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Nothing but grace

 Wake up! For you God was made man! “Arise, you who sleep, and rise from the dead, and Christ shall enlighten you” (Eph 5:14). For you, I say, God was made man. You would have been dead for eternity if he had not been born in time. You would never have been freed from sinful flesh if he had not taken on the likeness of sinful flesh (see Rm 8:3). Endless misery [miseria] would have possessed you if this mercy [misericordia] had not been accomplished. You would not have come back to life if he had not taken on your death. You would have faded away if he had not healed you. You would have perished if he had not come. ....
What greater grace of God could shine upon us than this: that, having an only Son, God should make Him a son of man and that in turn He should make a son of man a son of God. Look for some merit; look for a reason; look for the justice: and see whether you find anything but grace. (St. Augustine, Sermon 185, 1 and 3; PL 38, 998, 999)


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rather routine

And Merry Christmas to you, too!

I wish we had live recordings of Augustine. How was his voice rising and falling with those phrases?

Fr. O'Leary,  when a man is tired of Augustine, he is tired of life.

Fr. Komonchak, thanks for the beautiful quotation.  Merry Christmas!


"rather routine" ??

Humbug, Joseph O'Leary!

I think you may need an attitude adjustment. It's Christmas, a time for good will to all.

I am not tired of Augustine, I just think the passage quoted is not Augustine at his best.

Just because Augustine was a genius does not mean we go "ooh" and "aah" after every paragraph of his vast oeuvre (the vastest in antiquity), particularly in the oral sermons taken down by a tachygraphy\ -- that is a way to dilute and bury Augustine's greatness.

Helen: "you may need an attitude adjustment" -- sounds like soft American totalitarianism...

On this holy day, it is forbidden to say anything that is not laudatory and enthusiastic. Falling a little short of that, I will only remark that if this passage had not been ascribed to Augustine, we probably would not be reading it, because it might never have been transmitted. I hope the first copy was not a palimpsest of a lost play of Sophocles.

Peace on earth!



Today we heard the beginning of John's gospel. For that reading alone it was worth going to the Mass of the day rather than last night. How I love going to Mass! Afterwards the world seems brighter, and then how can I not like a text that says that for us God was made man. How lucky we are!

(Idle curiosity: this "you", "you", "you", is it "me", "me", "me", or is it "us", "us", "us"? Is it singular or plural?)



I don't have Augustine's text, but it's singular in Eph. 5:14.



All those "you's" are in the singular in Augustine's text, and so are the imperatives in the second paragraph.

Maybe the problem the grinches see is the wooden translation. Don't blame Augustine.

jAK --  How are those short translations of Augustine that we want you to publish coming along?

Merry Christmas to all!

Yes, yes, Mr. Augustine, we're damnable sinners. We get that, okay? But we've just made it through Advent, and this is Christmas day. So give over for twenty-four hours, if you can, telling us what wretches we are. Relax, have a little plum pudding and half a measure of pure joy, just for today. Tomorrow will be soon enough to resume the sackcloth and guilt.

And are you so sure that's it all about us? Maybe God so loved the world that he would have flooded into it even if it had been mostly squirrels and buttercups (who would probably have treated him better, by the way). This obsession with human beings seems too narrow a view and, if I may say so, predisposes us to the very sinfulness you charge us with. Look up! The beasts of the field are praising him today.

—Grinchus parum invidiosus

An article at ThinkingFaith on that bit of John's gospel  -  "In the beginning ..."

Augustine could write and too often he proved he was the wretch he claimed to be. He seduces us with "Fecisti nos ad te Domine.." etc.,  (you have made us for yourself O God)and misleads us with "force them to come In." and it is sinful to take pleasure in making love to one's spouse.  So let me correct Augustine and rephrase his prayer:

       O Donatists, my brothers the Lord is with you. Far be it from me to presume God will not save you if you do not subject yoursel to my church. What got into me that I petitioned Roman Generals to give all your churches to me and bishops who agree with me. O Pelagians how can I presume God is not with you. The power that you see in wo/man, I am sure you believe comes from God. I rather offer you my love. Not the Centurion's sword. I have to remind myself that Jesus commanded that we accept a person of peace and not demand a doctrinal consent. And Julian, my brother bishop, I understand that sometimes my Manachean past comes back to bite me. Let us get together, pray and learn from one another. I should be washing your feet not promoting your exile.  

