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

April 10, 2019

Love as the great dividing line

“In this are manifested the children of God and the children of the devil: Whoever is not righteous is not from God, nor is he who does not love his brother” (1 Jn 3:10). Now it is clear what he is saying: “And he who does not love his brother.” Only love distinguishes God’s children from the devil’s. They may all sign themselves with the sign of Christ’s cross; they may all answer, “Amen”; they may all sing, “Alleluia!” ; they may all be baptized they may all enter the Church’ they may all build the walls of churches, but God’s children are distinguished from the devil’s only by charity. Those who have charity are born of God; those who don’t have it are not born of God. A great proof, a great dividing line! Have whatever you want, but if you lack this one thing, it’s no use to you; if you don’t have other things, have this thing and you have fulfilled the law. “Anyone who loves another, fulfills the law,” the Apostle says, “and love is the fulfilment of the law” (Rm 12:8, 10). I think this is that precious pearl that the Gospel describes a merchant as seeking; he finds a single pearl and sells everything he has and buys it (Mt 13:46). This is the precious pearl: charity, without which whatever you have is no use to you, but if you have only it, it is enough for you. Now you see by faith; then you will see by sight. If we love while we do not see him, how much more shall we embrace him when we see him! But where must we exercise ourselves? In fraternal love. You can say to me, “I don’t see God,” but can you ever tell me, “I don’t see other human beings”? Love your brother or sister. And if you love the brother whom you see, you will see God at the same time, because you will see charity itself, and God dwells within. (Sermons on I John, 5, 7; PL 35, 2016)


April 9, 2019

Christ’s enriching poverty

Augustine begins his exposition of Psalm 40[41] by referring to one of the more common mocking criticisms of faith made by pagans of his time: that Christians worship a mere man, a mortal who died a disgraceful death, and from their taunts we can get some sense of what a revolution of beliefs and expectations Christianity required in the ancient world. But it is not clear, seventeen centuries later, that this “transvaluation of values,” to use Nietzsche’s phrase, is any easier today than then, and the proponents of what is called “the New Atheism” don’t hesitate to encourage public taunting of Christian beliefs. The passage below doesn’t represent an argument designed to convince the pagans; it’s more like an invitation.

What you believe against him is vain; it would be better to believe in him that you may “understand about the needy and poor one” (Ps 40[41]:2, for “he who was rich became poor,” says the Apostle, “so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). But now because he became poor, he is despised and people say, “He was a man. He died; he was crucified. You’re worshipping a man, placing your hope in a man, adoring a dead man.” No, you’re wrong. Understand about the needy and poor one so that you may be made rich by his poverty. What does it mean: “Understand about the needy and poor one?” So that you may recognize a needy and poor Christ, who says in another Psalm: “”But I am needy and poor, the Lord has a care for me” (Ps 39[40]:18). What is it to understand about the needy and poor one? That “he emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man” (Ph 2:7). He was rich with his Father and poor among us; rich in heaven, poor on the earth, rich as God, poor as man.

Does this disturb you, that you see a man, that you look upon flesh, that you look at his death, that you mock his cross? Is this what disturbs you? “Understand about the needy and poor one.” What does this mean? Understand that where weakness is displayed before you, divinity lies hidden there. Rich because that is what he is, but poor because that is what you were. But his poverty is our riches, just as his weakness is our strength, just as his foolishness is our wisdom, just as his mortality is our immortality. Consider what this poor one is, and don’t measure him by the poverty of others. He came to fill the poor, he who was made poor. Open yourself to faith, then; receive the poor one lest you remain poor….

Understand about the needy and poor one, that is, about Christ; understand the hidden riches in him whom you see as poor. For in him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2:3)…. Don’t let his death narrow you and turn you aside from seeing his divinity. “Blessed is the one who understands about the needy and poor one.”

