Augustine of Hippo, Part 2: Reading and Hearing Augustine in English

This is the second in an ongoing series of posts on the life, writings, and legacy of Augustine of Hippo. In this post I discuss two sources of Augustine’s work in English translation, and how the volumes of Augustine’s sermons and letters in the New City Press series expands our view of Augustine’s life and accomplishments.  

Augustine has been well served by the efforts of translators of his works into English. Some works, such as the Confessions, have numerous translations, and some of these are available in different editions. I’ll do a separate post on these translations of the Confessions in the near future; here I’ll address the best one-volume introduction to the writings of Augustine and the ongoing series by New City Press dedicated to translating all of his works.

William Harmless, S.J., in his Augustine in His Own Words, has given us one of the best one-volume readers of any author I’ve seen. At just under 500 pages, Harmless takes the reader through all the major works and periods of Augustine’s life, and provides clear and helpful introductions. Get this book, along with The Nietzsche Reader by Pearson and Large, equally outstanding as a guide to its subject, and you’ll have two handy volumes guiding you through influential and contrasting visions of the human good. Harmless provides his own translations of Augustine’s texts, and is a sure guide to the wide range of topics Augustine addresses. Undergraduate and graduate courses, small reading groups, and individuals wanting to enter into Augustine or refresh themselves will all benefit from this attractive, reasonably-priced volume. The bibliography is excellent, containing a listing of all available (at the time of publication) critical editions and English translations, along with a thorough listing of the secondary literature, grouped according to Harmless’s chapter divisions. I dare say every serious student of theology should own this volume.

New English translations of the complete works of Augustine are available from New City Press under the series title “The Works of Saint Augustine: A New Translation for the 21st Century.” The series, with forty volumes already in print and ten volumes yet remaining, is sponsored by the Augustinian Heritage Institute, and will contain the standard English translations of many of Augustine’s works. Sr. Maria Boulding’s translation of the Confessions has received high praise from many scholars, while many readers, this one included, are thrilled to have new translations and editions of the entire corpus of letters and sermons of Augustine. These are essential for any understanding of Augustine, who is unfortunately often seen only in terms of larger, “more important” works like the City of God, On the Trinity, the Confessions, and his treatises on grace and free will. This turns Augustine into something other than what he was, a bishop serving the needs of his people. He was not a systematic or dogmatic theologian, a philosopher, a political theorist, or, heaven forbid, a “spiritual writer.” Most of his writings, and all those that have so captivated and influenced the Church and others, were conceived and written in the midst of daily pastoral work and problems. Here is F. Van Der Meer, in Augustine the Bishop, published in 1961 and still a key secondary source, describing this reality:

“His was no key position in the Church, yet as he wrote at his desk or spoke from the cathedra in the third-rate place which was his home wave upon wave went out over the world. What many readers of Augustine’s writings do not realize is that his simple cathedra was more important to him than his pen. It was the needs and cares of ordinary Christian folk that supplied both the matter and manner of his loftiest writings, so that the main function of his genius was to serve the pastor of souls. It is not altogether wrong to say that we owe Augustine the saint to the strange and surprising fact that Augustine the genius was little more than a parish priest.”

. . .the main function of his genius was to serve the pastor of souls”: Dockworkers, retired soldiers, servants, and slaves were among those Augustine regularly preached to, and his pastoral responsibilities, including settling tiresome lawsuits throughout the day, countering false understandings of the Church and her faith, and teaching through the Church’s liturgical calendar dominated his life. His writings bear witness not to what we consider academic concerns, but to the daily life of faith of those under his charge. His sermons are thus as important a source for his faith and theology as anything else he published.

