Tag Archives: Saint Augustine

29 August: Augustine on Love II.

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Continuing Saint Augustine’s sermon on 1John 4:4-12. The image of the ass running away from the safety offered by its rider bears further reflection.

May that virtue which ought never to depart from the heart, never depart from the tongue.

Jesus had no need to come except charity: and the charity we are commending is that which the Lord Himself commends in the Gospel: Greater love than this can no man have, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13. How was it possible for the Son of God to lay down His life for us without putting on flesh in which He might die? Whosoever therefore violates charity, let him say what he will with his tongue, his life denies that Christ has come in the flesh; and this is an antichrist, wherever he may be, wherever he have come in. But the Apostle says, you have overcome him. And whereby have they overcome? Because greater is He that is in you, than he that is in this world.

Every man now, at hearing this saying, You have overcome, lifts up the head, lifts up the neck, wishes himself to be praised. Do not extol yourself; see who it is that in you has overcome. Why have you overcome? Because greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world. Be humble, bear your Lord; be the beast for Him to sit on. Good is it for you that He should rule, and He guide. For if you have not Him to sit on you, you may lift up the neck, may strike out the heels: but woe to you without a ruler, for this liberty sends you among the wild beasts to be devoured!

For more reflections on a donkey, not directly relevant to this post, see here:  and see tomorrow’s post.

 

 

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28 August: Saint Augustine on Love I.

Saint_Augustine_and_Saint_Monica

Yesterday we celebrated the mother; today the son, Saint Augustine of Hippo. Here is the opening of his sermon on love, his text being 1John 4:4-12.

Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome [the false spirits]: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world. They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them. We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error. Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.

To all the faithful seeking their own country, this world is as the desert was to the people of Israel. They wandered, seeking their own country: but with God for their guide they could not wander astray. Their way was God’s bidding. For where they went about during forty years, the journey itself is made up of a very few stations, and is known to all. They were delayed because they were in training, not because they were forsaken. By temporal work we are exercised, and by the temptations of this present life we are trained.

And so, if you would not die of thirst in this wilderness, drink charity. It is the fountain which God has been pleased to place here lest we faint on the way: and we shall more abundantly drink thereof, when we have come to our own land.

Now to speak of the words of the lesson, what other thing heard ye but concerning charity? For we have made an agreement with our God in prayer that if we would that He should forgive us our sins, we also should forgive the sins which may have been committed against us. [Matthew 6:12.] Now that which forgives is none other than charity. Take away charity from the heart and hatred possesses it, it knows not how to forgive. Let charity be there, and she fearlessly forgives, not being hindered.

As for this whole epistle of Saint John: see whether it commends anything else than this one thing, charity. Nor need we fear lest by much speaking thereof it might come to be hateful. For what is there to love, if charity becomes hateful? It is by charity that other things come to be rightly loved; then how must itself be loved!

 

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27 August: Saint Monica by Francis Thompson

 

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At the Cross thy station keeping

With the mournful mother weeping,

Thou, unto the sinless Son,

Weepest for thy sinful one.

Blood and water from His side

Gush; in thee the streams divide:

From thine eyes the one doth start,

But the other from thy heart.

Mary, for thy sinner, see,

To her Sinless mourns with thee:

Could that Son the son not heed,

For whom two such mothers plead?

So thy child had baptism twice,

And the whitest from thine eyes.

The floods lift up, lift up their voice,

With a many-watered noise!

Down the centuries fall those sweet

Sobbing waters to our feet,

And our laden air still keeps

Murmur of a Saint that weeps.

Teach us but, to grace our prayers,

Such divinity of tears,—

Earth should be lustrate again

With contrition of that rain:

Till celestial floods o’er rise

The high tops of Paradise.

  • Lustrate – to cleanse ritually.

Selected Poems of Francis Thompson, Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1908; p127.

FT invite us to savour the likenesses and contrasts between Mary and Monica, the mother of Augustine, whose feast is tomorrow. Each woman mourns her son: Mary for Jesus dead, Monica for Augustine in the death of sin. Monica’s tears were like a second baptism for her son, Augustine, and since they led to his conversion, FT calls them the whitest baptism – a white garment is given to a newly baptised Christian to signify new life.

