28 June 2009

'Namesake of Virtue or Rule of Repentance'—Blessed Augustine of Hippo

Today, 15 June on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of Blessed Augustine of Hippo (354-430). As Fr Seraphim (Rose) has demonstrated so clearly, St Augustine has been regarded as a Father of the Church by the East and the West almost since his own lifetime (The Place of Bl Augustine in the Orthodox Church [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996], pp. 51-81). His disciple and biographer, Possidius, tells how he renounced his possessions and lived ‘with those who had also consecrated themselves to God, in fastings and prayers and good works, meditating day and night in the Law of the Lord.’ Possidius concludes, ‘And the things which God revealed to him through prayer and meditation, he taught both those present and absent in his sermons and books.’ St Faustus of Riez (c. 405-c. 495), an opponent of some of St Augustine’s teaching, calls the Bishop of Hippo beatissimus pontifex Augustinus, and even wrote a homily for his feast day (Fr Seraphim, p. 56). In the same century, the historian Gennadius Scholasticus wrote in his De Viris Illustribus 39 (here):

Augustine, of Africa, bishop of Hipporegensis, a man renowned throughout the world for learning both sacred and secular, unblemished in the faith, pure in life, wrote works so many that they cannot all be gathered. For who is there that can boast himself of having all his works, or who reads with such diligence as to read all he has written?

Although little known in the East for centuries, Fr Seraphim has pointed out that the Fifth Œcumenical Council (Constantinople, 553) refers to him as ‘Augustine, of most religious memory, who shone forth resplendent among the African bishops’ (p. 62). More recently, the great Kollyvades Father and editor of the Philokalia, St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, approvingly cites τά τοῦ μακαρίου Αὐγουστίνου . . . λόγια (Συμβουλευτικὸν Ἐγχειρίδιον [Athens: Panagopoulos, 2001], p. 287), saying that his words ‘can stir the heart to such love’ (A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, trans. Fr Peter Chamberas [NY: Paulist, 1989], p. 223).

St Augustine is of course most lauded, East and West, for his Confessions. Fr Seraphim has written quite insightfully on the importance of this work:

And Bl Augustine has something indeed to teach our ‘precise’ and ‘correct’—but cold and unfeeling—generation of Orthodox Christians. The exalted teaching of the Philokalia is now ‘in fashion’; but how many who read this book have first gone through the ‘ABC’s’ of profound repentance, warmth of heart, and genuine Orthodox piety that shine through every page of the justly-renowned Confessions of Augustine? This book, the history of Bl Augustine’s own conversion, has by no means lost its significance today; fervent converts will find in it much of their own path through sin and error to the Orthodox Church, and an antidote against some of the ‘convert temptations’ of our own times. Without the fire of authentic zeal and piety which the Confessions reveal, our Orthodox spirituality is a sham and a mockery, and partakes of the spirit of the coming Antichrist as surely as the doctrinal apostasy that surrounds us on all sides. (pp. 88-9)

The Confessions have also received much attention in secular scholarship, but unfortunately, while Fr Seraphim praises them for the profound repentance that is their central focus, it is primarily the psychology of the author that has become of interest recently. In his essay, ‘Augustine and Athanasius’ (The Image of the City and Other Essays, ed. Anne Ridler [London: Oxford U, 1970], pp. 89-91), Charles Williams observes—

Nowadays we read Shakespeare to discover that he suffered from insomnia; we read the Cloud of Unknowing to discover that its author was ‘a lovable man’; we remark with appreciative sympathy Augustine praying: ‘Give me chastity, but not yet.’ We are not, however, nearly so appreciative of the chastity which he undoubtedly got. . . . But the climax of the book—the mere literary climax as a book—is only by accident in the personal Augustine at all, even the chaste Augustine. It was certainly not by accident that he made his story end with the tenth book of the Confessions and that the last three books deal with the account of the creation of the world, in Genesis. This was the full and great conclusion. Augustine was issuing into a true and significant world of which Genesis gave a mystical account. That is the whole point, and not to feel it so is to be a bad literary critic. (p. 90)

While the Confessions is justly famous, and I believe, rightly regarded as St Augustine’s most important work (Fr Seraphim points out that Archbishop Philaret of Chernigov also highly regarded ‘his Soliloquies; his treatises, letters and sermons on monastic struggle and the virtues, on care for the dead, on prayer to the saints, on the veneration of relics’, p. 80), it is important to note that St Augustine’s complete corpus is intimidating in its enormity. Fr John McGuckin observes that his writings ‘became, of course, his own form of ascetical exercise. The great extent of his work made him function as an encyclopaedic theological authority for the next millennium in the West’ (The SCM Press A-Z of Patristic Theology [London: SCM, 2005], p. 41). For example, George Mantzarides points out the importance of St Augustine’s theory of time, in which he is not truly succeeded until Leibnitz in the 17th and 18th centuries (Time and Man, trans. Julian Vulliamy [South Canaan, PA: STS, 1996], pp. 10-12), and even Bertrand Russell writes of St Augustine's reference to time, ‘It contains a better and clearer statement than Kant’s of the subjective theory of time—a theory which, since Kant, has been widely accepted among philosophers’ (qtd. here).

