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Despite his brilliance, St Augustine did produce a few duds

But he was a wonderful writer and preacher: his Confessions ranks as one of the greatest books ever written

By on Monday, 12 September 2011

St Augustine: the Shakespeare of Theology (Photo: CNS)

St Augustine: the Shakespeare of Theology (Photo: CNS)

It is that time of year again. I mean, of course, the time of year that falls between the Twenty-Fourth Sunday of the Year and Friday of the Twenty-Fifth Week of the Year. It does not seem very long, put like that, less than two weeks – but this is the period in the liturgical year in which the second reading at the Office of Readings comes from St Augustine’s Sermon on the Shepherds (sometimes called the Sermon on Pastors, otherwise known as sermon 46).

St Augustine was a brilliant writer and a wonderful preacher. Over a millennium and a half has passed and we are still reading him with enjoyment; that must be proof of something. His Confessions must rank as one of the greatest books ever written. Likewise The City of God – discursive, polemical, full of brilliant insight, not averse to really having a go at his enemies – despite its immense length, is still immensely readable, even entertaining. The sermons, too, particularly the sermons on the Psalms, are a rich source of theology even today: in fact I would say the Enarrationes in Psalmos are something every theologian needs to get to grips with. Some of the sermons, which were preached to congregations of perfectly ordinary people, went on, it is calculated, for six or even seven hours. People had more stamina in those days. Augustine would sit in his episcopal chair, a copy of the relevant scripture in his lap, and would speak while a team of secretaries hurriedly did their best to get it all down. He spoke – and people listened.

I can’t really recommend Augustine enough. He is the Shakespeare of Theology, the greatest of doctors. People who want to give him a try should start with the Confessions and perhaps also take up one of two excellent biographies. Serge Lancel’s book is very good; and there is always the enduring work of Peter Brown.

Once you get the bit between your teeth, then a whole new country opens up before you, the world of Late Antiquity, through which Augustine will be your guide. At that point one might like to consider the amazing work of Henri-Irénée Marrou, who has used the writings of Augustine as a gateway to examining his world, and particularly the world of Augustine’s reading. More than anyone else, Augustine was the product of the books he read – thus it becomes interesting to see what he did with his reading of Virgil.

But I digress. Despite his brilliance, Augustine did produce a few duds, and the sermon on the Shepherds is one of his duds. Why we have to put up with it for two weeks I do not know. The second reading in the office of Readings is supposed, or so it seems to me, to give you a guided tour to the treasures of Christian literature, not just the Fathers, but those that followed them, up to and including the Second Vatican Council. Of course, no anthology is ever going to meet with universal approval, but when the breviary comes up for revision as it surely must, then the Shepherds are ripe for exclusion.

Just so this is not entirely negative, the breviary does contain some wonderful passages, such as the astonishing sermon on the descent into hell from an anonymous author that falls on Holy Saturday (you can read it here), as well as another great favourite of mine, from many centuries later, Paul VI’s words about Nazareth, used on the Feast of the Holy Family, which you can read here. Paul VI, incidentally, the pope of my childhood and early adolescence, was a great communicator of the faith, as this passage, and may others like it, proves.

  • Anonymous

    > I can’t really recommend Augustine enough. He is the Shakespeare of Theology, the greatest of doctors.

    Amen to that! May we study him with care and with open minds, and may he pray for us, and for all preachers and theologians and all who seek to grow in the Faith.

  • http://twitter.com/fatherz Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

    Augustine’s observations about pastors may not be Fr L-S’s cup of tea.  Others will find them beneficial.  It isn’t a horrible burden to hear Augustine on pastors for a short time each year.  People should be encouraged to read these sermons at least once rather than dismiss them unread.

    On another point, the longest sermon by Augustine we possess is Dolbeau 26. Peter Brown (sans the “e”) estimates that the sermon was some two hours or so.  Augustine, so far as we know, did not preach for “six or even seven hours”.

    In any event, while Fr. L-S appreciates most of Augustine’s work, I appreciate most of what Fr L-S offered about Augustine.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Before Fr Z I fall silent.

  • Richard

    I among the thousand and tens of thousand things I haven’t read, I’ve regretted that I haven’t read more St. Augustine.  Maybe this article will inspire me to do that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/taxplaya Ryan Ellis

    There is a lot of good Augustine in Ex Form Matins…might want to give it a try.  The sermons are great.

  • Gail Finke

    But why is it a dud? You didn’t say.

  • http://profiles.google.com/jflare29 John Flaherty

    Yes, please explain further:  Why is the Sermon on Shepherds a dud?  What did he include–or omit–that creates a problem?
     

  • Noah Of Christcrucified

    Duds?  The very fact that you are being forced to read it under penalty
    of sin indicates that it is not a dud.  The fact that it has lasted to
    this day indicates that it is not a dud.  What seems to be veiled in
    this article is trying to raise Paul VI at the expense of St Augustine 
    Doctor of the Church which is unnecessary.

    I think it is a good thing that Augustine elevated St Paul by saying
    what virtue he exercised in not demanding being supported by his flock. 
    That is something that all people consecrated to God should consider
    before sticking out their hands for alms.  That by taking they might
    lose out on the greater merit.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jack-Hughes/100000562751914 Jack Hughes

    Sorry Father but as far as Doctors of the Church go I Prefer St Thomas Aquinas and St Teresa of Jesus.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    A friend of mine has informed me that I should read the Sermon on the Shepherds in the original, as the English translation has filtered out most of the masterly word play and shades of meaning. I suspect he may well be right. I shall give it a try. One reason I do not warm to the sermon is because of its wordy repetitions… but this may be different in Latin. I have to say that Augustine in the original is very different to what he is like in translation. That is certainly true for Enarrationes and the Confessions and of course the City of God…

  • bah humbug

    If you’re going to call something written by a Doctor of the Church a “dud”, you might at least explain why you think it’s a dud!

  • buckeye pastor

    The sermon “On Pastors” shows St. Augustine’s pastoral wisdom and its rootedness in both New Testament and Old.  He offers us plenty that we twenty-first century pastors need to take to heart.  I’m glad it’s in the Liturgy of the Hours.  And besides, we get to read other Fathers on a few feast days during these two weeks.

  • Parasum

     The “City of God” is great fun to read – but the “Confessions” ? Impenetrable. But if one wants to know *why* Gen.10 lists 70 descendants of Noah, a proper critical commentary – such as Westermann’s – is preferable. Augustine’s lack of Hebrew is not exactly a strength :(

  • Parasum

    Augustine of Hippo – The City of God (Part 1 of 69)

    - all 69 parts are read on YouTube, in the LibriVox series, covering the whole book

  • Parasum