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Augustinian gems

Today is the feast of St. Augustine. One of the most exciting developments in study of the great bishop is the attention being given to his sermons often comparatively neglected in favor of his great works. (A new translation of all of them is being prepared.) Most of them werenot written out in advance and they have a freshness about them and often show him inter-acting with his congregation. Here are a few gems I have discovered over the past few years (translations mine).

[Of Christ] Life came down in order to die; bread came down in order to hunger; the way came down in order to be wearied on the journey; the spring came down in order to thirst.

[In an exhortation to prayer] Human laziness should blush with shame: God is more willing to give than we are to receive; he is more willing to show us mercy than we are to be freed of our miseries.

[Commenting on the words of the Psalm: "Magnify the Lord with me"] I dont want to magnify the Lord alone. I dont want to love him alone. I dont want to embrace him alone.

[Commenting on the Psalm verse: "Better is a single day in your courts than thousands of days"] Men desire thousands of days and greatly wish to live here. They should scorn the thousands of days; they should desire the single day, the day that has no sunrise and sunset, the single day, the eternal day, to which yesterday did not yield and which tomorrow does not press. We should desire that single day. What do we have to do with thousands of days? We are going from thousands of days to a single day.

[Of God]: Seeking, although lacking nothing.

He sought those who were not seeking him.

To a joyful person even a prison is wide, and to a sad person even a meadow is narrow.

Your soul will not die unless you choose to kill it.

Dont think that heresies can be created by small minds. Only great men make heresies.

You are more inward than my inward self. Within, in my heart, you have written a law by your Spirit, as if by your finger, so that I would no longer fear it like a slave without love, but would like a son love it with a chaste fear and fear it with a chaste love.

Grace achieves this: that commandments are kept out of love that could not be kept out of fear.

Every love has its own power. Love cannot be idle in the heart of a lover: it has to lead somewhere. Do you want to know what kind of love it is? See where it is leading.

Nothing is more difficult and nothing more admirable than loving ones enemies.

It is no small insight to know from whom to seek insight.

Dont be today what you were yesterday, and dont be tomorrow what you are today.


Commenting Guidelines

Thank you.

These are wonderful! They ought to be collected into a little booklet. I'd buy it, or at least bookmark this post. Thanks so much for sharing these.Not to detract from the obvious riches of the homilies, but I was trying to do research once for a Patristics class on the Tractates of John. Not only was St. Augustine hard to pin down on my topic (the temptation of Judas) but he very frustratingly, in a digression, introduced the very important topic of tripartite anthropology, asserted the existence of the spirit as distinguished from the soul--and then went back to his homily without explaining anything!It's not like you can ask him to elaborate over coffee and donuts...

Kathy,Spirit is an Hebraic notion, soul a Hellenic one. Augustine's draws on both traditions even though he mostly relied on Latin translations. In popular culture people often use the expression "body, mind and spirit" in, I guess, an attempt to be comprehensive. I am not quite sure what they are getting at with that triad. Perhaps "mind" is a Cartesian substitute for "soul".

Joseph:In French (and other languages, one would think) esprit means both mind and spirit. There may be something in what you suggest.But I think that the spirit/ soul distinction does bear consideration. Some time back, Fr. Komonchak kindly pointed me to de Lubac's posthumously published essay on Tripartite [body, soul, spirit] Anthropology, in *Theology in History.* The question of a human "spirit" seems to haunt the current Pope, who is of course an Augustinian. For example, in his first Advent homily as Pope, he noted the Sunday Advent Vespers reading from I Thess 5, which includes the most explicit of all the Scriptural discussions of this threefold theory of human nature:"...The hope expressed is that each one may be made holy by God and preserved irreproachable in his entire person -- "spirit, soul and body" -- for the final coming of the Lord Jesus; the guarantee that this can happen is offered by the faithfulness of God himself, who will not fail to bring to completion the work he has begun in believers...Before Christ who comes, men and women are defined in the whole of their being, which the Apostle sums up in the words "spirit, soul and body," thereby indicating the whole of the human person as a unit with somatic, psychic and spiritual dimensions. Sanctification is God's gift and his project, but human beings are called to respond with their entire being without excluding any part of themselves. " have heard that St. Augustine discusses this elsewhere (The Trinity?).

Kathy,Your last comment touched on the two references I was about to make.You may be familiar with the article by Moulins-Beaufort, "The Spiritual Man in the Thought of Henri de Lubac" in Communio (Summer1998). He stresses the importance of a tri-partite anthropology in de Lubac's thought.

