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