augustine and the molten core

Posted By on Aug 29, 2018

There could scarcely be a thinker in church history more influential than Saint Augustine. Certainly he was the greatest influence on medieval theology, quoted almost as much as Scripture in the Summa Theologiae. He is the foundation for many of the thinkers of the Reformation, too, especially, mostly because of his doctrine on grace. Even today, there are by far more excerpts from the writings of St Augustine in the Roman Office of Readings than any other source. What I mostly focus on though is his amazing conversion experience, a sort of ambush of grace that enabled him to do what he could not do for himself. Some say that Augustine had a great mystical experience of interiority at his conversion but then he never mentions it again. And so he gets dismissed for his over-emphasis on grace and his own tendencies to struggle with Pelagianism and Manicheism; and the mystical experience that is the intuition behind all of his teaching and the impetus behind his amazing output, gets covered over. Fr. Martin Laird, our retreat master six years ago and an Augustinian who wrote two fine books on contemplative prayer, and our Fr. Aelred Squire, among others would say that it is usually people who haven’t really read Augustine who think that about him. I have a visual image of this in my mind: that there is this core, the core of the conversion, that’s like the molten lava at the heart of a volcano, and that’s the reason why one comes to the spiritual life in general––because of that experience. And then there are all these layers that surround that core, and those layers may be the theology that is trying to express the meaning of the experience, or the philosophy that is trying to articulate the implications of all this concerning the meaning of life and the cues for building a just society based on this experience, and even the rituals that are trying to pass on and foster the experience for others. And those layers might get a little harder and harder the more you get to the surface, the farther you are removed from the core and the original experience, until you reach the crusty surface. And perhaps that’s all some people ever experience of Saint Augustine that crusty surface. That may be due to their own failings as human beings, or maybe it’s just the natural tendency of human beings, like Jesus’ screeds against the scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, that we have been hearing these past three days from the Gospel of Matthew. The warning shot across the bow for us then is...

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when self is forgotten

Posted By on Aug 20, 2018

There could hardly be someone with more zeal for the monastic life than Bernard of Clairvaux, whose feast we celebrate today. He was born in 1090, and entered the Abbey of Citeaux when he was only 23 years old, only 15 years after its founding. He also brought 30 of his relatives and friends with him. And then at the age of 25––two years later––he took twelve monks from Citeaux and founded a new house at Clairvaux of which he was named abbot. But besides his influence on monasticism, it is his teaching on mysticism that strikes me the most. Bernard was convinced that mystical pleasures were not just about eternal life, not just to read about, but were to be experienced now through the contemplative life. This year the feast of St. Bernard of Clairvaux coincides with Matthew’s version of the story of the rich young man.[i] There could be no finer example of the call to spiritual poverty than this story of the man who went away sad, because he had many possessions. Of course we immediately think of material possessions––fine clothes, a nice house, plenty of good things to eat, maybe a servant or two. But what are the subtler things that we possess, that we hold on to? Our opinions, our view of the way we think the world ought to operate––the really poor in spirit are those who can also hold on loosely to those things as well. And maybe the ultimate possession we hold on to is our very “self,” our sense of self, our I-ness, our ego. Remember, Jesus asks us to deny our very selves. At lunch last Saturday I was at table with two of the brothers who were talking about this very thing––spiritual poverty and the sense of self, the death of self and the loss of self. One of them quoted that beautiful line from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians which has become a bit of a mantra for me––I have been crucified with Christ and I, no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me[ii]––and then he said a line almost verbatim to how I heard it and learned it from a Sufi saying: “When self is forgotten and God is remembered.” That of course is the language of love and love always implies relationship. It reminded me of that great Sufi story: the Lover goes to the home of the Beloved and knocks on the door. A call comes from within, “Who is it?” And the Lover calls out, “It’s me!” “Go away!” And this is repeated day after day––“Who is it?” “It’s me!”...

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