St. Augustine and Early Western Spirituality

Early Western spirituality developed with St. Ambrose who paved the way for the Doctor of Grace, St. Augustine.  A religious cultural challenge of the age was the continued development of heresies in the Church: Arian, Pelagian, Manichean, and Donatist.  Arguably the strict asceticism of the East contributed to these heresies, given that there was not yet a tradition of spiritual guidance. The Churches in both the East and the West were young, and the great tradition of spiritual theory and practice was yet to be formed in history.  For example, St. Jerome, while traveling through Gaul around 366, became acquainted with the practices of Eastern monasticism, and “began his own undertaking of this way of life in various experimental forms”  (Christian Spirituality: An Introduction to the Heritage, Charles Healey, 68, my emphasis).  As the Church developed doctrinally and spiritually, the importance of guidance from others in terms of spiritual fatherhood and motherhood was increasing.  The writings of Ambrose and Jerome, followed by the “mixed life of action and contemplation” (Healey, 77) of Augustine, paved the way for a new monasticism in which pastoral service was connected with the monastic life.  St. Benedict, the “Father of Western Monasticism” (Healey, 89), devised a Rule of Life in which personal sanctification was sought through living the Christian life in a community rather than a hermitage. These are the beginnings of “Contemplation in Action,” that we see in more modern spiritual masters through the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, and Jesuits (just to name a few).

By the time of Augustine around 384, St. Ambrose’s writings had transmitted much of Greek thought to the West (Healey, 66).  Ambrose was preoccupied with the Arian heresy, (that Jesus was not both human and divine), and through his method of preaching he kindled a passion for philosophy in Augustine that eventually led to his rejection of Manichæism (that evil is a created entity), and his baptism by Ambrose in 387.  It was a coming to God through reason that kindled the fire in Augustine’s heart.  He not only discerned who God was through reason, but His essence of goodness.  “For in no way can corruption affect our God, neither by will, nor by necessity, nor by chance, since He Himself is God and what He wills is good, and He himself is goodness; but to be corrupted is not good.”  It was an agony for Augustine to determine the origin of evil.  Once he came upon the truth that evil is a corrupted good he realized that he himself was created good and that it was his corruption that kept him from knowing the true good, Who is God.   Augustine, with the light of truth and the eyes of faith was able to see how God was his helper, and through the “secret hand of [God’s] healing,” Augustine’s darkened intellect “gained strength by the stinging ointment of wholesome sorrow”.  Augustine also realized that seeing truth and the power to see truth were a grace that he had received from this “Beauty so ancient and so new,” his poetic term for God.

Truly, reading Augustine leaves me breathless.  I, too, am held by, in his words, the “iron bondage of my own will.”  Indeed, I am a slave to bad habits as he was.  As Augustine says, “I was still tied down to earth and refused to accept service in your army.  I was as much afraid of being freed from what hindered my going to you as I should have feared whatever might hinder this.”  I, too, hear the muttering of vanities, when the Spirit says to me, as Continence told Augustine, “Cast yourself upon Him, do not be afraid; He will not withdraw and let you fall; cast yourself fearlessly upon Him.” 

I pray for fortitude and I continue to “work out my salvation with fear and trembling” (cf. Phil 2:12) with the help of prayer, Scripture, and the Sacraments.

In a similar way to Augustine, I believe that helping people to come to the truth about the one true God through reason is necessary.  In the dualism of our culture it seems that either there is nothing spiritual at all, or the spiritual is viewed some kind of “energy” flowing through the world and our bodies that is not attached to the one true God.  It is important to come to an agreement about first principles dealing with God’s essence.  If one believes in God, he may believe Him to be someone who “does things” or “doesn’t do things,” rather than who He is — His essence of Goodness, Truth, Beauty, and Love.  This error trickles down to how one thinks about the human person.  It is important to begin with the truth of God – that He exists, that He is all good, that He is love, and that we are created in His image and likeness.

(Nota bene, this article is a modified version of something I wrote for a spirituality class about five years ago. I urge all readers to read The Confessions of St. Augustine. You won’t be sorry)!

Baptism is about Belonging

Baptism is not just a magical formula. It is not about words that mean different things to different people. Especially today we fight about particular words and their meaning: fatherhood, motherhood, marriage…are just a few. Getting their meaning right is important for communication. I mean, who would tell you that black is white?

Since the time of Christ, since the time when He actually spoke the words written in Matthew 28:19-20 [“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”] and John 14, the words of Baptism have been So Important.

(I paraphrase): “Go out and unleash the Good News of what God has done for you! Go to all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. You are my disciples. You now speak for me. You will do greater things than I have done! I and the Father are One. I will send the Holy Spirit, and we will dwell in you. Through the Holy Spirit, you are in ME and I in YOU, and we will dwell together, in LOVE, for eternity.

Jesus didn’t use these exact words. I have condensed two Gospel passages.