And look also at the poor, the needy, the hungry and thirsty, the naked, the ill, those in prison, and understand also about such a poor one, because when you are understanding about such a one, you are understanding about him who said, “I was hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, ill, in prison” (Mt 25:35, 36). (EnPs 40, 1-2; PL 38, 454-55)

April 8, 2019

Another thing to give up for Lent

Filed under: Lent with St. Augustine — Tags: , , — komonchak @ 8:20 am

In a certain way we are under a debt to increase our almsgiving during these days of Lent. For what could be more just than that out of mercy we pay out what by abstaining we have withdrawn? And what more wicked than that what is saved by abstinence is preserved by avarice or consumed in deferred pleasure? Consider, then, to whom you owe what you deny yourselves so that what temperance takes from pleasure mercy may add to charity.

What am I to say about that other work of mercy where you are not giving out something from storeroom or purse, but are letting go something from your heart, something which begins to be more harmful if it remains there than if it goes away. I’m talking about keeping anger towards someone in your heart. What is more foolish than to avoid an enemy outwardly and to keep him in much worse state in your inmost heart? That’s why the Apostle says, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger,” and immediately adds, “And don’t give space to the devil” (Eph 4:26-27), as if that is what one does who doesn’t quickly drive anger from his mind with the result that by his anger he’s giving entry to the devil. First of all, then, don’t let that sun up there go down on your anger lest the sun of righteousness abandon your mind itself. But if there is someone in whose breast anger still remains, at least let the coming day of the Lord’s passion drive it away: he did not become angry at those who killed him, but for them, as he hung on the tree, he poured out a prayer and his blood (Lk 23:34)….

Even if I were not cautioning you, brothers and sisters, these are the things you should take care to reflect on constantly. Since our voice in the service of so many divine testimonies is helped by today’s celebration, I need not fear that any of you will perhaps spurn me, or rather the Lord of all in me, but that instead the Lord’s flock will recognize him in what is being said and will listen to the one who above all should be heard.

April 7, 2019

Pity and the pitiable

Today’s Gospel is the story of the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11). It is generally held that this brief story was not part of the original Fourth Gospel, but did circulate, perhaps as an independent story, was accepted among liturgical lessons and at some point given its place now in John’s Gospel. One can understand why it was remembered and why it spread so widely in the early Church. Augustine commented on it more than once, and left us the striking phrase “misera et misericordia” to describe when the woman and Jesus are alone. If one wishes to retain the word-play, one would say something like “the pitiful [or: pitiable] woman and Pity itself,” provided, once again, that we can recover the older meaning of “pity.”

There are a good number of recent articles interpreting the story in the light of the sexual exploitation of women.

O Lord, how you pricked the hearts of those raging against the woman when you said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone at her.” That painful and sharp word punctured their hearts; they recognized their own consciences and were embarrassed by the presence of righteousness. One by one they went away, leaving the pitiful woman alone. But the accused woman was not alone. With her was her judge, not yet judging, however, but offering her mercy. When her accusers went away, only the pitiful woman and Pity [misera et misericordia] were left. And the Lord said to her: “Has no one condemned you?” She answered, “No one, Lord.” “Neither do I condemn you,” he said, “Go and sin no more.”

April 6, 2019

East or West?

Filed under: Lent with St. Augustine — Tags: , , — komonchak @ 8:42 am

St. Luke’s Gospel tells of three men encountered by Jesus and of their differing reactions to him and to his call (Lk 9:57-62). Augustine comments on one of them:

Now another disciple presents himself: “I will follow you, Lord,” he says, “but first let me go and say good-bye to my family.” I think this is the meaning: “Let me tell my relatives so they won’t go looking for me.” And the Lord says: “No one who puts his hand to the plow, and then looks back, is ready for the kingdom of heaven.” The East is calling you, and you’re looking West (Vocat te Oriens, et tu attendis Occidentem.). (Augustine, Sermon 100, 3; PL 38, 604)

April 5, 2019

“By now he stinketh”

Those of us who are of a certain age can remember giggling when the story of the raising of Lazarus was read out in church and we heard Martha warn Jesus that her brother had been dead for four days: “By now he stinketh” (John 11:39). “Stink” was one of those words you weren’t supposed to use in polite company. (I remember a grammar school teacher rebuking a classmate for describing the “stink” that he had smelled in the boy’s lavatory–but I probably shouldn’t go into details….) Perhaps the verb is still considered improper: here are some euphemisms used in some contemporary translations: “there is a bad odor”; “there is a stench”: “there will be an offensive odor”: “the smell will be awful”; “there will be a bad smell”; “the smell will be terrible”; “he’s already decaying.” “the air is foul now”. But I digress….

