Sauntering with St. Augustine (in August)

Readings for the Feast Day of St. Augustine of Hippo

This reflection (mostly culled from A Great Cloud of Witnesses: A Calendar of Commemorations) was shared at Sacred Saunter Outdoor Eucharist on Saturday August 28, 2021 at Sequoia Park in Eureka CA.

Augustine, perhaps the greatest theologian in the history of Western Christianity, was born in 354 in North Africa (modern-day Algeria). In his restless search for truth, he was attracted to Manichaeism (a Persian philosophy) and Neo-platonism and was constantly engaged in an inner struggle with his personal morals. Finally, under the influence of his mother Monica, Augustine surrendered to the Christian faith in the late summer of 386. He was baptized by Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, on Easter Eve in 387. After returning to North Africa in 391, Augustine found himself unexpectedly chosen by the people of Hippo to be a presbyter. Four years later he was chosen bishop of that city. His spiritual autobiography, The Confessions of St. Augustine, written shortly before 400 in the form of an extended prayer, is a classic of Western spirituality. 

Augustine wrote countless treatises, letters, and sermons. They have provided a rich source of new and fresh insights into Christian truth. As we are surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation, it’s worth noting that he wrote extensively on creation. He did not take Genesis 1 literally, but understood it as a poetic description of the deep truths that God is the Creator of the great flaring forth and that all of creation is indeed “good.”

The Manichaeans had attempted to solve the problem of evil by positing the existence of an independent agency eternally opposed to God. In refutation, Augustine affirmed that all creation is essentially good, having been created by God, and that evil is, properly speaking the privation (absence) of good. A rigorist sect, the Donatists, had split from the Great Church after the persecution of Diocletian in the early fourth century. Against them, Augustine asserted that the Church was “holy,” not because its members could be proved holy, but because holiness was the purpose of the Church, to which all its members are called. He became known as the Doctor of Grace because he emphasized grace over good works as the path to salvation and argued effectively against the English monk Pelagius, who stressed the importance of moral perfection. He affirmed the principle of ex opere operato, which insists that the efficacy of the sacraments (as sure and certain vehicles for God’s grace) is not based on the moral perfection of the priest performing them. Thank God! Even priests who formerly denounced their faith during the Diocletian persecution in order to save their necks could still, after repentance, effectively perform the sacraments (ie. celebrate the Eucharist).

Stirred by Alaric the Visigoth’s sack of Rome in 410, Augustine wrote his greatest work, The City of God. In it he writes: “Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by love of self, even to the [point of forgetting] God, the heavenly by the love of God, even to the [point of forgetting the] self. The earthly city glories in itself, the heavenly city glories in the Lord…In the one, the princes, and the nations it subdues, are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love.” Augustine died on August 28, 430, as the Vandals were besieging his own earthly city of Hippo. 

The readings we heard resonate with the dichotomy Augustine sets up between the City of Man, which is governed by the love of power, and the City of God (“the heavenly Jerusalem”), which is governed by the power of Love. And the Gospel describes the path to the City of God. The path is the way, the truth, and the life of Christ’s love for all, the way in which we walk as a community of companions. Although this particular teaching of Christ (John 14:6) has been used to exclude non-Christians from the love of the Father and the joy of the heavenly city, St. Augustine would explain that such readings miss the point entirely. Christ is the perfect embodiment of the way, truth, and life of self-giving love; so the path to the God of love is love. As Gandhi said, “There is no ‘way to peace,’ there is only peace [which is the way].” If we want to experience God as a loving Father, then the way to do so is through love, perfectly expressed in Christ. If we want to join in the eternal dance of the Triune God whom Augustine described as “the Lover, the Beloved, and the Love Overflowing” then we are invited to walk in the way of love. So, let us walk in that way now, with love for God’s creation and with receptivity to the forest’s love for us, on this gorgeous August morning.

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