The Feast of Augustine

From Confessions:

“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new; late have I loved you.  And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made.  You were with me; and I was not with you.  The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all.  You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness.  You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness.  You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you.  I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you.  You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.” Book 12.xxvii. 38

My blog post from two years ago.

An image of Augustine and his mother:

A recent conversation about his attitude toward rape (I’m not sure I fully agree with Burrus’ statements about Augustine’s argument concerning the rape of Lucretia. It’s been several years since I’ve read the text and I recall him using the story also to talk about suicide).

May 4: Monnica

Today is the commemoration of Monnica, the mother of St. Augustine of Hippo. I can’t let the day pass without some comment.

I used her commemoration at today’s Eucharist. It was difficult for me to say the collect without snickering, having internalized the Confessions through teaching it yearly for some 15 years, “love and prayers and tears” hardly describes Augustine’s depiction of her. She was a woman of deep faith: among those who sang with Ambrose in the Milan basilica while surrounded by imperial troops demanding it be given over to the Arians; her deep piety to the martyrs that Augustine (and Ambrose were uncomfortable with) and as mentioned in an earlier comment, her status in the Cassaciacum Dialogues as the model of theological wisdom gained through faith that could instruct young intellectuals. She did pray for Augustine’s conversion, but she also acted to make it more likely, by pleading with him and by encouraging him to listen to Ambrose’s sermons, and to talk with the great Bishop.
The beautiful scene that Augustine describes in Ostia when together, in conversation, they ascended from earthly love and conversation, to the beatific vision, is one of the great moments in Christian spiritual writing, and presumably in Christian spiritual experience. It continues to give me chills every time I read it (30? 40? times) as it did during today’s Eucharist, in spite of the suppressed snicker during the collect.

A print of this painting hangs on the wall of my office–it is intended as a depiction of that experience in Ostia:

I doubt whether either of them looked anything like that. She certainly wasn’t clad in a nun’s habit and it’s all a little bit precious, but still…

Ambrose of Milan, December 7

Today is the commemoration of Ambrose of Milan, one of the great Fathers of the Church. After a successful career in the Imperial Administration, Ambrose, according to legend was acclaimed bishop of Milan by the mob. He was a fierce defender of Nicene orthodoxy against the Arians and did battle against emperors, most notably forcing Theodosius to do public penance for the massacre of several thousand people in Salonika. He is credited with introducing hymnody into the western Church.

Augustine writes of him in Confessions:

And so I came to Milan to Ambrose the bishop, known throughout the world as among the best of men, devout in your worship… I used enthusiastically to listen to him preaching to the people … I hung on his diction in rapt attention … my pleasure was in the charm of his language…. (V.xiii.23)

Ambrose’s preaching and exegesis contributed to Augustine’s intellectual conversion (as a young man he had found Manichaean theology more convincing than Christian scripture):

I was also pleased that when the old writings of the Law and the Prophets came before me, they were no longer read with an eye to which they had previously looked absurd, … And I was delighted to hear Ambrose in his sermons to the people saying, as if he were most carefully enunciating a principle of exegesis: ‘The letter kills, the spirit gives life’ (II Cor. 3:6) Those texts which, taken literally, seemed to contain perverse teaching he would expound spiritually, removing the mystical veil. (VI.iv.5)

In Confessions, Augustine quotes Ambrose’s hymn Deus creator omnium several times:

GOD that all things didst create
and the heavens doth regulate,
Who doth clothe the day with light,
and with gracious sleep the night….

And we will sing another on Sunday during our Festival of Lessons and Carols, Veni Redemptor gentium (Redeemer of the nations, come).




The Feast of Augustine

Today is the Feast of Augustine of Hippo, who died on this date in 430.  Perhaps the most influential theologian in Western Christianity, his legacy is much debated and often decried. He is regarded as the inventor of the notion of original sin, and especially that original sin passes to us through our parents’ sexual act. He does have a robust notion of original sin, that human beings are fallen creatures, turned inward on ourselves and away from our proper end, which is the enjoyment of God. But his understanding of original undergoes considerable development throughout the course of his lengthy career and in response to increasingly acrimonious controversies with the Pelagians.

