"In verbo veritatis" (2 Cor 6:7)

March 31, 2019

Think about it

Filed under: Lent with St. Augustine — Tags: , — komonchak @ 8:52 am

You who stand in the house of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord (Ps 134[135]:2). Be grateful; you were once outside that house, and now you are inside it. You are standing there, and do you think it a little thing that you are standing where he is to be praised who raised you when you were prostrate and enabled you to stand in his house and to acknowledge him and to praise him? Is it a slight blessing that we are standing in the house of the Lord? Here, in this meanwhile, in this journeying, in this house that is also a tent for strangers, must we not be very grateful that we are standing here? Shouldn’t we think about it–that we’re standing here? Shouldn’t we think about what we have been made? Shouldn’t we think about where we were lying and where now we have been gathered? Shouldn’t we think about this: that all the wicked did not seek the Lord, but he sought those who were not seeking him, and when he found them he awakened them, and when he awakened them, he called them, and those he called he brought into his house and enabled them to stand there? Anyone who thinks about all this and is not ungrateful for it thinks slightly of himself in comparison with the love of his Lord by whom such great gifts have been given; and because he has nothing to return to God for such great blessings, what is he to do except to give thanks and forget about some repayment? His thanks-giving means taking up the cup of salvation and calling upon his name. For what may a servant return to the Lord for all the things he has given him (Ps 115[116]: 12-13)? So then: You who stand in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God, praise the Lord. (Augustine, In Ps 134, 2; PL 37:1739)

A good reminder: not to take our Christian blessings for granted. Consider the phrase: “take for granted.” Isn’t the problem that when we take things for granted, we don’t take them for granted, that is, don’t take them for given?


March 30, 2019

How to measure our worth

Filed under: Lent with St. Augustine — Tags: , — komonchak @ 7:54 pm

At the auction, the market, of faith the kingdom of heaven is being offered for sale to you. Review and gather the riches of your conscience, bring the treasures of your heart together in agreement. But you buy without cost if you acknowledge the graciousness of the grace that is being offered to you. You are spending nothing, and acquiring something great. Never think of yourselves as not worth much, for your Creator, the Creator of all things, considers you so dear that every day he pours out for you the most precious blood of his only Son. (Augustine, Sermon 216, 3; PL 38, 1078).

March 29, 2019

Wisdom as a mother hen

Filed under: Lent with St. Augustine — Tags: , , — komonchak @ 9:14 am

He will overshadow you with his pinions, and under his wings you shall find hope (Ps 90[91]:4). He says this so that you will not think that you can protect yourself. He will protect you and rescue you “from the snare of hunters and from the harsh word.” He will overshadow you with his pinions–this could be understood either of his back or of his breast…. But because he says, “And under his wings you shall find hope,” it is clear that he means that the protection of outstretched wings brings you between God’s shoulders so that on both sides God’s wings place. you in the middle and you are not afraid that anyone can harm you so long as you do not leave a place where no enemy dares to approach. If a hen protects her chicks under her wings, how much safer will you be beneath God’s wings, away from the devil and his angels, those “powers of the air”(see Eph 6:13) that like hawks circle above to carry off the helpless chick?

And there is reason to compare God’s Wisdom to a hen, for Christ our Lord and Savior himself said that he was like a hen: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how many times did I wish to gather your children as a hen gathers her chicks, and you were unwilling” (Mt 23:37). Jerusalem then was unwilling; let us be willing. Even though she was helpless, she presumed on her own strength; fleeing the wings of the hen, she was carried away by the powers of the air. Let us instead admit our helplessness and flee beneath God’s wings, and he will be for us like a hen protecting her chicks.