Augustine noted that there are three places in the Gospels where Jesus raises the dead and he took them as symbolic of Christ’s rescuing us from our sins. He went into the centurion’s house and revived his son (Mk 5:35-39), and this represents people who have consented to sin in their hearts even if they haven’t yet committed it. He raised the son of the widow of Nain  as the boy was being carried out of the house (Lk 7:11-15), and this represents people whose private consent becomes public when they commit it. Lazarus was the most difficult case, because he was already dead for four days and had begun to stink, and he represents the power sin can accrue when it has become habitual, a force so strong that Jesus has to bellow to overcome it.

People who do what is evil entangle themselves in an evil habit to the point that it does not allow them to see that it is evil, and they become defenders of their evil deeds and angry when criticized…. Weighed down by such wicked habits, it’s as if they were buried. What should I say, brothers and sisters? They’re so buried that one could say of them what was said of Lazarus, “He stinks by now.” That stone laid against Lazarus’ tomb is the hard power of habit by which a soul is crushed and can’t rise or breathe again.

But Martha said: “He’s been dead for four days.” And in fact a soul comes to that habit of which I am speaking in four stages. The first is a pleasurable tickling in the heart; the second is consent to it; the third is the act itself; and the fourth is the habit. There are some people who when they encounter unlawful things so dismiss them from their thoughts that they take no delight in them. There are some who experience the pleasure but do not consent to it; their death is not yet complete but in a way has begun. When consent is added to the pleasure, that is already damnation. Then from consent one goes to the act, the act becomes a habit, and one has reason to despair, as it is said: “He’s been dead for four days. He stinks by now.” Then came the Lord, and although all things were easy for him, he showed you some difficulty. He bellowed…, and his loud shout showed the kind of rebuke needed for people hardened by habit. But at the voice of the shouting Lord, the chains of compulsion were broken. (Augustine, Sermon 98, 5; PL 38, 594)

April 4, 2019

Our irritated eyes

The Scriptures abound in the use of the metaphors of darkness and light, of blindness and sight–think only of the Gospel according to St. John, where, in chapter 9, Jesus heals a blind man and speaks of the terrible blindness of those who don’t know they are blind. It is a natural symbolism that Augustine exploits in many places and in many ways. He was one of the originators of the view that there are spiritual senses,  complementary to the physical ones.

Our whole business in this life, brothers and sisters, is to heal the eye of the heart so that we may see God. This is why the holy mysteries are celebrated, why the word of God is preached; why the Church has moral exhortations for the correction of behavior, the amendment of carnal lusts, the renouncing of the world, not in word only, but by a change of life; and this is the entire goal of the divine and holy Scriptures: that the inner eye may be purged of what hinders us from seeing God. The eye was formed to see this temporal light, a light from heaven, yet bodily and manifest not to us only, but even to the lowest animals…. If anything irritates the eye by being thrown or blown into it, it shuts out that light; and even though light surrounds the eye with its presence, still the eye turns away and closes itself away from the light. The very light to see which the eye was formed becomes painful to it. In the same way, the heart’s eye, when disturbed and wounded, turns away from the light of righteousness and dares not and cannot look at it. And what is it that disturbs the heart’s eye? Evil desires, greed, wickedness, worldly concupiscence–these are what disturb, close, blind the eye of the heart.