Contemporary Christians and many contemporary theologians have reduced him to something of a caricature–a bitter old man who struggled throughout his life with his sexuality. There is some truth in that caricature, but only some. Augustine wrote millions of words, many of them in the heat of conflict, but many others as he struggled to understand himself, his God, and the world in which he lived. His late treatise On the Trinity is one of the great masterpieces of Christian theology–ridiculously difficult to make sense of, but enormously rewarding. For all of his negative understanding of humanity, and of the gulf between us and God, central to his argument in On the Trinity is that we are created in the image of God, that the image of God in us is an image of the Trinity, and that we can, with our own reason and love, begin to understand the Trinity through our own mental faculties.

Augustine was also a theologian of love. The sexual desire that he sought to suppress and eventually came to control was for him only a physical manifestation of a deeper desire, or love that should always be directed toward God. There are moving passages throughout his work that express his experience of God–the love he had for God, and the love of God that he experienced. Confessions, which is often described as a spiritual autobiography, is much more than that. It is a dialogue between Augustine and God, as Augustine reads and writes his experience with God, and comes through that writing to a deeper understanding of God. While most readers give up after Book IX, which is the end of his story, there are three more books that are something of a riff on Genesis 1, showing Augustine at his most creative theologically and exegetically, and full of deep meditation on the nature of the world, himself, and God.

A famous quotation, from Pusey’s translation of Confessions, I believe of a passage from Book XII:

“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new; late have I loved you.  And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made.  You were with me; and I was not with you.  The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all.  You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness.  You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness.  You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you.  I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you.  You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.” xxvii. 38

“We haven’t done the work yet”

It’s a lament we keep hearing from the Archbishop of Canterbury, from the Primates, from every group that pronounces. The Episcopal Church hasn’t made the theological case for same-sex marriages and for the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy. A recent example is from Pierre Whalon, Bishop of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.

This complaint puzzles me to some degree. There have been any number of attempts, the Virginia Report in the 1990s, and more recently, “To Set Our Hope in Christ” which was presented at some gathering that I can’t recall any more.

So the House of Bishops gave its Theology Committee the task of writing on the topic. There was some controversy last year about who precisely were the theologians involved in the effort. Whatever. They presented their work to the House of Bishops meeting this week. It’s available here:

The disappointing thing is that the panel of theologians, four “traditional” and four “liberal,” quickly went their separate ways, apparently unable to agree on anything. Perhaps they couldn’t, still it would have been interesting to see if there was any point of consensus among them.

I’ve not read the work carefully, but in skimming through it several things stand out. First, the “traditionals” seem to discount the importance of “human flourishing” (an Aristoteelean phrase) as including our life on earth. They readily acknowledge that most gays and lesbians will never find fulfillment in celibacy or heterosexual marriage and offer them only the possibility of chastity, comparing their plight to the disabled, widows, or those who choose to defer marriage for a career, only to find it impossible later in life to find a soulmate.

On the other hand, the liberals seem to make several problematic moves in their argument. For me the most obvious is this one:

Thus, both same- and opposite-sex marriage may represent the marriage of Christ and the church, because Christ is the spouse of all believers. Men do not represent Christ by maleness alone, nor do women represent the church by femaleness alone. Same-sex marriage witnesses to the reality that a male Christ also saves men and a female church also saves women. p. 55

This seems to discount the important role bridal mysticism has played in Christian spirituality, for both men and women. Both men and women have written eloquently of themselves as the Bride of Christ, viewing themselves, and their souls, as Christ’s spouse. It’s not necessary to posit a sexual relationship to make sense of this imagery.

But this, too, seems insufficient:

What is a sexual orientation? It is an orientation of desire. Since Christ “satisfies the desire of every living thing” (Ps 145:16), a sexual orientation, theologically speaking, must be this: a more or less settled tendency by which Christ orients desire toward himself, through the desire for another human being.

This is a rather striking divergence from the traditional Christian understanding of desire, especially Augustine (who is quoted rather liberally throughout the document). To argue that Christ orients desire toward himself through anything, seems to border on idolatry.

But their closing pages did leave me with some things to ponder more deeply, above all this:

“Why did Jesus not climb down from the cross? – because he held himself accountable to put his body where his love was.” 65

To argue from the incarnation, to argue from the embodied nature of human existence, and the embodied-ness of salvation, seems to me the way to beginning putting sexuality and sexual relationships in the proper Christian perspective.

There is still work to be done and it needs to be done in conversation with one another, not by writing at one another.

