Thursday, July 31, 2008

Thoughts of St Augustine for Every Day-Introduction

The "Thoughts and Counsels" posts have gone past one year and needed to be replaced with something else. I have chosen this little book which has reflections and thoughts of St Augustine compiled by Kathleen Mary Balfe.

This small book was published by Burns, Oates and Washbourne in 1926. First is the forward by Fr. Martindale. The reflection for August 1 will be posted later. I anticipate posing these daily meditation for the next year. Enjoy and God Bless!


We have sometimes wondered what the myriads who start upon reading the "Con­fessions" of St Augustine expect to find in them. We can hardly suppose that they will study carefully all those pages of pro­found philosophy. For the myriads are not philosophers. Perhaps, forgetting, or not knowing, that "Confessions" does not mean a catalogue of sins, but the soul's complete recognition of God, worship of him, grati­tude to him, musing upon him, they do expect something that might be more suitably looked for from de Quincey or Rousseau. But when they do not find it they go on reading. At least each generation continues insatiably their perusal of the Saint whose other works they may leave wholly to one side, no less fascinating, in every sense in which the "Confessions" fascinates, though they be.

In this we see a proof that Augustine must have something so human in him, yet so vast, that all those different minds and tem­peraments that approach him feel that he understands them, sympathizes with them, and speaks to them "heart to heart." And this is indeed what happens.

And since this most wholly human Saint is manifestly in closest touch with God, no one but feels that he too can somehow "touch God," since St Augustine, who is so like himself, could do so. We welcome, then, any book which will send men and women of today to a man whom they cannot call inhuman, and who is also a friend of God, and who, unlike some friends who are jeal­ously monopolist, is only too anxious that others too should enter into that great friendship.

Besides this we believe that Augustine's world in many strange ways was very like our own. Perhaps, once more, every period really contains all the elements of every other, all the woes and hopes, the happiness and the squalor of humanity. Therefore, a "total" soul, like Augustine's, so represents and expresses all that is in his period, that men afflicted by the malady of whatever age they live in seem to recognize their period, quite clearly, in Augustine's own. But we think there is more to be said than that.

Augustine lived, and died, when a great civilization was breaking up. The Roman Empire was going down in crash after crash. In a sense he was worse off than we are. For a vague and diffused culture has accus­tomed us to the idea that there have been other civilizations and empires besides our own, and we know that they have disappeared, and cannot see why, in the nature of things, our own should not do so too. But perhaps Augustine, even with his knowledge of the East, was more under the spell of the univer­sality and eternity of Rome than we are under that of the modern age and world.

Hence to him the manifest disintegration of his world seemed appalling in its finality. It was a true consummation of an age. What should happen next he could not guess. Over against his empire--the City or Estate of this world--he could but set, not another civilization more or less like its predecessor, but the City of God only. Be that as it may, his world was full of a panic-haunted restlessness, of despondency, and of inability to work. Unexamined principles were sim­ply disappearing under the rude shock of fact: experiments were being desperately and chaotically tried, but still without principles to warrant hopes of their success; people were trying to patch things up, at least for the time being, with an ever-dwindling hope or superstition that somehow things would right themselves, and that society, the Roman Unity, would survive.

But underlying it was the immense despondency due to the inner­most conviction that it would not. Hence the vast rush towards novelty and amuse­ment as an anodyne, and the inability to turn the mind and the hand to serious work. Within this there remained, I know, a few men who pathetically kept to the old conven­tions; even when the final crash had come, they continued the immemorial pagan prac­tices in which they had been brought up and from which they had often learnt to live like decent gentlefolks. Amid the welter of barbarism, there remained those civilized country-houses which were determined to keep up the old standards at least so long as they could.

And in the city there were sena­tors, politicians, civic officers, who did hom­age still to ancient customs of worship and of general procedure, and who quieted their nerves with old discreet philosophies. But all the same, in their hearts they knew that this framework within which they kept them­selves together was not the same as a princi­ple, held with conviction, and that the life of the thing had died in its heart, and that the death was spreading to the surface too.

This is extraordinarily like our time, when we see either the Catholic Faith, with its Dogmas and its Law, or a flooding scepticism as to the meaning and value of life itself.

Hence the desire to work, not for the glory or the intrinsic beauty of proud lovableness of the achievement, but in order to make quick money: and the use of money, on the whole, has degenerated into the obtaining of amusement. Hence, too, the inability to work, noticeable in so many. Hence, working backwards, our despondency, since every­thing has been tried and failed and no one can be trusted; and hence that restless individualism which is the antithesis of ordered society or peace. Among us, too, are pathetic obstinate survivals; but they them­selves acknowledge that they are but monu­ments of an old vitality with no future, rather than anything creative.

If such a vision be called pessimist, it would be rightly so-called, were it without the added element that Augustine's vision included; and his would have been pessimist, and constantly was all but actually so, with­out his added element of faith in the pro­mises of God, and the Truth and Law of Christ. Thus to the restlessness he could oppose serene stability; to the melancholy, indomitable force; to the inanition, ardour and high enterprise.

Hence, too, I suppose, Augustine's vision, clear as any Greek's, became passionate; his was not that dawning sentimentality of the later Roman which marked a very deep cor­ruption of temperament indeed; nor that neurotic fever of the soul that you see in the pagans and the heretics of his own Africa. But his passion was so deep, so strong, being based on, and infusing, a vision of such steady truth that he could even give rein, safely, to that passion. He could cry Ama, et fac quod vis ("Do but love and you can do as you please"). For that smoky passion that can impart a glow as of life and worth to the mere objects of instinct is indeed no safe guide.

Often must a man do the oppo­site of what it suggests to him. But when a man loves the clear vision of Truth, he will only want to do what is in harmony with it--all else is shown forthwith as ugly and as hateful--and he can let himself follow triumphantly whither the vision beckons. All that he wants has become worthy and right: he may do, and should do, what "pleases" him.

Hence a book that may help us to see what 5t Augustine saw, and see it with eyes that, like his, were loving, is a great gift to our times which have lost the vision, and with it, the very power, one would say, of loving.

-C. C. Martindale, S.J.
From Thoughts of St Augustine for Every Day
by Kathleen Mary Balfe (© 1926)

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