When the body’s eye is irritated, how quickly we look for a doctor so it can be opened and cleansed so that this light can be seen! If the slightest thing gets in the eye, we run around, can’t rest, can’t wait! It was God, of course, who made this sun that we desire to see with healthy eyes. Much brighter still is the one who made it, and quite different in kind is the light meant for the mind’s eye. That light is eternal wisdom. God made you, man, after his own image. Do you suppose that he would give you an eye to see the sun that he made and not give you an eye to see him who made it, when he made you according to his own image? He has given you this eye, too; he has given you both kinds of eye. But while you take great care of these outer eyes, you greatly neglect your inner eye, impaired and wounded though it is. It’s painful to you if your Maker desires to show himself to you; it hurts your eye until it is cured and healed. Adam sinned even in paradise and hid himself from God’s face. As long as he had the healthy heart of a pure conscience, he rejoiced in the presence of God, but after that eye was wounded by sin, he began to dread the divine light, fled back into the darkness and the thick woods, fleeing the truth, longing for shadows. (Augustine Sermon 88, 5-6; PL 38, 540-41)

April 3, 2019

Hearing truth’s silent shout

Two striking statement, one at the beginning of this snippet, one at the end.  Interiority yet again: the evocation of the secret places of our minds and hearts, where God alone hears, and God alone is heard, when the silent shout of his truth breaks in upon us.

When God examines us, he does not do so more forcefully in the ears of our body than in the secret places of our thoughts, where he alone hears, he alone is heard. …

There are many ways in which God speaks with us. Sometimes he speaks by means of some instrument, such as by a book of the divine Scriptures; he speaks by some element of the world; … he speaks by lots;… he speaks by a human soul, such as by a prophet; … he speaks by an angel; … he speaks by some vocal or sounding creature….

But God also speaks to a person, not outwardly by eyes or ears, but inwardly, in the mind, and he does so in more than one way, as, for example, in dreams, … or by lifting a man’s spirit, as when Peter while praying saw a vessel let down from the sky full of likenesses of the Gentiles who were to come to believe, or in the mind itself, when someone understands God’s majesty or his will, as when Peter by that very vision came to know what the Lord wanted him to do by reflecting within himself. For no one can recognize this unless inwardly, within himself, truth resounds with its silent shout. (Augustine, Sermon 12, 3-4; PL 38, 101-102)

April 2, 2019

Reading the wonders of Christ

St. Augustine had a great interest in signs: words, deeds, realities, events that point beyond themselves to something, or someone, else. And he was always encouraging his congregation to look beyond the sign to what it points to. Here, introducing the account of the multiplication of the loaves in the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, he uses a striking example of the need to ask further, deeper questions.

The wonders performed by our Lord Jesus Christ are, of course, divine works and incite the human mind to an understanding of God from visible realities. For, since he is not the sort of substance that can be seen with the eyes, and because those wonders of his by which he governs the whole world and administers all of creation have by their regularity come to be disregarded, to the point that hardly anyone deigns to pay any attention to the wondrous and stupendous works of God in a single grain of seed, God, in his great mercy, has reserved to himself certain works to be performed at appropriate times outside the usual course and order of nature, so that people who disregard his daily works might be moved to wonder by the sight of deeds that are not greater but rarer. The governance of the whole world is a greater wonder than satisfying five thousand people with five loaves, and yet no one wonders at the former while people wonder at the latter not because it is greater but because it is rare. For who is it who is now feeding the whole world but the one who creates a cornfield from a few grains? He therefore created as God creates. For the power by which he multiplies the produce of the fields from a few grains is the same power by which he multiplied in his hands the five loaves. There was power, indeed, in the hands of Christ; and those five loaves were like seeds, not sown in the earth, of course, but multiplied by the one who made the earth. This wonder, therefore, was brought to the senses so that the mind might be raised, it was exhibited to the eyes so that our understanding might be exercised and we might wonder at the invisible God because of his visible works and, raised to faith and purged by faith, we might desire to see him even invisibly whom by visible things we have come to know to be invisible.

