Tag Archives: Saint Augustine

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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28 January: Saint Thomas Aquinas

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I’m getting better at saving snippets that might come in for the blog. I found this a month ago: a Tablet* report on Pius XI responding to a lecture on Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

” The thought rising in our mind in beholding these two great Saints is that in certain things they are capable of imitation. We see the never satisfied, indefatigable, almost infinite care of Saint Augustine in his continual revision of his writings, reading, re-reading the works he had written, reviewing, correcting and perfecting them with a diligence verily heroic, offering in such a way the admirable conjunction of unequalled care in the most minute details, with a study which mounted to the heights of genius. We mark the same thing in Saint Thomas, and we recall with pleasure the days when we were librarian at Milan and at the Vatican, and recall the autograph kept there of Saint Thomas in which we see the most precise care even of the writing itself. We see a scrupulous fidelity to the rules of writing, with the greatest care not to disturb the clearness of the writing. And [we] see the most exquisite asceticism nourished by the most solid theology. That is  how truly these two giants of study may be imitated. Study and piety, diligent fruitful study, true, profound and solid piety. Study demands from piety the divine recompense which it alone can give, piety demands from study the splendours of knowledge.

” Study and piety, these two must never be forgotten by our beloved sons, who … must have in them that which was manifested in these two great souls—the identification of study and piety—of science and charity.”

Cut through the flowery language and Pope Pius is saying something important. Prayer and study  depend on each other, as do science and love. Now there’s a thought. Precise care is a mark of science as it is of theology: what’s the quarrel about?

*10/5/30 The TABLET 10 May, 1930, p623.

Saint Thomas Aquinas by Carlo Crivelli

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23 December: Wise Words from Saint Augustine for the Festive Season

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Don’t worry! I am not sending you to a difficult theological treatise or a long sermon. Instead, let’s sit down at table with Augustine. His biographer, Possidius tells us:

He always showed hospitality… He had this inscription on his table:

Who injures the name of an absent friend

May not at this table as guest attend.

Cited in Christianity in Africa, the first seven centuries,
Dominique Arnauld, STS Publications, Jerusalem, 2015, p464.

Wise words indeed as we approach ever closer to the celebration of Christ’s coming and the festive meal. Pour a cup of tea and think about it! Happy Christmas!

MMB.

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28 August: Algeria I: Reflection on Augustine as Pastor

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Saint Augustine of Hippo will keep on appearing in these pages! Today would be his feast if it were not Sunday, so we are spending the week with the Church in Algeria, his home country. Algeria is, of course, a Muslim country, with a small Christian population, largely in the towns and cities, and for the most part its members are expatriates.

During the French occupation there were many more Christians, and important churches were built, including the Basilica of Saint Augustine at Hippo which was restored recently, with help from the Algerian government and supporters around the world.

Algeria takes pride in this son of the land, witness this postage stamp! Follow the link below to read about the reopening of the basilica.

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Here is some of what Cardinal Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, had to say about Augustine as pastor rather than theologian or philosopher:

 ‘Living together as believers, being confronted with the same problems and difficulties… this spontaneity of relations is at the bottom of all dialogue and interreligious dialogue is always founded on friendship: we must always strive to know one another, to love one another, to move forward together.

[The Algerian people] has taken responsibility for its history”. It has “recognized that Augustine was Algerian … and what an Algerian he was! A genius who bridged the gulf of the two Mediterranean coasts. Saint Augustine wrote some of the most beautiful pages of theology while the city of Hippo was under siege. At the same time, he showered his care on refugees of war. He was a pastor who followed the daily life of his flock.”

For the cardinal, the basilica of St. Augustine “is a powerful sign, especially in a Muslim country where prayer plays such an important role.” It reminds everyone that “Christians too, evident in the majesty of this church, praise the Lord, the one God, and that they are faithful to their responsibilities.” It also reminds us that “there is no future unless there is a shared future.”

He insisted that churches “must always remain open so that they may welcome those who are looking for the quiet to think and reflect, to pray, and to remind all citizens that man does not live on bread alone”.

St Augustine’s basilica, Hippo, Algeria

Photo of St Augustine’s basilica by Abcir

MMB.

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A Week’s Reflections on Living as Neighbours: Introduction.

