An August and Burning Heart

August 28, 2015

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Today’s feast of St. Augustine brings us face to face with his overwhelmingly massive impact on Latin Christianity and Western Civilization. What has not been touched in some way by Augustine’s towering intellect and ardent spirit in the Christianities of the West? Spanning from just war to the separation of church and state; from the relationship between grace and nature to methods of biblical interpretation; from the nature of sin to the meaning of salvation; from the Trinity to epistemology; from sacraments to sexuality—Western Christians all must contend with the mark of his philosophical/theological worldview.

The sixteenth century reformation scholar who taught me ‘Christian intellectual history’ in college once said it well:

“The sixteenth century Protestant and Catholic reformations in Europe could be handily summarized as, ‘What did Augustine really mean?’”

Here today I will simply share a well-known anecdote that captures a key perspective on Augustine.

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.

Augustine always held in his thought a great appreciation of the limits of language before the immensity of God, though he also held great confidence in the capacity of language to open our minds of clay to a real communion with divine Truth. That said, one gets the clear sense in his writings that it is only humble and living faith working through an equally bold and living love that can make our tiny, questing minds—made in the imago Trinitatis, ‘image of the Trinity’—capable of exploring the infinite wilderness of God’s trinitarian mystery (capax Dei). And more, once the mind receives that divine mystery within, it finds itself in Christ, set ablaze with a divine-human love that plunges ever-deeper into that selfsame igneous mystery. Knowing God brings love alive in us, and love sparks the desire for more knowledge.

This dynamic seems to inform a very-often quoted passage from his 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 theologian, inspired by Augustine, should pray for the grace of a burning intellect that flames out of, and in service to, the mystery of divine love. But every theologian should also be aware (beware!) that this intellectual fire, when it is allowed to descend into the heart, burns away all that is unworthy of the mind and heart of Jesus and drives him/her on in an impassioned quest for Heaven’s Hound. Our Augustine-loving Pope Emeritus Benedict certainly remains such a witness, and here, in his own words, unveils the Augustinian inner-drive behind his own heroic intellectual and pastoral career:

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