Feast of St. Augustine
August 29, 2016
Augustine of Hippo, 354-430
Inventor of the “self”
Father of Western civilization
… theological companion or better, wrestling partner…
In the spring semester,Tony, Scott, Jane and some highly advanced students tackled and subdued the City of God.
During the past three days I have been reflecting on my own travels with Augustine, from college, graduate school courses and teaching, and I found the Henry Chadwick translation of the Confessions with the turned over corners and the lines about memory, passion, death, love, and loss underlined with blue fountain pen.
I have been recalling …teachers who interpreted Augustine to me, at Williams College, Binks Little, Mark Taylor, and at Harvard, Richard Neibuhr, Francis Fiorenza, Margaret Miles.
I have begun to read Margaret Miles’ memoir, Augustine and the Fundamentalist’s Daughter that tells her intellectual and psychic story as engagement with Augustine’s Confessions from her twenties through to her seventies.
The Confessions has resonated in me from my first reading of it-its passion, the direct address to God, the prose woven with quotations, allusions to scripture many of which I would never have recognized at first (but that the Penguin edition kindly cited for me). Most of them now I hope I would know…
- Of all the contributions of Augustine to our theological tradition, there is one that I want to hold up and celebrate for us on this second week of classes during the semester… homework… schedule… assignments…. already some meltdowns….
The life transforming capacity of reading.
Augustine expected reading to be a powerful life changing experience. He gives account of his own life altering moments of reading.
Reading Cicero when he was 16 years old:
“It was this book which altered my way of feeling, turned my prayers to you, Lord, yourself, and gave me different ambitions and desires… What moved me was not the style but the matter. I was on fire, then, my God, I was on fire to leave earthly things behind and fly back to you. III.4
He tells about his colleague’s Ponticianus’s conversion by reading life of St Anthony:
“a direct conversation with the text in which Ponticianus allowed the text to evaluate and judge his life and point his way to a new life.”
To describe the intensity of reading, he uses the metaphor of birth
“He turned back to the book, troubled and perplexed by the new life to which he was giving birth. So he read on and his heart, where you saw it, was changed, and as soon appeared, his mind shook off the burden of the world. While he was reading and the waves in his heart rose and fell, there were times when he cried out against himself, and then he distinguished the better course and chose it for himself.”
At the moment of his own conversion, Augustine heard the words,
“Take, Read —“ …you know the story… he picked up the book where it was open and found the book of the Apostle— Paul in Romans these words…“Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make not provision for the flesh to gratify its desires…”
He read more. He devoured Paul “greedily.” He read the Psalms:
“I poured out my heart to you… My God how I cried aloud to you in these psalms! How they fired me toward you! How I burned to utter them aloud.. I trembled with fear, then I was on fire with hope and excitement – all these emotions were shown in my eyes and in my voice and I listened and trembled – my I cried out as I read this with my outward eye and inwardly recognized its truth.. my heart cried out from the depths, as I read my heart became on fire.. my heart boiled…”
And at in the Confessions, nourished by reading, reading scripture, August wrote, he performed the hard labor of birthing the story of his life, his memoir, the Confessions, to the end that his writing might provoke others to read and might point the way to the truth, truth that alters lives.
III. There have been jokes about the reading assigned in classes at this seminary.
The Last Gathering, advice to a new student: “It’s only a lot of reading if you do it.”
Augustine’s life and work reminds us that in the Christian tradition we share, reading is a practice that can lead to conversion, that can birth new life.
Seminary formation is in part: Enforced, intentional reading. Deep reading, reading in community, full bodied reading. Reading with respect. Reading with charity. Reading with focused attention. (quite different from what passes for reading – distracted glancing at headlines and photos – “clicking” —)
And then there’s writing, the response to reading, the telling of a story, reflecting on the reading, seeing it in light of the story of God, seeing it as part of the story of God. Laboring to convey your thoughts, express your self, put insight and experience into form. (Claire Colombo and the Center for Writing and Creative Expression)
Here at theological seminary, Reading is a practice that is entered into and sustained in trust that the words participate, take part in, the Word, the Word that was made flesh and dwelled among us.
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
On this feast of St Augustine, let us hear the words of God to him:
“Take, read,” and hear in those words the offer of refreshment, nourishment, new life, “Take, eat, this is my body that is given for you.”
Let us give thanks for the books with the turned down corners, underlining, the bibles with the highlights and notes in the margins, the tradition we go back to again and again and read our lives in their light. For Augustine and the teachers, past and present, and with them our ongoing abundant life.