Thanks very much, Fr. Imbelli, I haven't seen the article and am very happy to know about it.I would think that any study of this "spirit" would also rely on Romans 8.

I'm curious about exactly what text Kathy refers to as the "Tractates of John" -- the rather wonderful commentary on the Johannine Epistles, quaintly labelled ad Parthos?Not to be the rat at this very interesting discussion, but I thought (from no particular knowledge) that Augustine's sermons, aided by the major recent discoveries, were a scholarly hotbed, and the neglected area that has recently been getting attention was his commentaries -- a pattern that seems to be pretty common in several areas of scholarship.

I don't know what the "scholarly hotbed" is--there almost always are controversies over Augustine's thought. I don't know why one would distinguish between his commentaries and his sermons, since the commentaries were sermons and the sermons were on the Bible.The "Tractates on John" are the series of sermons on John's Gospel. He also has the commentaary on the Johannine Epistles, to which you refer.

Thank you, sorry, I misspoke: the Tractates on John.I'm not easily finding the passage I mentioned, but it sure is good to look through them again. I was in a class with two seminarians, a deacon and three young priests when we studied these. Probably a useful supplement to the ordinary homiletics curriculum.

Fr. Kononchak,I know remarkably little about theology, but do follow late antique studies to some extent, and Augustine's sermons do seem to have been put to a lot of use recently. I believe this is due in part to the new ones which contain some interesting material on slavery and capital punishment. Again speaking from ignorance I do have the feeling that one gets a sense of the audience from Augustine's sermons that is rather different from most patristic writers/speakers, and that that audience may be rather more diverse than is usually the case in most writing from classical antiquity. So I was speaking more almost of sociology than of studies of Augustine's thought per se.And I should have remembered that the "commentary" on the Johannine Epistles was a set of sermons, since he rather appealingly begins them with a discussion of what to preach about at the season.

Mr. O'Grady:What I love about the sermons is their spontaneous character. Obviously, Augustine prepared them, but he preached them, and they were recorded by stenographers so that they include his inter-action with the congregation when he sees that they don't understand or do, and agree with him, or look puzzled. Their Latin is of quite a different character than that of, say, Leo the Great, whose prose is chiseled-sharp and precise whereas Augustine's has the fluidity of a stream.

I like Augustine a great deal because of his mind and his spirit. Few individuals, as individuals, with all of their strengths and weaknesses, have had a greater impact on the history of Western thought. However, as is often the case in my encounter with great minds, my little mind often comes up confused or in disagreement.1) Only one of the cited texts is distinctly Christian, and, I confess I find it to be like many Christological texts: at first glance, very poetic and evocative; all other glances and even long viewings, incomprehensible.2) Love may be everlasting, but it is not eternal. As a further indication of my heretical nature (although, being of small mind, I only follow heresies, I do not create them), I do not long for the single day. Rather, I am grateful for as many days as I may have to love (even when the odds are that I will do a lousy job of it). I need no single day to follow these numbered days in order to take make them any more precious and grace-filled. Despite the denials of many theologians, I still conclude that longing for the single day of eternity is something of a barrier to following God in this world.3) Augustine is bang on regarding human laziness.

Actually, in context, all of these statements are Chrisian. I'm the one who pulled them out for aphoristic purposes.

Joseph: I have no doubt that they are all spoken within the context of Christian theology. Yet, as aphorisms, they appealed to my own adoptionist tendencies, and my theological impishness led me to point this out. Perhaps I should have resisted.

In my decidedly secular college, we had a year of seminar readings from the Bible and classic theological sources. Nobody liked St. Paul or Anselm, very few liked Aquinas or Luther. All the postmoderns loved the Confessions.

Kathy,I have nothing in principle against a tripartite anthropology provided it is possible to explain how the three components function and why three are both necessary and sufficient. (Plato actually propses a tripartite soul in the Republic.) But I think that the Hebraic duality flesh/spirit, which is especially prominent in St. Paul is difficult to integrate with the soul/body duality of Hellenic philosophy. Perhaps a quadripartite anthropology would be in order. However I suspect we really have two complementary dualities, each of which has its uses. Sometimes loose ends are prefererable to bogus integrity.