It is no insult to call him a hen. Look at other birds; many of them hatch their chicks and keep them warm out in the open. None of them is so weakened with her chicks as is the hen. Think of it: we see swallows, sparrows, and storks away from their nests and do not know if they have little ones. But in the case of a hen, we know it by her lowered voice and drooping feathers. She is completely changed by her care of her chicks: because they are weak, she becomes weak. Because we too were weak, God’s Wisdom made herself weak: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us so that we can find hope beneath his wings. (Augustine, EnPs 90, 6; PL 38, 1152-53)

March 28, 2019

Hearing ourselves sing

Here is another example of Augustine’s urging his people to recognize themselves in the voice or voices of the Psalms.

The exulting members of Christ sing this Psalm (Ps 123[124]). And here below who exults except out of hope? If this is our sure hope, then we too can sing with exultation. For the people singing are not strangers to us; it’s not as if in this Psalm we do not hear our own voices. Listen to it in such a way that you can hear yourselves; listen to it as if you were looking at yourselves in the mirror of the Scriptures. When you look at the Scriptures as if at a mirror, your face brightens: when in your exultant hope you find yourself like those members of Christ who sang these things, you too will be among them these members and you too will be singing them. [Augustine, EnPs 123,3; PL 37:1641])

I wonder if we shouldn’t make more of an effort to get our congregations of worshippers to pay attention to the Responsorial Psalm at Mass, to recognize themselves and their voices in them. I know I hardly ever preach about the Psalms used in our worship; in fact, in reading over the readings to prepare a homily for a particular day, I often skip right over the Responsorial Psalm, sometimes not even reading it.  I suspect that we would need to give a major catechesis on how to pray the Psalms and in particular how to pray them with their christological and ecclesiological resonances in mind. As sung at Mass, for example, “Jerusalem” is not a city in Israel.

March 27, 2019

How the Church is one

Even if you do not yet understand, believe this: the Father is the one God, Christ is God, the Son of God. What are the two of them? One God. And how can the two be said to be one God? How? You wonder at this? In the Acts of the Apostles it says that the believers “had one soul and one heart” (Acts 4:32). They were many souls, but their faith made them one soul. There were so many thousands of souls; they loved one another, and the many are one. They were on fire with the love of God, and from being a crowd they achieved a beautiful unity. If love made so many souls one soul, what love must there be in God, where there is no diversity but total equality? If here on earth, and among human beings, there could be such great charity as to make so many souls one soul, where the Father and the Son are inseparable from one another, what could they be except one God? (Augustine, De symbolo, 52,4; PL 40, 629.)

See also his comparison of the Church to a group of people eagerly rushing toward a shrine:

They talk to one another, and, on fire individually, they make a single flame [incensi singillatim faciunt unam flammam], and the flame created by their conversation as they approach carries them on to the holy place, and their holy thoughts make them holy”; (Augustine, Enar. in Ps 121, 2-4; PL 37:1619.)

I love this second quote for the nice balance it achieves. I imagine a crowd of pilgrims walking up a hill toward a shrine, silhouetted against a dark sky, each person carrying a candle, all of them, from afar, making a single flame. A single flame but only because each of them is carrying a candle and because all of them are carrying candles, there is one flame.

Despite what many people have thought, I think that Augustine’s ecclesiology is very concrete. When he cites and emphasizes many of the most beautiful biblical designations of the Church, he does not leave them unexplained nor does he assume that they are true of some Church over and above its members, halfway between us and God. He explains them by pointing to the very specific, concrete thoughts or loves or actions that illustrate or embody what the lofty terms mean, that make them true of the people in front of him. Thus, here, the many believers after Pentecost had a single soul because they all believed and loved. The Church is one because of what is going on in the members of the Church. The Church is one because and to the degree that its members believe in the same God and because and to the degree that they love God and one another. To put it in fancy words: the Church is an event of subjectivity and inter-subjectivity.

March 26, 2019

Night, light, and delight

Augustine is commenting on Psalm 138[139], a wonderful prayer about God’s presence and providence in the Psalmist’s life. Several themes of the Psalm are audible in Augustine’s reflection.