Sadly, the great Church of North Africa which St Augustine served so faithfully as a bishop is no more. Newman has described its waste in moving prose, but he finds the note of hope in this appealing Saint (John Henry Newman, The Church of the Fathers [London: J.G.F. & J. Rivington, 1840], p. 224):

The desolation which, at that era, swept over the face of Africa [after the Vandal invasion], was completed by the subsequent invasion of the Saracens. Its five hundred churches are no more. The voyager gazes on the sullen rocks which line its coasts, and discovers no token of Christianity to cheer the gloom. Hippo has ceased to be an episcopal city; but its great teacher, though dead, yet speaks; his voice is gone out into all lands, and his words unto the ends of the world. He needs no dwelling-place, whose home is the Catholic Church; he fears no barbarian or heretical desolation, whose creed is to last unto the end.

It is difficult to decide what to quote here from the works of a man whose corpus is so vast (I have already posted one of my favourite passages of the Confessions here). One that I have decided upon however is a passage cited by St Nicodemus (Fr Chamberas gives the citation as ‘Quaestionibus 35’ [p. 227, n. 77], but I can’t find it there), which I shall give as Fr Chamberas has translated it from the Greek:

O true light, marvelous light, light beyond praise, light that illumines the eyes of the angels! Behold, I see! I thank you! Behold, I see the light of heaven. A ray from the light of your face illumines from above the eyes of my understanding and makes my whole being rejoice. Increase this light, I pray, O Provider of Light. Increase the light shining in me: Make this light broader; make it more abundant, I pray. What is this fire that is burning in my heart? What is this that I am feeling? What is this light that is illumining my heart? O light ever burning and unwaning, illumine me! It is an advantage to be lit by you! O holy light, how do you burn with sweetness? How do you shine inexplicably? How do you create the desire in us to be enflamed? Alas, for those who are not lit by you! (St Nicodemus, Handbook, p. 223)

Second, I’d like to cite an interesting passage (complete with a little poetry!) from what Peter Brown has called the ‘astonishing Book of Ten’ of The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (NY: Modern Library, 1950). Here is De Civitate Dei 10.21:

The power delegated to the demons at certain appointed and well-adjusted seasons, that they may give expression to their hostility to the city of God by stirring up against it the men who are under their influence, and may not only receive sacrifice from those who willingly offer it, but may also extort it from the unwilling by violent persecution;—this power is found to be not merely harmless, but even useful to the Church, completing as it does the number of martyrs, whom the city of God esteems as all the more illustrious and honoured citizens, because they have striven even to blood against the sin of impiety. If the ordinary language of the Church allowed it, we might more elegantly call these men our heroes. For this name is said to be derived from Juno, who in Greek is called Hêrê, and hence, according to the Greek myths, one of her sons was called Heros. And these fables mystically signified that Juno was mistress of the air, which they suppose to be inhabited by the demons and the heroes, understanding by heroes the souls of the well-deserving dead. But for a quite opposite reason would we call our martyrs heroes—supposing, as I said, that the ussage of ecclesiastical language would admit of it—not because they lived along with the demons in the air, but because they conquered these demons or powers of the air, and among them Juno herself, be she what she may, not unsuitably represented, as she commonly is by the poets, as hostile to virtue, and jealous of men of mark aspiring to the heavens. Virgil, however, unhappily gives way, and yields to her; for, though he represents her as saying, ‘I am conquered by Æneas’ (Æneid, vii. 310), Helenus gives Æneas himself this religious advice:

Pay vows to Juno: overbear
Her queenly soul with gift and prayer.
(Æneid, iii. 438, 439)

In conformity with this opinion, Porphyry—expressing, however, not so much his own views as other people’s—says that a good god or genius cannot come to a man unless the evil genius has been first of all propitiated, implying that the evil deities had greater power than the good; for, until they have been appeased and give place, the good can give no assistance; and if the evil deities oppose, the good can give no help; whereas the evil can do injury without the good being able to prevent them. This is not the way of the true and truly holy religion; not thus do our martyrs conquer Juno, that is to say, the powers of the air, who envy the virtues of the pious. Our heroes, if we could so call them, overcome Hêrê, not by suppliant gifts, but by divine virtues. As Scipio, who conquered Africa by his valour, is more suitably styled Africanus than if he had appeased his enemies by gifts, and so won their mercy. (pp. 325-6)

In conclusion, I would point out the wonderful Akolouthia for St Augustine ‘compiled’ by Archimandrite Ambrose (Pogodin) ‘upon the request of’ St John (Maximovich) the Wonderworker (see Fr Seraphim, p. 138). Here is one of the stichera in Tone 4 at the Lauds of Matins:

What shall we now call thee, O Augustine? Great Hierarch or glory of monastics; excellent shepherd or boast of fasters; powerful exposer of heresies or true instructor of meeknesss; namesake of virtue or rule of repentance; zealot of philosophy or glory of hermits; good lover of the poor or one who hath finally abandoned the world? Beauty of monastics, foundation of hierarchs, instructor of the love of wisdom; pray that our souls be saved. (Fr Seraphim, p. 137)


Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Aaron.

