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St Augustine is a guide to what it means to be human

His theology derives from experience: he is the great enlightener of the need for grace

By on Thursday, 20 October 2011

St Augustine and his mother, St Monica, by the French painter Ary Scheffer

St Augustine and his mother, St Monica, by the French painter Ary Scheffer

Last night saw the first of what may be a series of talks at the Friary, near Westminster Cathedral, held under the aegis of The Catholic Herald. I was one of the speakers, and I chose to speak of St Augustine. What follows is the text of my talk. The quotations are all taken from Dr Pusey’s translation of the Confessions, which is available online here.

Most Catholic theology takes as its starting point the work of St Thomas Aquinas. In fact it really is not possible these days to write anything about theology without taking the Angelic Doctor as your starting point. This was brought home to me forcibly by a book proposal I once submitted – the person reading it objected to every single point outlined, with the words (I paraphrase) “But St Thomas Aquinas says…” My reply, that I wanted to tackle the question using St Augustine as my starting point, was met with disbelief. Again, when I was outlining my proposed doctorate at the Gregorian University in Rome, I was told “But what has Augustine got to do with morality?” My reply was – once you have read my doctorate, you will know the answer to that question.

Of course, Aquinas has got the papal seal of approval – the encyclical letter Aeterni Patris written by Leo XIII – and he has the Aquinas industry behind him. Workers in that industry get very annoyed by people trying to break the monopoly.

Now it was Luther who said Los mit Aristoteles! I do not want to say “Away with Thomas…” If that is what you like, by all means carry on. But I do want people to have a look at Augustine and see how he can change your outlook. Aquinas is a theory, a grand unifying theory, called Thomism, or neo-Thomism. Augustine is not a theory, he is a story. He is a personal story too. But that is precisely the point. Christianity is not a theory, it is a lived story, it is the intersection of two stories, your own story, and that of the Lord.

Again Augustine is a personal story that transcends the personal and is of universal significance; just as the story of Jesus is a personal story that does the same. Augustine starts with the particular and moves towards the universal, not the other way around. The Confessions, his autobiography, though never in a narrow sense, is a wonderful book. Think for a moment of all the great documents on sexual matters produced by the Church. Now stop thinking, and hear this:

The briers of unclean desires grew rank over my head, and there was no hand to root them out. When that my father saw me at the baths, now growing towards manhood, and endued with a restless youthfulness, he, as already hence anticipating his descendants, gladly told it to my mother; rejoicing in that tumult of the senses wherein the world forgetteth Thee its Creator, and becometh enamoured of Thy creature, instead of Thyself, through the fumes of that invisible wine of its self-will, turning aside and bowing down to the very basest things.

What we have here is the primal scene – the father witnesses the boy’s sexual awakening, without the boy’s consent. The boy in fact has not consented to becoming a man at all – he has been thrown into the maelstrom of sexual feeling unawares, and is at the mercy of these passions. This is what philosophers call geworfenheit. It is the key to understanding ourselves: the knowledge that we do not and perhaps can never fully understand or know or even accept the state of being sexual. This is a useful antidote to all those who habitually overstate the role and strength of the will; who see the passions as purely benign; or who see the state of being human as reducible to rational explanation. Moreover, Augustine in this brief passage answers the common question: “What have sexual behaviour and God to do with each other?” The modern world wants to separate questions of morality from God and religion. Augustine shows that they are deeply and existentially intertwined: their separation leads to the death of morality and the death of God.

So, St Augustine is our guide to human nature, what it means to be human, in this and many other respects. But he is also the doctor of Grace. To this very same human nature, which is so often tortured, can come healing, health and repose through the intervention of God’s grace. What does this mean? It means this:

So was I speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighbouring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, “Take up and read; Take up and read.” Instantly, my countenance altered, I began to think most intently whether children were wont in any kind of play to sing such words: nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So checking the torrent of my tears, I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book, and read the first chapter I should find … Eagerly then I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I laid the volume of the Apostle when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.

Thus it is that the boy in the baths finds what had eluded him so long.

Personal conversion should not be, and in fact is not, the sole property of our Protestant brethren. A recurrent fault in Catholic thinking is its constant recourse to theories which seem ever more divorced from lived experience. St Augustine is the theologian whose theology derives from lived experience; he is the great enlightener of lived experience and thus of the need for grace. He is the one who can help us make the existential turn in theology that we so badly need. And finally let us remember the nexus between liturgy and life which is the only way we will get people to go to Church, summed up so beautifully in the opening of the Confessions.

Great art Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and Thy wisdom infinite. And Thee would man praise; man, but a particle of Thy creation; man, that bears about him his mortality, the witness of his sin, the witness that Thou resistest the proud: yet would man praise Thee; he, but a particle of Thy creation. Thou awakest us to delight in Thy praise; for Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.

