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Alms for your own soul

"Dont delay converting to the Lord; dont put it off from day to day. For his anger will come suddenly, and in the time of vengeance he will destroy you (Sir 5:8-9). So dont put it off; dont let the door still open close against you. The giver of pardon opens a door for you: why are you delaying? Youd rejoice if he opened it at your knock; youre not knocking, and he opens the door, and you remain outside? So dont put it off. Scripture says somewhere, with regard to the works of mercy, Dont say: Go away and come again, and tomorrow Ill give to you, when you can give at present (Prov 3:28), because you dont know what might happen the following day. Youve heard the command not to put off being merciful to another, and you still put off accepting pardon. If you dont put off showing mercy to another, show mercy also to your soul by pleasing God (Sir 30:24). Give alms to your soul, too. Im not saying that you give it, but dont push away the hand of the giver. (Augustine, Sermon 87, 11; PL 38, 536-37)

Why does he say, Give alms, and behold all things are clean to you (Lk 11:41)? What does it mean, Give alms? It means show mercy. And what does that mean? If you want to understand it, start from yourself. How can you show mercy to another if you are cruel to yourself?.... Your soul is begging you; return to your conscience. Whoever you are, living wickedly, living unfaithfully: return to your conscience, and there you will find your soul begging, youll find it needy; youll find it poor; youll find it miserable; and if you dont find it needy, its because its need has deprived it even of speech. For its begging; its hungry for righteousness. When you find your soul like that, inwardly, in your heart, give alms to it first; give it bread. What bread? If the Pharisee were to ask that, the Lord would tell him: Give alms to your own soul. This is what he said to him, but he didnt understand when he listed the alms they were performing, which they thought Christ did not know about. He said to them: I know what you are doing. You tithe mint and anise, cummin and rue; but Im talking about other alms: you scorn judgment and charity (see Mt. 23:23). With judgment and charity, give alms to your own soul. What does judgment mean? Look and find: be unhappy with yourself; pass judgment on yourself. And what is charity? Love the Lord God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind; love your neighbor as yourself (Mt 22:37, 39), and you have shown mercy first to your soul, in your conscience. But if you neglect this alms, then give what you wish, donate as much as youd like; withdraw half, not just a tenth, of your produce; give nine-tenths of it away and keep one tenth for yourselfwith all that, youve done nothing if you havent done anything for yourself, and you remain poor in yourself. Feed your soul before it dies of hunger. Give it bread. What bread? he asks. The bread that is speaking to you. If you listen to him and understand and believe the Lord, he himself will say to you, I am the living bread that came down from heaven (Jn 6:41). Should this not be the first bread you give to your soul, the alms you give it? If you believe, then, you must first feed your soul. Believe in Christ, and the inside will be made clean first and then the outside will be made clean (see Mt 23:25-26). (Augustine, Sermon 107, 4; PL 38, 626-27)

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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In these sermons St. Augustine always speaks directly to his audience -- "You...", "You...", "You..." Very effective, to put it mildly. Does he ever give the sort of sermons that string one generality after another, I mean sort of theoretical ones?

Ann, don't you think that if you heard someone speak like that, you might wonder where he stands? He's telling us to go inside the door, but does he know that he himself is inside?One of the things I appreciate the most from homilists is if, whenever they say something slightly critical, they include themselves among the targets of the criticism. It disarms the defensive reaction: "who does he think he is? What a holier-than-thou type!" Personally, I think I could only receive a homily such as the one quoted here if there was an already established relationship that would prevent that kind of reaction. (But maybe you're more docile than me.)

Most of the time Augustine didn't preach from a prepared text, and his vivid style and the interaction between him and his congregation were preserved for us by stenographers in the congregation. There are other sermons that he dictated in order to finish off a lot: e.g., some of the comments on John's Gospel and on the Psalms. Some sermons of either kind engage in more theoretical developments, but his primary purpose was evangelical and hortatory.

I shouldn't have said that Augustine uses only "you..." as his means to address the individuals before him. He uses all sort of second-person constructions == "don't put it off", 'return. . .", "don't say...", "show mercy...", "give. . . give. . . give. . .", "look and find...", "show...", "don't push away..." -- and that's just in the first paragraph!You might call this "second-person preaching".[Off-topic: What word in Augustine does "conscience" translate? I keep trying to find the origin of the word "consciousness" with the contemporary sense of the term. Historically it's related to the symbol-cum-sense "conscience", but "conscience" meant a particular kind of consciousness. A. slices these psychological acts and states very thin, and I wonder would you know if there is in his writings some reflection on consciousness as such, whether or not he uses a special word for it. I'd be surprised if he doesn't consider it somewhere. Maybe he had a word you'd translate as "awareness".]