Monica’s tears should inspire our own – tears for our own sins, tears of contrition that may float our own ark since they are tears of grace, divine tears indeed that will cleanse our hearts and our world of sin.

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November 27. What is Theology saying, XLII: the Ten Commandments – there are only two commandments

We have Gospel accounts of what Jesus gave. Everything is summed up by loving God with all your heart and mind, and your neighbour as God loves you. Christian morality consists of the love of God and the recognition of each other as children of the same Father. Augustine said teach the Ten Commandments, and then added – there are only two commandments! He evidently could not just teach the last piece of advice on its own, without first giving instruction on the Ten Commandments. So, is there any difference between Jewish and Christian moral teaching? Some have said the Jews follow the letter, Christians follow the spirit. Nothing could be more false; there is no difference of this kind between the two. Jesus did not teach a moral theology. He accepted the Jewish Law – he obeyed everything, including ritual laws, unless there was conflict with what the Father was asking of him in his vocation.

He tried to offer the insight by which living according to God’s law is simple – to be worried about regulations rather than whole-hearted service was far from the will of God. Jesus’ basic moral demands: repentance, faith and discipleship. There is no New Testament code of morality; Christian ethic is open to the future, to new demands in new situations.

We need codes of behaviour as support and guidelines, but we also need to be alert to the invitation of God hidden in everyday circumstances. No code can predict the possibility of Grace and salvation, the opportunities for loving response to anyone at any time. There is only one occasion when Jesus says there is a New Commandment – that we love one another as he loves us.

AMcC

Veronica Geurin lived and died for the truth, not to obey regulations.

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August 28: Cultural Centre bears witness to the “universality” of the Church

Here to mark the feast of Saint Augustine is a story from his native land of Algeria, where the Missionaries of Africa have been present for more than 100 years. Their society is 150 years old this year. 

Precious volumes and photographs testifying to the history of the Christian presence, but also courses in English and French and IT: all this is found at the Cultural Centre of the White Fathers (Missionaries of Africa) in Ouargla, a city in eastern Algeria,  at the service of the local, mainly Muslim, community, in this city of the desert.

The Cultural Centre is rooted in history. In 1875 the first White Father missionaries were sent here to find only a French military garrison and a handful of Berber hovels. Besides providing religious assistance for the soldiers, the White Fathers started to learn the local languages. At the same time they collected ancient books, scrolls and took photographs.

Over the years the missionaries catalogued the growing heritage which becomes a memory for the region and for the whole of Algeria. The photographs in particular bear witness to the different stages of a Christian presence which is ever more closely linked with the local population. “From the early years of colonisation down to our day – says Fr. Aldo Giannasi, a White Father missionary who lived and served in Ouargla – the Algerians viewed the Church as a continuation of the French political and cultural invasion. Today a change is taking place: the majority of priests and other church workers are from Black Africa, which clearly shows that the Church is not connected with France or with the West, or the powerful people of the world. She is Catholic, that is universal, and at the service of all”.

Ouargla too has changed. The military base is now an important Oil hub. The small village has become a city. The Cultural Centre still stands in the qasbah. As the years passed the structure deteriorated. The windows and doors were old and the desert sand was beginning to penetrate the rooms. Shelves, tables, chairs were old and needed to be replaced. The White Fathers thought of moving to the outskirts, but decided to stay in the original place and embark on its refurbishing.

Today the Centre hosts boys and girls, mostly Muslims, who study and use the library. Here they find a patrimony of books: history, geography, sociology, ethnology, religion and Christian spirituality. However the Centre has also become a focal point for the rest of the city because students find help with research and local people take courses in French, English, IT. “Our structure – concludes Fr Giannasi – bears witness to an active presence of Catholics at the service of Algeria, committed to a cultural mission which is a fruit-bearing seed of the Gospel” (Fides 4/4/2018).

The Algerian stamps show St Augustine and a Christian inscription from his time.

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20 July, What is Theology Saying? XX: The Eucharist 7; Presence for our presence

The Paschal Mystery is the New Covenant – not that the Old has gone [there is only one covenant]. New means greater depth of intimacy with universal outreach. Jesus takes the Law and the Prophets – Israel’s heritage – and through this loves his people into existence. By the end of his short life they were still in receiving mode, not yet deepening into giving what was received and so, as Scripture says, he loved them to the end; handing over his Spirit which has lived and a human existence to the Father to give to all willing to receive – Pentecost.