Peace, brothers let us not fight over the money of the wealthy and work night and day to spreak the Good News and Peace to all. 

Augustine is both the greatest Christian theologian (after Aquinas, I feel bound to add, alas) and the father of the worst errors of Christianity. His crusade against the Donatists led him countenancing their torture. He is the father of the Inquisition. His sublime message of sola gratia was twinned with the monstrous doctrine of predestination that prevailed in the churches until recently. His vision of original sin inflicted a deep wound on the Western mind, particularly in his focalization of the Fall on human sexuality (he tells us over and over again that the first symptom of the Fall was Adam's inablity to control his erection). If Augustine had given a Christmas sermon along the lines of what Bill suggests, the entire history of Christianity would have been so much brighter.

What's next--Augustine/Petilian slash fiction?







Actually, that might be kind of hot...

I have no desire to defend the indefensible.  But I would like to see textual references for some of the indictments offered here. Meanwhile, consider this:

In the year 2000 Peter Brown published a new edition of his classic biography of St. Augustine. He left his original text as it appeared in 1967 but added an eighty-page Epilogue in which he took account of new evidence (recently discovered letters and sermons) and new directions in Augustinian studies. In the meanwhile, Brown himself had published a book entitled Body and Society which was in good part devoted to discussing sexuality in early Christianity. This made him realize how little attention he had given to this theme in his biography of Augustine. One of the rediscovered sermons, on marriage, “confirmed,” Brown now writes, “my impression that the pace of his [Augustine’s] thought on sexuality was set by firm if courteous disagreement with other Christians and upholders of radical ascetic ideals, most notably with Jerome." He continues:

We must never read Augustine as if he were contemporary with ourselves. He was the contemporary of Jerome, who spoke of marriage as a tangled thornbush, good only to produce, in the firorm of children dedicated at an early age to the ascetic life, the “roses” of new virgins; of Gregory of Nyssa, whose gentle tone makes us forget the fact that he regarded sexuality with supreme loack of interest, as no more than an “animal” appendage to humankind’s original “angelic nature; and of Ambrose, who, when faced by married candidates to the episcopate, expected his readers to agree without question that voluptas, sensuality alone, had driven Adam from Paradise. Seen against that background, Augustine’s preaching and written works represent, if anything, a call to moderation. He wished for a greater recognition of the physical, sexual components of human nature, and was prepared to defend their legitimate expression (if in a disciplined manner) in marriage.

What I came to realize was that the very vehemence of Augustine’s later defence of his views on sexuality and original sin, against Julian of Eclanum, was the direct result of that moderation. ... He had come envision, in a manner far more consequential than many of his Christian contemporaries, Adam and Eve as fully sexual beings, capable of intercourse in the Garden of Eden–a glorious intercourse, unriven by conflicting desires, without the shadow of sin upon it. ... For a man like Gregory of Nyssa, Adam and Eve had been “angelic” beings. Their sexuality had lain totally dormant in the depths of a Paradise,Garden of Eden, whose blazing glory admitted no comparison with the present, “animal” condition of humankind. Reading such works, I realized that Augustine had made yet another of his “long inner journeys.” ... Sexuality had been created as a great good. Catholic Christians should acknowledge this fact and should be prepared to imagine what the intercourse of Adam and Eve in Paradise might have been like if they had not fallen. Such intercourse would have been an act of solemn delight, where two fully physical bodies followed the stirrings of their souls, “all in a wondrous pitch of perfect peace.” It was only Adam’s purely mental act of pride, followed by disobedience to God, that destroyed for ever a potential joyful harmony of body and soul. Sex was tragic for Augustine because it could have been so very different. ... For Augustine, the present worldwas always overshadowed by a great sadness. Married couples should walk, regretfully, through the recognizable ruins of a once perfect sexuality devastated by Adam’s pride. ...

