Thursday, August 28, 2014

St Augustine and amazing grace

Many places associated with St Augustine either no longer exist or cannot be identified with certainty. One of the possible exceptions, however, is the place of his baptism, which can still be visited today. This is a photograph of the ancient baptistry underneath the present day cathedral (duomo) of Milan, Italy. The cathedral is built on top of earlier churches, and the baptistry shown here is a sub-basement. There is very little doubt that it is the place of Augustine's baptism.

Today is the feast day of that great theologian of grace, St Augustine of Hippo. He defended the authentic Christian understanding of grace against those who thought that our attempts at goodness just needed "topping up" by God. Augustine's individual search, his experience of the worshipping, learning, discipling community gathered around St Ambrose in Milan, as well as his own reflection on the Scriptures assured him of our total reliance on God's grace for salvation.

Augustine was born in 354 AD in what is now Algeria. Even in his youth he was well known as a skilful teacher and debater. In fact it was his pride as an up and coming philosopher - and his intellectual snobbery - that caused him to reject the Christian faith of his mother and indulge himself in a lifestyle of colourful immorality. He eventually fathered a child outside marriage.

As unlikely as it may seem, given his early life, this man was chosen by God to become one of the greatest Christian teachers of all time.

You can read the story of his conversion in The Confessions of St Augustine - available in a number of translations. (online HERE, although I prefer Henry Chadwick's 1998 translation . . . Chadick calls the Confessions "that prose-poem addressed to God.") It is a thrilling story of God's grace at work in Augustine's life.

The values of the world in which Augustine lived, and the variety of religious philosophies on offer, makes his age uncannily like our own. In order to indicate the interplay of what was happening with Augustine's heart and soul with his being drawn into the worshipping community, I share with you five factors that led to and sustained his Christian experience:

First, his mother Monica never ceased to encourage and pray for him. St Monica is the patron saint of all those mothers who pray with tears for their wayward children. Later on, Augustine never doubted that his mother's faithfulness was the most important factor in his conversion.

Second, Augustine was genuine in his search for truth and wisdom. He loved the writings of Cicero and the Platonists, and even his seduction by the cultic Manichaeans was partly due to his seeking of "higher things." (Actually, he says that his breakthrough, philosophically, came when, to use his own words, "I no longer wished for a better world, because I was thinking of the whole of creation, and in the light of this clearer discernment I have come to see that, though the higher things are better than the lower, the sum of all creation is better than the higher things alone.") 

Third, Augustine experienced a growing sense of emptiness, futility and dissatisfaction with his life. His goals seemed to be eluding him and neither his learning nor his lifestyle brought the fulfilment he sought.

Fourth, at Milan, the teaching of St Ambrose changed Augustine's attitude towards the Scriptures, awakening both his mind and his heart. (Even so, he had a three year struggle before surrendering his life to the Lord.) Augustine writes:

". . . slowly I saw that what Ambrose taught was the truth. My trouble was that I wanted to be able to understand every part of the truth myself, as clearly as I see that two and two are four. As if a mere man can understand everything about you, my God, who are infinite and eternal Truth. Then you began to enlighten my mind. I saw that a man cannot discover all the truth about you by reason alone. It is necessary that you reveal yourself to us. And you had done so in your Bible, and above all when you spoke to us through your beloved Son, Jesus."

Fifth - and sometimes overlooked -, the worshipping life of the Church community in Milan had a profound impact on Augustine. During his struggle of faith he was supported by the community's prayers. At the time of his baptism he was touched by the community's worship. He writes:

"We were baptized [i.e. at the Easter Vigil, 24 April 387], and disquiet about our past life vanished from us. During those days I found an insatiable and amazing delight in considering the profundity of your purpose in the salvation of the human race. How I wept during your hymns and songs! I was deeply moved by the music of the sweet chants of your Church. The sounds flowed into my ears and the truth was distilled into my heart. This caused the feelings of devotion to overflow. Tears ran, and it was good for me to have that experience."

Augustine eventually returned to Northern Africa where he became a priest and then Bishop of Hippo. His most famous books are The Confessions and City of God; but all his writings have been influential in the Church's prayer, theological reflection and philosophical exploration right down to our own time.

Looking back over his conversion, and the "amazing grace" that had brought him thus far, Augustine writes these much quoted words in the first paragraph of the Confessions:

" . . . you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.?"

Later on, he speaks for each of us when he says to the Lord:

". . . I embraced the mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who is over all things, God blessed forever, who was calling unto me and saying: I am the way, the truth, and the life . . .

"Late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved you! For behold you were within me, and I outside; and I sought you outside and in my ugliness fell upon those lovely things that you have made. You were with me and I was not with you. I was kept from you by those things, yet had they not been in you, they would not have been at all. You called and cried to me and broke open my deafness: and you sent forth your beams and shone upon me and chased away my blindness: you breathed fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath and do now pant for you: I tasted you, and now hunger and thirst for you: you touched me, and I have burned for your peace."

(Go HERE to read a short article on St Augustine by Malcolm Muggeridge.)


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