But there’s even more to see in the wonders of Christ. Let us interrogate the wonders themselves for what they can tell us about Christ, for when understood, they have a language of their own. For since Christ is himself the Word of God, deeds of the Word are also words to us. As we have heard how great a wonder this is, let us also seek how profound it is: let’s not simply delight in its surface, let’s also investigate its depth. There’s something inward in what we admire outwardly. We’ve seen, we’ve looked at, something great, something splendid, utterly divine, which could only be performed by God, and we have praised the doer for his deed. But it’s like when we look at some beautiful lettering, it wouldn’t be enough for us to praise the writer’s hand, that he had shaped the letters so evenly, equally, and elegantly, unless we were also to read what he had conveyed to us by those letters. So also here: someone who simply inspects the deed delights in the beauty of the deed and admires the doer, but the one who understands it goes on and. as it were, reads it. For we look at a picture and at writing in different ways. When you look at a picture, you see it and admire it, and that’s all there is to it; but that’s not the whole of it when you look at writing, because you’re invited also to read it. If you see writing but perhaps can’t read it, you say, “What’s written here?” You’ve already seen something and you ask what it is. The one whom you ask to inform you about what you’ve seen will show you something else. He has other eyes than you do. Yes, you both see the shapes of the letters in the same way, but you don’t understand the signs in the same way. You see and praise, but he sees, praises, reads and understands. So, because we have seen and praised this wonder of Christ, let us now also read it and understand it. (Augustine, Treatises on John, 24,1-2; PL 35, 1592-93)

April 1, 2019

Which kind of law do you follow?

Filed under: Lent with St. Augustine — Tags: , , , — komonchak @ 8:08 pm

There follows in this long Psalm something that we ought, with God’s help, to consider and discuss: Set before me a law, O Lord, the way of your justifications, and I will always seek after it (Ps 118[119]:33). The Apostle says: “The law is not made for the just person, but for the unjust and disobedient” (1 Tim 1:9-11). … Well, was the person who says, “Set before me a law,” the kind of person Paul says the law was made for? Of course not. If he were that sort of person, he would not have said in the previous verse: “I have run the way of your commandments, when you enlarged my heart.” But if the law is not made for a just person, then what is he praying for when he asks that a law be set before him? Perhaps he does not wish the law to be set before him in the same way as when it was set before a stiff-necked people, on stone tablets and not on “the fleshly tablets of the heart” (2 Cor 3:3), according to the old covenant that engenders into slavery (Gal 4:24) and not according to the new covenant about which Jeremiah the prophet wrote: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, and I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not according to the covenant which I made with their fathers on the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, because they did not remain in my covenant, and I no longer cared for them, says the Lord. For this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel: After those days, says the Lord, I will give my laws in their minds and I will write them in their hearts” (Jer 31:31-33).

Now we see how the Psalmist wants a law set before him by the Lord, not as the law was once made for the unjust and the disobedient, people belonging to the old covenant, and written on stone tablets. No, he wants the law that is meant for holy children of the free Jerusalem–the one that is above–, for the children of the promise, for the children of the eternal inheritance, the law that is given in the mind and written on hearts by God’s finger, the Holy Spirit, not a law that people keep in memory but neglect in their lives, but a law that they know because they understand it, a law that they do by loving, not confined in the narrow ways of fear but with all the breadth of love. One who does what the law requires out of fear of punishment and not out of love of righteousness does so unwillingly; and what he does unwillingly he would prefer, if it were possible, that it not be commanded, and so he is no friend but an enemy of a law which he wishes did not exist. A person whose will is thus unclean is not cleansed by such observance of the law. He cannot say what the Psalmist says: “I will run the way of your commandments when you enlarged my heart,” because that enlarging refers to the love that the Apostle says is the fulfillment of the law (Rm 13:10). (Augustine, EnPs 118/11, 1; PL 37, 1528)

This is just one of the many places in which Augustine urges that the law under which Christians live is the one that God writes on their hearts, which, if that happens, means they become a law unto themselves. This inner law, the work of the Spirit, enlarges their heart beyond what an external law can require, so he can contrast “the narrow way of fear,” fear, that is, of punishment as the motive of obedience, to the broad paths that love sets us on. And once again, there is that focus on interiority: when we act simply out of fear, we secretly wish that an action was not forbidden us….

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