All this Brown takes from Augustine’s writings on marriage and sexuality. When it came to preaching about it to married couples, he says, Augustine “was economical and deliberately banal. They should be careful. Ideally, they should not have sex except to conceive children,” as stated in their Roman-law marriage contracts. “If they went “beyond the lines” of their contract, and had sex on other, forbidden occasions, they had reason to blush, but not to feel unduly gulty. Compared with the truly serious crimes of adultery and marital infidelity, this was the smallest of sins. It was a manifestation of human frailty, regularly atoned for by saying the Forgive us our trespasses in the Lord’s Prayer and by giving alms to the beggars crouched around the portals of the church.”  Brown concludes:

On the issue of sexuality, we should be very careful not to “demonize” Augustine. To speak of him as the “evil genius of Europe,” and to lay at his door alone the ills associated with the handling of sex in Christian circles up to our own time, is to take an easy way out–as if by abandoning Augustine we have freed ourselves, by magic, from a malaise whose tangled roots lie deep in our own history. We have made our own bed over long centuries. Augustine did not make it for us. Denunciations of Augustine usually misrepresent him and, in any case, they get us no further in the serious, slow task of remaking that bed. It is, indeed, an act of egregious cultural narcissism to believe that all our present discontents can be glimpsed in the distant mirror of one man’s thought. Unlike theologians, historians, alas, must be burdened with a sense of the immensity of time and space. Aware of the slow and complex evolution of moral ideas over the centuries, and of the variety which these forms took on being set to work in regions and in socieities of which Augustine could not have dreamed, historians should have no part in so facile a Schuldfrage–so facile an exercise in blame-pinning.

"historians should have no part in so facile a Schuldfrage–so facile an exercise in blame-pinning."


A handy word, that facile.

Thank you for that wonderful excerpt from St. A., which I didn't discover until today (the 26th) the Christmas rush being what it is (by the way, the Germans have a wonderful word -- Weihnachtsrummel -- for all the fussing and fuming we tend to get caught up in this time of year, which has nothing essential to do with Christmas).

Thank you for that wonderful excerpt from St. A., which I didn't discover until today (the 26th) the Christmas rush being what it is (by the way, the Germans have a wonderful word -- Weihnachtsrummel -- for all the fussing and fuming we tend to get caught up in this time of year, which has nothing essential to do with Christmas).

Fr. O’Leary—

I’m generally partial to “curmudgeonliness,” which is why I like reading your comments, but equating being told you could benefit from an attitude adjustment (which is quite gentle phrasing for us Philadelphians) with totalitarianism, soft or otherwise, strikes the wrong note.  What I, unlike you and some others commenting here, found apropos about this particular piece is the emphasis on Grace as Gift.    What message can be less routine, or more joyous, than that, especially on Christmas day!

This obsession with human beings seems too narrow a view

The "obsession" hardly belongs to Augustine, see for example: "For us men (and women) and for our salvation he came down from heaven". The idea that the focus on humanity is "too narrrow" is a very contemporary viewpoint, at least in the West. Is it because in modern life animals tend to be viewed as pets, and the farmer-nature ecology is forgotten? Or because, now that there are almost too many humans and the world is almost too small for our numbers, humans are viewed as less valuable and nature viewed as more valuable?



Many of our viewpoints are very contemporary, some still working themselves out at this moment. Much of the change involves widening the circle of those who are thought worthy of being included in God's love and our own care. Our care is bound to be limited, but God's love of us need suffer no decrease in extending to other creatures. 

Those who believe in God the Creator generally believe that he created all, and that everything that came from him was good, however spoiled it may have later become. It seems like vanity to believe that in the vastness and splendor of time and space, all that really matters to him, all that he wishes to preserve, is the human race. But I suppose that if mildew could write the history of the world, mildew would be the centerpiece of it.

But I suppose that if mildew could write the history of the world, mildew would be the centerpiece of it.

It's not nothing that mildew can't.