Fr. Komonchak's comments about Augustine's interactions with his congregation reminded me of how, in the words of Augustine biographer Peter Brown, Augustine, well known within Hippo, was "press-ganged" into the priesthood. So I went and looked up Brown's wonderful description of the event in his "Augustine of Hippo":"[I]n a sermon, the bishop, Valerius, spoke pointedly of the urgent needs of his church; the congregation turned to find, as they expected, Augustine standing among them in the nave; with the persistent shouting required for such a procedure, they pushed him forward to the raised throne of the bishop and the benches of the priests, which ran around the curved apse at the far end of the basilica. The leading Catholic citizens of Hippo would have gathered around Augustine, as the bishop accepted his forced agreement to become a priest in the town." Perhaps such conscription should be employed today to alleviate the shortage of priests. :)

Joseph: I can understand why you would hesitate to reduce these two distinct dual-nature theories into a triple-nature theory. I agree that they cannot be simply shuffled together. I think we also agree that the body vis-a-vis soul (Greek concept of body) has a richness of concept that would be lost if we simply replaced it with body vis-a-vis spirit (Hebrew concept of body), and vice versa. A simple answer wouldn't do here. We would lose some of the revelation.The project does seem reminiscent of those integrated gospels that people used to make, weaving the four to make a single narrative. It doesn't work. (Yves Congar talks about this in the front matter to I Believe in the Holy Spirit.)My sense, however, is that historically the Church too easily, for all practical purposes, forsakes one or the other duality, instead of maintaining them in tension.This would be one argument for trying the careful work of integrating the two dualities. I don't usually schematize in this way, but to speak very broadly, perhaps the Middle Ages held on to the Hebrew notion (only) while the current age holds on to the Greek notion (only). In other words, we usually seek human perfection, or theosis. Beethoven, or Byrd. Whereas God wants us to be fulfilled all around, in the completeness of perfection suggested by I Thess 5:23. I realize I'm speaking in individualistic terms rather than corporate, and I wonder if that's a reduction as well. It would be important to ask whether human spirit transcends the individual in a way that soul (which all Aristotileans know is the form of a material body suited to it) cannot.

William:Augustine's alter call seems to rank right up there with the Ignatian cannon ball that led a certain soldier from Loyola to read a few life altering books while in in recovery. Two momentous moments that would change the course of Christian thought and life.

Joe--I also find it ironic that Ignatius and Augustine were headed on self-chosen paths--Ignatius as a military leader, and Augustine, after his conversion, as a contemplative--until God reached out and shook their expectations out of them, much as He did when He transformed Saul into Paul on that road to Damascus.

Joseph:I think that the sinful "flesh" of e.g. Romans 8 is not the same as the temple-like "body" of e.g. I Cor 6:20. Perhaps there are 3 dualisms:flesh-spirit (Paul)body-spirit (Genesis-Job-Ezekiel-Hosea-Paul)body-soul (Greek philosophy)I think that the flesh-spirit dichotomy would be helpful for understanding "spirit" but not "body." At least not in a flesh = body sort of way.

Yves Congar has an article on the theme of the ordination of the unwilling in the tradition. He also has one on the canonical dictum: "No bishop should be imposed on an unwilling people."Odd, isn't it, that we have reversed things in modern times. We wouldn't think of ordaining a person who doesn't want to be ordained, and the wishes of the people don't enter into the selection of bishops.

Augustine was as complex as they come. It is impossible to read him and not be knocked off your socks as so many have claimed. Peter Brown, probably the best Augustine scholar, thought he had Augustine figured out until some previously unknown an unpublished manuscripts surfaced in the 1980's. So he wrote an epilogue to his epic book in 1997. One cannot describe Augustine in a couple of pages. He was busy, He could inspire. He was wrong on a number of substantial things.None worse that allowing Christians to use force or kill other Christians. Kind of stuff, Bush or Bin laden can quote to their own ends. A mistake for the ages indeed.

Bill, didn't somebody say that anyone who claims to have read all of Augustine is a liar?Fr. Komonchak:The dimensions of churches have changed considerably. Time was, you knew all the guys in your parish and you could tell which ones you wanted ordained. Time was, you knew who would make a good bishop.

As to the "ordination of the unwilling," Peter Brown also relates that the congregants saw tears in Augustine's eyes after he'd been press-ganged into the priesthood. Some of those present thought that Augustine was crying because he had not also been made a bishop, but the tears were actually tears of sorrow as Augustine remembered how he had maltreated priests in his youth. The brilliant Berber boy had taken delight in arguing with local priests and tying them up in philosophical and theological knots with his rhetorical skills. And though Augustine was a very complex individual, it's hard not to marvel how a young man from a backwater province in the Roman Empire rose to the great height of becoming the emperor's chief rhetorician, and, more importantly, a Doctor of the Church. Despite his stratospheric intellectual abilities, to which I could never hope to relate, it's hard not to identify with him, IMO, on the most basic human levels after reading the "Confessions."


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.