Chasing Heaven’s Hound | St. Augustine of Hippo

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Augustine of Hippo, ora pro nobis!

This weekend, the feast of St. Augustine is eclipsed by Sunday, but I could not let the opportunity pass to say something about this great saint – whose massive impact on Latin Christianity and Western Civilisation is beyond doubt.  As a Christian born on the Feast of St. Augustine, I feel a deep love for the Doctor of Grace and have often asked his prayers and turned to his writings for encouragement; support and wisdom. Augustine’s towering intellect and passionate spirit mean he has made decisive contributions to the study of just war; the separation of church and state; the relationship between grace and nature; methods of biblical interpretation; the nature of sin and the meaning of salvation as well as subjects ranging from the Trinity to epistemology; from the sacraments to human sexuality – all Western theology (and much work in other disciplines) is profoundly influenced by Augustine’s philosophical and theological work.

Despite his towering intellect, a well known story captures a different, but equally important facet of Augustine’s thought.

Augustine was walking one day along the seashore in Carthage, north Africa pondering his written work-in-progress on the mystery of the Holy Trinity, De Trinitate, when he saw a small boy running back and forth from the Mediterranean sea to a spot on the sandy seashore. The boy was using a sea shell to carry the water from the sea in order to pour it into a small hole in the sand.
Augustine approached him and asked, “My boy, what are doing?”
“I am trying to empty the sea into this hole,” the boy replied.
Augustine continued, “But that’s impossible, my dear child, the hole cannot contain all that water.’
The boy paused from his work, stood up, looked a the bishop, and replied, “It is no more impossible than what you are attempting, to comprehend the immensity of mystery in the Holy Trinity with your small mind.”
Augustine, amazed by the response averted his eyes for a moment, and when he glanced back to ask him something else, the boy had vanished.

In all his work, Augustine has a real appreciation of the limits of language before the wonder and immensity of God, while retaining a confidence in the capacity of language to break open our minds of clays to a real communion with divine Truth. That said, Augustine insists that only ‘humble and living faith working through an equally bold and living love’ can make our minds – made in ‘the image of the Trinity’ – capable of exploring the infinite wilderness of God’s threefold mystery. Augustine knew that, when we open ourselves up to the divine mystery, we find ourselves in Christ, set on fire with a love that plunges us deeper into that same mystery. In short, knowing God brings love alive in us, and love sparks the desire for more knowledge: a cycle of ever-increasing passion as we seek to explore more and more the wonder and mystery of the one God and are transformed into his likeness.

It is this loving, mysterious dynamic which is in the background of one of the most frequently quoted passages of the Confessions:

“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”

Every Christian, inspired by the example of Augustine, should pray this weekend for the grace of a heart which burns for love of Christ and flames out in service to God and God’s people. But we must be aware that this fire will burn away all in us that is unworthy of the mind and heart of Jesus! If we open our hearts and minds to the mystery of God – in contemplation, the reading of scripture and the Eucharist – we must give all we have and all we are to this impassioned quest for Heaven’s Hound. I finish with the words of Pope Benedict when he revealed the Augustinian dynamism which sustained his own heroic career:

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St Augustine’s heart inflamed by the light of Truth

“When a person is conquered by the fire of His Gaze, no sacrifice seems too great to follow him.”

For more on this great saint and the theology of desire, see my previous post here.

Ascension Homily: Lord, Thou has raised our human nature…

Lord, Thou hast raised our human nature
to the clouds at God’s right hand;
There we sit in heavenly places,
there with thee in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
man with God is on the throne.
Mighty Lord, in thine Ascension
we by faith behold our own.

Bishop Christoper Wordsworth summed up the feast in his great hymn, which includes this great verse. He reminds us that the Ascension is a celebration of the extraordinary fact that our humanity, in all its vulnerability and all its variety, has been taken by Jesus into the heart of the divine life. First of all then, the Ascension is Good News for humanity – this humanity we all share in, which we know all to well to be stained, wounded and imprisoned – this same humanity, yours and mine, is still capable of being embraced by God and to be received and welcomed into the burning heart of all reality – the throne of Godhead.

