augustine and the molten core

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 the same thing. I am not saying it actually did happen to Saint Augustine, but it could happen to us, as happened to the poor scribes and Pharisees, that we get so caught up in the exterior, so caught up in the outer layers­­ and maybe even in the crust—the rules and regulations, the provisional policies for basic observance, even our concepts and opinions—that we forget the main thing.

Augustine’s description of his conversion experience actually specifically addresses this very issue. He was obviously a brilliant intellectual, always searching for the truth in his thoroughgoing study of philosophy. As he says in his conversion story, he kept plunging into the lovely things God had created, but all that was somehow outside of him. It wasn’t until he plunged within himself that the real conversion took place. I never ever tire of these lines: You were within me; I was on the outside! You were with me; I was not with you. … On entering into myself, I saw… what was beyond the eye of my soul, beyond my spirit: I saw your immutable light. That’s the incredible mystical intuition that lies at the heart of all Augustine’s teaching, the core of those layers upon layers of theology and philosophy and discourses, sermons and screeds.

Now, so much of Augustine’s doctrine that follows is based on grace, for example his fight against the Pelagians (as well as the so-called semi-Pelagians which Evagrius and John Cassian were accused of being). Basically Pelagians thought that we human beings can take the initial and fundamental steps toward salvation by our own efforts, apart from Divine Grace. But Augustine learned from his own experience that it’s all grace! It’s all the grace of God working, a grace that we have to surrender to, but even that ability to surrender is itself a grace. The lesson of Augustine is just that––I can’t, you can’t, we can’t, do it, not of our own power. We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.[i]

And yet, where does this Power-Greater–Than-Ourselves lie, where is it to be found? Therein lies the irony. It comes from someplace else, Someone else, but it is within us! “You were within me, and I was outside, and it was there I searched for you…” In some way, in having an experience of grace, Augustine had also met himself and found himself worthy, a worthy vessel. He had an experience of grace, an experience of a power greater than himself, a power beyond himself and all created things, and he simultaneously discovered that that Power was within him, grace at the ground of his being, grace as the ground of his being, working within him, able to do for him what he could not do for himself––hence finally able to conquer his own addiction, you might say, to concupiscence. And that power was the ground of his being and I think Martin Laird would add also the ground of his consciousness. And that’s why he says in his Confessions that “the very light that shone in my eyes was mine no longer.”[ii]

And that is the only reason that those external layers of religion exist (and here I am actually quoting a line of Bruno’s that I have used over and over again): the only (as the poet David Whyte might say, this is an ‘only’ that you could say over and over again; an ‘only’ that contains multitudes––only, only, only, only) reason that external religion exists with its rites, dogmas and institutional structures, with its philosophy and theology, is “to bring people to the personal experience of this mystery.” Martin Laird says that’s the significance of Augustine’s comments on Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the Christ “has gone from our sight so that we should return to our heart and find him there.” Not on the outside, but inside.

The only reason that external religion exists is to bring people to discover this grace at the ground of being, as the ground of being. This is Bruno again: “All external forms, all the ‘language’ of religion, has to be continually revised”—as it was revised by Augustine as he baptized Plato and then later by Thomas Aquinas as he revised Augustine by baptizing Aristotle—“All external forms, all the ‘language’ of religion,” all the philosophy and theological language “has to be continually revised if it is to communicate the mystery to people of a new age.”

But at the same time, the mystery actually “already dwells in the heart of every human being.”[iii] Why is that? Not only because grace builds on nature, but grace is behind nature, grace at the ground of our being, grace as the ground of our being.

Without that personal experience of the mystery––of God’s own immutable light, beyond our soul, beyond our spirit––, instead of being earthen vessels that hold this incredible power inside of us, we become whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside, but inside full of the bones of the dead and every kind of filth, as Jesus says to the hypocrites.[iv] But with it, as Augustine understands Jesus to tell him about the Eucharist, “You will not change me into yourself, like bodily food, but you will be changed into me.”

cyprian, 28 aug 2013


[i] 2 Cor 4:7.

[ii] Laird, A Sunlit Absence, 82.

[iii] Bruno Barnhart, The One Light, 397.

[iv] Mt 23:27.a

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