Aelred of Rievaulx

Today, January 12, is the commemoration of Aelred of Rievaulx in the liturgical calendar. Aelred was abbot of the Cistercian Abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire, England and part of that twelfth-century flowering of Cistercian spirituality. Bernard of Clairvaux overshadows all of the other Cistercian authors of the period and indeed many of their writings seem derivative or pale imitations of his. But one might think of it another way. Bernard was the genius of course, but others like Aelred were so imbued with the same spiritual perspective that when they wrote about it their experience and about the spiritual, they were bound to use language and imagery that echoes Bernard.

In fact Bernard urged Aelred to write his most popular work (at least in his own day), The Mirror of Charity.

I read the following from another of his works Spiritual Friendship this morning:

How right and proper it then becomes to grieve for one another, to toil for one another, to bear each other’s burdens, when each finds his pleasure in neglecting himself in favour of his friend, in preferring the other’s will to his own, in putting his friend’s needs first, in setting himself in the way of whatever threatens. How delightful it is meanwhile to talk together, to confide one’s aspirations, to try and ponder and weigh, and arrive at the same conclusions! And on top of all this, reciprocal prayer, which gains in efficacy with the depth of the affection that inspires it, accompanied by the tears precipitated by anxiety, released by emotion or called forth by grief. And while one is entreating Christ in one’s friend’s favour and seeking to be heard, one is stretching out towards Cjhrist himself in love and longing, and comes the moment when suddenly one’s affection passes from one object to another without one’s being aware; and as though one were experiencing at close quarters the sweetness of Christ in person, one begins to taste for oneself the delights of his presence. So it is that we ascend from that love, already holy, with which we embrace our friend, to the love with which we embrace Christ, thus savouring joyfully and freely the fruit of spiritual friendship; whose plenitude we look for in the future, when the mutual anxieties that beset us will have been wiped out, and the difficulties that we now must bear for one another’s sake have been dispelled, when death’s sting is no more and death itself destroyed–that sting whose wearisome pricks compel us so frequently to weep for one another–when security at last is ours. Then shall we enjoy that sovereign good for all eternity, then will the friendship to which here we can admit but few be poured out upon all, and thence back into God who shall be all in all.

While there is a great deal of Bernard in this text–I think especially of the use of very physical imagery like “taste” and “embrace” to describe spiritual experience, this passage at least is also highly evocative of Augustine. He may be describing his own experience of spiritual friendship, but I also could read this as a commentary on Confessions Book IX in which Augustine describes his relationship with his mother, and especially their shared experience at Ostia and her subsequent death.

The Feast of St. Augustine

August 28 is the commemoration of Augustine of Hippo. I meant to write something about him yesterday, but didn’t get around to it (Fridays are my day off). He looms over Western culture and over Western Christianity, with influence both benign and malignant. Some of the latter is due to mis-interpretation, particularly of his attitude toward sexuality.

A Bishop, theologian, and preacher, contemporary readers may find his biblical interpretation fascinating. He was no biblical fundamentalist. In fact, he thought that any interpretation of a text that was linguistically possible, was potentially useful to the reader. His underlying principle of exegesis was the two-fold commandment: Any interpretation had to contribute to the love of God and neighbor. That is not to say that his exegesis was not rigid at times. It often was, especially when he was in the throes of debate with opponents like the Donatists or Pelagians.

His feast is celebrated on August 28, because he died on that day in 431.

In the coming weeks, I’m hoping to read an important new book on him, Paula Frederikson’s Augustine and the Jews.

On the dance of the Trinity

In my sermon on Trinity Sunday, I mentioned the alternative translation for “master worker” in Proverbs 8. The NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) points out that the early Greek translations had “little child” (apparently translating a slightly different Hebrew word than the one that appears in the standard Hebrew version of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament) Most commentators would probably argue that “master worker” is the more likely translation. It occurred to me as I was preaching the second time through, that these alternative translations are another example of what I was trying to get at, the playful, open, uncertain aspect of theology and of faith. Both of those translations are plausible, both lead to significant insights, and there is no reason to assert that one is right, one is wrong.

My favorite theologian, Augustine of Hippo, was quite clear that any interpretation that was linguistically and theologically possible, was valid, so long as it supported his inviolable standard: “love of God and of neighbor.” And he wasn’t even particularly concerned in figuring out what precisely the author might have meant. For Augustine, because scripture, the Word of God, bore witness to Jesus Christ, the Word of God, it is quite likely that God might allow us to interpret scripture in ways that the author might not have intended.

To view our faith as a dance, as play, to delight in it, is to allow it free reign to lead us wherever it might takes. The spirit blows where it chooses, Jesus says in John 3:8. Our response ought to be, to go with the flow.