Considering the length of his life, what does the Psalmist say to himself? “And I said, ‘Perhaps darkness will trample me’” (Ps 138:11). See, he says, I’ve come to believe in Christ; I’ve already been lifted on the two wings of charity, and yet this world abounds in wickedness, and because iniquity will abound, the charity of many will grow cold. That’s what the Lord said, “Because iniquity will abound, the charity of many will grow cold” (Mt 24:12). In this life, amid such great scandals, amid so many sins, amid such great turmoil of daily temptations, of evil suggestions every day, he says, What do I do? How can I reach “the uttermost parts of the sea”? (Ps 137[138]:9) I hear the terrible words from the Lord: “Because wickedness will abound, the charity of many will grow cold.” But then he adds, “The one who perseveres to the end will be saved” (Mt 24:13).

Considering the length of my life, I say to myself, “Perhaps darkness will trample me. And night will become light to my delight.” Night has become light for me, because in the night I had despaired of being able to cross so great a sea and survive so great a journey and come to the uttermost end, persevering until the end. Thanks be to God who sought me when I was fleeing from him, who struck my back with a blow of the whip, who called me, called me back from destruction, who made my night bright with light. This life is one long night. How was this night made bright? Because Christ descended into this night. Christ accepted flesh from this world and he illumined the night for us. Remember that woman who had lost that little coin, the drachma? She lit a lamp (Lk 15:8). God’s wisdom had lost a little coin, a drachma. What is a drachma? It’s a coin bearing the image of our Emperor himself, because man was made in the image of God (Gen 1:27), and was lost. And what did that wise woman do? She lit a lamp. A lamp is made of clay, but it gave enough light that the drachma could be found. The lamp of wisdom, then, the flesh of Christ, is made of clay, but it shines with its Word, and it finds the lost.

“And night will be my light to my delight.” Night has become light in my delight. Our delight is Christ. See how we are now rejoicing in this. Your shouts, your joys, what are these but delight? And where does that delight come from if not because our night has become bright because Christ the Lord is being preached to us? Because he sought you before you sought him, and he found you so that you could find him. “And night has become bright to my delight.” (EnPs 138, 14; PL 37, 1792-93)

Augustine’s sermons were taken down by stenographers as he was preaching them, and we see an indication of this in the final paragraph where the shouts of appreciation for his explanation as well as his response to them are noted. Maybe it was something like the “Amens” that you hear from a congregation in a black Church.

Notice also the reference to the delight of the Psalmist. Augustine is often presented as a Gloomy Gus, but, as I hope to show in a future post, he spoke often of the delights that ought to make and mark a Christian’s life, and not just in heaven.

Here is another place in which Augustine repeats the image of the Incarnation given in the little parable about the woman lighting a lamp and searching for her lost little coin.

How great are your works, O Lord! You have made all things in wisdom!” (Ps 102[104]:24). Where is that wisdom in which you have made all things? What sense can reach it? What eye can see it? How can it be sought? How can it be possessed? Only by grace! By his gift it is that we live, by his gift that we are good. He gives this to those who convert, but before they were converted and while they turned from him and gone off in their own ways, did he not seek them? Did he not come down? Was not the Word made flesh and did it not dwell among us? (Jn 1:14) Did he not light the lamp of his flesh, while he hung upon the cross, and search for his lost drachma? (Lk 15:8) He sought it and found it, and all his neighbors rejoiced with him, that is, every spiritual creature close to God. The drachma was found and the neighbors rejoiced; a human soul was found, and the angels rejoice. It was found and so it rejoices and says, “How great are your works, O Lord! You have done all things in wisdom!” (EnPs 103/4, 2; PL 37, 1378-79)

March 25, 2019

How to sing to a God with perfect pitch

Filed under: Lent with St. Augustine — Tags: , , , — komonchak @ 11:18 am

Sing a new song to him (Ps 32[33]:3). Take off your old age: you’ve learned a new song. New man, new covenant, new song. The new song doesn’t belong to old people; only new people learn it, people reborn by grace out of their oldness and already belonging to the new covenant that is the kingdom of God. And all our love sighs with desire and sings the new song. But let us sing the new song by our lives, not by our tongues.