  • Annie

    And a round of applause for St Monica too.

  • Anonymous

    Bravo! Father, you have posted two superb articles on successive days – this and the comment on Dale Farm. Augustine I love. May he pray for us!

  • Anonymous

    I’m sorry Father but I haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about.

    I love St Augustine and his writings; but his being the prime apologist of the human condition is no justification for grounding a moral theology on his writings.

    One does not appeal to Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary when composing divorce legislation.

    I will agree completely that Augustine’s reconciliation of his anti-Donatism and anti-Pelagianism are crucial for an holistic understanding of pastoral theology and spirituality – without Augustine there would have been no St Francis de Sales

    But it is not fundamental moral theology – nor was it ever intended to be such – For Augustine such fundamentals were axiomatic and unwritten – an inherent Divine Law written upon the heart whispered on the wind…the fall being mourned by every birdsong and swaying tree – our redemption being reflected in the starlight and sung in the music of the spheres.

    Therefore by having such a close affinity and overwhelming understanding of it – he’s the supreme ‘executive officer’ of Moral Theology – reminding the Captain of the due concerns of reality and the nature of Creation – ergo he’s the shadow, the mirror, the measure, the counter of Thomistic Morality.

    It’s little wonder Bonaventure implied Aquinas was to be the father of all atheists, for to him he was as Keats opined ‘unweaving the rainbow’…but Augustine is the man describing the rainbow to a blind man or stirring the memories of rainbows for those living under stormclouds or in caves.

    Aquinas is the main theme: Augustine is the alto parts

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    It seems you are out of sympathy with my writings… so why punish yourself by reading them?

  • Nat_ons

    The blossom cannot produce its beautiful fruit without sturdy stock and healthy roots. Augustine, as you so rightly point out – although often forgotten – is, with Paul, the core of Catholic theology and philosophy – even if cannot help but start properly with its sweetest flowering, Aquinas. After all Aquinas, as is obvious from his writings, is steeped in the sturdy and abounding grace rising from almost every word, concept or meaning in Augustine’s so very human love for God – possessing a passion so far beyond any fleshly passion that it sings out not only with a passing earthly joy it almost wants to cry out and shout aloud even as it hymns Augustine’s own rather self-reflective chant of heavenly praise (heard from Aquinas only in brief, fleeting, almost stunning bursts).

    It is the very complexity in Augustine’s poetry of heartfelt truth that seems to make many shrink from him, if they want to give an analytical precision to the love of wisdom let alone a study of God. Here, I suspect, if my opinion is worth anything, Bonaventure and moreso Luther – as perceived by the awesome Benedict XVI – may be more appealing to the mystical or the emotional vision of Christ (so popular today, among those trying to make the science of revealed faith more humane) than has been treated in their inspiration, Augustine. Yet I pray for more power to your arm, purpose and effort in showing Augustine to us all as a graced human being – for all his irritating little human faults or failings (which we must all possess in some shape, the saint and sinner alike) – because it is, perhaps, his failings – and his humility before these – that make him so important to understanding what it means to be a sinner called to be a saint in Christ .. not by dint of one’s own unaided effort, in opposition to Christ’s body: the church catholic, or by wandering among the brackish pools of self, flesh, and desire rather than by the all too often humiliating correction of others in one body with one Spirit (just as one must be ready to correct others also by the same standard of sound doctrine).

    God bless, Nat.

  • Anonymous

    It seems a great shame to set St. Thomas against St. Augustine, especially as St. Thomas was not exactly slow to acknowledge the extent of his debt – as even a casual reading of the Summa Theologiae will show. ISTM a mistake to compare them *beyond a certain point*, since they wrote in very different idioms, and (in the main) in very different literary genres.

    I wish this hadn’t been said:

    “Of course, Aquinas has got the papal seal of approval – the encyclical letter Aeterni Patris written by Leo XIII – and he has the Aquinas industry behind him. Workers in that industry get very annoyed by people trying to break the monopoly.”

    St. Augustine doesn’t need to be commended by the depreciating of other Saints & Doctors – to do that, implies that unless the “competition” is “seen off”, he can’t be  regarded as all that impressive. Which is unfair to him, as well as to St. Thomas; they are both bigger than that. As for the “Aquinas industry”, it is not the fault of St. Thomas that he acquired something of the status of a supreme ideologue. And what’s this about a “monopoly” ? Augustine has not exactly been neglected – not even after 1879. If there has on occasion been a pronounced tendency to treat St. Thomas as the entire Catholic theological tradition personified, that too is hardly his fault.

