Tuesday, August 28, 2012

On the Occasion of St. Augustine of Hippo's Feast Day

I am a patristics scholar in no small part because of my love for Augustine of Hippo (354-430).  When I was young I read Augustine's Confessions, and while certain parts of it were lost on me, the reading of it was transformative.  I wrote my M.A. thesis on Augustine, focusing specifically on the Confessions and his magisterial work on the Trinity (De Trinitate), and while I moved on to study Greek patristic thinkers in my doctoral work, I still return to Augustine's Confessions yearly.

And reading that work never gets old.

I am continually left in awe of his erudition, but also of the depth of his introspection and honesty.  1600 years after it was written, Augustine still speaks to me; his story resonates with me, his all-encompassing desire to find rest his unquiet heart is one that resonates with many of us.

My heart still beats faster as I follow Augustine into that garden in Milan and read of his intense struggle under the fig tree - "I was groaning in spirit and shaken by violent anger because I could form no resolve to enter into a covenant with you, though in my bones I knew that this was what I ought to do, and everything n me lauded such a course to the skies" (Confessions 8.19).  And when Augustine reads Romans 13:13-14 and suddenly experiences the freedom of resting his heart in the God of love, I am almost always brought to tears.

Augustine and I have spent many, many hours together over the years.  I have to admit that there are times when we disagree and argue.  I am, for example, troubled by his willingness to make use of the violence of the state to bring Donatists back into the Catholic fold, as well as by his theology of sexuality.  But I've no doubt that there are many aspects of my thought that trouble him as well.

And in the end, no matter our disagreements, Augustine's writings manifest so clearly to me the divine beauty and love that is God.  His depiction of divine humility in book 7 of the Confessions and book 13 of De Trinitate is as beautiful as it is profound.  And there are few things as beautiful as the vision Augustine shared with his mother, Monica, in the days shortly before her death, a vision that, by the very fact that it occurs for both Augustine and Monica (two people with immensely divergent educational backgrounds) in community together speaks deeply to Augustine's conviction that the Christian life is necessarily communal for it necessarily revolves around love:
We were alone, conferring very intimately.  Forgetting what lay in the past, and stretching out to what was ahead, we inquired between ourselves in the light of present truth, the Truth which is yourself, what the eternal life of the saints would be like...[A]nd we lifted ourselves in longing yet more ardent toward That Which Is, and step by step traversed all bodily creatures and heaven itself, whence sun and moon and stars shed their light upon the earth.  Higher still we mounted by inward thought and wondering discourse on your works, and we arrived at the summit of our own minds; and this too we transcended, to touch that land of never-failing plenty where you pasture Israel for ever with the food of truth.  Life there is the Wisdom through whom all these things are made...And as we talked and panted for it, we just touched the edge of it by the utmost leap of our hearts; then, sighing and unsatisfied, we left the first-fruits of our spirit captive there, and returned to the noise of articulate speech, where a word has beginning and end (Confesssions 9.24).
In 1845 Ary Sheffer, a Dutch/French artist, painted "Saints Augustine and Monica," and in it he sought to depict the moment of vision experienced by the two.  Sitting next to a window overlooking a garden, Augustine and Monica gaze serenely at an unseen light that illuminates both of them.  The love shared between them is beautifully displayed in the way in which Monica's two hands carefully hold Augustine's left hand, as well as in the gesture of loving servitude made by Augustine who is sitting lower than his mother.  The sense one gets from the painting is that the two seekers, who had been engaged in conversation, are both surprised and awed by the vision that has come upon them.  Their faces do not portray struggle, as if they were actively pursuing the attainment of the vision, but are rather characterized by serenity and love.

Such love, and Augustine never writes more beautifully than when he writes on love, the love of two people for one another, is the kind of love Augustine suggests is to be at the heart of Christian community.  For a community of selfless, humble love itself comes to image, through God, the selfless love that is the community of the Trinity.

Happy Feast of St. Augustine to all!

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