believers but for every person who seeks the truth, a central theme for the balance and destiny of all men.”

This is a key issue and theme in Augustine’s Confessions, his profound and influential account of his search for meaning and conversion to Christianity. Augustine testifies to how reason puts man on the road toward God and how it is faith that informs and elevates reason, taking it beyond its natural limitations while never being tyrannical or confining in any way. He summarized this seemingly paradoxical fact in the famous dictum, “I believe, in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe” (Sermo 43:9).

Falsehoods about Faith

There are, as we all know, many distorted and shallow concepts of faith, reason, and the differences between the two. For self-described “brights” and other skeptics, reason is objective, scientific, and verifiable, while faith is subjective, personal, and irrational, even bordering on mania or madness. But if we believe that reason is indeed reasonable, it should be admitted this is a belief in itself, and thus requires some sort of faith. There is a certain step of faith required in putting all of one’s intellectual weight on the pedestal of reason. “Secularism,” posits philosopher Edward Feser in The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism“…can never truly rest on reason, but only “faith,” as secularists themselves understand that term (or rather misunderstand it, as we shall see): an unshakeable commitment grounded not in reason but rather in sheer willfulness, a deeply ingrained desire to want things to be a certain way regardless of whether the evidence shows they are that way.” (6)

For many people today the source of reason and object of faith is their own intellectual power. To look outside, or beyond, themselves for a greater source and object of faith is often dismissed as “irrational” or “superstitious.” As the Confessions readily document, Augustine had walked with sheer willfulness (to borrow Feser’s excellent descriptive) down this dark intellectual alleyway in his own life and found it to be a dead end. He discovered that belief is only as worthwhile as its object and as strong as its source. For Augustine—a man who had pursued philosophical arguments with intense fervor—both the object and source of faith is God.

“Belief, in fact” the Thomistic philosopher Etienne Gilson remarked inThe Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine, “is simply thought accompanied by assent” (27). There is not and cannot be tension or conflict between reason and faith; they both flow from the same divine source. Reason should and must, therefore, play a central role in a man’s beliefs about ultimate things. In fact, it is by reason that we come to know and understand what faith and belief are. Reason is the vehicle, which, if driven correctly, takes us to the door of faith. As Augustine observed:  “My greatest certainty was that “the invisible things of Thine from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even Thy eternal power and Godhead.” For when I inquired how it was that I could appreciate the beauty of bodies, both celestial and terrestrial; and what it was that supported me in making correct judgments about things mutable; and when I concluded, “This ought to be thus; this ought not”—then when I inquired how it was that I could make such judgments (since I did, in fact, make them), I realized that I had found the unchangeable and true eternity of Truth above my changeable mind.” (Confessions 7:17)

Getting through the door/portal of faith, porta fidei

However, while reason brings us to the threshold of faith, it seems, at least, implausible that ALL of Creation is a random incident/accident, and the fact that we are ignorant of how it comes to be is insufficient and irrational reasoning to deny the existence of the Divine, whereas accepting the proposal of the existence of the Divine seems rational, and refusal to do so due to ignorance, or what “fits” under a microscope, or can be understood by finite human reason —and even informs us that faith is a coherent and logical option—it cannot take us through the door. Part of the problem is that reason has been wounded by the Fall and dimmed by the effects of sin – human limitation, if you prefer. Reason is, to some degree or another, distorted, limited, and hindered; it is often pulled off the road by our whims, emotions, and passions.

