Thursday, August 28, 2008

St. Augustine

According to Benedict XVI, the life of Saint Augustine is centered ellipse-like around two foci that are not unlike the two parts of the liturgy: the liturgy of the Word, and the liturgy of sacrifice. They are two moments of conversion in Augustine’s life. Benedict underlines that one is not born a Christian. One converts to Christianity.

“The Basic Attitude behind the two conversions and changes in Augustine’s life, that is, behind his turning to the word and later to the selfless service of others, is what he himself once called his restlessness of heart. He means the attitude that will not let human beings be at peace with themselves and their present state but keeps them journeying toward the eternal reality in which alone they can find repose and fulfillment.”[1]

First Conversion

Augustine was not baptized as a child. The first conversion is Augustine’s first real assimilation of the Word of God into his very self. In Book 8, chapters 11 and 12 of the “Confessions,” he describes the dialogue within him between his captivation by concupiscence and the call of continence: “My lovers of old, trifles of trifles and vanities of vanities, held me back. They plucked at my fleshly garment, and they whispered softly: ‘Do you cast us off?’ and “From that moment we shall no more be with you forever and ever!’ “Continence again “smiled, as if to say: ‘Turn deaf ears to those unclean members of yours upon the earth, so that they may be mortified. They tell you of delights, but not as does the law of the Lord your God.’ This debate within my heart was solely of myself against myself.”

Benedict writes: “He tells us that one day he tears himself away from his friend Alypius in order to be alone in the garden with his distress, his temptations, his inner conflict. In this moment of extreme agitation he thinks he hears a child crying repeatedly, Tolle, lege! Take and read!’ He asks himself whether this can be part of a children’s game. He can think of no such game and feels that the words are meant for him and are a summons to a turning-point in his life. He rises, finds a Bible, opens it and reads the words: ‘Put on the Lord Jesus.’

“This was indeed the turning-point in his life. Whatever historical explanation we give to the child’s words ‘Take and read!’ Augustine truly made them a program for his life. At this moment he really discovered the word of God and henceforth remained a hearer of the word, constantly turning to it in order to gain light and direction for his life. At this moment, then, he experienced in his own person the situation of decision, the primal situation of Adam in the garden. And in this primal situation of Adam in the garden of decision he found in God’s word the tree of life that brought him the closeness to God and the communion with God which Adam had lost because he had attempted by his own powers to become like God and actually divine.”

This first moment of conversion for Augustine can be read into Ratzinger’s own intellectual development concerning the meaning of revelation and faith. As we have seen many times before, Ratzinger’s habilitation thesis was about the personalist characteristic of both. Revelation was not words and concepts but an “action” in which God shows himself. That “action” is the Person of Jesus Christ as the full and total revelation of the Father. That action – which is self-giving – must be “heard” and received by the believer in a reciprocal resonating of that action. In a word, revelation and faith are the same “act” which is self-gift whereby the believer becomes Christ Himself by becoming the self-gift that Christ is.

Once, enigmatically but succinctly, Ratzinger wrote: “What does the Church believe? This question includes the others: who believes and how should one believe? That Catechism has dealt with both fundamental questions: the question of ‘what’ to believe and of ‘who’ believes, as one question with an interior unity. In other words, the catechism illustrates the act of the faith and the content in their inseparability.”[3]

Further down he explains: “The faith is an orientation of our existence as a whole, in its completeness. It is a basic decision, one which has effects in every aspect of our existence and one which is realized only if it is supported by all the efforts of our existence. Faith is not solely an intellectual process, or solely one of will or emotions; it is all of these together. It is an act of the entire self, of the whole person in the unity of all the elements of that person gathered into one. In this sense it was described by the Bible as an act of the ‘heart’ (Rom. 10, 9). It is a highly personal act. But precisely because it is this, it surpasses the self, the ‘I,’ the limits of the individual. Nothing belongs to us as little as our self, stl Augustine affirms in one passage.

