Lord, turn around our captivity, like a torrent in a south wind (Ps 125:4). As torrents are turned around by a south wind, so turn around our captivity. Someone asked, “What does this mean?” … Somewhere Scripture, commanding and warning us with regard to good deeds, says: Like ice on a bright day, so will your sins melt (Sirach 3:17). Our sins, then, were binding us. How? The way cold binds water so that it cannot run. Bound by the cold of our sins, we had turned to ice. The south wind is a warm wind, and when there is a south wind, ice melts, and the torrents are filled. Torrents are winter floods; suddenly filled with water, they run with great force. We had turned to ice, then, in our captivity; our sins were holding us fast. A south wind, the Holy Spirit, blew over us, and our sins were forgiven us; we were freed from the cold of wickedness; like ice on a bright day, our sins are melted away. Let us rush toward our homeland, like torrents in a south wind. [Augustine, Enarr. in Ps 125,10; PL 37:1663-64]
St. Augustine was born and grew up in Thagaste, a Roman settlement about sixty miles south of the Mediterranean port city of Hippo Regius, where he would serve as bishop for some forty years. Images drawn from nature and from rural life and work abound in Augustine’s writings, especially in the sermons. In this excerpt he uses an image from Psalm 125 that refers to torrents in the Negeb, on which Robert Alder comments:
The reference is to wadis, or dry water gulches, that with the onset of the rainy-season are filled with streams of water. It is an apt image for restoring the previous condition of a desolate Zion, and the idea of rushing water after aridity prepares the ground for the image of sowing and reaping in the last two verses of the psalm (The Book of Psalms, p. 448).
Probably because his Old Latin version rendered the text as “torrents in the south wind,” Augustine was thinking more of the spring torrents created as the warm winds from the Sahara melted the ice and snow on the hills and mountains, something he must surely have seen himself. A verse from the Book of Sirach provides him with another metaphor for the forgiveness of sins, and he runs with it in this excerpt. He gives the same interpretation in Epistle 140, 55:
Lord, transform our captivity like a torrent in a southern wind”. It says “captivity” because “when wickedness abounds, the love of the many will grow cold” (Mt 24:12). But when the south wind blows, the ice melts and torrents flow, that is, when their sins are forgiven, by charity Christians rush together toward Christ, just as it says elsewhere: “Like ice on a clear day, your sins are forgiven” (Sir 3:17).
And in his commentary on Ps 147: 16-17, ice is taken to represent in particular a person frozen, trapped, by habitual sin, unable to free himself by his own efforts, and he adduces Saul as a block of ice harder than others until God’s grace melted him and turned him into Paul.
On James O’Donnell’s Augustine website, he has an account of a conference on Augustine held in Tripoli which included trips to sites associated with the saint; some photographs can give a sense of the topography of the area with which Augustine would have been so familiar. One of the wonderful things about Augustine is the great variety of images he offered for the experience of sin and salvation. We can each decide if one or another strikes mind and heart more deeply or more acutely than others, and sometimes, of course, the fittingness of an image changes with one’s progress, or regression, in the Christian life.