dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

Re-carve your spirit

Turn, O Lord, and deliver my soul (Ps 6:5). Turning himself, the Psalmist prays that the Lord will also turn toward him, as is said elsewhere: Turn to me, and I will turn to you, says the Lord (Zech 1:3). Or should we understand that phrase, Turn, Lord, to mean: Make me turn, since the Psalmist feels the difficulty and labor in his own turn-about? For our perfect turn-about finds the Lord ready, as the prophet says: At dawn we shall find him ready (Hos 6:3, lxx). For its our turning away, not the absence of him who is present everywhere, that causes us to lose him. ... But when we turn ourselves around, that is, when we re-carve our spirit by changing our former life, we find how hard and laborious it is to be turned back from the fog of our earthly desires to the serenity and tranquility of the divine light. And in that difficulty we say, Turn, O Lord, that is, help us to complete the turn-about that finds you ready to give yourself for the enjoyment of those who love you. And so, after saying, Turn, O Lord, he added, And rescue my soul clinging as it is to the obscurity of this world and torn during its turn-about by the thorns of its desires. Save me, he goes on, for your mercys sake. He understands that his healing is not a matter of his merits, since a just punishment was due to him in his sinful neglect of Gods commands. Heal me, then, he says, not for my merits sake but for your mercys sake. (Augustine, EnPs 6, 5; PL 36, 92-93)

Comments

Commenting Guidelines

Which word does "recarve" translate? "

The Latin verb is resculpo, with sculpo the root word, which means to carve, to sculpt, to engrave, etc. This appears to be the only place in all of Augustine's writings where he uses the word--resculpimus spiritum nostrum.Augustine's comment reminded me of an injunction of some early Christian writer: "Never stop sculpting your life." I guess the statue's only finished when we surrender ourselves into death.

Thanks, JAK. I can see why he used it only once. Not an appealing metaphor. Yes, it makes his point clearly, but it also turns me away.

Ann: Trying to track down the Christian writer who used the metaphor, I find that it's in Plotinus, where Augustine may have found it:

Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labour to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiselling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendour of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine.

I rather like the metaphor. Why does it repel you?

It repels me because a soul is a living thing, and to carve up a soul would be to carve a living reality. Call me an anti-vivisectionist :-)

Oh, Ann, you can be such a literalist at times that I despair of you!Here is St. Irenaeus making use of a similar metaphor, and this before Plotinus, asking us to remain malleable clay in the hands of God:

You do not make God; God makes you. If then you are the work of God, then wait for the hand of your Artist who does all things at their proper times, proper, that is, with respect to you who are being made. But give him a soft and malleable heart and maintain the shape in which the Artist shaped you; keep some moisture in you, lest, hardened, you cannot receive the imprint of his fingers. By maintaining this shape, you will mount towards perfection, for it was God's artistry that hid the clay in you. His hand created your substance, and it will clothe you, inside and outside, with pure gold and silver and he will so adorn you that the King himself will desire your beauty (see Ps. 44:12). But if you become hardened and reject his artistry and become ungrateful to him because you were made a man, then, ungrateful to God, you have rejected at once his artistry and life. For to make something is proper to God's kindness, while to be made something is proper to man's nature. If you hand over to him what you have, that is, faith in him and submission, you will know his artistry and you will be the perfect work of God. But if you do not believe him and flee from his hand, the fault for your imperfection will lie in you who did not obey and not in him who called you. For he sent people to invite others to the marriage feast; it was those who refused to hear who deprived themselves of the king's feast.It is not God's artistry, then, that fails, since from stones he is able to raise up children of Abraham. It is the one who does not submit to his artistry that is the cause of his own imperfection. The light has not failed because some people have blinded themselves; it shines on even while those whose own fault it is that they are blind are plunged into darkness. The light does not subjugate anyone by force; neither does God force anyone who does not wish it to receive his artistry. Those therefore who have removed themselves from the Father's light and have transgressed the law of freedom have removed themselves by their own fault, for they were made free and masters of their own acts. (Adv.Haer., IV, 39:2-4)

I don't have problems with this second text -- it's about bodies. It's in the ancient tradition of Pygmalion and the sculpting of a body-cum-soul. But the first text is all about slicing up a soul, to which I say, "AWWWWWWK!!!!"

Do you really think that any of these texts is about reshaping the body? They're all about reshaping, resculpting, recarving the spirit or the soul. You seem to take "re-carving" to mean something like re-carving the Thanksgiving turkey. The metaphor, as the verb itself suggests, is taken from sculpting.

Uh-uh. It was *you/Augustine" who used the verb "carve", as in carving a turkey, only what you *really* talking about is slicing up the potentially virtuous part, the soul. Lord deliver us!

I suppose "carving" is in the eye of the beholder. In response to your question, I gave you the basic meaning that Augustine intended and I meant too: "to carve, to sculpt, to engrave, etc"--notice there's not a word about turkeys. I'd bet that Augustine got the image from Plotinus who also says nothing about Thanksgiving carving. His translator gives "rechiseling", but the meaning is the same as my "recarving."

I have no doubt that your translation is superior. Now consider this image, from the T. S.Eliot "East Coker" poem that Eduardo quotes in a thread above:"The wounded surgeon plies the steel"No, not the same metaphor, but analogous. The "plies the steel" is similar to Augustine's carving metaphor. (Shudder, shudder, cringe, cringe.)

Share

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.