But the above is what I believe that He meant. And this meaning is exactly why Baptism, as the Rite of Initiation into the family of God, is so important. Jesus gave us the words. Peter elaborates in Acts 2:38, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Again, Jesus gave us the words, and now Peter gives us the person, in Whose name, they are spoken. To do anything in Jesus’ name is to make that thing happen.

Once we are baptized, we belong to God, and the words Jesus spoke to His disciples in John 14 are realized.

These words, among others, are spoken in the Catholic Rite of Baptism:

“[Name of person], the Christian community welcomes you with great joy. In its name I claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of his cross. I now trace the cross on your forehead, and invite your parents (and godparents) to do the same. (Priest, parents, Godparents mark a cross on child’s forehead).

“[Name of person], I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” (Priest thrice pours water over person’s head).

When the priest says “I baptize you;” when anyone says “I baptize you,” with proper Trinitarian form and matter (water), the person is baptized. The newly baptized belongs to the the family of God. The Holy Spirit dwells within the person, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity (the life of the eternal God) are infused. All sins are forgiven, including Original Sin. The virtues, a free gift from God through this rite of baptism, will carry this person through earthly life to earthly death, and to eternal life with the Father.

This is the eternal now. Once it happens it is done for eternity. Persons are claimed for Christ. They belong.

Because God is so good, because God is so loving…He can and does work outside this Sacrament. He doesn’t need it. But we do, so that we know.

Baptism gives us the right to say, “Lord, I claim you as my FATHER.”

Baptism gives us the right to say, “Jesus, I claim you as my SAVIOR.”

We Belong!

The Spirit of Truth actually lives within us, and propels us back to Abba, no matter what we have done!  Who can forget the story of the Prodigal Son?  We often do not even consider the Father’s love; we concentrate on the son or his brother.  The Father’s love was so unconditional, the son knew he belonged, and he returned. The faith of our parents, the faith of our friends -whoever brings us to baptism – has been enough to bring us, too, into the bosom of the Father for eternity.  Who can forget the story of the paralytic, whose four friends brought him to Jesus? “And when he saw their faith, he said, ‘Man, your sins are forgiven you’” (Luke 5:20, my emphasis).

Again, because God is so good, so loving, He still calls us in our hearts back to him. Even when we haven’t been baptized, or even if the words weren’t right, He is still calling us to himself, through Baptism. He calls us to take the plunge!

This is why we Christians remind ourselves of our Baptism with Holy Water. “I claim you for Christ” now becomes our own, “Father, I claim you as my daddy!”

Many who are reading this understand that I am writing in response to the pastoral crisis in the Archdiocese of Detroit that has come about because the correct formula was not used for Baptism for many, many people. There are parents who are devastated at this news. Many have sons and daughters who now do not go to Church. For such a time is this… let us go to St. Monica and to St. Augustine to intercede for us — for all of the sons and daughters affected by this; all of the mothers and fathers — Lord, bring us back to YOU. Call us by name in our hearts. Give us the grace to return to YOU.

Amen

Please see the links for St. Monica and St. Augustine — Their feast days are Thursday and Friday of this week — August 27 and 28.

The Eternal Now

Does the title seem to be a contradiction?  A paradox?  It is actually one of the truest statements one can contemplate.

What is Contemplation?

We as human beings recognize our spiritual capabilities.  We can even think about and analyze what we are thinking about.  (You know it’s true!). In the busyness of life, though, we forget to actually consider what it is that we think about and care about, and whether we are growing in this spiritual capacity of our rational soul.  

Oftentimes one of my sweet daughters will look at our beloved dog, Lily, and say, “I wonder what she is thinking about?”

“Nothing, really,” I reply.

It’s not all bad.  Lily is a creature of instinct and habit.  She is pre-programmed to do many things, most especially to be our beloved companion.  She has learned the ropes of living in our home, and she brings joy to us because she belongs and she knows it.  It is part of her programming to respond to us and to please us.  And in a similar way to humans, she has grown attachments to particular people in our home.  She “knows” who takes her for walks, who feeds her, which one of us is ok with face kisses, and who’s the boss.  She doesn’t think about or ponder things, however.  All of her actions are a result of instinct and training; she doesn’t make true choices.

Something the pandemic is doing, I believe, is helping us to learn the value of rest and communion.  As I use the word communion, I mean, in particular, community; but it goes much deeper than that.  Communion is more that being “part of the pack,” which is what Lily knows.  It is the spiritual knowledge of being a part of something, or Someone, greater than ourselves.  This capacity of the human person is not a result of training or millions of years of evolution.  There is only one Source of this ability — our Creator.

I believe that we are being drawn to God through these trials — through any trials, for that matter.  But this pandemic is a worldwide calling by our Creator to live in the eternal now.  We do this in restful silence, recalling the power within ourselves, the gift that has been freely given, the Gift that is the Spirit of God that has been breathed into us by our Creator.  This gift is the life-force that propels us to act, to love, and to live in communion with our neighbor.

