Augustine for the 21st Century (6): Selected Passages by Augustine, Reading Recommendations, and Concluding Thoughts
Now, this installment is well worth your time reading. Unlike the previous installments of this blog series in which I bloviated about Augustine, this installment provides the real payoff: some bona fide passages from Augustine’s sermons and commentaries. Although I have read several of his books (City of God, The Confessions, and On Christian Doctrine), I have not read his sermons, commentaries and letters. Therefore in this post I rely upon Jules Brady’s collection in Augustine for Everyone. In this 60 page booklet, Brady collects 101 brief passages, organizes them under seventeen headings, and translates them into readable English. In the pages that follow, I will provide a few of those quotes, utilizing Brady’s translation, and organize them under my own system of headings. In the above installments you’ve gotten a taste of Augustine academic and polemical work. In this installment, however, you will see him at his pastoral best, distilling biblical teaching into concise and memorable sentences.
How can the beauty of the universe inspire us to praise God’s beauty?
“The pleasure we experience in seeing a beautiful cathedral reminds us to admire the church’s architect. How much more should viewing the universe’s infinite variety stir us to praise the Beauty of its Creator. Consider, for a moment, the whole of creation. The splendor of the starry skies, the various flowers in a flower garden, the stately majesty of a cluster of trees, the melodious songs of birds, the variations of creatures in the animal kingdom, the sense and intellectual faculties of a human person, are like so many voices that praise the Beauty of their Author. Word fail us in our effort to describe adequately what the beauty of the universe tells us of the Divine Artist’s Beauty. Does triumphant music come closer to expressing God’s Beauty?” (On Psalm 26)
Why is God more beautiful than the Sun?
“There are two reasons for this: First, when the sun rises, it lights up the earth; it illumines colors; it shines through windows; but it cannot penetrate walls. However, God is present in all places, even in a wall. Secondly, when the sun rises in the East, it is absent from the West. When the sun sets in the West, it is away from the East. At night the sun is not seen. However, when God is in the East, he is also in the West. When He is in the West, He is likewise in the East. He is also present at night. He is whole everywhere. If the sun is beautiful, how much more beautiful is God, the sun’s Maker.” (Sermon 70, 2)
Why does the love of God surpass all other loves?
“Some endure toil, dangers, and troubles for the love of money. But at the same time, they may lose sleep for fear of thieves. Others ask an inferior to secure the love of a powerful friend. god says to us: ‘Love Me and I am with you.’ there love is without toil, without dangers, without troubles, without fear of thieves, and without the assistance of a go-between. This love surpasses all other loves.” (Epistle of John to the Parthians 10, 4)
How can we love God instead of loving the world?
“If my hand is holding a heavy book, it cannot hold another heavy object at the same time. I must first put down the book in order to receive a heavy gift package. My love is the hand of my soul. It cannot love God and the world at the same time. It must first cease loving the world in order to love God.” (Sermon 75, 7)
How can we love Christ?
“If you are caught in the river of time and are drifting down the rapids, you have a choice. Either you may drown in the water, or you can catch hold of a tree by the stream and save your life. Similarly, you have a choice in the world. Either you may love the world that passes away with time, or you may hold on to Christ and live eternally with God.” (Epistle of John to the Parthians 2, 10)
How can the same affliction prompt the wicked to curse God and inspire the good to praise Him?
“The same fire causes straw to smoke and gold to gleam. The same press threshes the grain and crushes the stalk. So, the same trouble worsens the wicked and improves the good. Consequently, the difference between the wicked and the good is not what they suffer but the way they suffer. Therefore, the same evil incites the wicked to deny God and stirs the good to pray to Him.” (City of God 1,8)
Why does God allow tribulations to happen to us?
“Because we cannot endure perpetually the hardships of life, we seek rest in some earthly thing. It may be our house, our family, our children, a little farm, an orchard, or a book we have published. God allows us to suffer tribulations even in these innocent delights in order that we may love only life eternal. Otherwise, as travelers going to their country, we might choose the inn-this world-instead of our true home: eternal life.” (On Psalm 41, 4)
Why does God send trials to His saints?
