‘Disturbed, Not by Misery but by Mercy’

Lent 2014: Readings from Augustine

Commenting on the statement that Jesus was “troubled in spirit” at the Last Supper (Jn 13:21), St. Augustine took care to distinguish Christianity from Stoicism:

Away with the arguments of the philosophers who maintain that emotions do not disturb the minds of the wise. God has made foolish the wisdom of this world (1 Cor 1:20), and God knows the thoughts of men, that they are vain (Ps 93/94:11) Clearly the mind of a Christian may be disturbed, not by misery but by mercy; he may be afraid that people will be lost to Christ; he may be saddened that someone has been lost to Christ; he may desire that people be gained for Christ; he may be afraid that he himself will be lost to Christ; he may be saddened by his own estrangement from Christ; he may desire to reign with Christ; he may rejoice in the hope that he will reign with Christ. Those are the four emotions they talk about: fear and sadness, love and gladness. Christian minds may have valid reasons for having them and for not agreeing with the error of Stoics or other similar philosophers who think that truth is vanity and consider insensibility to be health, unaware that, just like a member of the body, the mind is even more desperately ill when it no longer feels pain.

Augustine went on to explain why Christ himself was willing to be troubled:

Very strong indeed are those Christians, if there are any, who are not troubled by the near approach of death. But are they stronger than Christ? Who would be so crazy as to claim it?  What, then, does it mean that he was troubled if not that by the voluntary similarity of his weakness he has comforted those in his body, the Church, who are weak so that if any of his own are still troubled in spirit by the approach of death, they may look to him and not think themselves rejected because of this trouble and be swallowed up by the even worse death of despair? How great, then, must be the good that we can await and hope for from participation in the divinity of him whose trouble calms us, whose weakness strengthens us? Whether in this passage he was troubled out of pity for Judas as he was perishing or because his death was approaching, there should be no doubt at all that he was not troubled by weakness of mind but by its strength so that we will not despair of our salvation when we are troubled, not by strength but by weakness. (In Ioannem Tr. 60, 3, 5; PL 1798-1799)

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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I was struck by this sentence:

Away with the arguments of the philosophers who maintain that emotions do not disturb the minds of the wise.

When I contemplate death, I am overcome by the  prospect of Heaven on the one hand, and Hell on the other.  Death so obliterates any ordinariness of thought that it becomes impossible to reflect on the limiless joy of Heaven, and the unthinkable horror of Hell:  eternity without love, friendship, human company, sunshine, laughter, nothing but the consciousness of nothingness forever.  This alone motivates  me to confess my sins, and pray and pray for God's mercy.  Perhaps Christ  felt some of those things, His way of sharing even the contemplation of death with us, as He gave us His love.  He shared all things as a man with us, out of His love.

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