In the quotation quoted from him, Brown is saying that all should not be pinned on Augustine. Correct. Augustine had a lot of company as far sexual distortions go. While it is laudable that he modified Jerome it is difficult to accept that as an excuse. With reference to violence against Christians who keeps Augustine company? The point with Augustine is his prodigious influence on the West. There is no one with more prestige. Because of that he has to be regarded critically. Too many take his work as gospel and that is the problem. "With the bonus comes the onus." Because of Augustine countless Christians have countenanced violence against "heretics." Even today. 

No doubt theologians owe a lot to Augustine. He saved many of them from thinking. More of them should think more critically. 

I don't really get why Augustine evokes such animus, because even while his influence is certainly outsize, compared to a lot of the church fathers (a proto-nazi like Ambrose, or a power broker like Cyril), he's Judege freaking Reinhold. Take what you can get.

(Granted, "nothing but grace" just makes me think of that Larry Bird/Michael Jordan McDonalds commercial).

 It seems like vanity to believe that in the vastness and splendor of time and space, all that really matters to him, all that he wishes to preserve, is the human race.

I wouldn't word it quite that way, but okay.

I could tell you that Tradition tells us that, but it's not enough of an argument. I could tell you that the central place of humanity in the world is "obvious", but it's not an argument.

I think that Mark's answer is pretty good, actually.

Yes, we are central and dominant just now and have been for the last tiny slice of time's extent. And great knowledge and beauty have arisen from or through us. Maybe we are some sort of culmination. But everything that is alive today is the latest sprouting of life's tree and has its own special beauty, as did all lineages that have not survived.

One distinction we certainly have: we are uniquely perilous, having the ability and possibly even the will, more than any other creatures, to bring the whole house down upon our heads and theirs. That would establish our centrality forever, but no one will write the history of it.

Maybe God has intervened by his act of incarnation not only to save us but also to save the rest of his creation from us, as a master might retake control from a faltering steward.

It savors of whataboutery to bring in Jerome, regarded even in his own time as a crank though a great biblical scholar. I have no animus against Augustine, whom I deeply admire (De Trinitate, Confessiones and De Spiritu et Littera would head my list). But nonetheless Augustine, because of his stupendous influence, has cast a long shadow on our civilization. Ambrose was a proto-inquisitor (how can one not wince when one reads the protocol of his interrogation of two Arian bishops?) and the first clericalist, but Ambrose's influence is nothing beside Augustine's. Gregory of Nyssa was a married man, so his lack of interest in sex may be simply his acceptance of it -- I wonder if his commentary on the Song of Songs would shed light here.  His influence in the Latin West was practically nil, and the same goes for Cyril of Alexandria,  That Augustine tolerated torture of the Donatists is stated in W. H. C. Frend, The Donatist Church, the classical work on the subject.

 One can blame Theodosius for the radically intolerant turn taken by Christianity, but it was backed by the leading churchmen. In fact it is hard to find a great theologian from that time on who did not justify executing heretics (Aquinas) or directly order or approve of individual killings (Calvin, Melanchthon, Thomas More). 

But, of course, Peter Brown is notorious for his "whataboutery."  Perhaps Augustine shouldn't have tried to defend the good of sexuality and of marriage, and just left it to Jerome and Gregory to shape subsequent Christian thought on the matters.


Augustine indeed defends the three goods of marriage, fides, proles, sacramentum, but he did not draw sufficiently on his anti Manichean ontology to counter the poisoning of sex as such. I applied the three goods of marriage to gay couples first in 1984  The good and great Augustine must be saved from the creepy apostle whose manicheanism returned to poison the world. Gregory of Nyssa shows no such morose attitudes to sex.

Maybe God has intervened by his act of incarnation not only to save us but also to save the rest of his creation from us, as a master might retake control from a faltering steward.

Indeed, what will people in the future have to build on if people in the present leave them in heritage a world damaged beyond repair? Unfortunately I do not see what the incarnation and the church have accomplished so far to protect the Creation. 