I like that ancient icon you put up of St. Augustine. But I have a question to ask about western practice; did western clergy trim their beards short? I remember reading some conflicting views on that issue.

- Andrew

Aaron Taylor said...

I'm afraid I don't know the answer to that question, but it was my understanding that trimming the beard was a very early practice, especially in the West. I've got a good book on the history of beards, but unfortunately I've misplaced it so I can't consult it for you.

Anonymous said...

Oh that's okay.

It's actually something that always made me wonder, since I have heard a few priests say that they trim their beards short because "that's how it was always done in the West". Anyway, my search for truth about beards in the West continues! :D

- Andrew

Aaron Taylor said...

Well, I realise there are those (especially in ROCOR) who have to have secular employment adn therefore would be handicapped by a long beard, but personally I think the claim that 'that's how it was always done in the West' is a lame excuse for a priest to trim. Why can't they just be honest and say it's because beards are too hot, or they're afraid of seeming eccentric, or because their wives are opposed to it, or better yet, because they themselves are too bourgeois? I seriously doubt there's a single priest out there who trims because he genuinely feels constrained by tradition to do so!

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean, Aaron.

I by God's grace should be entering seminary in the next few months, and maybe in a few years ordination. When I think about all the people who I know that are scandalized by trimmed and beardless priests, I can't help but not want to end up being another member of the clergy who people view as non-authentic because of his externals, but I have to admit vanity and pride are two things that are not easy to tame.

- Andrew

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

The practice has always been: you trim your beard as your bishop tells you so to do. Whether trimmed or not is up to your bishop.

Clean-shaven or trimmed beards were both the usual way in the west at different times. This was also the case in the east. Untrimmed beards were always found among ascetics, apparently.

Historical arguments for such things are inconclusive. Doing as your bishop tells you is the obedience that you are, however, beholden to.

Aaron Taylor said...

Kevin> I certainly agree that one must follow one's bishop, and shaving or trimming for this reason is not only justifiable but something one can be honest about. But my thought would be that as full beards are clearly the tradition (whether an 'ancient' one or not), and the norm, one should grow it unless specifically told otherwise. I don't buy the defense that beards are 'external' or unimportant. Because they are the norm, such an argument is more properly applied to shaving and closely trimming. If it's unimportant, why not grow it? It's more trouble not to!

But you're right that all of this is a moot point if one is beholden to a bishop who, however irrationally, requires one to go out of one's way to look 'respectable'. ;-)

By the way, I never expected my St Augustine comments to focus on beards!

Anonymous said...

hehe Sorry, Aaron, I take full blame for the derailing of your post. Anyway, it just goes to show that some people no matter how old they get, still get distracted by the pretty pictures while trying to read. :P

- Andrew

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Oh, yes, great post on St Augustine, by the way.

Ah! So here's one on topic for you.

How do you guys pronounce "Augustine"?

I've always said Au-gus-teen, with no emphasis on any syllable.

But then I've often heard Au-GUS-tin. That sounds weird to me.

Like hearing people say warsh instead of wash or something like that.

Aaron Taylor said...

Andrew> By the way, where are you planning to attend seminary?

Kevin> I've always pronounced it about like you, but yesterday I heard my spiritual father say 'Aug-GUS-tin' when he was reading all of the commemorations at the end of the liturgy. Which reminds me: he also told me one time that the proper pronunciation of 'Benedictine' is 'Bene-DIC-tin'.

My mother, who was born and raised in Muskogee, OK, says 'warsh' instead of 'wash'. She also says 'woof' for 'wolf', 'necked' for 'naked', and 'srimp' for 'shrimp'. In fact, she's completely incapable of pronouncing an initial 'sh' coreectly if it's followed by another consonant.

Anonymous said...

If all goes well, I should be attending St. Tikhon's Seminary.

- Andrew

Anonymous said...


I think Kevin nailed it -- no monolithic practice in the West-- different practices at different ties and places. Though controversy did arise because, IN GENERAL, the West TENEDED to sport shorter beards or trimmed breads or, at times, even to go clean shaven at times. I believe that after the "Eighth Council," Rome agreed on short beards instead of the Frankish clean-shaven look, which was then a sign of a warrior, though now its a sign of a gentlemen! (Go figure!)


I think the British English say Au-GUS-tin; not AU-gus-TEEN. And, or St. Augustine of Canterbury, they contract to "St. Austin."


St. Vlad's Journal recently ran a informative article on Eastern Commemoration of Augustine. In sum, the conclusion seemed to be that, historically speaking, he was regarded as a Saint but a theologian of very minor, if any, consequence if for no other reason that his writings did not circulate much in the West. Liturgically, only four Eastern churches have ever drafted a full set of propers for him, and that process did not start until the 19th century, when he started to be added to Eastern Calendars. Of course, the past happenstance of Eastern lack of general familiarity with his Saintly mother, his Saintly conversion, and his brilliant (if not always correct) speculative theology is no reason to consign him to the dust bin of history!