Three kinds of dead people: Augustine and Donne

St. Augustine in his sermons regularly exhorted his congregation to look beyond the physical reality of a wonder performed by Christ to the spiritual reality it symbolized. To remain at the physical level would be like admiring the beauty of an inscription in a foreign language without wondering what the writing means. So it is not surprising that even when commenting on the three occasions when Christ raised from the dead, he looked for symbolic lessons and presented them to his people.

These three kinds of dead persons are three kinds of sinners whom even to this day Christ raises.

For that dead daughter of the ruler of the synagogue was inside the house; she had not yet been carried out from the inner rooms into public view. It was there, inside, that she was raised and restored alive to her parents (Mk 5:2143). The second one was no longer in the house, but was not yet in the tomb; he had been carried out of the rooms, but not yet buried (Lk 7:11-17).... There remained a third case: that He should raise one who was also buried, and this He did in Lazarus (Jn 11:1-14).There are, then, people who have sin inwardly in their heart, but have not yet openly acted on it. Take someone disturbed by some lust. The Lord Himself says, Whoever looks on a woman to lust after her, has committed adultery with her already in his heart (Mt 5:28). He has not yet approached her in body, but in his heart he has consented; he has one dead within, but has not yet carried him outside. And as often happens, as we know, as people daily experience in themselves, when they hear the word of God, the Lord as it were saying, Arise; they condemn their consent to sin and they breathe again, healthy and righteous. The dead one inside the house arises, the heart revives where thoughts are secret. This resurrection of a dead soul takes place inside, in the retreat of conscience, as if within the walls of the house.Others not only consent but carry out the overt act; they are, as it were, carrying the dead outside, so that what was concealed in secret now appears in public. Is there no hope for people who have gone on to the outward act? Was it not said also to the young man, I say unto you, Arise (Lk 7:14)? Was he not also restored to his mother? So, then, too, the one who has committed the open act: if perhaps admonished and aroused by the word of truth, he rises again at the Voice of Christ, is restored alive....Then there are people who by doing what is evil involve themselves also in an evil habit, so that this very habit of evil does not allow them to see that it is evil; they become defenders of their evil deeds and get angry when found fault with. ... People like this are so pressed down by a malignant habit that they are as it were buried. Let me say it, brothers and sisters, they are so buried that, as was said of Lazarus: By now he stinks. The pile of earth placed on the grave is the unyielding force of habit that presses the soul down and does not allow it to rise or to breathe again.Now it was said, He has been dead four days. In fact, the soul arrives at that habit of which I am speaking in four steps. For there is first the tickle, as it were, of pleasure in the heart, secondly consent, thirdly the overt act, fourthly the habit. There are people who so entirely cast unlawful things from their thoughts that they dont even feel any pleasure in them. There are people who do feel the pleasure but do not consent to it; death has begun but is not yet complete. When consent was added to the pleasure, that is already condemnation. After consent comes the outward act, and when the outward act becomes a habit, there is a kind of desperation and it can be said: He has been dead four days; by now he stinks. So the Lord came, and although all things are easy to him, he displayed a certain difficulty. He groaned in his spirit; he showed how it takes loud cries of reproval to raise people grown hard by habit. But at the loud cry of the Lord, the chains of necessity were burst apart. The powers of hell trembled, and Lazarus was restored alive. For the Lord delivers even from evil habits those who have been dead four days. (Augustine, Sermon 98, 5; PL 38, 594)

Did John Donne have this passage from Augustine in mind when he wrote this:

If I be dead within doors (if I have sinned in my heart), why Suscitavit in domo,Christ gave a Resurrection to the Ruler's daughter within doors, in the house; if I be dead in gate (if I have sinned in the gates of my soul) in mine eyes or ears or hands, in actual sins, why,Suscitavit in porta, Christ gave a Resurrection to the young man at the gate of Naim. If I be dead in the grave (in customary and habitual sins), why, Suscitavit in sepulchro, Christ gave a Resurrection to Lazarus in the grave too. (Sermons, vol. II211-12)


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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