Claire --I think that my whole generation is more docile than your generation. I see this as a big problem, maybe the biggest problem with the boomers and post-boomers. These days one of the worst sins one can commit is to be "judgmental", which, I suspect, stems from the notion that there is no objective right or wrong, or at least very little which is clearly right or wrong. The issue is a philosophical one, specifically epistemological. It isn't a matter of simply accepting what more experienced people tell us. It's a matter or whether or not we respect the experience and (we hope) veracity of others. From Kant until rather recently, the basic "Enlightened" Western cultural assumption was that we must be "critical" in our thinking -- and of everyone else's, and this notion finally filtered down into the popular Western cultures. This has ironically resulted in the philosophers' being critical of Kant, and it has finally been realized by philosopers of science that science itself is provisional and even intrinsically shaky in its empirical foundations. That idea has yet to hit the streets, so not-being-judgmental is still the norm.

Ann: The same ambiguity to the word exists still in the Romance languages. Thus my big fat Italian dictionary gives as the first two meanings of coscienza (1) conscience, (2) consciousness, awareness. My French dictionary reverses the order: "Consciousness, perception; conscience, conscientiousness, morality, integrity." Which often makes for difficulty in translating whether from Latin or from modern languages: does it mean here consciousness in the sense of self-awareness or conscience in our sense of moral conscience. Augustine knew both meanings. There is a reflection on what we call self-awareness both in his refutation of sceptics (Si fallor, sum) and in his elaboration of his psychological analogy for the Holy Trinity both in his great work and in a sermon that anticipates it. And you're right, he showed such a keen insight into human psychology that he must have practiced a good deal of self-introspection.Salvino Biolo did a dissertation at the Gregorian under Bernard Lonergan. When first published in 1969, it bore the title La coscienza nel De Trinitate di S. Agostino, but when it was republished in revised form in 2000, the title was changed to L'Autocoscienza to make it clear, as he explained in a note, that he was writing about the inner 'self-awareness' that accompanies all intentional activity.There is a considerable debate among scholars today as to whether Descartes' Cogito, ergo sum is at all indebted to Augustine.

I should add that you have my sympathy -- at one and the same time your culture tells you to be critical in your thinking, but it also tells you not to judge others. There's a fundamental contradiction there, and it must be painful to try to deal with it.

I've found Augustine's elaboration of the psychological analogy of self-awareness for the Holy Trinity one of the most elegant (and ultimately understandable) aspects of the faith. And its so interesting that conscience is so closely related to consciousnessthe fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

JAK --Thanks for all the information. I'm not surprised that "consciousness" comes first in your French dictionary. So far as I've been able to discover, Descartes seems to have been the first Westerner to focus on self-awareness, though he didn't use a word similar to "consciousness" (much less "conscience") to signify it. (I've forgotten which French word it was. Sigh.) But I'm not looking for the first appearance of *self-consciousness* in the West, I'm looking for simply "consciousness", that act/action/ground of an act/whatever which can have self and non-self as object, even both at the same time (as Thomas thinks they do). The word is so central to contemporary philosophizing that I think its origins need to be examined closely because the origins should tell us something about any biases in the uses of the term. From what I've read about him, it seems that Locke is the first one to really examine cs.-as-such, but he confuses self and consciousness, a mistake that has been dominant in philosophy up until G. E. Moore finally made the distinction between cs. and its objects. crystal clear. I must read Edward Feser's book on consciousness -- he specializes in both Locke and cs., not to mention Aquinas. So many books! So little time!! :-)

Lonergan, who had a very sophisticated treatment of consciousness, was of the view that both Aristotle and Aquinas also engaged in introspection on their conscious activities. I think of a point in his treatment of human knowing where Aquinas begins a sentence: Quilibet in seipso experiri potest: "Anyone can experience in himself..." It's the experience of self that accompanies an intentional act with reference to an object. That's what I meant by "self-consciousness," by the way. With Lonergan I would distinguish between self-consciousness, which is a simple experience of self and of self's act, from self-knowledge, which results from inquiry, understanding, and judgment. I think it's Aquinas who says that everyone knows he has a soul--by this I think he means experience of the soul and its activities, but that it is extremely difficult to say what the soul is. His treatment of the soul's knowledge of itself is very subtle, and much of it depends on reference to experience. Trying to describe, understand, and define what consciousness is is a major trend in philosophy today, as also in neuro-sciences.

JAK --This time I agree. I've read Thomas' descriptions of our knowing self in knowing other things. But I'm not asking about Thomas and *self-consciousnes*, I'm interested in the origin of the simpler concept of "consciousness". Thomas doesn't seem to have sifted out a more general concept of simply "consciousness". He doesn't even have a word for consciousness. He uses only verbs to describe its actions, e.g. 'in knowing the tree I know myself'.700 years later G. E. Moore clearly sifted out the concept of "consciousness of..." in all of its intentionality, and I think it's due to the influence of his pupils Russell and Wittgenstein and their followers that the mind-body problem is so central to day. I think that Aristotle's psychology is certainy consistent with a concept of consciousness as an intentional act of the soul, but he was more interested in physical intentionality, viz., teleology in biology and physics. And now we have Thomas Nagel, but the die-hard materialists are starting to hate him. Sigh.