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Next week includes the feast of Saint Augustine of Hippo, so we had prepared reflections on Algeria, his homeland. But it would be wrong to offer these while ignoring recent events in Belgium, France and Germany. It would also be wrong to suggest that all is well in Algeria or anywhere else that Muslims and Christians live side by side. All too easily someone can assert the primacy of the ‘true faith’, as they perceive it, over love and mutual respect: it happens within communities as well as between them. Therefore I offer this week’s reflections on recent events as a preface to those on Algeria, prepared weeks ago to celebrate Augustine, recognised by Muslims as well as Christians as a great Algerian.

MMB

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August 4: The Psalms as Personal Prayer V.

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Statue of the Visitation at Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, Israel by Deror avi see: Visitation Church

On the opposite end of the scale to the angry psalms perhaps, are psalms which may express states which we feel unworthy of calling our own: states of innocence, maybe.  Or holiness.  The New Testament Canticle, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), might fall into this category.  It’s not actually a psalm, strictly speaking – but we pray it every night at Vespers, so I think it deserves a mention.

We might think, ‘How can I, a twit and sinner, pray the Magnificat.  How can I say, “henceforth all ages will call me blessed”, for example.  But, once again, the Divine Office is not just about me.  St. Augustine says about psalmody that sometimes we pray in the voice of Christ our head, sometimes we pray in the voice of his members.  Here, we pray in Our Lady’s voice, and in our way, we allow her words to continue to resound in the Church.  Imagine the impoverishment to the Church if, out of a misguided humility, the Church had no tradition of praying the Magnificat!  In the Magnificat, we are recalling – re-presenting – the astounding fact of Our Lady’s immaculate heart.  She knew that it was all God’s gift – and says so in the canticle.  When we pray it, we pray in hope that we might receive a like gift of purity of heart.

Admittedly, the Magnificat is one of those prayers that are too big for us, and maybe we feel like the child trying to walk about in its parent’s shoes when we pray it.  We need to “grow into” it.  But, people, by God’s grace, do grow into it.  It’s not a futile hope.  He does give the gift of holiness.  Saints are real people.  I was just reading about the recent martyrdom of a group of Missionaries of Charity and their volunteer helpers in Yemen.  I suspect they felt themselves to be pretty ordinary people.  Yet, the gift of holiness was given, and they gave the ultimate gift of their lives to murderers who shot them because they were Christians.  Now all ages will call them blessed.

SJC

Follow this link to read about the martyred sisters: Missionary Sistersof Charity in Yemen

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9 June, Year of Mercy: Written in our Hearts.

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St Stephen the Deacon, appointed to deliver  Christian Mercy, carries a basket of bread. Church of St Stephen, Hackington, Canterbury.

mercylogoAll the major religions – enjoying many differences – come together in accepting the Golden Rule: do not do to another what you would not want done to you. Expressed positively – do everything to others that we would relish being done to us [find the negative formulation in the Old Testament and the positive in the New]. Augustine maintains that God wrote this rule on human hearts – it is the embodiment of the Natural Law.

However, in everyday expression religions are not only ambivalent, they are also contradictory; yet do possess things in common. According to the basic tenets of religions the connection of religion with violence represents a misunderstanding of real religion. Kant calls the Golden Rule trivial because it does not specify obligation. George Bernard Shaw observed: do not treat others as you would want them to treat you. Their taste may not be the same!

How does Jesus adopt the Golden Rule? See the Sermon on the Mount and its essential link with the love commandment – including love of enemies. Christian ethics links with a religious tradition that is open and common to all religions – yet cannot be reduced to a universal humanism, as if it were an acquired value. The fact is that compassion and mercy are inbuilt universal human values. Where compassion and mutual forgiveness are lost in favour of egoism and apathy towards fellow human beings gives rise to personal relations are confined to economic exchange. Whereas Christian mercy has shaped Western culture in a decisive way.

It is a common opinion that God in the Old Testament is a vengeful and angry God, while the God of the New Testament is gracious and merciful. There are Old Testament texts that support this – which speak of killing and expulsion of paganism, including some imprecations in the Psalms. However, this does not do justice to the gradual process by which the Old Testament view of God is transformed – ultimately both testaments witness to the same God.

In the Old Testament God’s mercy serves justice – mercy is God’s justice. In Scripture, the heart is not simply a human organ; it describes the core of the person, the seat of feelings as well as power and judgement.

Compassion is not regarded as weakness or as unworthy of a true hero. We are encouraged to show feelings and sadness, joy and grief – nor be ashamed of tears. Scripture speaks of God’s heart – God chooses according to his heart; his heart is said to be deeply troubled by the impact of sin on sinners. God leads with an upright heart. Hosea speaks of God’s heart recoiling, and God’s compassion grows warm and tender.

AMcC

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