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Hands that ought to hold God

The practice of righteousness is to bear with this time and in some way to fast from this world, not from ordinary food, which we do rarely, but from love of the world, which we ought always to be doing. Whoever abstains from this world, therefore, fulfills the law. For one cannot love what is eternal unless one stops loving what is temporal. Consider human love; think of it as the souls hand. If it holds one thing, it cant hold something else. For it to take hold something given to it, it has to let go of what its already holding. This is what Im saying. Ill say it plainly: One who loves the world cannot love God: his hands are full. God says to him: Take what Im giving. He doesnt want to let go of what hes holding; he cant accept whats being offered. Am I saying that he cant possess anything? If he can, if perfection requires it of him, then let him not possess anything. If he cant, if some need prevents it, then let him possess it but not be possessed by it; let him hold it, and not it hold him; let him be the lord, not the servant, of his property. ... What does it mean: Dont love what you possess in this world? That it not fill hands that ought to hold God. (Augustine, Sermon 125, 7; PL 38, 694)

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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What a brilliant and original metaphor.

May I ask a tangential question, and hope not to derail the conversation? How should one pronounce this saint's name? Residents of Florida say "AU-gus-teen". But in my undergraduate days, I heard "au-GUS-tin".

Jim, I learned, and have always heard in church circles, the pronunciation au-Gus-tin. St. Augustine in Florida, the city, is AU-gus-teen, but you should never take Florida as normative. There is also St. AU-gus-teen grass, which survives well in Florida. The Germans (my maternal side) sing (constantly) "Ach, du lieber AU-gus-teen." But I'd still stick to au-Gus-tin until I hear someone who knows what he is talking about insist otherwise.

My father grew up in St. Augustine's parish on the South Side of Chicago and they pronounced it au-Gus-tin.

Jim Pauwels:I lived and worked in the diocese of St. Augustine for 22 years. I was told that au-GUS-tinis the English pronunciation of the city and that AU-gus-teen reflects the Spanish origin of the name. (As you probably know Pedro Menndez de Avils sighted land on August 28, 1565, the feast day of Augustine of Hippo, and named the territory, San Agustn.) I would probably have been fired from my job if I had called my place of work, the Diocese of St. au-GUS-tin. We really get to know how Augustine related to his congregation in his sermons. Some of his "takes" on Scripture are quite funny, at least to me. In presenting the words of John the Baptist "He must increase, I must decrease., he says that Jesus did increase by being raised on the cross and John did decrease by being beheaded.In recent times copies of lost sermons buried in medieval manuscripts in Europe were discovered(26 in 1990 and 8 in 2007).I think that his sermons should be required reading in seminaries and diaconate programs.

Augustine says "One who loves the world cannot love God." Very different point of view than Aquinas, who if i understand him correctly, sees hierarchies of good. So life itself, the physical world with all it entails, and the world of the mind are all goods, just not as good as the highest good, which is the happiness of contemplating the divine. Aquinas also thinks that existence is good because of his idea of God's knowledge. God knows things, and because of that knowledge, voil, we are sustained in being. By Gods knowing, the universe exists, so God is everywhere and in everything.It never made sense to me that having a loving attitude toward the world could be bad. Obviously, loving it in excess, to the exclusion of everything else, etc. etc. etc., is not good. But in and of itself? I don't see it.

Given what I was taught as a child, this text sounds positively heretical. But it does reflect St. A.'s personality, I think. All or nothing.

He is a fascinating fellow. Talk about an inquiring mind. We need another one of him today, too. Patricia Hampl, in her book I Could Tell You Stories, calls his Confessions that intensely personal document we now think of as the Wests first autobiography. And his ideas on the Trinity are still the only ones that ever made any sense to me. But I do think that like most people, his intellectual life was colored and even bounded by his emotional life.

Sick to think we should not love the world. What a lot of suffering and loneliness and insanity have come out of that sick teaching. But maybe Augustine was having a bad day when he advised the Creator's creatures to stop loving the creation. Just 102 sermons later, in what Garry Wills calls "his most explicit claim that what is changed in the Mass is not the bread given out but the believers receiving it," Augustine says, "This bread makes clear how you should love your union with one another." In Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, Wills devotes a chapter to "Explaining the Miracle: Augustine." The chapter is sad, because Wills tells of the punishment (silencing, isolation, ostracism) of others who followed Augustine lead in challenging the official view of transubstantiation and the real presence over the centuries: de Lubac, Berengar, Ratramnus, Danielou, Congar, Chenu, de Chardin, Rahner, Murray, et al. (Some were reinstated and even made cardinals, but their teachings have not reached down to the lamb level yet.)

Gerelyn: "their teachings have not reached down to the lamb level yet." As one of the lambs, how true.dotC provides an introduction to so much, for which I am grateful. This is absolutely the first time I have ever heard of transubstantiation and the real presence as under question or reframing. My ignorance stares me in the face. Not that I am scandalized in any way, but concerned that apparently so many of us are clueless. No doubt, I share an obligation to learn what I can but where have I been, or where has the teaching church been?How necessary to deepen my understanding. So much never gets to the pulpit, at least the ones where I have lived.Funny, Ann, to read your note, "Given what I was taught as a child, this text sounds positively heretical." I came away with, "Given what I was taught as a child, this text is solid truth."