I certainly agree that being true to one's conscience is the right thing to do, but when it's put in the rhetoric of the Old Testament [Dont delay converting to the Lord; dont put it off from day to day. For his anger will come suddenly, and in the time of vengeance he will destroy you (Sir 5:8-9)], it's hard not to lose all sense of mercy and feel instead, threatened, pure and simple. Such threats seem in keeping with the mindset of bibilical times, and apparently still with the mindset of many if not most religious Catholics today, but still, threats are threats. It's a little difficult to learn *mercy* from an angry and vengeful God ready to "destroy" those who don't do as he says.

I wouldn't regard the rhetoric of the text invoked by Augustine as exclusively "of the Old Testament." Similar warnings can be found in the New Testament, including in the words of Jesus, e.g., about the narrow gate and road (Mt 7:13-14), about workers of iniquity (Mt 7:21-23), about the weeping and gnashing of teeth and the many called but few chosen (Mt 22:13-14), and about the sheep and the goats: "Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels" (Mt 25:41). It would appear that Jesus was not adverse to warning people about a judgment to come, and I don't think that Augustine was doing anything different in the text above. As Augustine emphasized often, conversion out of fear of punishment is certainly not the loftiest of motives, but it might be the start of a person's turn-around, and eventually fear could be transformed into love.

conversion out of fear of punishment is certainly not the loftiest of motives, but it might be the start of The means to the end. A crooked path. It's like using a disreputable link to win an argument when you know that your ultimate opinion is correct. Your reasons are not so good, but you don't care, as long as they work and convince people.Is that really supposed to be ok? I try not to do it that way. Often, I question ideas if I am not sure that they are well grounded, even when they have strong appeal (for example the idea that forgiveness begets repentance rather than the other way around); and sometimes I bring up ideas even when they go against my desired conclusions (for example the idea that looking at an embryo and seeing a person is like looking at a consecrated wafer and seeing Christ). I thought we were supposed to try to find out what was true, whether convenient or not. Instilling fear of punishment as a ploy to bring people to repentance seems a bit shady. I think that if Jesus warned people about a judgment to come, it must not be a ploy but a reality. I also don't know how "fear can be transformed into love". So, I don't mean to be ornery, but doesn't Beverley make a good point?

I didn't say and don't think that fear of punishment is being used as a ploy, which would suggest that there is no punishment to fear. But if there is such a punishment, and people can be persuaded from evil acts by that fear, that is better than their continuing in their evil actions. St. Augustine would bow to no one in urging people to pursue truth, particularly since he followed St. Paul in asserting that Christ is truth, and in trying to bring them beyond a religion of fear to one of love. He noted, however, the biblical texts, "The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord" and, on the other hand, "Perfect love casts out fear," and he tried to bring them from the imperfect beginning to the perfect conclusion. Fear can become love after a lengthy spiritual progress.

Fear of punishment as a good thing - that's a hard concept to grasp (and I speak as a parent). Fear becoming love - ?? The narrow gate, few are chosen, etc. - if my loved ones are not going to be there, I have little interest in trying for salvation myself (particularly today, the anniversary of my mother's death.)The overall picture this paints is alienating.I give up (on this thread, not on Christianity!)

Claire: To use a homey example: Many (most) people obey traffic laws out of fear of being stopped by a cop and given a ticket. I don't see anything wrong with this. On the other hand, a person could refrain from speeding in a school zone because he doesn't want to injure any children. This person obeys the speed limit because he appreciates its purpose, which could even be called love of the value being protected. I can't find the reference at the moment, but somewhere Augustine says that fear and love of God are in inverse proportion: The more you fear the less you love; the more you love the less you fear. Many people have discerned progress in themselves from a fear-based to a love-based Christianity.One should desire that all one's loved ones are among the few. But those alienating texts are there in the Gospels, and the scholars I've consulted don't doubt that they represent an element in the teaching of Jesus.

This is more important: "you are in me, and I am in you" and "that they all may be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us". That is why I believe we are headed to universal or near-universal salvation. That is also what keeps me trying to love all people, striving for unity, desiring evangelization. I don't understand those alienating texts, but I know that whatever they mean, they cannot compromise the main message. And I know that you agree with me in that, of course. It is pointless, destructive, bad, to read them outside that context. In that, Beverly is right.Or it could be that I have been formed by the lectionary, that its selection of texts is biased to largely avoid the "hard teachings", and that I'm off base.

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