The Scriptural Roots of St. Augustine's Spirituality | Stephen N. Filippo | IgnatiusInsight.com
Perhaps of all the Church Fathers, none shone so brightly as St. Augustine (351-430). Augustine's spirituality has deeply pervaded the Church right up to this very day. Two great Orders in the Church (just to cite a few), the Benedictines and the Franciscans took their spirituality directly from St. Augustine. St. Augustine's spirituality came into the Benedictine Order primarily through St. Anselm (1033-1109) and into the Franciscans primarily through St. Bonaventure (1221-1274). Both these men were in themselves, also great lights in the Church.
Of course, no discussion of Church giants can be complete without mentioning St. Thomas Aquinas, who is best described as 'following St. Augustine in Theology and Aristotle in Philosophy.' In sum, the Church gets her Dogmatic Theology primarily through St. Augustine. Since Spiritual Theology is based upon the correct Dogmatic Theology, it only makes sense that one of the Church's greatest Theologians, St. Augustine, is also responsible for a great deal of her Spiritual Theology.
And for St. Augustine, as it should be for all Catholics, this means a deep concentration and constant reflection on Sacred Scripture. The scriptural roots of St. Augustine's spirituality can be clearly seen by examining one of his greatest, yet lesser known works, De doctrina Christiana, literally "On Christian Doctrine," but actually "On how to read and interpret Sacred Scripture."
In De doctrina Christiana (henceforth "DDC"), St. Augustine lays the groundwork for a good, spiritual exegesis by elucidating on the virtue of charity, and all that means. Then, in order to begin the climb to spiritual perfection, he explains a scripturally based seven-step ladder. Lastly, he gives seven rules that are helpful in reading and understanding Sacred Scripture correctly.
St. Augustine teaches that there are four possible objects of human love: 1. The things above us, 2. Ourselves, 3. Things equal to us, and 4. Things below us. Since all men by nature love themselves, there was no need to give the human race precepts about self-love. And, since it is obvious to most men that they should not love that which is below them, namely lesser objects, but merely use them, fewer precepts are given in the Bible concerning these. But about the love of things above us, namely God and His Angels, and things equal to us, namely other men, Sacred Scripture has everything to say. Our Lord Himself tells us the two greatest commandments are: "You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Upon these the whole law and the prophets depend" (Mt. 22: 37-40).
Then, Augustine makes the distinction between enjoyment and use: "Some things are to be enjoyed, others to be used, and there are others which are to be used and enjoyed. Those things which are to be enjoyed make us blessed. Those things which are to be used help and, as it were, sustain us as we move toward blessedness in order that we may gain and cling to those things which make us blessed . . . To enjoy something is to cling to it with love, for its own sake. To use something, however, is to employ it in obtaining that which you love, provided it is worthy of love." (DDC I, iii, 3. iv, 4.) And, for St. Augustine, as it should be for us, the only thing worthy of his love, the only "thing" to be "enjoyed for its own sake" is the Holy, Blessed Trinity, the One True God.
Concerning love of our neighbors, St. Augustine reminds us that "all other men are to be loved equally; but since you cannot be of assistance to everyone, those are especially to be cared for who are most closely bound to you by place, time or opportunity, as if by chance. Just as if you had an abundance of something special that you could only give enough of to one other person, yet two came asking, neither of whom deserved it more or less. You could do no more than choose by lot. Thus, among all men, not all of whom you can care for, you must consider those in your life as if chosen by lot, who, in reality, are chosen by God." (DDC I, xxviii, 29). Therefore, the second great pre-requisite of St. Augustine's for interpreting Sacred Scripture is charity to every person in your life.
Concerning love of self, St. Augustine recommends frequent confession. Our souls in this life are engaged in deadly warfare with the devil and his fallen angels, as well as our own selfishness. As a result, we are constantly being wounded, either in a minor way or mortally. A mortal wound (sin) is deadly and will destroy all opportunity for Eternal Life, if not remedied. If we truly love ourselves, then we will want to be always ready to meet our Maker. The only way to meet our Maker when we die is to be in the state of grace. The only way to maintain the state of grace in this life is to go to confession frequently. We should pay special attention to our worst flaws and beg Our Lord to root them out.
Therefore: 1. set your sights on God alone as the only object of your love and enjoyment, while enjoying other men only for the sake of Him; 2. be truly charitable to all who cross your path, for it is not by accident or random chance that they come into your life; and 3. go to the Divine Physician for the cure to your wounds (sins). Thus are laid down the three most important pre-requisites for correctly reading Sacred Scripture: charity towards God, neighbor and self; without which none can be faithful to the Truths taught in the Bible.