    “Aquinas is a theory, a grand unifying theory, called Thomism, or neo-Thomism.” No. He is first & foremost a Saint – that unifies everything else about him: his religious profession as a friar, his life as an academic, his commentaries on the Bible & Aristotle, his sermons, his Summae, his occasional shorter works. The Victorians had an unhappy tendency to treat him as a disembodied intelligence; it’s a pity to see this being revived. One can’t expect Protestants to look beyond the Summa Theologiae (unless they are Anglicans like E.L. Mascall) – but it is a pity if Catholics don’t do so. As for Thomism & neo-Thomism: are they the same ? Apparently not.

  • Anonymous

    Because most of the time when you’re wrong you’re wrong for the right reasons – so that affords the respect of being read…and commented on. But come on…Augustine as a basis for fundamental moral theology? I love Mahler’s 8th but I wouldn’t have it for a ringtone. If Aquinas is the map of the moral journey – Augustine [being the exemplar of the tension within moral existence] is the backpack – it’s going to help you wherever you are at present – but it isn’t intended to help you get anywhere – it’s directed towards preventing you going back to from whence you came and towards giving you the strength to carry on – it provides a compass for which direction to continue – but the next step is always where God will guide you

    It’s weird how you refer to the necessity of an ‘existentialist’ reformation of moral theology because there’s the paradox – Augustine is the Man obsessed with our ‘being’ and doing is merely a natural consequence of it – the anguished restless spirit entombed in human flesh struggling towards becoming – we can’t do anything without the grace we’re able to receive. Augustine’s morality is basically “If you want to do this you have to be this” – that’s the direct opposite of existentialism isn’t it?

    Whereas Aquinas is “You are this form of being – if you want to be that form of being you must do this in order to get there. The supreme essentialist uses an existential journey – utilise your ill-formed being to ultimately achieve perfection by subsuming into perfection.

    It’s like Augustine is saying empty yourself for more ‘soul’ to enter
    Aquinas is saying empty yourself to gain more room for one’s soul.

    So which one is more Existential?
    You’re the expert – but I don’t ‘get’ the existential part of your argument.

    If you mean the Augustine route is more ‘alive’ I’ll agree
    Aquinas is like learning French in a University – Augustine is like learning French by being dumped in the middle of France.
    But Aquinas is safer, more reassuring, neater, more readily available to everyone no matter what their condition.
    Aquinas is like climbing a staircase – Augustine’s like climbing a tree..

    Augustine’s fine for those among us who are experts or possess a natural raw talent/grace
    But most of us are beginners and intermediates…so we need the regular firm footing of an Aquinas to get there.

  • theroadmaster

    It seems that Augustine made no secret about his rakish past in his “Confessions” before his conversation experience which took him away from pagan Manichaeism  and this reveals the reality that we are weak, earthen vessels who need the expert touch of the great Potter of Creation to mould us to His way of thinking.  Augustine’s earthiness can be contrasted with the saturnine, fastidious nature of the angelic Doctor Thomas,  removed from the temptations of the external world and academically ensconced in his university room.  These are stereotypes with a ring of truth about them, but it would be an injustice to both these theological giants, to let their images be dominated by these one-dimensional depictions.  It is not unlike the differentials that are stressed between the flamboyant, showbiz image of the late, great Blessed pope, John Paul 11 and the reserved, diffident disposition of the current incumbent of the Chair of St Peter,pope Benedict XV1.  Again this narrow stereotypical depiction of these 2 great popes, in terms of their very different personalities, does a great injustice to the similarly  profound intellectual and spiritual qualities of both these men.

  • Polycarp

    Such a narrow rambling approach surely misses the point and dishonours Augustine’s clear moral insights and astounding impact on our understanding and benefit?  A critique laden with unwelcome mockery and abuse!  Surely embedded self righteousness, not charity is at work!

  • JamesC

    Yes, paulpriest seems to think he is an expert in everything Catholic related.  Rather I think he is too puffed full of his own arrogance.   No doubt he thinks he is more Catholic than the Pope, how sad and uncharitable.  Father was pointing out some salient points about Augustine, paulpriest seems to have been brainwashed by Aquinas’ dogmas.  Augustine’s work is not funadmental moral theology?  He obviously doesn’t know what he is talking about.

  • Anonymous

    “he is the great enlightener…..” Father, was is enlightened about Augustine’s teaching on the damnation of the unbaptised?

  • Anonymous

    In what way am I dishonouring St Augustine?
    Or mocking, abusing, displaying self-righteousness or writing in an uncharitable way?

    I thought that was your remit Polycarp? [Yes Ma'am welcome back - double act now I see?]