“While the unskillful pronounce a work of art-a painting, a sculpture, a building-perfect, the artist continues to polish them. The unskillful wonder why these art pieces receive additional polish. The judgment of the inexperienced is one thing, the rule of art another. Likewise, someone noticing the sufferings of a saint questions why God continues to afflict such a holy person. God so acts not to punish the saint for sins but to purify the saint’s perfections, and thus to remove the imperfections.” (On Psalm 99, 10)
How is a Christian similar to a squared stone?
“If you turn over a squared stone, the stone remains erect. When trials, as it were, turn a Christian over, the Christian does not fall down but stands erect.” (On Psalm 87, 3)
Preaching and Teaching
What is the secret of successful teaching?
“When we show out of town friends a city’s beautiful sights that we have often noticed without any pleasure, we experience delight by the delight our friends have for these scenes. So it is that a teacher, teaching a familiar topic to students who are thrilled by learning something new, experiences renewed pleasure in teaching the subject. The greater the bond of friendship between teacher and student, the greater will be the love the teacher has for teaching and the greater will be the love the students have for learning.” (On Catechizing the Uninstructed 12, 17)
Friends and Enemies
How may we love an enemy?
“Suppose a carpenter walking through a forest sees a tree trunk, unhewn, cut down, lying on the ground. The artisan loves the piece of timber at first sight not because of the wood’s present state, but because properly crafted the trunk will become part of a building. So, when meeting an enemy insulting you, there is a way of loving the enemy at first meeting, not by noticing the insulting remarks but by remembering that humble prayer may change the malicious person into your friend. You love the enemy not as a hostile person but as a future friend.” (Epistle of John to the Parthians 8, 10)
What kinds of persons should I cultivate as friends?
“Suppose you meet a person whose beautiful color and symmetrical shape attract your eyes. Yet, when you learn the person is a thief, you will have nothing to do with such an individual. On the other hand, you may encounter an elderly person, leaning on a cane, hardly able to walk, covered with wrinkles. Moreover, if you find out the person is just, you will want such a one as your friend.” (On the Gospel of John 3, 21)
What should I ask from God?
“If the Emperor told you, “Ask what you will,” perhaps you would request a tribuneship, a chief office of the state or external wealth. Almighty God says, “Ask what you will,” and you might ask for the whole earth, the sea, the air, the heavens, the sun, the moon and the stars. They are all beautiful; but they are made by God. Ask for God Himself and you will have God, Beauty in Itself. And in Him you will possess everything He has made. God loves you and wishes to give you Himself more than anything else.” (On Psalm 34; Sermon 1, 12)
This World and the Hereafter
How does temporal happiness compare with eternal happiness?
“The supreme good of the City of God is eternal and perfect peace, not in our mortal transit from birth to death, but in our immortal freedom from all adversity. This is the happiest life-who can deny it?-and in comparison with it our life on earth, however blessed with external prosperity or goods of soul and body, is utterly miserable. Nonetheless, whoever accepts it and makes use of it as a means to that other life that he longs for and hopes for, may not unreasonably be called happy even now-happy in hope rather than in reality.” (City of God 19:20)
This post concludes the series. Because of the limitations of a blog format, I have left out many lessons we could have learned from Augustine’s life and writings. In lieu of being able to explore the many lessons learned from some of the books written by and about Augustine, allow me to make a few reading recommendations:
1. Augustine of Hippo (by Peter Brown). This is a classic biography of Augustine.
2. City of God (Augustine). Augustine wrote two great books, City of God and The Confessions. In writing City of God, Augustine invented a genre, philosophy (or theology) of history, and gave us a classic theological text for the ages.
3. The Confessions (Augustine) In writing The Confessions, Augustine invented yet another genre, spiritual/philosophical autobiography, and gave us yet another classic theological text for the ages.
4. Secondary in importance to his classics, yet of great significance still, Augustine’s many other texts commend themselves to us. I recommend: On Christian Doctrine and Enchiridion.