Mass readings for the Feast of St. Augustine:
John 4.7-16 Psalm 119.9-14 Matthew 23.8-12
I look at the news, economic, political, foreign, and so on, and I’m reminded of that ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Now, it turns out this curse is neither ancient nor Chinese, but it has a quality about it that seems to partake of ancient wisdom. From my little research it appears this is only a little over a hundred years old, and English.
When we look back at “interesting” periods of history, we can recognize that what made them intriguing was the chaos people found themselves in the midst of; and the heroes were those who led humanity out of the turmoil. And as much as some would like to cast themselves as the heroes and heroines of our times engaged in some great struggle for truth and justice, most of us would be happy with the humdrum and the unexciting when it comes to matters national and international; there’s enough drama in our everyday life to have yet more stresses laid on by greater forces beyond our control and events which impose upon us circumstances that make our everyday lives all the more difficult.
How distressing it is then to realize that things are getting “interesting” in our world, locally, nationally and internationally. Even more troubling is the sense that we don’t have the leadership, or for that matter a society capable of overcoming the threats that loom.
The abuse of power has led to a mistrust of authority; the censorship of dissenting views has led to suspicion of official pronouncements; the bad advice of expert bureaucrats has us doubting the policies of government – there is a seeming decline in the quality of those who govern and administer, manufacture and market, inform and educate both in terms of competence but also in morality; and it all seems to have happened so very fast.
As I observed, it all seems beyond our ability to control or even influence to better our situation. What are we to do?
Well, we can be glad in our patron saint because St. Augustine gives us a model of action in a troubled world. We are apt to forget that this genius who laid so much of the intellectual and spiritual foundation of Western civilization worked within a decaying Roman Empire, at the end of the Classical age, at the close of the era of antiquity; and he did not enjoy a peaceful, settled life of scholarly pursuit alongside his pastoral duties as a universally beloved bishop – his diocese was invaded by hostile barbarian, and he was constantly battling heresy both at home and abroad. Yet despite this, he carried out his duties and pursued his ministry of writing and to this day, his theological works are read; his personal works of autobiography provide universal spiritual and psychological insights into the human condition; his sermons and letters give us a model of pastoral care to people living in stressful times. He did his job, he got the work done; his legacy is a testament to his faithfulness.
Augustine was a man who had spent his life immersed in the culture, in the fashions, in the politics of his time looking for answers and seeking a place to stand and make of himself something. He discovered that no answers were to be had, and anywhere he might choose to stand was a place of shifting sand. That is, until he found in Christ something eternal and true; and in the vocation of disciple, as much as we know him as a bishop and theologian, in discipleship first was work of everlasting importance. His discipleship produced the fruits we enjoy to this day.
A big part, the substantial part of his conversion was in his getting over himself, getting beyond self-concern, worrying about his place in the world, and what his legacy might be. As much as we know him as a Christian he was a Roman, and in that culture a man’s primary goal was a good reputation that brought honour to himself and to his family. In that culture, everything was to serve this end. One could become wealthy, but the point of that was to gain entry to the upper echelons of society, to make that great reputation. One could be a successful general, a great defender of the Republic or later, a champion of the Empire, but the point was to make a name for oneself. To rise high in the political ranks was to gain power for oneself, but the achievement came in your name chiselled into public monuments, statues of you made and put up in the public square. The conceit was that this would immortalize you, generations after you had cast off this mortal coil, people would pass through the forum and see your face in marble; others would walk by a temple or other public buildings and there was your name on the cornerstone. The Romans were so conceited to think that unlike all other empires, theirs would be eternal, but it wasn’t. The engraved marble, most of it wound up being burned to make lime; same with the busts and the statues.
This was the world Augustine came into, and these metrics of success were those he measured himself against whether he was conscious of it or not. When it was time for him to go to school, he didn’t choose to study philosophy so as to investigate the mysteries of the universe. Rather, he studied rhetoric, the discipline of the public man, the lawyer, the politician. Yet we know that despite that decision that should have set him on a course for all the things I’ve spoken of, there was a nagging emptiness which he himself wrote of, the restlessness that can only find rest in God, it kept bringing him back to a spiritual quest.
And the end of that road was in finding himself at the foot of the cross, at the empty tomb, which is a place, to borrow from T.S. Eliot, not to verify or instruct yourself, or inform curiosity. You are here to kneel.
“Do not be called ‘master’; you have but one master, the Christ.”
How hard for Augustine! He was a lecturer, a man of expertise in the spoken and written word, a master of the Latin language; and he is called to humility in a world that celebrates pride of accomplishment, pride of public honour.
However, this didn’t mean a retreat from the world and its debates, its discussions, its controversies and conflicts. Rather, it was to understand whose part he must fully take in these great contests: not his own but Christ’s, and to offer what he had with humility.
There is a famous exchange of letters between him and St. Jerome, who was one of the great men of that time in the Church and in the intellectual world of the late empire. And when Augustine wrote to him, he made clear that the ultimate basis for our understanding of the faith should not rest on our works, our feeble opinions, his treatises, his essays and sermons, that they can never be taken on a par, let alone as above sacred scripture. That everything he accomplished, as much as it was recognized in his day to be a treasure, it was not to be compared to the Word of God. Indeed, he wrote he would be more angry with someone who treated his writings as though they were the gospel than if they criticized his work unfairly.
Now I’ve seen some anxious essays in the media in recent years that make a comparison between the decline of Western Civilization and the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. And while there is some use in that, I’m inclined to share in the opinion of the classics scholar Tom Holland (who I’ve mentioned before) that we should be cautious in doing so – we’re not Romans (thank God!).
We’re Christians. And the substance of God we worship is not honour, celebrity, wealth or power. God in his essence is only love; and love looks outward from the self toward others and toward the future with hope.
When Augustine came to his mortal end, with his town of Hippo surrounded and besieged by Vandal invaders, he had put his books in order; and friends made preparations to have them kept safe from those who were coming to sack the city – the Vandals lived up to their name; and these same Vandals were heretics, they followed a version of Christianity known as Arianism that denied the full divinity of Christ. St. Augustine would not live to see the city fall; but it eventually did. And, indeed, the empire would be vandalized and it would fall. But the good work of Augustine provided what would be necessary to rebuild, to resurrect society as a Christian civilization; his words explaining the Apostolic teachings, defending orthodoxy and preserving the best of the ancient world’s knowledge and wisdom.
We don’t know what our efforts here will be in the aid of in any final sense; but we know what our ministry serves ultimately: the kingdom of God, the salvation of souls, the promises of Christ, the majesty of God who is Trinity and is all in all, and beside whom there is nothing.