Carolyn, that's exactly what I thought when I read the chapter. Why wasn't that ever mentioned in religion class, in theology, in Christology, in a single sermon, retreat conference, etc., etc. (They keep silence for fear of being silenced.) My religion teachers and theology professors were pretty radical when it came to social teachings, but now I realize they were too afraid to tell us what we probably intuited anyway.E.g., even in grade school I wondered about the "real presence," making "visits," etc. If God is everywhere, and Jesus is God, how can he be more present in the Eucharist, in the tabernacle, in the monstrance, etc.?But I didn't ask. I had classmates, especially in high school, who would challenge the teacher, argue, go on and on about stuff like WHY does God care if we go to Mass on Sunday instead of Monday? Or on Sunday instead of the REAL ORIGINAL sabbath, Saturday, etc. It was mildly amusing, but I wasn't inclined to do that. Another thing I wondered about, but didn't ask about, was heresy. I had one theology professor who was wild about heresy. He told us about many of them. I noticed the prominence of women in heresies. Women rose to leadership positions that the official church couldn't tolerate, so they had to be eradicated. (Cathars, e.g., and many others.) But what I really wondered about was how could a human being care so much about an obscure and unprovable point of theology as to burn and disembowel another human.Now I know, of course. The hatred on the various blogs makes it clear that people would gladly burn one another. (The comments about Garry Wills on the Diane Rehm page, e.g., some of the reviews, and some of the posts by some bloggers are scary. Probably not to him, though. He seems very good-natured about it all.)

It seems that if you're willing to look at evidence and exercise reason, there's lots of things you can figure out; it's how we acquire knowledge. But when it comes to mystery, I think we're at a crossroads. In the old days, we just accepted the view of the Church on the mysteries of faith, and didn't worry too much about it: the natural, the supernatural, the angels, the saints, sin, grace, heaven, and hell. Faith was defined and legitimized by religious authorities. That doesn't work anymore. Yet we haven't developed a coherent understanding of the guts of the faith to replace what was lost with the collapse of authority: the nature of God, the nature of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, etc. I don't think we have the words yet to express these things today in ways that make sense. But I don't think the underlying realities have gone away. Mystery is real. It needs to re-expressed. Throwing away the old definition is one thing, which Wills does. Coming up with new versions that respect mystery and tradition is another. And condemning theologians who are trying to do just that obviously doesn't help matters. It's yet another of the many toxicities of autocracy.

Carolyn and Jeanne --Hmm. Makes me wonder what the other people here were taught. And I wonder if it varied even within a diocese, say by the priests or pastors or by orders of priests and nuns.I know that New Orleans Catholicism was influenced by Jansenism, but this city was never thoroughly Jansenistic -- let the good times roll, cher:-) Janssen also influenced Irish Catholicism, and I'm wondering if that influence was strong in the Eastern U. S. seminaries or orders. But I don't know whether Janssen himself went so far as to say that we should't love the world at all.

Jeanne: "But I dont think the underlying realities have gone away. Mystery is real. It needs to re-expressed. Throwing away the old definition is one thing, which Wills does. Coming up with new versions that respect mystery and tradition is another. And condemning theologians who are trying to do just that obviously doesnt help matters. Its yet another of the many toxicities of autocracy."Amen. Thank you, Gerelyn and Ann, as well."Yet we havent developed a coherent understanding of the guts of the faith to replace what was lost with the collapse of authority: the nature of God, the nature of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, etc." But, but the search itself can be so meaningful. Relax, gentlemen.

The doctor's verb is "love." I think some of you are confusing that with "admire," "respect," "be awestruck by," "appreciate" or "really like." And, given who he was and the times, there is a strong element of the sensual in "love" the way Augustine used it that you would not apply to the universe.

Why pit loving God against loving the world? Why can't we love both? I'd read that Schillebeeckx disbelieved transubstantiation but instead liked the idea of transignification.

If God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, why shouldn't WE love the world? Didn't Jesus say that we should be perfect as his heavenly Father is perfect?

I interpret Augustine's words here, and similar types of language from the Bible, as "detachment". Detachment has a familiar ring psychologically and it has parallels with eastern forms of spirituality such as Buddhism. Not that these are exactly the same thing but I think a certain detachment from things of the world is psychologically helpful and good for the soul.It doesn't solve the problem because it is difficult to be detached but not indifferent. I don't think he is calling for indifference as the work of justice is Godly work of course. But too much attachment or love of the "world" is helpful.Additionally, it is probably helpful to breakdown what is meant by the term the "world" when used by Augustine and Paul. I don't think it has to do with material creation. I think the world, in this sense, has to do with power, craving, envy, etc. all the things associated with engagement in "worldly" affairs. So hating those things is challenging as that is the way of the world (pun intended).