These sermons also reveal a very different style of worship than we see today. There were no pews in his basilica, and Augustine would preach seated in his cathedra. There was often some interesting give-and-take between him and those in attendance, with shouts of approval greeting some of his statements, and notes of disapproval accompanying others. Sometimes disruptions occurred. Sometimes his sermons would approach two hours in length, with people likely coming and going, and Augustine weaving in and out of his main points. Augustine never read from a prepared sermon, as stenographers would take down his words, for immediate copying and for posterity. In an Africa that had over 500 bishops, Augustine hardly held a position similar to what a modern bishop does, making Van Der Meer’s description of Augustine as “little more than a parish priest” not much of an exaggeration. And all the paintings showing him with a mitre and an elaborately-decorated robe portray medieval habits, not those of late antiquity in Roman Africa. A simple, gray monk’s robe is what Augustine wore, and his preaching “style” reflects the simplicity of his garb. Yet these sermons are one of the Church’s richest theological treasures.

His letters also broaden our view of his life and work. In these he addressed all the pressing issues of his day, and several are minor theological treatises in their own right. Together with the sermons they are more than a miscellany of secondary concerns for Augustine, or for his readers today. Thanks are due to the translators and publishers who have given us updated versions of these works.

Note on the New City Press editions:  There are eight volumes that have been designed especially with students in mind. These include a single volume of Augustine’s sermons, which give the reader a sample of his larger output (19 volumes are currently available, with one volume yet to appear), and a single volume of Augustine’s writings against the Pelagians, culled from the four volumes in the full series.

Here’s a link to a pdf to what’s currently available in this series: Complete_Works_Saint_Augustine

Augustine of Hippo, Part 1: The Definitive Biography

This is the first in a series of posts on the life, writings, and legacy of Augustine of Hippo. Some posts will focus on an individual work, by or about Augustine, some on a selected theme, and some on editions and translations of his work. Most posts will also include suggestions on readings, primary and secondary, along with the requisite links to Amazon.  

In this first post I will discuss Peter Brown’s biography of Augustine, still considered not only the leading life of the saint, but one of the best biographies of any early Christian figure. 

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Few scholarly studies remain a vital source of information and perspective on their subject forty-five years after they are first published. Academic libraries are littered with books that were dated shortly after their publication, as new research and frameworks of interpretation make all but a small proportion of books superfluous for the average reader. One book that has stood the test of time and is still considered by scholars to be the indispensable point of departure for serious study of its subject is Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown, whose numerous studies have helped to establish a new interpretation of Late Antiquity, the period from the third through the eighth centuries.

I read this book as a first-year graduate student for a seminar focusing on the early writings of Augustine. It was later assigned for a course on religious historiography, and then provided invaluable aid in courses on the development of early Christian creeds (my paper was on Augustine’s challenge to traditional North African views of the holiness of the Church), the City of God, and the Confessions. I then consulted it for a doctoral exam question on the development of Augustine’s view of grace and freedom in the 390’s, and was by then convinced that not only was Augustine my favorite writer, but that Brown’s biography was the very best scholarly book I had read.

Brown was just beginning his career as a scholar when he wrote this book in the mid-1960’s. Immediately it was hailed as a work of great depth and sensitivity, and, even after the intervening years, it continues to shed light on Augustine and his era in surprising ways. Moreover, it is filled with prose that makes one very jealous of Brown’s pen. If to instruct and to delight is still a worthy goal of a writer, Brown succeeds brilliantly. Just a few examples should suffice.

A high point of the book, at least for me, is Brown’s discussion of Augustine’s shift in thinking about the possibility of living the life envisioned by those Christian Platonists who impressed Augustine during his time in Italy, those Servi Dei who would overcome the pull of fleshly desires and ascend to the contemplation of God. A widely-held dream among many at the time, and, in slightly different form, a characteristic of those “Pelagians” who would challenge Augustine for the last two decades of his life. Put briefly, for Augustine such a dream was smashed by the realities of life as a priest, then bishop, in North Africa, which forced upon him—in conjunction with the hard work of honest self-reflection—the acknowledgement that the recalcitrance of the human heart, the pull of concupiscence, and the sheer weight of past habit would render such a dream not only futile but dangerous.