Sing a new song to him; sing well to him. Everyone wants to know how to sing to God. Sing to him, but don’t do it poorly. He doesn’t want his ears to be hurt. Sing well, brothers and sisters. If without any musical training you were told to sing in order to please someone who knows how to listen to music, you’d be afraid to sing lest you displease him because what someone unskilled doesn’t hear an artist will criticize. Who would offer to sing to him if God were to judge singers that way, if he were to examine them that way, if he were to listen that way? When can you ever offer such fine singing that you don’t offend God’s perfect ear in any way?

But look: he gives you a sort of way of singing: don’t look for words by which to describe why you delight in God. Sing with whoops. This is what it means to sing well to God: to sing by whooping. What does that mean? To understand that what the heart is singing cannot be expressed in words. People who sing, whether during the harvest, or in the vineyards, or in some work they love, begin by expressing their happiness in the words of songs; but then, as if filled with such happiness that they cannot express it in words, they turn from words with syllables and go off into sounds of whooping. A whoop is the sound someone makes to show that the heart is giving birth to something it cannot tell. And whom else does such whooping befit but the un-speakable God? For “un-speakable” means the One whom you cannot speak, and if you cannot speak him, and you must not be silent, what can you do but whoop, so that your heart can rejoice without words, and the vast expanse of your joys will not be bounded by the syllables of words. Sing well to him with whoops. (Augustine, EnPs 32-2, 8; PL 36, 283)

When I offered this translation years ago, reaction was mixed. Some seemed to think “whooping” was gimmicky, some didn’t like its novelty; some thought it “secularized” the idea, although Augustine didn’t have any problem illustrating it with the shouts and songs of workers in fields. But I love the final idea that our Christian joy should be so great that it refuses to be hemmed in by syllables.

I haven’t yet found a translation of the biblical verse that uses “whooping.” Various translations for jubilo and jubilatio in this verse: shout for joy, sing for joy, with loud shouts, with a loud noise, beautiful music, a joyful shout, shout out your praises, shouting.

My old dictionary of classical Latin gave “shout” as the translation for the noun and the verb; but I was delighted to find that the recent Oxford Classical Latin renders them as “wild shouting, whooping” and as “to let out whoops.”

When I once proposed this in a homily, a woman asked me for a copy because, she said, this was the first time her teenage son had ever shown any interest in a homily….

In the earlier paragraphs above, Augustine offers the scary idea that God has perfect pitch…

Of course, Augustine wrote an entire little book on music which I confess I’ve never read..

March 24, 2019

Don’t ask for anything else

Filed under: Lent with St. Augustine — Tags: , , — komonchak @ 8:36 pm

My heart has said to you: I have sought your face; your face, O Lord, I will seek again (Ps 26:8). One thing I have asked of the Lord; this I will seek: your face. Do not turn your face away from me. See how the Psalmist has fixed on that one petition! Do you want to receive it? Don’t ask for anything else. Be content with that one thing, because one thing is enough for you. My heart said to you: “I have sought your face; your face, O Lord, I will seek again.” Do not turn your face away from me; do not turn away in anger from your servant. Magnificently said!Nothing more worthy of God can be said! They feel this who truly love. (Augustine, Enar. in Ps 26-2, 16; PL 36, 207)

Once again In Augustine, you have to love in order to feel and to understand the Psalmist. “Da mihi amentem!“, he said in one sermon: “Give me someone who loves, and he will understand!”

March 23, 2019

Drunken foolishness

Psalm 77[78] is a lengthy narrative of the relationship between God and Israel as it evolved from Egypt and the Exodus to the time of David. Several verses are devoted to Israel’s infidelity to and defiance of God and then to God’s wrath against his people. But then things could change: “But the Lord awoke like someone asleep” (v. 65), and he renewed his covenant with Israel.