To sustain and feed them along this new way he gives himself as the bread of life; not like the feeding of the 5,000. Being with him at the Last Supper, eating the bread he broke, accepting his death is to continue his way; to come together to break bread and become sustaining food for others. The Covenant Community was set up at that supper table. This is why there is much more involved in celebrating the Eucharist than a memorial experience; it is to accept his presence through his death, to become body given and blood poured out for others – service.

The Eucharist is the mystery of God’s graciousness and our salvation. Transubstantiation is a word for something we cannot understand, something beyond the competence of human language; to claim to capture it is to nullify the challenge to attune the way we live so as to address the cry of the poor. Augustine [who used the word Transubstantiation] says we are present not to satisfy personal needs [or commandments] but to be attentive and proactive to the cry of the poor. We cannot appreciate Transubstantiation if we by-pass the challenge for personal change.

The Eucharist is the real presence, not just a memorial ritual. It is Presence there for our presence, so that what is in him can be in us. Jesus does not stand-in for us, but invites us to get involved. We cannot receive the Eucharist in passive ways – the fruit of the Eucharist is one community allowing God’s love to be felt in our world.

AMcC

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8 March, Human Will IV: The Will and Virtue

 

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In the Church’s anthropology, our will is one.  We have ‘free will.’  Saint Irenaeus, in the third century, wrote that the human person is ‘master over his acts’ precisely because of his free will.  We are therefore responsible for our decisions and actions.  Those decisions and actions of which we are ashamed cannot be panned off on some other sort of ‘will’ present within us.

At the same time, we know that our will’s capacity to respond to the promptings of our conscience is not always immediate or consistent.  Although Augustine thought our emotions and our will can and should work as one, the fact is that sometimes the will is under the sway of our emotions.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this important observation:

Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts [no. 1734]. 

Let us pause over this sentence and savour it a bit.  It means that if we want our will to function properly with ‘mastery’ over our acts, it needs some help.  First, as the Catechism indicates, help is needed on the level of virtue.  The Church defines virtue as ‘an habitual and firm disposition to do the good.  Virtue allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself’ [Catechism, no. 1803].[1]

What is important to note here is the encouraging news that we can grow in virtue.  Each time we do something truly good, the will is strengthened by that action, and we grow in our ability to continue to do good.  We grow not only in terms of the ease with which we act in a good way, but we grow in our understanding of what we are doing and why: we grow in spiritual depth.  We thereby make real progress in virtue, and strengthen the power of our will.

The next idea in the sentence we are considering is that our will’s mastery is strengthened by our progress in ‘knowledge of the good.’  Perhaps you are someone who has been a Christian all your life, or perhaps you are someone who is just discovering God, Jesus, Christianity.  But, wherever we may be on the Christian timeline, we all need to grow in our ‘knowledge of the good.’

We do not live in a society that accepts that ‘the good’ exists in a way that makes requirements on all people.  Much of what Christianity declares to be truly good in an unchanging and universal sense, our society simply writes off as mere opinion – not binding on anyone except those who hold such opinions.  This can be confusing, both for long-term Christians, and new Christians.  To really know ‘the good’, it is necessary to turn to the teaching of the Church, to pray for understanding, and to be courageous enough to reject some counterfeit notions of goodness that are the currency of our culture.  The Church has always been counter-cultural and Christians must simply expect that the ethical and moral teachings of the Church will be a challenge to many of our society’s popular notions of morality.   As we gradually come to understand what is truly good, and live in accordance with our knowledge, our will is strengthened, and its mastery over our acts is enhanced.  We become more alive, more joyful, on a very deep level.

And lastly, our phrase from the Catechism uses the word ‘ascesis.’  What is that?  Perhaps we can call it the ability to set limits on our pleasures.  Living for mere pleasure can quickly degenerate into addiction.  And it is well known that addiction’s pleasures operate by the law of diminishing returns.  This is not to suggest that a Christian should have no pleasure, but that pleasure is the by-product of joy, and joy comes when our will, guided by our reason and informed by faith, exercises mastery over our acts.  Perhaps it is easiest to understand ascesis as self-discipline that functions for the purpose of enabling us to be free of dependences in order to live fully for God.  St. Augustine’s prayer, published at the beginning of these posts, affirms God helps us on the level of our will.  He is the strength of the will that serves him.