In essence, St. Augustine notes there are those things we are to love for their sake alone, namely the Holy Trinity; and those things we are to love as ourselves, namely all other men. So, whoever in his own opinion feels he understands Sacred Scripture, or any part of it, yet does not build knowledge of love of God and neighbor, "has not yet known as he ought to know." (1 Cor. 8:2) Or, if such a one has discerned from the Scriptures an idea helpful in building this two-fold love, but which was not the intention of the Sacred Author, he is not in error, for his intention is not to lie, but to build up the kingdom of heaven. So, if one is mistaken in his interpretation of Scripture, yet he builds up charity, which is the end of the precept (cf. 1 Tim. 1:5), he is mistaken like the traveler who makes a wrong turn yet ends up at the right place regardless.
However, it is better not to leave the correct path, lest by habitually deviating, one end up in the wrong place altogether. By rashly asserting things the Sacred Author did not intend, one frequently runs into other passages he cannot reconcile to his interpretation. If one in humility gives way to Scripture, fine. But if one loves his own opinion more, he will grow vexed with the Scriptures, and ultimately be destroyed by it. For, "faith will totter, if the Authority of Sacred Scripture waivers. Indeed, even charity itself grows weak, if faith totters. If anyone falls from faith, it is inevitable that he also fall from charity. For he cannot love what he does not believe exists. Yet, if he both believes and loves, by leading a good life and obeying the commandments, he gives himself reason to hope that he may arrive at that which he loves. And so "there abides faith, hope and charity, these three," (2 Cor. 13:1) which all knowledge and prophecy serve" (DDC I, xxxxi, 37.).
Therefore, St. Paul tells us that the greatest of the three theological virtues is charity, because once we have attained to Eternal life, faith and hope cease. They are no longer necessary. Charity alone remains. Therefore it is the greatest of the theological virtues.
St. Augustine notes that, in this life, St. Paul defines charity as having three essential elements: "The end of the precept is charity from a pure heart, and a good conscience and faith unfeigned." (1 Tim. 1:5) Anyone approaching Scripture from truly "charitable" motives and intentions, needs to have a "pure heart," so that one does not love other "things" but only the Holy Trinity. They also need a "good conscience" lest a bad conscience lead to anxiety, guilt and despair, and so alter one's mental state that they seriously misconstrue the Sacred Texts. Thirdly, they need "faith unfeigned" in order to see clearly that which is being asserted by the Sacred Author, and not be blinded or confused by falsehood or affection for "lesser gods." And so by living and believing rightly, we may justly hope that our understanding of Sacred Scripture may build on what is already correct and be deepened and nourished.
St. Augustine's Spiritual Ladder: Seven Steps Mounting To Eternal Wisdom
There are conventional signs which living creatures give each other by which they attempt to indicate, as far as is possible, what is on their mind. For men, some signs involve the sense of sight; many the sense of hearing, and few of any other senses. A nod gives a sign of assent to a person we wish to share our will with. A referee at a football game will raise both hands straight in the air over his head to signify a score. These signs are like visible words. However, among men words have gained a pre-eminence for expressing thought. Holy Scripture, God's Will for us, is communicated to us through words. It is God's Word, in man's words. Jesus Himself is the Eternal Word: "In the beginning was the Word" (Jn. 1:1).
The question then becomes, how do we approach Holy Scripture? First, St. Augustine tells us, is through fear: "Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, wisdom and instruction, which only fools despise" (Prov. 1:7). It is from fearing God that we first learn to recognize His Will: what He wants us to do and what He wants us to avoid. This fear should awaken in us a healthy reflection of our bodily death and possible spiritual death, if we continue to choose to run away from Him.
Second, fear is tempered by piety, by which we become gentle and humble. So, when Sacred Scripture attacks some of our faults, or when we think we know better than God's Word, we need to reflect and realize that what is written there is more beneficial and reasonable, even if hidden, than what we could know ourselves. Pride is the enemy here. Since the mind usually disdains anything it learns easily, those who read superficially and very quickly, err greatly. Great care and time must put into reading the Sacred Texts very carefully and slowly. A slow, reflective, deeply meditative approach will enhance the ability of the Scriptures to penetrate to your heart.
The third step is knowledge, learning to love God for His own sake and love your neighbor as yourself, for His sake (as previously discussed). Any careful, thorough, close reading of Scripture should clearly point out just how far we have become enmeshed in the love of the world and temporal things. Therefore, it should instill in us a healthy desire to go to confession to get back to loving God and neighbor, whom we separated from when we sinned. Scripture should cause us to mourn our sins. We should beg God through "unceasing prayer" (1 Thess. 5:17) for the consolation of His Divine Assistance.