I don't like the idea of detachment much, though it does come up a lot in different religions. Jesus seemed to me to be anything but emotionally detached.

In the Scriptures "world" can have at least the following meanings or referents: (1) the universe of things; (2) the world of nature; (3) the human world; (4) the human world as infected or corrupted by sin. St. Augustine was aware of these various meanings.In the snippet above, the word used is saeculum, which originally meant "age" or "generation," but which in the Scriptures can mean "world" or "worldliness," as in Jas 1:27: "Religion clean and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their tribulation, and to keep one's self unspotted from this world (immaculatus ab hoc saeculo."

i know "tradition" includes St Aug et alia...but could we look at the same metaphor's meaning at the light of Liberation Theologies retaltionship with Possesions...the conversation on religion does not have (for me) a more todays' vocabulary and that does not appeal to many.

On the world in its various forms: A meditation from a German Jesuit site, on the virtues of listening, speaks about the ability to be silent and to listen, e.g., when one's relations with others have gone awry (the way one notices, and is alarmed by the engine of a car not sounding right); the ability to hear one's inner voices against the temptations of anger or simply a bad mood; the ability to hear what the words of Scripture, drawn from an older, more distant time, really say to us today. Then it closes:"And God's call , that comes to us not from Scripture, but from the world that surrounds us -- I can try this week to listen especially to that. . ."(this from the German version of Sacred Space, though it's no longer up there since they don't keep an archive of their past posts).

"Jesus seemed to me to be anything but emotionally detached"Not sure about that. He says in Luke that whoever comes to me and does not hate mother, father, brothers, and sisters and even his own life cannot be his disciple.And, he seems to separate himself from familial ties when his mother and brothers come and are worried about him and he says that whoever does the will of my Father, that person is my mother, my brother, my sister.That does not necessarily mean that Jesus is emotionally detached but it does suggest that he reorders natural relationships in some way.So as to Fr. K's clarification that "world", at least in this sermon, refers to the saeculum (age or generation), it seems that there is a kind of detachment from this age's present way of thinking (to the extent that is even humanly possible) that is called for this Lent.

George D I think that "hating" mother, father, etc., is a Semitic way of saying that something else is preferred to them. ( Paul speaks of God hating Esau and Loving Jacob in Romans 9: 13, but it refers to a text in the OT expressing a divine preference for the people of Israel over against the descendants of Esau.)Maybe that is one way to look at what Augustine is trying to say here. God is to be preferred to the "world," taken in the somewhat pejorative senses Fr. K points out.Still, metaphors can be revealing, and I do find chilling both Augustine's view of human loving as a zero-sum game, and his reluctant concession that if duty demands, one might have leave to "possess" what one loves-- but strictly as its "master."

Some examples of Jesus' non-detachment ... - his cleansing of the temple - his tears over Lazarus' death and over the fate of Jerusalem - his rant against the Scribes and Pharisees - the compassion (upset stomach - splagchnon) he felt when he saw people suffering

Jesus fairly often speaks in extreme exaggerations, e.g., "If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out". At least as translated we obviously are not to take that literally. So when we find extreme statements that are contradictory it seems to me that we have to take them -- or at least one of them -- as exaggerations. They aren't metaphors -- they're exaggerations, but they too are not meant entirely literally. Like metaphors they convey some truth *and* they falsify, so they can be dangerous.

Examples of Jesus' detachment:- he had many friends but was willing to let go of his friendships in order to undergo his Passion- he frequently let go of company to go to the desert and pray- he would have liked the young rich man to come follow him, but did not pressure him- he presumably was a loving son, yet detached himself from his family to go preach- he had times of popularity and numerous followers, yet did not refrain from some hard sayings that turned some people away- and, maybe: he had a plan in mind, yet did not refrain, to answer his mother's request, from chugging water into wine before the proper time according to his plans.He possessed family, friends, disciples, success, but was not enslaved by any of that, not possessed by any of his attachments, and never hesitated to let go of what he was holding to receive what he was being given by the Father.When our schedule is so full that when an opportunity to give some help arrives, we just don't have time for it - then we've become the servant, not the master, of our schedule. When our budget is so tight that we have to turn down chances to spend money constructively - we've become the servant, not the master, of our income. When we are so afraid of crime that we stay home at certain times at which we used to love going out - we've become the servant, not the master, of our love of safety. When our love of beautiful objects prevents us from traveling, lest a burglary happen while we're away. When our attachment to health and hygiene prevents us from receiving communion from the cup, lest we catch a cold. When we grow so attached to this or that that we add constraints to our lives and lose our freedom to welcome what might come our way. That also extends to attachment to freedom itself. When we're so attached to our dreams that we can't tolerate disruptions. When we cannot take what arrives from the future and let go of the past to welcome the present. It's not that those things acquired in our lives so far are not good, or that we shouldn't love them. It's that we ought not to let our lives be defined by them.

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