Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Restless Heart - The Feast of St. Augustine, Doctor of the Church

(Lately I have posted the same content to both this parish blog and to my personal blog. Today is an exception. If you want to read my own memories of Katrina on this sad anniversary please visit There Will Be Bread.)

"Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in you."

Today is the feast day of St. Augustine. There is so much written about him and so much written by him... If you don't know much about this saint, I can simply say that you might want to do a little research.

That said, I always approach this revered doctor of the church, with a small grain of salt. That is not disrespectful - it is just a reminder that we are all a mixed bag. Why even Augustine himself understood that! In his own words he once wrote:

"Wisdom and folly both are like meats that are wholesome and unwholesome, and courtly or simple words are like town-made or rustic vessels -- both kinds of food may be served in either kind of dish."

With that in mind I thought about how and what I might write today. Salt or no salt, I have always had a compelling interest in him.  When I first returned to the Church in 1990, I read these words of Augustine's and I was hooked:
Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!

Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the shapely things you have made
I rushed headlong – I, misshapen.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you,
those things which would have no being,
were they not in you.

You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace.
Sit with that for a moment if you will and if you are like me, you will see the fullness of St. Augustine, the rich paradox of human - and saintly - experience. You see, St. Augustine was a convert - he started life as a pagan and he was also known for his voracious sexual appetites. That influence lives on in his words and imagery and we tend to want to whitewash that. It is a pity because, we are an incarnational and sacramental people.

 Saint Ambrose baptizing Saint Augustine
Benozzo Gozzoli (1464-65)
Apsidal chapel, Sant'Agostino, San Gimignano, Italy

Jesus Christ reconciled and mediated through the physical and material - He became flesh. St. Augustine probably understood that better than anyone, but he probably also got kind of stuck on it too.

But that is just one of my opinions and it is not meant to be denigrating; it gives me peace with my own struggles to think of the paradox of Augustine's point of view against the backdrop of the non-dualistic influence of Jesus.

Ultimately I think that St. Augustine has more to teach us than many of us give him (or take away) credit for. Some of us get stuck on the passion and the "late have I loved you" portions and his wisdom. Some of us get stuck on the emphasis on original sin and the rejection of sexuality. *sigh* As I thought about that gulf between the two, I was grateful to come upon these words from Richard Rohr.

Augustine, a man filled with contradictions, was a master at holding those contradictions within. For example, in his Homily on Psalm 99, he says, “Before you had the experience, you used to think you could speak of God. Once you have the experience of God, you can never say what you have experienced.” This is the powerlessness and yet the deep inner power of true faith experience. Faith absolutely knows and yet it does not know at the very same time.
Go to the link and read the whole thing - I think it is worth it and it is short. 

So today I am thankful to God for St. Augustine, who helped me journey farther along the road, who made me not afraid to be me. I am thankful to St. Augustine for his words and experiences and how they have to be taken in context. It is a reminder for context in all things.

Whether we are interested in the Church, whether we are away from the Church or have never been in it, whether we are fully involved - St. Augustine deserves our attention. Not to use as a blunt object in which to bludgeon others of a different mindset but rather to study as a path to integration and wholeness.

As a Doctor of the Church and Saint, I think in the fullness of time, he must help us as we continue to find ways to remember and not dismember, the Body of Christ.

St. Augustine of Hippo, Pray for us!

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