“Where the human being as a whole is at stake, he surpasses himself; an act of the complete ‘I’ is always at the same time becoming open to others, an act of ‘being with.’ And even more: we cannot realize ourselves without touching our most profound foundation, the living God, who is present in the profundity of our existence and sustains it. Where the human being as a whole is at stake, together with the ‘I’ there is also present the ‘we’ and the ‘you’ of the totally other, the ‘you’ of God.”

The whole thing can be made more explicit if we consider that the manifestation of the divine Person of Christ is the act prayer to the Father. We can see that as well as join in to do it ourselves in union with Christ (Lk. 9, 18). If we perform the act that Christ performs, then we experience in ourselves what He experiences Himself as God-man. By transferring our prayer experience to Him, we are able to name Him the Christ, Son of the living God. Like is known by like. Only God knows God (Mt. 11, 27). That act of faith, then, is an act of becoming like God and therefore knowing God because in some measure we are God. This is not pantheism but created imaging.

This is what went on in Augustine: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”[5]

Second Conversion

Augustine is called to be bishop. “On a visit to Hippo, the great seaport of North Africa, he entered the church and listened to the elderly bishop, Valerius, preaching. The bishop said, among other things, that he was on the years and that, begin Greek by birth, he found preaching very difficult; he had long been looking for a suitable priest to assist him. At this moment a tumultuous cry ran through the church: ‘Let Augustine be our bishop!’ The people laid hold of him; his refusal and tears and resistance were unavailing, and they dragged him to the front of the church. Bishop Valerius seconded the invitation. As a result, Augustine was ordained a priest, entirely against his own wishes….

“It is precisely here that we see Augustine’s greatness: in the fact that out of obedience he accepted this new direction for his life and gave himself completely to the new task now laid upon him. For from this moment forward there was no more time for tranquil study of the word and for the stillness of contemplation that he has chosen as his lot in life. From early morning to late evening he was constantly up against the whole panorama of human life. The doorbell of his house rang al day long, and he had to reconcile enemies, comfort mourners, and do all the things that are a priest’s lot. In addition, according to the legal setup of the time, he was judge in all the civil litigation of the town and was involved in all the human dealings of its citizens”[6]

Benedict XVI has seen this precedent of Augustine fulfilled in his own life. After a very short period as Archbishop of Munich-Freising, Ratzinger was called to Rome by John Paul II to head the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He continued in that position for five year intervals before each of which he asked to return to study and writing. John Paul II kept renewing his position until he was elected Pope in 2005. He continues here in the same uncomfortable position as Augustine, but more so.

This Augustinian state of affairs is reflected in Ratzinger’s episcopal and papal coat of arms, principally in the Pallium (the wool of the sheep: pastoral office), the shell (the infinite depth of God: like putting the ocean into a hole with shell) and the bear carrying the pack (the burden of pastoral office). Benedict has seen himself as the bear that devoured the horse of St. Corbinian on his trip to Rome. “As the saint was riding to Rome, a bear ran out of the forest and devoured his horse. The saint ordered the bear to carry his pack to Rome for him. Ratzinger made the bear part of his coat of arms, likening himself to that bear: instead of indulging tin theological thinking, writing, and teaching, he had no choice but to carry the heavy pack of St. Corbinian, the burden of the pastoral office.” Rock Kereszty adds, “like Sts. Augustine, Archbishop Ratzinger did not cease to be a theologian: instead, he learned to teach the deepest mysteries of faith in a language that speaks to ordinary people.”

[1] J. Ratzinger, “Dogma and Preaching,” Franciscan Herald Press (1985) 125.
[2] J. Ratzinger, “Dogma and Preaching” ibid.120-121.
[3] J. Ratzinger, “What Does the Church Believe?” The Catholic Word Report, (March 1993) 27.
[4] Ibid
[5] Augustine, “Confessions,” Book 10.
[6] J. Ratzinger, “Dogma and Preaching,” op. cit. 123.

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