Monday, April 24, 2017

The Restless Heart Finds a Home

In the proper liturgical calendar of the Augustinian Order, today is observed as the feast of the Conversion of Saint Augustine. Historically, it was during the Easter Vigil celebration in the Cathedral of Milan, on the night of April 24-25, 387, that the 32-year old Augustine was baptized by Saint Ambrose - along with his 15-year old son, Adeodatus, and his lifelong friend, the "brother of his heart," Alypius. (Photo: The Baptism of Saint Augustine by late 14th, early 15th-century Sienese painter Niccolo di Pietro.) Augustine's baptism completed his now famous journey back to the Catholic faith of his childhood (the faith of his mother, Monica) and the beginning of his new life as a Catholic philosopher and theologian, and eventually a Bishop in his native North Africa and Doctor of the Church. 

The charming medieval legend that the Church's great hymn of thanksgiving, Te Deum laudamus, was originally spontaneously composed (each one composing alternate verses) by Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine on the occasion of Augustine's baptism that Easter night in 387 is, of course, just that, a legend. Still, if Saints Ambrose and Augustine had spontaneously composed a hymn of thanksgiving, what better choice than the Te Deum? And who better to compose it that way than those two great Latin Doctors?

The familiar story of Augustine's conversion was recounted by Augustine himself a little more than a decade later in the first 9 books of his Confessions. It remains as compelling an account now as it was then. Augustine's Confessions reveal in thoroughly deliberate detail the character of Augustine's religious experiences and what it means to become a member of the Church community. 

Augustine did not invent autobiography. According to Tacitus, such writing was already antiquitatus usitatum in the Roman Republic. But Augustine's Confessions clearly constituted something different - no mere memoir such as the great (and not so great) commonly compose to justify themselves before their contemporaries and before history. Addressed to God, Augustine's account has God for its ultimate hero. God's grace is at the basis of Augustine's successful journey and leads him to its happy conclusion. It is a totally religious work, and the events recounted - for example, an otherwise apparently trivial theft of pears by an unemployed and mischievous teenager - are included because of their religious significance and emphasized exclusively in accordance with that significance.

Augustine's conversion involved a journey of several years through several different philosophical schools of thought - among them, skepticism, Manicheanism, and, most importantly, neo-Platonism.  But, as importantly, it was mediated through the Catholic Christian community to which he was exposed and toward which he was increasingly drawn. That community was represented in his life by two overwhelmingly signifiant figures - his mother Monica, who represented what we would today call "popular piety," and Ambrose, who influenced Augustine intellectually but also in his ecclesiastical role as a bishop shepherding his community in Milan through its ordinary and some extraordinary challenges, and thus modeling for him the role he too would eventually be called to play in the Church.

You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rest sin you (Augustine, Confessions, Book One, Chapter One).

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