But this is not why natural reason, ultimately, cannot open the door to faith. It is because faith is a gift from the Creator, Who is Himself inscrutable. In Augustine’s intense quest for God he asked: Can God be understood and known by reason alone? The answer is a clear, “No.” “If you understood Him,” Augustine declares, “it would not be God” (Sermo52:6, Sermo 117:3). The insufficiency of reason in the face of God and true doctrine is also addressed in the Confessions. Writing of an immature Christian who was ill-informed about doctrine, the bishop of Hippo noted:  “When I hear of a Christian brother, ignorant of these things, or in error concerning them, I can tolerate his uninformed opinion; and I do not see that any lack of knowledge as to the form or nature of this material creation can do him much harm, as long as he does not hold a belief in anything which is unworthy of Thee, O Lord, the Creator of all. But if he thinks that his secular knowledge pertains to the essence of the doctrine of piety, or ventures to assert dogmatic opinions in matters in which he is ignorant—there lies the injury.” (Confessions 5:5)

Augustine’s high view of reason rested on his belief that God is the Author of all truth and reason. The Incarnate God-man, the second Person of the Trinity, appeals to man’s reason and invites him to seek more deeply, to reflect more thoroughly, and to thirst more intensely for the “eternal Truth”:

“Why is this, I ask of thee, O Lord my God? I see it after a fashion, but I do not know how to express it, unless I say that everything that begins to be and then ceases to be begins and ceases when it is known in Thy eternal reason that it ought to begin or cease—in Thy eternal reason where nothing begins or ceases. And this is Thy Word, which is also “the Beginning,” because it also speaks to us. Thus, in the Gospel, He spoke through the flesh; and this sounded in the outward ears of men so that it might be believed and sought for within, and so that it might be found in the eternal Truth, in which the good and only Master teacheth all his disciples. There, O Lord, I hear Thy voice, the voice of One speaking to me, since He Who teacheth us speaketh to us. (Confessions11:8)

Another example of Augustine’s high regard for reason and for its central place in his theological convictions is found in his experience with the teachings of Mani. As Augustine learned about the Manichaean view of the physical world, he became increasingly exasperated with its lack of logic and irrational nature. The breaking point came when he was ordered to believe teachings about the heavenly bodies that were in clear contradiction to logic and mathematics: “But still I was ordered to believe, even where the ideas did not correspond with—even when they contradicted—the rational theories established by mathematics and my own eyes, but were very different” (Confessions 5:3). And so Augustine left Manichaeanism in search of a reasonable, intellectually cogent faith.

Know the Limits

Reason, based in man’s finitude, cannot comprehend the infinite mysteries of faith, even while pointing towards them, however indistinctly. For Augustine this was especially true when it came to understanding Scripture. Early in his life, reading the Bible had frustrated and irritated him; later, graced with the eyes of faith, he was able to comprehend and embrace its riches:  “Thus, since we are too weak by unaided reason to find out truth, and since, because of this, we need the authority of the holy writings, I had now begun to believe that thou wouldst not, under any circumstances, have given such eminent authority to those Scriptures throughout all lands if it had not been that through them thy will may be believed in and that thou might be sought. For, as to those passages in the Scripture which had heretofore appeared incongruous and offensive to me, now that I had heard several of them expounded reasonably, I could see that they were to be resolved by the mysteries of spiritual interpretation. The authority of Scripture seemed to me all the more revered and worthy of devout belief because, although it was visible for all to read, it reserved the full majesty of its secret wisdom within its spiritual profundity.” (Confessions 6:5)

The contrast between reading Scripture before and after faith is one Augustine returned to often, for it demonstrated how reason, for all of its goodness and worth, can only comprehend a certain circumscribed amount. While reason is a wonderful and even powerful tool, it is a natural tool providing limited results.

Man, the rational animal, is meant for divine communion, and therefore requires an infusion of divine life and aptitude. Grace, the divine life of God, fills man and gifts him with faith, hope, and love. Faith, then, is first and foremost a gift from God. It is not a natural virtue, but a theological virtue. Its goal is theosis —that is, participation in the divine nature (see CCC 460; 2 Pt 1:4). The Christian, reborn as a divinized being, lives by faith and not by sight, a phrase from St. Paul that Augustine repeated: “But even so, we still live by faith and not by sight, for we are saved by hope; but hope that is seen is not hope” (Confessions 13:13).