I made a mistake in that article by coming up with the triad fides proles remedium concupiscentiae instead of fides proles sacramentum; in reality remedium concupiscentiae is a side effect of fides -- it means that the fidelityof the couple enables them to make their sexuality into an expression of love, not concupisence:

Brown is possibly reaction to Elaine Pagels's boook Adam, Eve and the Serpent which quotes horrendous utterances from St Jerome and then goes on to Augustine -- I think she'd agree with Brown that Augustine is of a much higher and more reflective order of discourse.




Pagels' name does not appear in the endnotes for these pages of Brown's Epilogue. In endnote 69, in illustration of what he calls "widespread modern notions on the subject," he refers to U. Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for Heaven: the Catholic Church and Sexualiy, whose pages on Augustine Brown says are "a travesty of the thought and practice of Augustine."

The next endnote singles out an article by D. G. Hunter, "Augustine's Pessimism? A New Look at Augustine's Teaching on Sex, Marriage and Celibacy," Augustinian Studies 25 (1994) 153-77. Hunter is also the author of the entry on "Marriage" in the encyclopedia Augustine through the Ages, pp. 535-37.  A lecture on the topic by Hunter is available online at:

I do not see what the incarnation and the church have accomplished so far to protect the Creation. 

God working in his usual unhurried way? If it took 13.6 billion (± 100 million) years from "let there be light" to "let us make humans in our image and likeness," maybe he still has the whole project in hand. It's only been a couple of thousand years. I grant you he's not getting a lot of help from us.

"The good and great Augustine must be saved from the creepy apostle whose manicheanism returned to poison the world"


Please cite the basis for these remarks. This is biased and without basis. So now you place Augustine over Paul. Where did this come from? The back to Jesus, counter Paul, movement. Paul is throughly consistent with Jesus. On the question of women the text  was clearly tampered with. You have to re-look at the meaning of "flesh" in the writings of Paul  The fact is without Paul (I'm sure God would have found another) there is no Christianity. Paul is the real deal. Augustine and the rest of should serve so well. 

I am not referring to Paul. I confer the title "aposte" on Augustine in the broadest sense.

Though my previous bishop once remarked to me that "your friend St Augustine" was responsible for a lot of sex-connected grief, and then he added: "and even St Paul"....

I Cor 11 might be interpolated and the dour antI-feminist (and anti-Cretan) passages in the Pastorals are post-Pauline, and yes, as my link above insists, the "flesh" in Paul does not refer to sex. Nonetheless his ranting against sex and especially against gays is something that needs to be overcome and purged.  Even the non-Pauline material is part of the Holy Scripture and it is not by accident that it is appended to Paul.

I once dared to ask a real-life Cretan what he thought of the Epistle to Titus and its declaration that all Cretans are liars and rogues, and he answered: "St Paul talked a good deal of nonsense." I think that that is a healthy Christian response to scriptural authorian bullying. 

Shouldn't his beef be with Epimenides?

Paul did not write the Epistle to Titus, right. Secondly, this is so unlike Paul. I don't see Paul as a bully at all. 

Sure we all "know" Paul did not write Titus (at least according to most exegetes; but see JND Kelly, and see Jerome Murphy-O'Connor on the authenticity of 2 Timothy);  but my Cretan acquaintance was not aware of this. I approve him for resisting a bullying text, independent of who wrote it. The text cites Epimenides or whoever and then adds in its own authoritarian voice "this testimony is true!" The Church and Scripture never err without involving God up to the hilt (Numbers 34, 1 Samuel 15 etc.). Paul himself is a very big bully in Romans 1, as all gays know, and also in I Thess as all Jews know. We have a huge backlog of authoritarian error to deal with. The awful realization that Auschwitz was brewed up in the ghettos of the Papal States is something that radically alters our attitude to past cocksureness. I stood today in the first ghetto of all, the Venetian one, divided into three (Vecchio, Nova, Novissima); even the Novissima has very high buildings and very dark and narrow streets -- that atmosphere of imprisonment -- . But it was touching that Jewish boys still play there with their kippah caps.

Now there's a wild claim: "Auschwitz was brewed up in the ghettos of the Papal States"!

Cum nimis absurdum much, Father K?