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Soft spot for St. Augustine

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Today, August 28, is the Feast of St. Augustine. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for that guy, ever since I was a rebellious kid raising hell in a high school Confirmation class I wanted no part of.

For my "why I want to be confirmed" essay, I elaborately detailed all the reasons I didn't want to be confirmed. Our timid and soft-spoken pastor -- a real Jean Vianney whose faltering homilies were made up for (as I would discover only years later) by an otherworldly gentleness in the confessional -- scribbled simply on the back of my paper, "You are not alone. Have you read St. Augustine?"

A few weeks later I took Augustine as my saint's name, even though it sounded a little ostentatious read out by the bishop in a crowd of Peters and Marys. And a few months later, in college, I read Confessions and became one of those people -- how else can you put it? -- who read Confessions in college and realize they actually believe this stuff. Or want to, anyway.

I've read Augustine a lot since then, and when I tell people I have an Augustinian spirituality, I usually get skeptical looks. The most erudite assume it means I have a disparaging view of sex.

For the record, Augustine is somewhat unfairly and anachronistically judged on this point. No, Confessions is not a manual of modern sex-positivity. But in contrast to contemporaries like St. Jerome, he believed that sex in Eden was designed to be pleasurable; centuries ahead of his time, he proposed that the emotional bond between spouses was one of the divine goods of marriage.

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Moreover, in a pastoral letter to a young priest caught in bed with a woman, Augustine displays a gentleness that even modern readers might find too permissive, admitting that any sensitive soul speaking of deep matters with another spiritual being will naturally feel tempted toward physical intimacy.

Augustine felt so deeply that we are "a vast problem ... a vast deep ... a land of trouble and inordinate sweat,” that he hadn't the heart to judge us for the way we were made. His awareness of our unavoidable messiness was what provoked Pelagius to complain he was too tolerant toward Christian mediocrity.

What I like about Augustine really has nothing to do with sex; it has more to do with this instinct for forgiveness.

It also has to do with his ability to balance lament and joy. He is usually considered a pessimist, but few realize how poignantly he accepts the reality of despair. Speaking of our symbol for the Holy Spirit, he writes, “The dove appears as a sign of love, and in it groans are loved. There is nothing so familiar with groans as a dove; day and night it groans, as if it is placed here where it must groan."

Yet Augustine's theology of grace is equally beautiful, a series of ascents from sin to goodness to glory, encapsulated in the remark that so entranced Voegelin: “They begin to depart who begin to love. Many there are who depart and not know it, for their walk of departure is a movement of the heart; and yet they depart from Babylon."

This is fundamental for Augustine: our life is a pilgrimage toward a horizon of ever-greater love, even when we don't realize it, because no image we create of God can encapsulate the inexhaustible splendor toward which we are heading, anyway. For this reason, Augustine notices that, in the psalms, "it is not written, 'blessed they who find,' but 'blessed they who seek,' the Lord."

Augustine is a riveting figure, then, even for deconstructionists. Among those whose mode is one of lament, Derrida -- brilliant and haughty enough to consider as beneath him any attempts to pin down his religious beliefs -- nonetheless admitted a temperamental affinity with Augustine: Augustine was a man of "prayers and tears," Derrida judged, and so was he.

On the other hand, the most famous Augustinian today is Pope Benedict, who recently appeared full of "spiritual freshness and joy" when he celebrated mass with former students.

Benedict appreciated the link Augustine discovered between scientia and tristia -- between knowing, and sadness: "Simple knowing makes us sad," the pope emeritus once explained. "In fact, whoever sees and learns just what is happening in the world, ends up being sad.

"But," Benedict continues, "truth means more than knowing: knowledge of truth has the purpose of getting to know what is good." This recalls Augustine, who insisted that "the victory of truth is love."

One final quotation expresses the tension Augustine felt between the goodness and the insufficiency of everything created. Some of my friends feel this is puritanical; yet for me it captures the genius of Christianity's hopeful yet sober vision of created reality:

"Everything is good because you are good, O God. It is beautiful because you are beautiful. It exists because you exist. Yet compared with your goodness, and your beauty, it is not good, nor is it beautiful. In fact, it does not even exist."

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