The chapter titled “The Lost Future” brilliantly evokes the turn in Augustine’s thinking in such a way that one can feel his mind turning and then changing, a hard thing to accomplish for even the best of writers. “In this decade,” Brown writes of the 390’s, “Augustine moved imperceptibly into a new world,” a world that would help to coax him to produce the Confessions and also provide the foundation for his encounters with both the Donatists and then the Pelagians. More on this in future posts; here I’ll quote Brown from near the end of the chapter to give a hint of the treasures found in the book:

“A new tone has come to suffuse Augustine’s life. He is a man who has realized that he was doomed to remain incomplete in his present existence, that what he wished for most ardently would never be more than a hope, postponed to a final resolution of all tensions, far beyond this life. Anyone who thought otherwise, he felt, was either morally obtuse or a doctrinaire. All a man could do was ‘yearn’ for this absent perfection, to feel its loss intensely, to pine for it. ‘Desiderium sinus cordis’: ‘It is yearning that makes the heart deep.’ This marks the end of a long-established classical ideal of perfection: Augustine would never achieve the concentrated tranquillity of the supermen that still gaze out at us from some mosaics in Christian churches and from the statues of pagan sages. If to be a ‘Romantic’, means to be a man acutely aware of being caught in an existence that denies him the fullness for which he craves, to feel that he is defined by his tension towards something else, by his capacity for faith, for hope, for longing, to think of himself as a wanderer seeking a country that is always distant, but made ever-present to him by the quality of the love that ‘groans’ for it, then Augustine has imperceptibly become a ‘Romantic’. . .”

I don’t know about you, but this strikes at my heart, not only because Brown’s descriptive power is immense, but because I, like Augustine, have harbored the dream of ascending far beyond the pull exercised by life in the here-and-now. When I was a new Christian I was convinced that if I only prayed harder and longer, read the right spiritual classics, and associated with the right crowd, whether called Servi Dei or something else, I’d be able to “achieve the concentrated tranquillity” that would help me attain that distant country without waiting too, too long. Augustine learned otherwise, as did I. Read the 10th Book of the Confessions for his description of how he was a mystery to himself, still plagued by that which he had earlier believed he could overcome, with just a bit more striving, a bit more time. Here you will see not only the shadows of every perfectionist dream, including the one to be detected in the Pelagian writings that would soon come to Augustine’s attention, but the outlines of the response he would painstakingly articulate in his sermons, letters, and treatises. I’ll have more to say about this in future posts. Suffice it to say for now that without Augustine’s lost dream, and the literary record that chronicles his response to his younger self, the elitism that characterized so much of Christianity at this time, especially in North Africa, might have had greater success in reaching the mainstream. For reasons writers like Brown discuss, including in his masterful biography, this is a frightful prospect.

A final note on this book. The second edition, first published in 2000, contained an Epilogue consisting of two chapters, one of which discussed recently-discovered letters (the “Divjak Letters”) and sermons (The “Dolbeau Sermons”) of Augustine. The latest edition from the University of California Press is identical to this edition. The text has not been altered in any way, for reasons Brown addresses. What struck me most about his assessment of the biography, and what new insights he gained from the letters and sermons which were not available to him when he wrote his biography, is his humility and willingness to alter some of his thinking about Augustine. “New Evidence” and “New Directions”, the titles of the new chapters, are both treasures of historical judgment and sober reflection, offered to the reader following a lifetime of wrestling with a great man and saint.

“The Pope said WHAT. . .?”

So we have a Pope who likes to speak to journalists and give interviews. This has caused no little consternation among some Catholics who wish that Francis was more, well, papal, at least in their understanding of the term. Doesn’t he know that there are journalists and readers, secular and Catholic, who will no doubt misconstrue what he says? Who will turn his words into ammunition to fire into the heart of the Church? Who will set Francis against Benedict, against John Paul II, against Christ and everything good, true, and beautiful? 

Doesn’t he know, in other words, that caution is in order? If he is to speak, let it be in a carefully-worded encyclical letter, as no one will misunderstand one of those. Let him give a harmless little post-Angelus address, in which he safely affirms what the previous two popes have said and what I already know is true. Let him do battle against the modernists, secularists, and those Catholics who aspire to such things. Let him, finally, confirm me in my faith, comfort me in my commitments, and leave me alone.

