Wednesday, 20 April 2011

In case you were wondering...

...I'm still planning to blog through the remaining chapters of Confessions.

But that will be no easy thing. If and when I manage it I might begin a similar exercise on a work that Augustine wrote around the same stage in his life, On Christian Teaching.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Karl Barth on the Vision at Ostia

In Book IX Augustine writes movingly about the last few days of his mother’s earthly life. Of special note is the vision or experience that he claims they shared together at Ostia. Together alone Augustine and Monica talked in depth about eternal life. They concluded that the pleasures of the bodily senses were not worth comparing with eternal pleasures.
Augustine describes how they were lifted up so that they climbed ‘beyond all corporeal objects and the heaven itself.’ They even moved beyond their own minds, ‘to attain to the region of inexhaustible abundance where you feed Israel eternally with truth for food.’ They experienced that wisdom which is eternal. As they talked about it they ‘touched it in some small degree.’ They soon had to leave behind ‘the firstfruits of the Spirit’ (Rom.8:32) to return to the sound of their human speech, ‘where a sentence has both a beginning and an ending.’
Augustine’s theological reflection on this experience was to move towards a theory of immediate knowledge of God. Imagining a possible scenario where everything and anything in creation was silent:

Monday, 28 March 2011

Summary of Book IX - Part 3

Grief. Recovery. A Prayer.

The grief over his mother’s death became a source for reflections on Christian mourning. Augustine describes how he struggled to control his tears. In most cases, funeral “dirges and lamentations” reflected the belief that death meant some miserable state, even complete extinction. This was not the Christian hope of Augustine and his mother. Yet Augustine still felt inward grief. He understood this as mourning for the loss of her friendship and support, “… a very affectionate and precious bond suddenly torn apart.” Leaving others to make funeral arrangements, Augustine and companions retired to a place where he could go “without discourtesy”.

His conversation during this time was a way of alleviating and hiding the pain he was experiencing. In reality, he was “holding back the torrent of sadness.” Grief is a necessary part of the current order and the human condition. Covering it up compounded his pain, so that he was “tortured by a twofold sadness.” He was in shock at the power of his human frailties. After the funeral sleep eventually brought relief, and, “little by little,” through private tears Augustine recovered from Monica’s death.

Augustine concludes Book IX with what is to all intents and purposes a prayer on behalf of his mother. It demonstrates the ambiguities of his theology of baptism and the forgiveness of sins. There are perils threatening every soul that dies in Adam (1Cor15:22). Having been made alive in Christ through her faith, Monica was no longer in Adam. Yet Augustine still felt the need to petition God for his mother’s sins. He pleads Christ’s interceding presence before God the Father (Rom8:34). Post baptismal sins were the focus of the prayer.

Interestingly, Augustine states his belief that God had already acted according to his prayer. When facing the Accuser Monica would be able to say that her debts have been forgiven by him who paid their price on her behalf.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Summary of Book IX - Part 2

Monica: Early life. Married life. Vision. Death.

Augustine mentions the death of his mother, and reflects on her life. The second half of the book is dedicated to this woman trained in the fear of God. Strangely, Augustine recounts a weakness for wine that developed in his mother’s early life. The ‘surplus high spirits’ of youth enticed her into the habit of drinking more and more wine as she drew it from the cask. But the Lord used a rebuke from a slavegirl to end the habit. Although the intention was to wound Monica, the Lord used that rebuke to help her.

Monica was a good wife to her husband. She was wise and patient as she bore with his infidelities. She hoped that God’s mercy would come upon him. Despite Patrick being a violent man there was never any appearance of domestic violence. Near the end of his life Monica’s husband became a baptized believer. Monica even won her mother-in-law’s respect, after household slavegirls had gossiped against her reputation. This was evidence of her gift as a peacemaker. She was also discreet, never sharing news or information with people unless it might lead to reconciliation, ‘…it should be regarded as a matter of common humanity not to stir up enmities between people nor to increase them by malicious talk…’

Augustine describes one of the last experiences he shared with his mother. At a house at Ostia together that talked very intimately about the things of God and eternal life. They asked each other questions about the nature of the new life that awaited the saints. The conclusion was that the pleasure of the bodily senses would be meaningless compared to the life of eternity. Augustine seems to claim that they both experienced something of the immediate heavenly wisdom, ’…while we talked and panted after it, we touched it in some small degree by a moment of total concentration of the heart.’