What I have described above can be known naturally by any human person.  Anyone.  The Buddhists know it.  The folks at the AA meetings know it.  The Athenians to whom St. Paul preached knew of it (Acts 17:22-31). When he proclaimed that their “unknown god” was Jesus Christ, the God-man who became one of us, Who forgave all of our sins, and brought us eternal, supernatural life through His death and Resurrection, they were given the Truth and the choice to believe.

The truth of what we know by nature, (the truth of a power greater than ourselves), has been revealed and fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  He is the Eternal Now.  He lives within us.  He is our capacity to love.  He is our peace.

The seed of contemplation of this truth is planted within every human person.  It grows with our recognition, our attunement, our Yes; our decision to sit in silence, patiently, and wait for God to reveal His truth of His unending love for us. When we combine this with His revelation in Sacred Scripture, the Truth can be known in our hearts.

Start with 10 minutes in the morning, contemplating the Eternal Now.  Jesus.

A note to students going back to college…

Why did they bring you back?

Because they believe in you and your future. They believe that you are capable of personal responsibility.

Do you?

You have roommates, and you are responsible for each other.

You wear masks and social distance in classrooms (and you don’t go to bars and parties).

You are careful in your interactions, wearing a mask when at all possible (love your neighbor; who is my neighbor?).

People can see you smiling through your eyes!

Are you smiling?

People can see Jesus in you!

It is the Lord, who teaches us the ultimate responsibility — we are our brother’s keeper (who is my brother, my sister?).

It is the Lord, who by His example, gives us the grace to think of others before ourselves.

It is I, who makes the choices to listen, to hear, to act.

Why did they bring you back?

Because they believe in you and your future. They believe that you are capable of personal responsibility.

Do you?

Living Sacramentally.

I am back to readings reflections. In the first reading yesterday we hear from St. Paul, who is speaking about the “collection for the saints,” which is the collection for the suffering Church in Jerusalem. This is his reminder to the churches that we are part of a greater Church, the Church of Jesus Christ. We are His body, and as such, we are called to nourish every part of it. Everything we have and everything we are comes from the Lord. It is fitting to give back to Him in gratitude.

St. Paul is adept at using old proverbs to teach the lesson of generosity: “…whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Cor 9:6b; cf. Prov 22:9). Jesus, of course, is the original teacher of this lesson, (whether as the Word who has spoken from eternity or the Incarnate Word who dwells among us!) St. Paul speaks of giving according to the heart, and out of the love that we have for one another.

What (or Who) is the Source of this love?

It is the unending love by which all creation exists, and only one part of Creation is capable of returning this love in gratitude — man. The love of God freely flows into the hearts of His people for the purpose of freely flowing forward into life and abundance. For Jesus said, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). St. Paul is reminding the Corinthians, and us, that all we have is from God in the first place! There is nothing…nothing…that is good, true, and beautiful…that is not foreseen or given by the Father. Paul quotes Psalm 112 to make this point: “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever” (Ps 112:9). He further makes the point and tells us of the necessary response of gratitude: “For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God” (2 Cor 9:13). Charity, ultimately, is giving back the gifts we have already been given. It is by grace that these gifts multiply.

The idea of “many thanksgivings” should cause us to think of the Sacraments, and in particular, the Eucharist. As we receive the Sacraments we receive the life of God — His grace — in abundance, and we continue to grow in grace upon grace. “For from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16).

I once asked a young person in my life, “Why do you think I go to Mass?”

“Because you have to; it is a rule that you choose to follow,” he said.

“Oh no,” I said. “It is because I want to. What we are doing when we go to Mass is giving of ourselves, our life, our time that has been given to us, back to the Lord, and He, in turn, gives us Himself in His Word and in His holy food. This food sustains me. It gives me life!”

Grace upon grace. That is what it is all about. A gift of the heart — given from the heart and received in the heart.

God continues to give Himself through the Sacraments (but not exclusively so), so that we can live in the freedom to truly love. When Jesus gave us the Great Commission to unleash the Gospel (cf. Mt 28:19), He called us to do the same. We are called to give of ourselves, sacramentally, to others. We are to be a visible sign of an invisible reality: Christ living within us. There are the actual Sacraments of the Church, through which God gives us life and love, and it is by this life and love that we, too, give others life and love. Our sacramental giving and receiving with Jesus is His means of sharing His life and love with the whole world, resulting in joy-filled gratitude!

This is the Sacramental worldview that we so need today. The Good News is that God has planted Himself into the hearts of His people, by our creation. We are made in His image and likeness, which means that His goodness is within us. If this were not true, then no one would ever turn back to Him. God is asking each one of us to share His love with others, that by our example, we can be a sacrament to others — a sign of His eternal love for the entire world.

He tell us this through the prophet Isaiah: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Is 55:10-11).

See this adorable film clip from the movie, Hook. See how the little boys search carefully for the Peter Pan they once knew — the spark of innocence and joy. (Be like little children). We are to search for Christ in others the same way the little boys search for Peter Pan in Robin Williams’ character, Peter. (May he rest in peace in the arms of the Lord Jesus!)

https://youtu.be/EMIAIJg9Ftg