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

April 13, 2019

Our Physician’s art

A doctor’s care is to make people healthy, so this medical care is for the healing and restoration of sinners. Surgeons, when they bind up wounds, don’t do it carelessly but carefully, so that the bandages are trim as well as useful. In the same way, the healing art of Wisdom, in assuming our humanity, adapted himself to our wounds, curing some of them by their opposites, some of them by their likes. A doctor treating bodily wounds in some cases applies contraries, as cold to hot, moist to dry, etc., and in other cases applies likes, as a round bandage to a round wound, or an oblong one to an oblong wound, and does not fit the same bandage to all limbs, but puts like to like. In the same way the Wisdom of God in healing man has applied himself to his cure, being himself healer and healing art, both in one. Seeing, then, that man fell through pride, He restored him through humility. We were ensnared by the wisdom of the serpent: we are freed by the foolishness of God. Just as the former was called wisdom, but was in reality folly in those who despised God, so the latter is called folly but is true wisdom in those who overcome the devil. We used our immortality so badly as to incur the penalty of death: Christ used His mortality so well as to restore us to life. The disease was brought in through a woman’s corrupted soul: the remedy came through a woman’s virginal body. To the same class of opposite remedies it belongs, that our vices are cured by the example of His virtues.

On the other hand, the following are, as it were, bandages made in the same shape as the limbs and wounds to which they are applied: He was born of a woman to deliver us who fell through a woman. He came as a man to save men, as a mortal to save mortals, by death to save the dead. And those who can follow out the matter more fully … will find many other points of instruction in considering the remedies, whether opposites or likes, employed in the healing art of Christianity. (De doctrina christiana, I, 13; PL 34, 24)

My great-great-grandfather Charles Partridge was a Spiritualist, so fervent a believer that the dead communicate with the living that he founded a weekly newspaper, The Spiritual Telegraph, to spread the news about the new dispensation he believed was dawning in the mid-1850’s. He was also a very successful businessman, running the largest match-factory in New York City and intensely interested in the latest scientific and technological advances of his day, while also championing most of the humanitarian causes then stirring society. His spiritualist leanings also led him to give a hearing to proponents and practitioners of homeopathic medicine. I thought of him while reading this passage from Augustine where both allopathic and homeopathic remedies are evoked in order to explain the healing art of the great Physician of souls. Edmond Hill’s translation of the De doctrina christiana even uses “homeopathic” in his version of these paragraphs.

April 12, 2019

Giving and not losing

Filed under: Lent with St. Augustine — Tags: , , , — komonchak @ 8:40 am

Augustine commented often on the goods that are not diminished when they are shared. We could think of the spontaneity with which we might, on seeing something beautiful, exclaim to others, “Look! How beautiful!”–and our delight is even increased when it is shared. I once visited the Taj Mahal all alone, and yearned for someone with whom to share the extraordinary experience.

There are things that do not decrease when they are given away, and when they are possessed and not given away, they are not possessed in the way they should be. The Lord said, “To the one who has more will be given” (Mt 13:12). He will give to those who have, then, and if they use with generosity what they have received, he will fill them and heap up what he has given. There were only five or seven loaves before they began to be given to the hungry; but when that began to happen, the disciples filled bushels enough to satisfy thousands of people. (De doctrina christiana, I, 1; PL 34, 20)

April 11, 2019

Another inner sense

As we’ve seen before, Augustine was one of the originators of the idea that there are spiritual senses analogous to those of the body. Here he brings in the sense of taste.

“How great and multiple is your sweetness, Lord!” (Ps 30[31] If a wicked man asks, “Where is this multiple sweetness?” I will reply, “How am I to show this multiple sweetness to you who by the fever of wickedness have lost a palate for it? If you didn’t know honey, you wouldn’t know how sweet it is unless you had tasted it. You don’t have the palate of the heart to taste these good things.” (EnPs 30/2, 6)

Perhaps we’ve all had the experience of losing our sense of taste or smell because of a bad cold or fever. Augustine is once again closely associating the objective and the subjective, but insisting that one cannot sense what really, objectively, is sweet unless one has a healthy, sensitive palate. Bernard Lonergan used to say that “objectivity is self-transcending subjectivity,” and something like that is what is at stake here.

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)

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