We’ve all heard the term “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” and a little searching turns up who said it first, who said it better, etc. It’s a nice phrase, one that—like our pope—can be turned in many directions, depending on context. And it does suggest to me something of the pastoral heart of Pope Francis. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe I have little idea of what really motivates him. But he is the pope, and the Holy Spirit did help him become pope, and I do believe that he knows much more about the needs of the Church than I do. Or any of the commentators trying to keep up with him, explain his words, and, at times, explain those words away.

We are called to trust Francis, including the methods he chooses to address the Church and world, regardless of whether or not we know that we know better than he does. I get the impression that if some of those seeking to clean up the pope’s words were around during the ministry of Jesus, their desire to edit or step up to the microphone and clarify would lead to all kinds of nonsense. Imagine what might happen to his teaching on riches, loving our enemies, and becoming like a child. Those expository demons residing in the hearts of many Catholics would run rampant, I suspect. At least the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky admits that Jesus was wrong and needs correcting.

The nervous hand-wring of some Catholics—and my own puzzlement—at some of what Francis has said in his two interviews is probably a good sign. It means that, if the Church’s teaching on the papacy is actually true, we have something to learn that we didn’t already know, that Christ is ruling his Church and speaking to us in order to do more than confirm how clever and faithful we are. Because we don’t know all we need to know, and we haven’t already read it, said it ourselves, or anticipated it. I pray that I will learn to listen to Christ, and his Church, without loosing those expository demons that all too often silence him. That I see no reason to feel threatened by a pope who probably has insights born of prayer, study, suffering, and the life of faith that the Church and world need. Insights that I need.

Maybe I need to be afflicted, and comforted, in ways I haven’t already figured out. Maybe I should shut up and listen. 

Art, Beauty, and the Catholic Witness to Christ

“Art is an instrument thoroughly of this world; it is not revelation and has no theology. It is poorly suited to the spiritual burdens laid upon it. Artists themselves are not up to the task of defining or divining the Kingdom. In his small gem of a book The Responsibility of the Artist, Maritain defines the artist as ‘a man using Art.’ He is bound, like any other artisan, to the perfection of the work of his hands: ‘Art by itself tends to the good of the work, not to the good of man. The first responsibility of the artist is toward his work.’

“Believing this—as I do—the term ‘Catholic artist’ seems precious and self- conscious. It risks becoming one more assault against humility, a quality already close to running on empty in the arts. It would be an act of mercy to scrap the category ‘Catholic art’ altogether. There is no longer any such entity; there is only art made by Catholics. This might or might not make use of religious imagery; it might or might not be successful or praiseworthy. Faith is not the origin of talent and cannot stand bail for it. Neither is piety an index of good taste or guarantor of good craftsmanship. There is only good art and bad art; Catholicism is no determiner of either.”     

This is from an article by Mauren Mullarkey originally published in Crisis. I don’t know much about Mullarkey; her website has some interesting essays, including the one from which the above quote was taken, along with some of her drawings and paintings. I can’t remember where I first discovered her, though I suspect it might have been in Image. Some of what she writes in this article, titled “An Unmanifesto: A Proposal to Retire ‘Catholic Art’”, reminds me of Flannery O’Connor, especially the latter’s claim that Catholic art need not be made by a Catholic and that the integrity of the work itself, not its maker’s faith or intentions, is what matters most. Both writers seem to be protesting the same things, such as the proliferation of tawdry religiously-inspired kitsch that hawks itself as art, and both appeal to Jacques Maritain for guidance on how to understand the main responsibilities of the artist. This is a touchy issue for many people. Shouldn’t the desire to praise God and lead people to a deeper faith count more than anything else? Here’s O’Connor from her essay “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers”:

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Integrating the Sciences in a Catholic Curriculum: A Dubium Regarding Current Assumptions and Practices