This brings us to step four: fortitude: to maintain courage, no matter what the cost, in our efforts to obtain True Justice--which is giving God and our fellow men their due, not about getting what I want. In seeking after justice with unwavering perseverance we withdraw from the deadly pleasure of passing things, toward the love of the Eternal Things, namely the Holy Trinity.
The fifth step is the counsel of mercy. As we cleanse our soul, we can become upset and vexed at its constant craving for lesser things. Sometimes it seems that the harder we try to be good, the more evil we do. St. Augustine counsels mercy and kindness in the treatment of your own soul. No one would walk into a hospital and force a sick person to get completely better 'or else'. Then neither should we force this straightjacket method on our sickly soul either. Just like the sick person in the hospital, your soul also needs time to heal. So, be fair with yourself. Set realistic goals. Sometimes baby steps or even crawling are needed before one can walk fully erect again. Seek steady progress, not immediate, absolute perfection, lest you give up in despair. Also, constantly practicing the true, immediate and vigorous unfeigned love of neighbor, to the point of perfection, when you can say you truly "love your enemies"(Mt. 6:12), will help substantially in rooting out one's worst and most stubborn sins.
The sixth step is one of vision: when we can truly see that the more we cleanse ourselves of the love of inferior things in this world, the closer we come to seeing God, "Taste and see how good is the Lord" (Ps. 34:9). To the extent that we love the world, we do not see God. To the degree that we die to ourselves, we experience Him more concretely in our daily lives.
The seventh step is wisdom. While we still walk more by "faith" than by "sight," at this level God so cleanses the heart that we rarely compare our neighbors or other creatures to Him by choosing these 'lesser gods' over Him. Moreover, souls will be so holy and on fire with love of God at this stage, that they will seldom prefer to turn away from the Eternal Truth, through a desire for pleasing men or self-gratification, no matter what. "Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father" (Mt. 10:32-33).
As the result of following these seven steps, we should grow more deeply in our love and devotion to Our Lord. Moreover, these steps are not mutually exclusive. In other words, one step does not necessarily take place, while the others remain silent. Many times in one's spiritual journey there is an overlapping of stages. What is important here is that we recognize what we are going through, and work with the Sacred Scriptures and these seven steps to allow our hearts to be opened more deeply and thereby move closer to God.
St. Augustine's Seven Rules to Help Unlock the Hidden Mysteries of Sacred Scripture
There was a man named Tyconius, who lived during the times of St. Augustine. He wrote a small book called "On rules" which contained seven rules that he claimed were like keys: they would unlock all that lay hidden in the Sacred Scriptures. Since the man was a Donatist (one who erroneously thought that the validity of a sacrament depended upon the worthiness of the minister), the rules needed some modification. Moreover, as St. Augustine strongly notes, no set of rules, no matter how well put together could ever unlock "all" of Sacred Scripture. Finite man, by definition, cannot possibly begin to completely understand infinite God. Deus semper major--God is always more. So, St. Augustine takes the seven rules because they are very helpful and incorporates them to reflect authentic Catholic teaching.
The first rule is 'about the Lord and His Body.' This rule applies when the Scriptures are talking about Christ and His Church. Sometimes there is a change from head to body and/or body to head, without a change in subject or speaker. For instance, Isaiah 61:10: "Like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels," is the same, single person speaking. Of course, one metaphor, the "bridegroom" refers to the Head of the Church, that is Christ, while the other metaphor, the "bride," refers to His Body, that is, His Church.
The second rule is about good and evil. There are passages in Scripture where it appears as if the Sacred Author is ascribing the quality of good and evil to the same person or thing. For instance, the Canticle of Canticles 1:4, says "I am black but beautiful as the tents of Cedar, and I am beautiful as the curtain of Solomon." The "tents of Cedar" are a reference to Ismael, who will not be heir to the Kingdom, "with the son of a free woman." (Gn 21:10; Gal. 4:30) Yet the "curtain of Solomon" can be seen as referring to a King of the line of David (which Our Lord was) or the actual curtain in the sanctuary in the Temple Solomon built. Either way, Scripture appears to be calling the same person both good and evil at the same time. This can be very confusing unless we see that the intention in part is to describe the temporal human condition here on earth. We all have good mixed with bad. G.K. Chesterton once described a saint as "one who knows they are a sinner." So do all groups. No one nation is all good, while the other is all evil. No one occupation has all good people, while another has only bad. Even prostitutes have been known to become great saints: i.e. St. Mary Magdalen, among countless others.