 

[1] This is not the place to give a detailed treatment of all the virtues, but those wishing to understand more about this subject may refer to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1804 – 1829.

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7 March, Human Will III: The Will and the Emotions.

 

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Let’s explore St. Augustine’s ideas a bit more.  We are trying to understand the will.  In the late fourth and early fifth century, when Augustine lived, the issue at stake with regard to the understanding of the human person would have been a question about the locus of the true self.  Is the true self in the mind, the intellect, the soul’s rational power?  At that time, the answer to this question would probably have been yes.  The self that knows, believes, speculates, reasons would have been considered the self’s core.  But, we have Augustine to thank for shifting this emphasis.  With Augustine, it becomes the morally responsible ‘I’, who loves, fears, struggles and chooses – in other words, the will – that is the centre of the personality and the true self.*  This means that for Augustine, the emotional life is an aspect of the will.

The emotions, however, must be rightly ordered, and not running away with us, helter-skelter, all over the place.  What do I mean?  Perhaps a two-year-old is the best example of emotions that run all over the place.  Whatever the two-year-old wants is what she intends to get, even if it means grabbing a toy from her playmate one minute, with a fierce, ‘Mine!  Gimme!’, and throwing it down the next moment in disgust, ‘Don’t want it!’ and proceeding to an operatic-style tantrum the next moment, and so on.  Although adults usually acquire social skills that cover such emotional chaos, we can often become aware that our emotional life has only become more sophisticated with time, but its two-year-old tendencies are still alive and well within us.

For Augustine, the good news is that the will and the emotions can work not in opposition to each other, but as one.  But there is a requirement here: St. Augustine saw that the will is not able to be healthy, choose rightly or be strong without God.  On the first day of these postings I quoted a prayer attributed to St. Augustine.  In this prayer, he testifies that God is the strength of our will, and the unifier of our emotional life.  If our will is able to be strong, if our emotional life is able to be rightly ordered, it is because we have allowed God into our life – indeed, into our very soul.

*These ideas are explored in a beautiful article by Bonnie Kent, ‘Augustine’s Ethics’, in The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, edited by Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

SJC

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6 March:Human Will II: The Will and the True Self

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 We are trying to understand what our will is, and are enlisting the help of St. Augustine.  Yesterday we were looking at St. Augustine’s notion of the ‘divided’ will.  In Confessions he admits that he was enamoured of this idea for a while, because in allowing himself the emotional “leeway” which the idea of a divided will gave him, he found himself in the emotionally comfortable position that comes of blaming something else for his sins and failures.  But Augustine ultimately rejected this idea. His relentless pursuit of truth just would not allow him to rest in an untruth.  Eventually, he admits that his will was one and that it was whole.

This kind of will – single and undivided – demanded that Augustine take full responsibility for all his actions.  In one way, this was a much less comfortable position for Augustine.  But by this time, he had found that, paradoxically, a certain kind emotional discomfort is no bad thing, if it enables one to come to a deeper level of personal truth.  His words in the Confessions that we looked at yesterday have a modern sound to them.  ‘I was the only one involved,’ Augustine declares, in describing his moral wrong-headedness.  He is saying here that the desire to blame his wrongdoing on a flawed will is simply a dishonest cop-out.  His words also ring with a kind of healthy, joyful spiritual freedom, as anyone will know who has begun the process of accepting the truth about himself and of undergoing a deep interior change.  Augustine lived in the fourth century, but his words and experiences are timeless.

I recall the words of a teenage boy I knew when I was a teenager – a boy who had been caught stealing on a rather grand scale.  When he finally began to turn his life around he admitted frankly, ‘I stole.  I did it because I wanted to and because I was greedy.  I deserved the punishment I received.’  The acceptance of personal responsibility for his actions, the complete absence of blaming anyone or anything else for his decision to steal, the honest naming of the greed that impelled him, paradoxically, strengthened him on the level of his will and of his true self.  This boy really did turn his life around.