During this time together Monica shared that her desires for this world were already fulfilled. Having seen Augustine come to Christian faith, she was ready to die and pass on to the heavenly world. Within five days she had fallen sick but her only request was to be remembered by her sons before the Lord. She had no concerns about where her body was to be buried. She died a few days later at the age of 56.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Summary of Book IX - Part 1

Retirement. Writing. Learning. Baptism.

Augustine’s conversion turned his heart mind and will toward serving God. Suddenly it was sweet to be without the sweets of folly. What he had once feared to lose was now a delight to dismiss. He describes himself as really talking with the Lord. It was “in the sight of God” that he decided to keep teaching rhetoric for a short time. Yet plans were made for Augustine to retire from his old vocation. As it happened, illness required that Augustine take time away from teaching. This worried him at first but he was also learning to trust in God’s God-ness.

Friends and acquaintances responded to or followed Augustine’s spiritual progress in their own ways. After retiring as a teacher of rhetoric Augustine spent time completing writing projects based on discussions among his peer group. These books were Neoplatonic yet Christian. They were written in God’s service even though they contained vestiges of the group’s old spirit of pride. But Augustine now “read the Psalms of David, songs of faith, utterances of devotion which allow no pride of spirit to enter in!” He was a beginner in authentic love to God.

Enlightened by his conversion, Augustine was learning more and more through his study. He was learning more about theological truths, including his own sinfulness and his own inability to change others for good. Augustine did not know what to do for the deaf and dead. He himself had been ‘a bitter and blind critic’ of the scriptures. Now, like the psalmist, enemies of the scriptures made him sick with disgust.

Prayer continued to influence life for good. An attack of toothache vanished during special prayer time. On retiring Augustine asked Ambrose for advice on pursuing his call to Christian ministry. The advice was to read the prophet Isaiah. But Augustine found the first passage difficult. Soon after retiring Augustine was baptised along with his son Adeodatus. Among the circle of friends the decision was made to return to Africa, ‘a place where we could be of most use’ in God’s service.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Summary of Book VIII - Part 2

Having set the background, Augustine moves on to tell the story of how he was delivered from ‘the chain of sexual desire’. Augustine and his friend Alypius received a surprise visit from a baptized Christian believer named Ponticianus. Ponticianus shared the story of Antony the Egyptian monk. Augustine had never heard about the monk, and was even unaware of a monastery ‘full of good brothers’ outside of the Milan city walls. It was through this monastery that a friend of Ponticianus read the Life of Antony, and in reading was converted to the monastic way of life.

On hearing this story, Augustine despised his own hesitation about seeking wisdom and serving God fully. The day had come when his conscience started complaining against his own reservation and reluctance. After Ponticianus left Augustine moved out into his back garden, so that no-one could interfere with him in his struggle. In the agony of death Augustine was coming to life. Deeply disturbed, angry and in distress about his inability to enter into covenant with God, Augustine experienced the struggle of his two wills. He was powerless to make the change. As Augustine deliberated about serving God, he discovered that the self which willed to serve was identical with the self which was unwilling.

In his imagination, or in some form of vision, Lady Continence appeared to him. Augustine was made aware of numerous good examples that he could follow: all those who had achieved the very thing that Augustine desired. The Lord God had given all these people exactly what Augustine wanted too.

The debate in his heart was a struggle against himself. Augustine threw himself under a tree and repeatedly cried, “How long, O Lord? How long?” As he was saying this he heard a voice from a nearby house, repeating over and over again ‘Pick up and read, pick up and read.’ Taking the voice as a divine command, and reminded of how Antony had responded to a gospel reading, Augustine rushed back to his book, opened it and read the first passage his eyes fell on: “Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts.” A light of relief from all anxiety flooded his heart.

Alypius decided to join Augustine in his new found way of life. They went into the house and told Augustine’s mother, who was filled with joy at the answer to her prayers. The effect of Augustine’s conversion was that he no longer desired a wife, and he no longer had any ambition for success in the world.