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

April 20, 2019

Our daily baptism

Several of Augustine’s sermons have survived in which he prepared people to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. A few of them were given for the ceremony at which the Creed was given and explained to them–the traditio Symboli)–as he went through the Creed phrase by phrase. Here “the forgiveness of sins” is related not only to their upcoming baptism but to their daily prayer afterwards.

“The forgiveness of sins.” If this did not exist in the Church, there would be no hope. If there were no forgiveness of sins in the Church, there would be no hope of a future life and an eternal liberation. Thanks be to God who gave his Church this gift. You are about to come to the holy fountain; you will be washed by baptism; you will be renewed by the bath of regeneration; and you will be without sin when you come up out of that bath. All those past things that were pursuing you will be destroyed there. Your sins were like the Egyptians following, pursuing, the Israelites, but only up to the Red Sea. What does that mean: up to the Red Sea? Up to the fountain of Christ consecrated by the cross and blood of Christ. What is red makes red…. If you see the cross, notice the blood, too. If you see what is hanging there, notice what is flowing. The side of Christ was pierced by a lance and our price flowed out. Baptism is marked with the mark of Christ, that is, the water by which you were dyed and as it were passed through the Red Sea. Your sins are your enemies. They follow you, but only up to the sea. When you will enter that sea, you will escape and those sins will be destroyed, just as while the Israelites were escaping on to dry land, water covered the Egyptians. And what does Scripture say? “Not one of them remained” (Ps 105[106]: 11). Whether you sinned many times or sinned few times, whether you sinned greatly or sinned slightly: not even the least of them remains.

But because our victory is in this world, where no one lives without sin, the forgiveness of sins does not consist only in the washing of sacred Baptism, but also in the daily Lord’s Prayer that you will receive in eight days. In that prayer you will find as it were your daily baptism, and you will give thanks to God who gave this gift to his Church, the one we confess in the Symbol when, after saying “holy Church,” we add: ‘the forgiveness of sins.” (Augustine, Sermon 215, 8, PL 38, 1065)

April 19, 2019

Redefining ugliness and beauty

People occasionally ask me why this Friday is called “Good”. The answer lies in the simple, quiet liturgy of this day which does not give way to grief much less indulge in morose lingering over the pains Christ endured, but instead celebrates the fruit the tree of the Cross produced, as in the antiphon that may be sung while the Cross is being venerated: “We adore your Cross, O Lord, and we bless and praise your holy resurrection, for, behold, because of this tree joy has come to the whole world!” To know this joy, of course, requires that one find wisdom and power where others see only folly and weakness (1 Cor 1:22-25). In the two passages below, Augustine echoes the Apostle’s theme in terms of beauty and ugliness.

That “the Word was made flesh” is very beautiful to people who understand. “Far be it from me to glory,” said one of the friends of the Bridegroom,” except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14) It’s not enough that you are not ashamed by the cross; you must glory in it.

Why, then, is the Bridegroom said not to have any beauty or fairness (see Is 53:2-3)? Because Christ was crucified, a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But why did he have beauty on the cross? Because the folly of God is wiser than men, the weakness of God is stronger than men.

May the Bridegroom who is beauty wherever he is come to meet us who have come to believe. Beautiful as God, as the Word who is with God; beautiful in the womb of the Virgin, where he did not lose his divinity but assumed our humanity; beautiful when born, a Word who could not speak, because while he was still unable to speak, while he was being held and suckled, the heavens spoke, the Angels sang his praises, a star guided the Magi, he was adored in the manger, he who is food for the meek.

Beautiful, then, in heaven, beautiful on earth, beautiful in the womb, beautiful in the arms of his parents, beautiful when performing miracles; beautiful when being scourged; beautiful in his invitation to life; beautiful in his scorn of death; beautiful in surrendering his life and in taking it up again; beautiful on the cross, beautiful in the tomb, beautiful in heaven. (Augustine, En. in Ps. 44, 3)


Whoever loves me keeps my commandments, and whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him.” And what will he give him? “And I will show myself to him” (Jn 14:21). This is what will be seen when he does what he said: “And I will show myself to him.” There you will see Gods justice; there, without a book, you will read it in the Word. When you will see him as he is, our wandering will be over, and we will rejoice with the joy of the angels.