Recognize Rightful Authority

Humble receptivity to faith requires recognizing true and rightful authority. “For, just as among the authorities in human society, the greater authority is obeyed before the lesser, so also must God be above all” (Confessions 3:8). What Augustine could not find in Mani, he discovered in the person of Jesus Christ, His Church, and the Church’s teachings. All three are in evidence in the opening chords of theConfessions:

But “how shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? Or how shall they believe without a preacher?” Now, “they shall praise the Lord who seek Him,” for “those who seek shall find Him,” and, finding Him, shall praise Him. I will seek Thee, O Lord, and call upon Thee. I call upon Thee, O Lord, in my faith which Thou hast given me, which Thou hast inspired in me through the humanity of Thy Son, and through the ministry of Thy preacher. (1:1)

For Augustine, there is no conflict between Christ, His Body, and His Word. Christ, through His Body, demonstrates the truthfulness of His Word, as Augustine readily admitted: “But I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me” (Contra epistolam Manichaei 5:6; see also Confessions 7:7). Holy Scripture, the Word of God put to paper by men inspired by the Holy Spirit, possesses a certitude and authority coming directly from its divine Author and protected by the Church:

Now whom but Thee, our God, didst make for us that firmament of the authority of Thy divine Scripture to be over us? For “the heaven shall be folded up like a scroll”; but now it is stretched over us like a skin. Thy divine Scripture is of more sublime authority now that those mortal men through whom Thou didst dispense it to us have departed this life. (Confessions13:15)

Humility and Harmony

“The harmony between faith and reason,” wrote Benedict XVI in his third audience on Augustine, “means above all that God is not remote; He is not far from our reason and life; He is close to every human being, close to our hearts and to our reason, if we truly set out on the journey.” Augustine’s life is a dramatic and inspiring witness to this tremendous truth, and it is why his Confessions continue to challenge and move readers today, 16 centuries after being written.

The young Augustine pursued reason, prestige, and pleasure with tremendous energy and refined focus, but could not find peace or satisfaction. It was when he followed reason to the door of faith, humbled himself before God, and gave himself over to Christ that he found Whom he was made by and for. “In its essence,” Gilson wrote, “Augustinian faith is both an adherence of the mind to supernatural truth and a humble surrender of the whole man to the grace of Christ” (The Christian Philosophy 31).

The Church Teaches

“Believing is possible only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit. But it is no less true that believing is an authentically human act. Trusting in God and cleaving to the truths He has revealed is contrary neither to human freedom nor to human reason.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church 154

faith&reason

Love, Faith, and Hope,
Matthew

“Confessions” -St Augustine

restless_heart

Sinner, never despair.  Saint, never despair of the sinner.  His mercy is AWESOME!!!!  Is 55:8.  Just ask Augustine.

I am in my third course towards my Masters in Unitive (Spiritual) Theology through the Avila Institute.  Beyond the general phylum of Theology, the discipline bifurcates into Speculative and Unitive.  Speculative covers the WWJD? type of questions, the “what-ifs” of theology.  Unitive covers the more intimate, mystical aspects of theology of the soul aspiring and coming into union with the Divine.  Unitive has the reputation of being, by far, the more interesting of the couple, if you’re into that kind of thing.  I am.  Studying the great souls of the Catholic tradition and their writings, the written word abides, rocks.  Nobody ever said it would be easy, though.

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“Confessions” written by St Augustine in the very late 4th century (397-400 AD) is a classic of Catholic spiritual writing.  It is a slog, though.  Depending on the translation you choose, Thees and Thous abound!  My most tedious and time consuming reading assignment, so far.  Augustine was a professional in and teacher of rhetoric, a big deal in the ancient world.  So, to say he was long-winded would be kind.  His complex sentence structure and detailed recounting tax the reader, they do.  Not all truth is contained in easy reads.  The majority of texts from the ancient world still in existence remain untranslated.  Deo gratias for audio books, particularly in one’s “mature” years, when the powers of concentration, thought, comprehension and eyesight wane, especially for amateur catechists and hagiographers, like me.  🙂

Augustine_Confessiones

Augustine recounts his life and the progression of thinking and grace therein.  I won’t boor you with the narrative.  There are plenty of resources for that.  However, his maturation in sexual matters is especially poignant and terribly, terribly, tragically relevant, I believe, for younger people, burning in the freshness and vitality of life with desire, AND camera phones, the work of the devil, if there ever was any!!!  I thank God every day there was no such thing in the eighties, and for photo processing, and photo technicians who would/do call the cops, sure deterrents.  Not so today.   Not so.  Mara, listen to daddy!!!!  Dear God, please!!!!  Custodia occulorum!!!!

