St Augustine is a guide to what it means to be human

St Augustine and his mother, St Monica, by the French painter Ary Scheffer

Last night saw the first of what may be a series of talks at the Friary, near Westminster Cathedral, held under the aegis of The Catholic Herald. I was one of the speakers, and I chose to speak of St Augustine. What follows is the text of my talk. The quotations are all taken from Dr Pusey’s translation of the Confessions, which is available online here.

Most Catholic theology takes as its starting point the work of St Thomas Aquinas. In fact it really is not possible these days to write anything about theology without taking the Angelic Doctor as your starting point. This was brought home to me forcibly by a book proposal I once submitted – the person reading it objected to every single point outlined, with the words (I paraphrase) “But St Thomas Aquinas says…” My reply, that I wanted to tackle the question using St Augustine as my starting point, was met with disbelief. Again, when I was outlining my proposed doctorate at the Gregorian University in Rome, I was told “But what has Augustine got to do with morality?” My reply was – once you have read my doctorate, you will know the answer to that question.

Of course, Aquinas has got the papal seal of approval – the encyclical letter Aeterni Patris written by Leo XIII – and he has the Aquinas industry behind him. Workers in that industry get very annoyed by people trying to break the monopoly.

Now it was Luther who said Los mit Aristoteles! I do not want to say “Away with Thomas…” If that is what you like, by all means carry on. But I do want people to have a look at Augustine and see how he can change your outlook. Aquinas is a theory, a grand unifying theory, called Thomism, or neo-Thomism. Augustine is not a theory, he is a story. He is a personal story too. But that is precisely the point. Christianity is not a theory, it is a lived story, it is the intersection of two stories, your own story, and that of the Lord.

Again Augustine is a personal story that transcends the personal and is of universal significance; just as the story of Jesus is a personal story that does the same. Augustine starts with the particular and moves towards the universal, not the other way around. The Confessions, his autobiography, though never in a narrow sense, is a wonderful book. Think for a moment of all the great documents on sexual matters produced by the Church. Now stop thinking, and hear this:

The briers of unclean desires grew rank over my head, and there was no hand to root them out. When that my father saw me at the baths, now growing towards manhood, and endued with a restless youthfulness, he, as already hence anticipating his descendants, gladly told it to my mother; rejoicing in that tumult of the senses wherein the world forgetteth Thee its Creator, and becometh enamoured of Thy creature, instead of Thyself, through the fumes of that invisible wine of its self-will, turning aside and bowing down to the very basest things.

What we have here is the primal scene – the father witnesses the boy’s sexual awakening, without the boy’s consent. The boy in fact has not consented to becoming a man at all – he has been thrown into the maelstrom of sexual feeling unawares, and is at the mercy of these passions. This is what philosophers call geworfenheit. It is the key to understanding ourselves: the knowledge that we do not and perhaps can never fully understand or know or even accept the state of being sexual. This is a useful antidote to all those who habitually overstate the role and strength of the will; who see the passions as purely benign; or who see the state of being human as reducible to rational explanation. Moreover, Augustine in this brief passage answers the common question: “What have sexual behaviour and God to do with each other?” The modern world wants to separate questions of morality from God and religion. Augustine shows that they are deeply and existentially intertwined: their separation leads to the death of morality and the death of God.

So, St Augustine is our guide to human nature, what it means to be human, in this and many other respects. But he is also the doctor of Grace. To this very same human nature, which is so often tortured, can come healing, health and repose through the intervention of God’s grace. What does this mean? It means this:

So was I speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighbouring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, “Take up and read; Take up and read.” Instantly, my countenance altered, I began to think most intently whether children were wont in any kind of play to sing such words: nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So checking the torrent of my tears, I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book, and read the first chapter I should find … Eagerly then I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I laid the volume of the Apostle when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.

Thus it is that the boy in the baths finds what had eluded him so long.

Personal conversion should not be, and in fact is not, the sole property of our Protestant brethren. A recurrent fault in Catholic thinking is its constant recourse to theories which seem ever more divorced from lived experience. St Augustine is the theologian whose theology derives from lived experience; he is the great enlightener of lived experience and thus of the need for grace. He is the one who can help us make the existential turn in theology that we so badly need. And finally let us remember the nexus between liturgy and life which is the only way we will get people to go to Church, summed up so beautifully in the opening of the Confessions.

Great art Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and Thy wisdom infinite. And Thee would man praise; man, but a particle of Thy creation; man, that bears about him his mortality, the witness of his sin, the witness that Thou resistest the proud: yet would man praise Thee; he, but a particle of Thy creation. Thou awakest us to delight in Thy praise; for Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.