So, what kind of light does this shed on the concept of the human will?  The boy’s very conversion of heart was inseparable from something that originated in his will: the act of taking personal responsibility for his behaviour and attitudes.  This resulted in giving him a sense of himself not as a thief, but as an honest person, allied to truth and goodness.  For this teenage boy, as for Augustine so many centuries before, the will was both the instrument of change and the locus of a new sense of self.  Our will, then, is quite an important endowment.

SJC

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5 March, 1st Sunday in Lent: The Human Will.

 

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O God, who are the light of the minds that know thee,

 the warmth of the hearts that love thee and the strength of the wills that serve thee, help us so to know thee that we may perfectly love thee,

so to love thee that we may worthily serve thee, whose service is perfect freedom.

 Saint Augustine

Saint Augustine, in the beautiful prayer given here, mentions the human will and says that God is ‘the strength of the will’.  I would like to reflect on this notion of the human will in a few posts.  The Church has always given the will an important place in her teaching on the dignity of the human person, but the human will isn’t an easy thing to define.

Perhaps we don’t think about our will very much or very deeply.  We may think about our emotions, or our mind.  But the will tends to be forgotten.  So let’s start with a simple definition that may not be completely adequate, but at least is easy to understand.  The will is the part of us that assists us in sticking with our good resolutions.  But as anyone knows who has tried to stick to a diet, the will isn’t always very effective in its task.  Just when I might want my will to give me some real backbone, it is nowhere to be found.  What is going on?

I find Saint Augustine to be a great help in understanding this kind of problem.  His Confessions, written in the late fourth century, show us that some things about human nature never change: Augustine, too, had plenty of experience with the weakness of his will.  During the period in his life when he was exploring Christianity but had not yet become a Christian, Augustine felt that his will was not merely weak, but split in two.  This is how he describes it:

The enemy had my power of willing in his clutches, and from it had forged a chain to bind me.  The truth is that when [vice] is pandered to, a habit is formed; when habit is not checked, it hardens into compulsion.  These were like interlinking rings forming what I have described as a chain, and my harsh servitude used it to keep me under duress.

     A new will had begun to emerge in me, the will to worship you disinterestedly and enjoy you, O God,… but it was not yet capable of surmounting that earlier will strengthened by inveterate custom.  And so the two wills fought it out – the old will and the new, the one carnal, the other spiritual – and in their struggle tore my soul apart.

[Confessions, VIII:10].

Is our will really split in two?  It can seem so, and certainly seemed so to Saint Augustine.  What of these two wills, then?  And what of Augustine’s declaration that ‘the enemy’ controlled his power of willing?  Augustine gradually came to realise that his moral problems could not be blamed on an external ‘enemy’ of any sort.  What he found when he felt that his will was split in two, was that conflicting desires within his soul led him in conflicting directions.  But his insights were even deeper than that.

Here is what he says later in the Confessions

When I was making up my mind to serve the Lord my God at last, as I had long since purposed, I was the one who wanted to follow that course, and I was the one who wanted not to.  I was the only one involved.  I neither wanted it wholeheartedly nor turned from it wholeheartedly.  I was at odds with myself, and fragmenting myself.  This disintegration was occurring without my consent, but what it indicated was not the presence in me of a mind belonging to some alien nature but the punishment undergone by my own

[Confessions VIII:22].

Note the repeated use of the pronoun ‘I’ in that passage.  Augustine takes personal responsibility here for all his actions.  That no alien being could take the blame for Augustine’s weakness was a crucial realisation for him – and for us as we strive to understand what our will is like.   Furthermore, Augustine sees a sort of ‘justice’ in his personal struggles, for he realises here that the weakness in his will that he deplored was the logical consequence of living a life in which he gave priority to the pursuit of selfish pleasures.  A weak will was what he called ‘the punishment’ appropriate to and consequent upon the lifestyle he had chosen for so many years.  No one was to blame but himself, and he finally realises that clearly.  Now, all this may seems rather heavy and dreary.  But, St. Augustine shows us that there is always the possibility of the will growing stronger as we grow in grace.  In the next post, I hope to develop this idea further.

SJC.

 

 

 

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