And what is the way there? It is faith. For the sake of your faith, Christ became ugly, though Christ remains beautiful. The one more beautiful than the children of men will be seen after our wandering. But how is he seen now by faith? And we have seen him, and he had no beauty or comeliness; his face was abject, and his position ugly (that is, his power), despised and ugly was his position, a man considered a leper, and knowing how to bear infirmities (Is 53:2-3). Christ’s ugliness makes you beautiful. [Deformitas Christi te format]. For if he had not been willing to be ugly, you would not have regained the beauty which you had lost. He hung ugly on the cross, but his ugliness was our beauty. [deformitas illius pulchritudo nostra erat]

In this life, then, let us hold on to the ugly Christ. What does “ugly Christ” mean? “Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ through whom the world is crucified to me and I to the world” (Gal 6:14). This is Christ’s ugliness…. This is the way: to believe in the one crucified. We bear the sign of this ugliness on our foreheads; let us not be ashamed at Christ’s ugliness. (Augustine, Sermon 27, 5-6; PL 38, 181)

April 18, 2019

“I have given you an example”

To the petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” Augustine often linked the statement in the First Epistle of St. John, “If we say that we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8). If we are to say that prayer every day, then every day we must have something that needs to be forgiven. The same realistic assessment underlies the passage below where the second part of that petition (“as we forgive our debtors”) is here found to be part of the symbolic meaning of Christ’s washing the feet of his disciples, part of that of which Christ gave us an example at the Last Supper.

But besides this moral interpretation of the passage, we remember how we drew to your attention the greatness of this act of the Lord’s: we said that, in washing the feet of disciples who were already washed and clean, the Lord was instituting a sign. Because of the human feelings that occupy us on earth, however far we may have advanced in achieving righteousness, we might know that we are not exempt from sin, which He washes away by interceding for us when we pray the Father in heaven to forgive us our debts as we also forgive our debtors.

What connection, then, can such an understanding of the passage have with the one he himself gave when he explained the reason for his act in the words, “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you”? Can we say that even a brother may cleanse a brother from the contagion of his sin? Yes indeed; we know that the deep significance of this deed of the Lord also admonishes us to confess our faults to one another and to pray for one another, just as Christ also intercedes for us. Let us listen to the Apostle James, who states this precept with the greatest clearness when he says, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray for one another” (Jam 5:16). Of this also the Lord gave us the example. For if He who neither has, nor had, nor will have any sin, prays for our sins, how much more ought we to pray for one another’s in turn! And if He forgives us, whom we have nothing to forgive; how much more ought we, who are unable to live here without sin, to forgive one another! For what else does the Lord apparently intimate in the profound significance of this sacramental, when He says, “For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you,” but what the apostle states in very plain terms, “Forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against someone: even as Christ forgave you, so also do you” (Col 3:13)?

Let us therefore forgive one another’s faults, and pray for one another’s faults, and thus in a way we will be washing one another’s feet. Our part, by His grace, is to provide this ministry of love and humility; God’s part is to hear us, and to cleanse us from all the pollution of our sins through Christ, and in Christ; so that what we forgive to others, that is, what we loose on earth may be loosed in heaven (see Mt 18:18). (Tractate on John 58, 5)

April 15, 2019

Love and labor

Filed under: Lent with St. Augustine — Tags: , , , — komonchak @ 9:43 am

Augustine has many places where he contrasts doing things out of love to doing them, or not doing them, out of fear, and he considers love and fear to be in inverse proportion: the more you fear the less you love; the more you love the less you fear. Here the contrast is between love and labor or toil, the more you love the less you feel it burdensome; and love can even bring you to the point that you love even the toil, the effort. Lovers, he said, find easy what those who do not love find difficult or burdensome. Notice, once again, that living the Christian life is supposed to be something one may, and should, delight in.

So far from being burdensome, the labors of lovers themselves give delight, as, for example, the labors of hunters or fowlers or fishermen or vintners or businessmen or people playing a game. For when it comes to something loved, either there is no labor or the labor itself is loved. And think how shameful and painful it would be if one were to delight in capturing a wild animal or in filling one’s cask or sack or in throwing a ball, but not delight in gaining God. (De bono viduitatis, 21, 26)

I wonder whether St. Thomas Aquinas had a text like this in mind when he gave very down-to-earth explanations of two statements of St. Paul: “I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 1:20), and, “For me, to live is Christ” (Ph 1:21). He noted that people use expressions like, “That’s his whole life” or “She lives for that,” referring to the primary motive and goal of all their activities, and he used the example of hunters living to hunt or of people living to study. Brought up on spiritual authors who found deep mystical significance in those two Pauline statements, so deep I could not discover it in myself, I found Aquinas’s explanation wonderfully concrete, illuminating, and comforting.

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 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.”

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