“Oh! how many are lost by indulging their sight!St. Alphonsus de Liguori

Mk 9:47-48, Lk 11:34-36

Also a student of JPII’s theology of the body, which is beautiful, I have struggled in how to translate this non-sound bite wisdom into 21st century sound bites.  Here is my best attempt.  It makes sense.  It is logical, and beautiful, if we would have ears to hear, hearts to listen. The poison of sin fights violently against us and this thinking.  On the internet, everything is forever, eternal virtual life or living hell, depending on content of our choosing.

  • We did not create ourselves.
  • We were created.
  • We owe our Creator the debt of our being.
  • Part of the debt of our being is proper use of creation, including our bodies.
  • The proper use of our bodies is love for one other who truly loves us in return. A union which is faithful, fruitful, and free, i.e. marriage.
  • The Natural Law in philosophy indicates that by nature, by inspection, by reason, our love must be devoted to our complement, i.e. male & female.
  • To ignore the Natural Law is to ignore God and Him communicating through His creation.  It is sin, and an offense against God Who created us, to Whom we owe our debt of gratitude.  To Whom we must account for our use of His gift of life, and will.
  • The lover always wills the good of the beloved. This can never be manifested in the abuse of self or use/abuse of others.  This is the definition of love.  Use is the exact opposite, the negative, of love.  We use things.  We love people.  We must never turn people into things, even with their ignorant, willful permission.  We are all children of God; everyone, everyone.  Especially when that is most difficult to see in each of us.

Rapidly we prepare this year for Ash Wednesday, and to be told once more, “Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.  Repent, and believe in the Gospel!”

“Christian, remember your dignity, and the price which was paid to purchase your salvation!” -cf Pope St Leo the GreatSermo 22 in nat. Dom., 3:PL 54,192C.

“Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember Who is your head and of Whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.” -CCC 1691, St. Leo the Great, Sermo 22 in nat. Dom., 3:PL 54,192C.

Some of my favorites, though…

“…but I was intent on material things, but there found I no resting-place, nor did they so receive me, that I could say, “It is enough,” “it is well”:…”1

“…through my own swelling was I separated from Thee; yea, my pride-swollen face closed up mine eyes…by inward goads didst Thou rouse me, that I should be ill at ease, until Thou wert manifested to my inward sight. Thus, by the secret hand of Thy medicining was my swelling abated, and the troubled and bedimmed eyesight of my mind, by the smarting annointings of healthful sorrows, was from day to day healed.”2

“…as if I heard this Thy voice from on high: “I am the food of grown men and women…”,3

Love, His joy and mercy,
Matthew

1 Augustine, Saint (2014-09-20). Confessions (Illustrated) (Kindle Locations 1732-1733). . Kindle Edition.

2 Augustine, Saint (2014-09-20). Confessions (Illustrated) (Kindle Locations 1739, 1742-1744). . Kindle Edition.

3 Augustine, Saint (2014-09-20). Confessions (Illustrated) (Kindle Location 1788). . Kindle Edition.

“His Mercy anticipates us.” -St Augustine

mercy-grace

theresa_noble_fsp
an excerpt from an article by Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, (Daughters of St Paul) a former atheist who, thanks to the grace of God, has returned to the faith she was raised in and now tries to help others bring their loved ones back to the faith. A few years after returning to the Church, she heard God calling her, so she left her job in Silicon Valley to join the Daughters of St. Paul. She now lives in Miami, where she prays, evangelizes, bakes bread, and blogs.