The motif of God’s needing to be awakened recurs several times in the Psalms; “Wake up, rouse yourself for my cause” (Ps 34[35]:23; “Rouse yourself: why do you sleep, O Lord? Wake up, do not reject us forever!” (Ps 43[44]:24; “Look, rouse yourself on my behalf!” (Ps 58[59]:5); “When you are roused, you despise their image, as one does a dream after waking” (Ps 72[73]:20). And there is, of course, that moment in the Gospels where the Lord is asleep in the little fishing boat and a storm arises and the disciples have to wake him up: “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” (Mk 4:38) A cry that many of us may be making, given these stormy days in the Catholic Church….

Ps 77[78]:65 offers an especially vivid image–one might even call it a conceit–that attracted Augustine’s attention:

And the Lord was awakened as if he were asleep (Ps 77[78]:65). The Lord seems to be asleep when he gives his people into the hands of those who hate them and who say to them: Where is your God? (Ps 41[42]:11). He was awakened as if he were asleep, like a strong man drunk on wine. No one but the Holy Spirit would dare to say this about God! The meaning is that when the Lord does not come to the aid of people as quickly as they think he should, it appears to wicked mockers that he is sleeping too long, like a drunk. (Augustine, EnPs 77, 39; PL 36, 799)

At the beginning of Book 16 of the “City of God,” Augustine undertook to explain the prophetic significance of the story of Noah’s nakedness and the actions of his three sons (Gen 9:18-27). This story is one of several etiologies in the early chapters of the Book of Genesis, narratives that explain the origins or causes of things, in this case of ethnic groups. Noah appears as the originator of agriculture, in particular of wine-growing, to which he falls victim, becoming drunk and lying naked. His son Ham, father of Canaan (that is, of Canaanites), sees his father’s nakedness and tells his brothers of it. They, however, out of respect for their father, will not look on his nakedness but cover him. The story ends with blessings on Shem and Hapheth and a curse on Ham.

Augustine was convinced that all such Old Testament stories had as their hidden meaning the prophetical anticipation of the mystery of Christ and the Church which he regarded as the key that unlocks the single mystery of all the Scriptures. So all the elements of this story “are laden with prophetical meanings and covered with prophetical veils.” It will no doubt be surprising that Augustine took Noah’s nakedness to be symbolic of Christ’s passion, a claim made in the City of God, 16, 2, but explained at much greater length in his Against Faustus the Manichean, a work written to defend the Old Testament against the Manichean repudiation of the Jewish Scriptures as too “carnal.” Augustine tries to rescue them by setting out the spiritual meanings that lie beneath the literal senses. Here is his typological interpretation of the story of Noah’s nakedness.

As for the vineyard that Noah planted, by which he became drunk, and that he was naked in his own tent, who does not see that this represents the passion of Christ suffering among his own nation? For the mortality of Christ’s flesh was laid bare, to Jews a stumbling-block, to Gentiles folly, but to those called, Jews and Gentiles alike, represented by Shem and Japheth, the power of God and the wisdom of God, because God’s folly is wiser than men and God’s weakness stronger than men (1 Cor 1:23-25)….

Go on, then, you servants of Ham, with your malicious objections to the Old Testament Scriptures! Go on, you who despise the naked flesh from which you were born! For you would not be able to call yourselves Christians unless, as foretold by the prophets, Christ had come into the world and had drunk from his own vineyard that cup that could not pass him by (see Mt 26:42), and unless he had slept in his passion in the drunkenness of the folly that is wiser than men, and unless, by God’s hidden counsel, there had been laid bare that weakness of mortal flesh that is stronger than men. For if the Word had not taken up that weak flesh, the Christian name, in which you too boast, would not exist on the earth. (Contra Faustum, Book XI, 23-24; PL 42, 267)

The stunning phrase, for which all that has been prelude, is “in ebrietate stultitiae”–in the drunkenness of folly, the drunken folly of the Cross.

