“How,” you will ask, “am I partly righteous and partly a sinner? What are you saying?” As we work on this, we seem to be speaking contrary things; let the Apostle’s authority come to our aid. So you don’t accuse me of misunderstanding him, listen to what he says: “I delight in the law of God according to the inner man.” That’s the righteous person. Isn’t someone who delights in God’s law righteous? How then is he a sinner? “But I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind and leading me captive in the law of sin.” I’m still waging war against myself; I’m not yet wholly restored in the image of my maker. I’ve begun to be re-sculpted, and as I’m being re-formed, what is de-formed I dislke. As long as I am like that, “Unhappy man, who shall free me from this body of death? The grace of God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rm 7:22-25). This is the grace of God that has already begun to re-sculpt me, the grace of God that imparts sweetness so that according to the inner man, I delight in the law of God. Other things will be healed by the sane grace that has healed these. Still wounded, moan; chastise yourself; displease yourself. (EnPs 140[141], 14-15; PL 37, 1824-1825)

I was struck by the metaphor of re-sculpting used here. It called to mind the oft-quoted passage of Plotinus:

Go back inside yourself and look: if you do not yet see yourself as beautiful [i.e., as participating in the Idea of Beauty], then do what a sculptor does with a statue he wants to make beautiful; he chisels away one part; he levels off another; he makes one spot smooth and another clear, until he shows forth a beautiful face on the statue. Like him, remove what is superfluous, straighten what is crooked, clean up what is dark and make it bright, and never stop sculpting your own statue, until the godlike splendor of virtue shines forth to you. (Enneads, I 6, 9)

There is, of course, one great difference: that while Plotinus seems to think we can do this resculpting by our own efforts, Augustine attributes it to the grace of God.

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.

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.