    St Augustine did not intend his writings to be used in such a way – he was sermonising, warning, qualifying, extemporising, defying, elucidating…not attempting to write fundamental moral theology.

    If I’m guessing correctly I think Fr Alexander is arguing that in the tension between microcosmic and macroanthropic understandings of man as the ‘zoon nouon echon’ ; Neo-thomists have over-emphasised the microcosmic to the detriment of the human condition – by being too anti-pelagian they’ve inadvertently become more calcified and veer too closely to Donatism – hence a healthy dose of understanding regarding the nature of the redeemed but scarred fallen individual is reclaiming his/her identity by acknowledging their folly and their weakness and their hidden yearnings for the Divine and opening oneself to to all readily available grace.

    An injection of Augustinian sensibility – a bucket of ice-cold water on the complacency and arrogance of the situation – IS understandable and justifiable.

    But to dangerously suggest a ‘moral form’ of the Anglican’s ‘Radical orthodoxy’ [which is neither] by having Augustine formulate first principles and build upon them?

    ..would be wrong..”like trying to run a car on champagne or oiling gears with jam” [John Paul I]


  • Quodvultdeus

    It would be nice to read your doctorate thesis.
    “Of course, Aquinas has got the papal seal of approval”. So does Augustine: Leo XIII: “Aeterni patris”, 
    On the restoration of Christian
    philosophy. Pius XI – encyclical “Ad salutem” (1930); John Paul II – apostolic letter “Augustinum Hipponensem” (1986); Pope Benedict XVI quotes him 8 times in his “Sacramentum Caritatis” (2007) encyclical and in apostolic exohort. “Verbum Domini” (2010) at least ten times, not mentionning the series of his Wednesday catecheses.
    I agree and disagree with Pualpriest. Augustine’s doctrine shouldn’t be based and indeed is not based on experience, but rather the other way round: for the bishop of Hippo experience should be enlightened by the doctrine drawn from the Revelation. Leo XIII testifies to that in his encyclical “Aeterni patris” 7: “since, as Augustine
    testifies, “if reason is turned against the authority of sacred
    Scripture, no matter how specious it may seem, it errs in the likeness of
    truth; for true it cannot be. (Epistola 147, ad Marcellinum, 7; PL 33, 589)”

    And in this sense Augustine REMAINS the greatest authority in theology, in spite of Peter Brown’s – who certainly must have read a lot about Augustine but not much of his works – pseudo-psychological analyses of his views on human sinfulness. I would recommend reading A. Trappe “Saint Augustine : man, pastor, mystic” London : Augustinian Press, 1985 as well as, E. TeSelle (1970). Augustine the Theologian. London: 2002 (2nd edition).

  • ConfusedofChi

    ..what a sensible comment!!

  • Polycarp

    Unfortunately, your critiques continue to offer little, if any, of didactic relevance, of sweet charity
    and of good will to the learned Father.  HOW
    you say, WHAT you say, really matters! 

  • Anonymous

    …otherwise the roof might cave in eh Ma’am?

    I respect Father enough to not sycophantly laud him when I think he’s wrong ; rather I have the sincerity to disagree with him when necessary and invariably make every attempt to understand why he argues in such a way and in what way he’s right and what are the underlying arguments and problems he’s trying to address and redress.

    It might irk the Father somewhat on occasion; and I’m sorry if it looks that way but Truth is all our business isn’t it? Whenever I’m in error [and I often am] I am certain that Father would also use every effort to correct me and prevent me from being more an embarrassment/failure than I am at present.

    Now how about arguing in defence of Fr’s position rather than attacking me on a personal level? Unless of course there’s an ulterior motive for your appearance on here?

  • Joel Pinheiro

    St. Augustine indeed was, and still remains, one of the most important doctors of moral theology. It was by his arguments and words that, at least until the 12th century, that the Church in the West guided itself in matters of accepting or condemning practices.

    It was not always the best approach though. Consider how he thought any passion to be sinful, and every act of intercourse (between the married) to include at least venial sin (not because of its essence, but because of the incidental passion and loss of reason). Also, it had to be done with an express and conscious desire to conceive in each and every relation. Sex with a pregnant woman, therefore, sinful. In his conception, man in his original state would have sexual relations as a purely rational decision to procreate, and the sexual members would obey a cold decree of reason to initiate the act. Speaking as a layman who believes it is possible to attain sanctity in this world, I must say my sympathies lie with Aquinas and the tradition of thought he originated (not to be confused with the blind allegiance to anything the “Angelic Doctor” ever said, transforming his living thought into a dead catechism).

    That said, the Confessions remain as one of the most important readings of my life. Which goes to show how much it is possible for people united in faith to disagree even about important things and yet see a huge value in each other’s work.