In another instance, in Isaiah 42:16, God says, "I will lead the blind on their journey; by paths unknown I will guide them. I will turn darkness into light before them, and make crooked ways straight. These things I will do for them, and I will not forsake them." Then God immediately addresses the evil person(s), without a grammatical shift, or acknowledgement of a new subject: "They shall be turned back in utter shame . . ." (Is. 42:17). But since for a time we are all here together, "they" is spoken of as if it is one body God is addressing. However, when each person's last day arrives, "He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats""(Mt. 26:32).
The third rule is concerning one's understanding of Grace and how it works. St. Augustine calls it "the Spirit and the letter." Without going into a detailed analysis of the Theology of Grace, it is important to remember that "without God you can do nothing." In other words, even the ability to have faith and do good works would not be in you unless God first put it there, either through Baptism or Penance. Nor could one continue on doing good works, unless God gave him the grace and the person responded positively. In other words, once Grace is given, it is up to the individual to accept it or reject it, of his own free will. However, he cannot accept it unless he is predisposed to accept it, which is a gift freely given by God.
The fourth rule is "of species and genus," or, how to distinguish between the part and the whole in regard to people, places and things. Scripture can say the word Jerusalem and refer only to that city, the "species." In other places it may refer to Jerusalem (and/or several other cities) but really meaning the entire world, the "genus." This can happen in reference to men too, so that things said about David or St. Peter might exceed the bounds of a special application to them. For instance, when Our Lord tells Peter, "You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church, etc." (Mt. 13:16). He not only addresses Peter in that moment, but what He says to him: "Whatsoever you declare loosed upon earth, is loosed in heaven; and whatsoever you declare bound on earth is bound in heaven" also applies to all future Popes.
The fifth rule is "of times," with which intervals of time hidden in the Scriptures may frequently be discovered. This idea of understanding the part for the whole or the whole for the part with regard to time is crucial in determining the amount of days Our Lord spent "in the heart of the earth" (Mt. 12:40). This method of speaking, by which the whole is signified by the part, solves a question about the Resurrection of Christ. For, unless the evening before He died, Holy Thursday; the night He suffered, is also counted, even though it is not a full day, there is no way to arrive at the three days Our Lord prophesied about: "Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights" (Mt. 12:40).
The sixth rule is called "recapitulation." Some things are so described as though they follow each other in the order of time, or as if they narrate a continuous sequence of events, when suddenly the narrative jumps to previous events which heretofore had been omitted. For instance, we read in Genesis 2:8-9: "And there Lord God had planted a paradise of pleasure from the beginning: wherein he placed man whom he had formed. And the Lord God brought forth of the ground all manner of trees fair to behold, and pleasant to eat of." The narrative seems to be suggesting that God brought forth "all manner of trees" after God had placed man in Paradise. When both things had been mentioned briefly, that is, that God planted Paradise and placed man whom he had formed in it, the narrative returns and recapitulates what was passed over originally. The narrator then adds, "the tree of life also in the midst of Paradise: and the tree of knowledge of good and evil" (Gn. 2:9) and the rivers by which Paradise is irrigated and bound by, and all the gold in paradise, all of which is the creation of Paradise. Once the Sacred Author has completed this narrative, he repeats what he already said concerning what actually followed: "And the Lord God took man, and put him into the paradise of pleasure" (Gn. 2:15). In other words, only after these things were done man was placed there. These things were not done after man was placed there, as what was first said may be taken to mean, unless the recapitulation by which it refers to things omitted earlier is understood by the careful reader.
The seventh rule is about the Devil and his body. Just as the first rule referred to Our Lord and His Body, it is also necessary to stay alert to what pertains to the head, the Devil, and what pertains to his body, the minions of fallen angels. Sometimes when Scripture speaks of the Devil, it is referring not to the devil himself, but to his body, the minions of fallen angels. This body is not only made up of those who are obviously "without," (1 Cor. 5:12) but also of those who, although they belong to it, for a time mingle with the Church until each one of them leaves this life, or until the great threshing fan "separates the wheat from the chaff" (cf., Lk. 3:17).
Lastly, St. Augustine constantly reminds us to pray to God for help in understanding Sacred Scripture. For in these books of Holy Scripture we read: "Pray unceasingly," (1 Thess. 5:17) "because the Lord gives wisdom: and out of His mouth comes prudence and understanding" (Prov. 2:6). Praise the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, both now and forever; the God who is, who was, and is to come at the end of the ages. Amen.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2000 issue of Catholic Faith magazine.
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Mr. Stephen N. Filippo, MA., SYD., teaches Theology and Philosophy on both the high school and college level.