What follows are some thoughts regarding the foundations of a high school curriculum that takes seriously the notion that all truth is God’s truth, and that Catholic educators have the responsibility to teach students to see everything they learn through the lens of the Catholic faith, to think about all things in Christian categories. My focus here is the sciences, and even though I am not qualified to teach any science classes, I trust that my proposals are neither naive nor pedagogically imperialistic. Conversations with colleagues and friends suggest that I am neither alone in my hopes for greater integration in the curriculum, nor being unreasonable in the following proposals. I submit this, recognizing the limitations of the analogy, as a type of dubium, which suggests difficulties in a doctrine or practice and proposes as a prudential judgment an alternative way of thinking, in the hope of generating conversation and further clarification of our task as Catholic educators while strengthening the commitment to our shared ends.

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Screwtape on Love, the Philosophy of Hell, and American Civil Religion

Here is Screwtape informing Wormwood about liberalism, the HHS mandate, and what the recent elections were about, without actually mentioning any of these:

The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. “To be” means “to be in competition”.

The shadows of Callicles, Glaucon, Machiavelli, and Rousseau are all visible in this description. Every form of social contract theory, and the liberalism that develops to give it shape, stinks of the arena, where individuals are pitted against each other in a clash of desires and, eventually, rights. The American experiment, which includes the attempt to craft a civil religion nondescript enough to nurture believer and unbeliever alike, is little different in this regard, as recent social and political history demonstrates. That so many Catholics decry the Obama administration’s “unprecedented” assault on religious freedom, claiming that the HHS mandate is a violation of American political and judicial traditions, signals a failure to understand not only American history and the oppositional stance the government has long taken against the Catholic Church, but also the conceptual roots and elasticity of liberalism, which allow it to be used as a weapon to silence even those who call upon it for protection.

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Christian Art and the Subversion of Death, Part 1

This is Part One of a two-part series on some of the questions surrounding the question of what makes art Christian. The question is a complicated one, as I’ve learned through both drawing up the Art and Catholicism course I teach to high school seniors and trying to offer helpful answers to some of the questions that arise during the semester. In the first part I’ll begin with some reflections on one of the authors we read in the course, Flannery O’Connor. In the second part I’ll discuss the subversion of suffering and death in Psalm 22, poetry by Denise Levertov and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and a music video by Johnny Cash, in the hope of illustrating how Christian hope transforms our perspective on what Levertov calls the “looming presences” of “great suffering, great fear.” 

What makes art “Christian”? There are a number of suggested answers, the most popular of which focus on a work’s explicit religious content (it features something identifiably Christian), the faith convictions of the artist (he or she is a Christian), or the effect the work has on a viewer (it leads one to prayer or devotion). Some make the distinction between sacred art, which is any work of art clearly intended for use in a worship setting, and Christian or even religious art, which are both a bit more amorphous. Others suggest the category of Christian art is one we should retire altogether, as it often reduces art and its enjoyment to overly pious ideas which confuse rather than clarify. “Why not think in terms of good and bad art, instead?” suggests Maureen Mullarkey, in a valuable essay on the topic which illustrates how limiting the conversation about Christian art can be. Flannery O’Connor likewise struggled with the narrowness of the term, and in her essays struggled to explain exactly what she as a Catholic writer was up to. The conversation is made all the more murky by the reduction of “art” to the “fine arts,” a topic of some importance for Christians seeking to do all things to the glory of God. A helpful discussion of this can be found in Frank Burch Brown’s Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aestehetics in Religious Life, and in the works of Jacques Maritain on art, namely Art and Scholasticism and The Responsibility of the Artist. In this post I want to suggest an avenue of inquiry which allows us to use the term Christian art in a manner which is precise yet also allows for an expansiveness that avoids the often moralistic and doctrinaire terms imposed on the creative process. I’ll begin with Flannery O’Connor’s reflections on art and illustrate them by commenting on one of her stories, and, in a second post, consider her ideas in light of the twenty-second Psalm, poetry by Denise Levertov and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and a video by Johnny Cash.

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