Paul Murray, O.P., has written a book that shows the importance in early Dominican spirituality of the theme of spiritual drunkenness, and he wonders if this Augustinian phrase might have inspired St. Catherine of Siena when she wrote of Christ as drunk with love. “O priceless Love! You showed your inflamed desire when you ran like a blind and drunk man to the opprobrium of the cross. A blind man can’t see, and neither can a drunk man when he is fast drunk. And thus he [Christ], almost like someone dead, blind, and drunk, lost himself for our salvation.” She also said that when his critics said that Christ was a drunkard, they were right because he was drunk with love for sinners (Paul Murray, The New Wine of Dominican Spirituality: A Drink Called Happiness [A&C Black, 2006], p. 164.)

Augustine cited many times this passage: “They shall be made drunk with the plenty of your house; and you shall make them drink from the torrent of your pleasure” (Ps 35[36]:9), and maybe I will have a chance to say more about that at another time. Suffice it here to say that he did not think this drunken pleasure had to wait until heaven.

March 22, 2019

Everyone has some alms to give

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — komonchak @ 8:50 am

Imagine someone who has only two coins. Is there anything more trifling that we could sow in order to reap a harvest? Yes, there is: “Whoever gives a cup of cold water to a disciple will not lose his reward” (Mt 10:42) A cup of cold water doesn’t cost two coins; it’s free. But it can happen that one person has it and another doesn’t. If the one who has the cup of water gives it to the one who doesn’t have it, if he gives what he has entirely out of love, he gives as much as that widow who gave her two coins and as much as Zacchaeus who gave half of his wealth. There is a reason the Lord said that it was cold water, to show that he was talking about a poor man. He said “a cup of cold water” so that no one could use as an excuse for not giving that he didn’t have wood by which to warm the water.

But what if he doesn’t have even that? He shouldn’t worry. “Peace on earth to men of good will.” The only thing to be afraid of is if he has something to give and doesn’t give it. If he has it and doesn’t give it, he’s become frozen inside; his sins have not melted like a torrent in a south wind because his will is frozen. What are all those goods that we possess worth? If our wills are warm, melted by the warm south wind, even if one of us doesn’t have anything, he is considered to have given everything.

How much beggars give each other! Pay attention, beloved, to how alms are given. Yes, there are beggars to whom you give alms, and beggars need it. Perhaps you notice some brothers and sister in need of something; and you give it, if Christ is within you, even to outsiders. And if there are beggars in difficulty, people who beg for a living, they too have things they can give each other. God hasn’t abandoned them in their trials because they give alms. One person can’t walk, and another, who can, adjusts his pace to the lame one; someone who can see uses his eyes for one blind; someone young and healthy can supply his strength to an old or sick person, support him. The one is needy, the other is rich.

Sometimes, even a rich person becomes poor and needs a poor person to help in some respect. One such person comes to a river, but he’s as soft as he is rich and can’t cross the river: if he were to strip down, he’d get cold, get sick, and die. A poor man comes along, in better shape, and takes the rich man across: he’s given an alms to a rich man. So don’t think that people without money are the only poor. If you see someone in need in some respect, perhaps you are rich in that in which he is poor, and you have something to give. It may be your limbs that you lend and that’s more than if you lent him money. Someone needs advice, and you’re full of advice: he’s poor in advice and you’re rich in it. You don’t have to labor at this, you don’t lose anything from it, but give your advice and you’ve given alms.

Right now, brothers and sisters, as we speak, you are like poor people before us, and what God has deigned to give to us, we give to you, and we all receive from the One who alone is good. That’s how the Body of Christ holds together: fellow members joined and united in charity and in the bond of peace when anyone who has something gives it to one who doesn’t. In what he has, he is rich; in what he doesn’t, he is poor. Cherish one another that way; love one another that way. Don’t think only of yourselves: notice those in need around you. (EnPs 125,12; PL 37,1665)

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