Jesus takes our human nature into the very heart of God and he speaks to God his Father in a ascensionlargehuman voice – this is an astonishing reality, in heaven, the language they speak is human and not just angelic. Our words, human words, are heard at the very centre of the burning heart of all reality. Saint Augustine reflected on this in his beautiful sermons on the Psalms because, like most of us, Augustine was rather worried about the fact that the Psalms are not always fit for polite company – they are full of rude, angry, violent, hateful remarks, not to mention protests against God and the most horrific ill-wishing towards human beings. In short, the Psalms are as human as it gets! So, Augustine asks, why would we recite them in public worship? Surely these are just reminders of the bits of our humanity best left out of God’s sight?

Augustine disagrees. We cannot leave bits of our humanity out of God’s sight and, more than that, God himself has taken the initiative and made our human language is own. When we pray the Psalms, we can imagine that Jesus is speaking them. It is Jesus who says, ‘where are you God?’, Jesus who says, ‘my God, my God why have you forsaken me’ and Jesus saying, ‘happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!’ Now, certainly, Jesus is not saying that any and every human cry is good – he doesn’t endorse this violence or anger – but Jesus treats us, our feelings and our tumultuous personalities as inherently real – he take us seriously, both when we’re moving towards one another and God in love and, amazingly, when we go the other way. He doesn’t forget us when we spiral away in anger, when we try to lock ourselves away in
the dark – he hears our rage, our violence, our pain – he hears them, he takes them, and, in the presence of the Father, he says that this is the humanity he has broughtto the heart of God. There’s nothing pretty about this, it’s not edifying or heroic to have our humanity with God – it’s just real and needy and confused. You and me, the humanity of us all, has been brought home to heaven and dropped into the burning heart of God for healing and transformation. This is how we read the Psalms, to be honest, it’s probably the only way to read the Psalms.
Today, the human life in which God was most visible and tangible disappears from the world in its bodily form and is somehow absorbed into the life of God – Jesus doesn’t slip out of his humanity to do this, our humanity, all of it, goes with Jesus. When St Paul speaks of Christ filling ‘all in all’ we must bear in mind that picture – Jesus’ humanity, including all the difficult and unpleasant bits of human nature, is taken up into the heart of love where they can be transformed and healed.

Just before his Ascension, the Lord tells his disciples to wait for the promise of the Father – wait for the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit of God will not only allow us to be a different kind of human being but it will also allow us to see human beings differently. The Holy Spirit, poured out upon us in the wind and the flame of Pentecost, gives us the life of Jesus – through it, we share some of his capacity to truly hear human beings – he gives us the power to see, with the eyes of Christ, the full range of what being human means, it does not shelter us from the rough truth of the world – it makes us vulnerable and more exposed. The Christian can never censor out any bits of the human voice, we are called to listen to the whole troubling symphony, which is so often filled with pain and anguish and violence.

But also can’t just say ‘oh, that’s human nature’ and forget about it – we must feel the edge, the anger, the ache of human pain and suffering and recognise that it can be taken into Christ, into the heart of the Father, where it can be healed and transfigured. Throughout his ministry, culminating on Good Friday, Jesus has gone before us into the darkest places of human reality and he has picked up the sounds he has heard. He knows the sound of the quiet cry of the abused child, the despairing shriek of the refugee denied refuge, the sighs of the hungry: he knows and makes his own the cynical dismissal of faith by many, while knowing their inner need; he makes his own the joy and thanksgiving of the human heart, which finds fulfilment in ordinary, prosaic love and faithfulness. All of this, the splendour and the pain, he carries to the Father’s heart and to the throne of heaven – all of these voices, the depths of our humanity, he carried into the burning truth at the centre of reality.

So, today is a celebration of human glory – the eternal potential, locked up in our middled, struggling lives – and it is also a great celebration of God’s ability to enter into the darkest, least glorious place of our nature and to sweep them up and drop them into his own burning heard, where they can be transformed and recreated. The Holy Spirit, whose outpouring we await at Pentecost, will teach our hearts if we let him, that nothing that is human is alien to us and to the life of Jesus – the promise of the Father today is that the love of Christ spreading through us and in us will bring the world home to the heart of God. We are the Church, the fullness of him who fills all in all, we have to hear with his ears and see with his eyes – in the midst of struggling, flailing humanity, we must remember that Christ has raised our human nature through the clouds to God’s right hand.

With this in mind, may our compassion be deepened a hundredfold; our understanding of pain and suffering be deepened a hundredfold and, please God, our hope deepened a thousandfold.

Holy Desire

For me, the influence of St. Augustine, a great friend to have (so to speak), has helped me understand this more than anyone. For Augustine, faith is not an experience of the constant and uninterrupted sense of God’s presence but is rather an experience of holy desire.

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