“Mercy is dependent on justice and the concept of sin because when God shows us mercy, it is so He can forgive our sins.

So what meaning does mercy have in a world that does not believe in sin?

I used to not believe in sin. I was an atheist who had a moment of instantaneous conversion back to belief in God. However, my journey back to the Church was not so immediate. It was a slow and gradual process (Ed. gradualism, anyone?). It was a process in which God and other Christians showed me love, patience and acceptance as I stumbled along. Finally, I began to intellectually assent to the teaching authority of the Church, including sin as defined by the Church.

But in the early months of my conversion, my repentance and my sins were not God’s focus. The focus was how much God loved me. I’ll never forget the feeling of those first months. I walked around as if cradled in the hand of the Creator, simply basking in His loving gaze.

And I continued sinning. Seriously.

But I now knew a God Who loved me. And His merciful love anticipated my repentance. He did not draw back in disgust at seeing my lack of repentance. He did not smite me as I stood for continuing in my former way of life. He entered my soul and embraced me precisely where it was darkest. In the areas where I was dead, Jesus died with me.

Eventually, through my relationship with God, I felt an invitation to return to the Church. I was baffled and disgusted. I loved God, but I was not interested in returning to the Church. I wanted to love God on my own terms. But I knew God would only lead me to a place where he could love me more fully.

So, in obedience to the God I loved, I began to attend Mass more regularly.

One day I will never forget, I was getting ready for work and felt a sudden illumination of my conscience. It was as if I could finally see all my sins as God sees them, all I had done, all I was doing and all I would continue to do as a sinful human being. I collapsed, sobbing on the floor (Ed. the gift of tears).

This was a moment of mercy.

But God’s mercy did not begin in that moment. God began showing me mercy much earlier on; his mercy anticipated my repentance. It was the anticipatory, non-contingent nature of this mercy that led me to repent. God loved me in the midst of my darkness because he knew that it was only his blazing love that could save me.

This is how God loves us. He extends his mercy to us throughout our lives, up until the last breath we take. His mercy anticipates our cooperation. His mercy anticipates our repentance. His mercy anticipates our return to Him.

God is outside of time so His mercy on human beings with free will is not contingent on what we do. He pours it out on us always because it is part of His nature to be merciful.

Every day. Every hour. Every minute.

If our hearts are unrepentant, we cannot receive the fullness of God’s salvific graces, but that does not mean His merciful love goes to waste. Rather, if we are even slightly cooperative, it can slowly soften our hearts and help us see truth.

God bears with our sins in order that we may repent: “But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook sins for the sake of repentance” (Wisdom 11: 23).

What does this reality mean in this Year of Mercy?

It means we are called to show others God’s mercy in this same way. We are called to show others a mercy that does not begin with pointing out another person’s sin. (This is particularly true if another person does not even believe in the concept of sin.)

Mercy begins with the person, where he or she is, and leads that person back to God. Mercy puts the other person’s spiritual well-being first and creates space for the gradual nature of conversion. Mercy respects that slamming the Ten Commandments or the Catechism in someone’s face is often going to be useless if the other person does not first accept God’s love, or the basic fact of His existence.

Mercy anticipates judgment and pointing out sin with love.

A merciful anticipatory love does not dismiss sin as unimportant. Mercy does not skip over sin and pretend that all is well.

As St. Augustine wrote: “His mercy anticipates us. He anticipates us, however, that we may be healed.”

But mercy does not prioritize sin.

Mercy prioritizes God’s healing love, so that we may come to understand our sin, repent of it and be healed.

Thomas Aquinas refers to God’s mercy as that which “dispels misery.” We are called to accompany others on this journey in which God wants to dispel misery. It is a journey that sometimes requires our patience as we walk with others who do not even recognize their sin as misery.

But this is the same journey we walk with our patient, merciful God who surrounds us with his mercy now, before we are perfect, so that we can be perfected in his merciful love.”

Love, and rejoicing His mercy anticipates me!!!
Matthew