Saturday, September 17, 2011

Pat Robertson, and the After-Wife

During the past year I have posted on the Bible and the permanence of marriage in the Catholic view.  I also posted about the nature of vows in an earlier post on a strange passage in Judges 11. 

Pat Robertson has a reputation for saying strange and nutty things. This Tuesday on 700 Club,  Pat Robertson made a really alarming statement.  When discussing a married man who had a wife in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease, he gave the opinion that the wife was already dead and the man was released from his wedding vows. 

You can imaging the headlines (MSN news) Pat Robertson: Divorcing a spouse with Alzheimer's is justifiableAssociated Press in USA Today and ABC News: Pat Robertson Says Alzheimer's Makes Divorce OK.  An accurate analysis of what Robertson really said is found here.

Is Robertson right that divorcing a spouse with Alzheimer's is justifiable because the disease is "a kind of death?"  Doesn’t this fly in the face of the “in sickness and in health until death” (assuming people still use traditional wedding vows)?

Without diminishing the intense suffering of Alzheimer's, saying the spouse is “kind of” dead is clearly blowing smoke.  This will not allow us to “kind of” dodge Jesus clear teaching on divorce and remarriage.

“Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18).

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk 10:11-12).

The Church has consistently urged us to recognize marriage as indissoluble and that a marriage between a baptized man and woman which has been ratified and consummated “cannot be dissolved by any human power or for any reason other than death” (CCC 2382).

Death is the separation of the soul from the body before the resurrection, not diminished mental faculties.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Archbishop Gomez on the need to consider America's renewal

Don't miss this important address by Archbishop José H. Gomez  in the Vatican’s official newspaper L'Osservatore Romano on the need to consider America's renewal.

Archbishop Gomez on the need to consider America's renewal

Immigration and the ‘Next America’
perspectives from our history

The following is an adapted address given by the Archbishop of Los Angeles at the Napa Institute on 28 July 2011.


Our political debate about immigration in America frustrates me. Often I think we are just talking around the edges of the real issues. Both sides of this argument are inspired by a beautiful, patriotic idea of America’s history and values. But lately I’ve been starting to wonder: What America are we really talking about?

America is changing and it has been changing for a long time. The forces of globalization are changing our economy and forcing us to rethink the scope and purpose of our government. Threats from outside enemies are changing our sense of national sovereignty. America is changing on the inside, too. [more]

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A rose by any other name. . .

I have been trying to wrap my brain around a recent article by Catholic scholars Michael G. Lawler and Todd A. Salzman, which appeared in America Magazine. Lawler and Salman are emeritus and current professors at Creighton University, Omaha, Neb. These two scholars coauthored a book entitled, The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Moral Traditions), which was disciplined by the USCCB for its inadequate methodology and for its radical departure from traditional Catholic ethics. Perhaps not surprisingly the article in America Magazine, entitled “Beyond Catechesis: What is the proper role of theology?” complains bitterly about the silencing and ignoring of the voices of “unsafe dissenting” theologians.

In the interest of fair minded dialogue let’s see what Lawler and Salzman propose. First they complain that recent actions of the USCCB ignore “an essential distinction between catechesis (as in catechism) and the academic discipline of theology.” We do distinguish between a catechist and a theologian. The catechist faithfully “passes on the deposit of the faith” while the theologian speculates and philosophizes. Is this not a valid distinction? Should we not treat theologians in a different category? Clearly there is a measure of truth here but it could lead to a number of unfair distortions. Are we to conclude that the theologian who happens to believe her speculations and philosophizing about truth lead her to defend the deposit of faith, is really catechizing and that only those theologians who are “unsafe dissenters” are true theologians? Lawler and Salzman imply that anyone who agrees with the Vatican holds “a single, Roman theology and serve as methodological and theological apologists for the magisterium.” In other words they are not thinking people but mere instruments of Vatican propaganda.

Secondly, Lawler and Salzman describe what they call the charism of the theologian. A curious irony exists here since our entire understanding of what a Catholic theologian is comes from the sacred Tradition and the magisterium of the Church. They note, “Theology uses scholarly principles not only to communicate the truths of faith but also to explore the meanings of those truths and contemporary ways of articulating them.” Fair enough, but unless you accept the myth of modernist progress, being contemporary and exploring does not make you necessarily an “unsafe dissenter.”

Lawler and Salzman move on to quote the famous Jesuit theologian, Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., who they point out explains that being a theologian involves a two-way mediation is “from the faith, culture and questionings of the people toward the magisterium; and from the pronouncements of the magisterium back to the people.” I don ‘t have a problem with this notion as it is described by Sullivan in his work Magisterium which, by the way is based on reflections on the thesis of the International Theological Commission. Lawler and Salzman take this in new direction by suggesting that the Vatican must include “unsafe dissenters” in its theological consultations before making magisterial pronouncements. At one level it makes sense to consider how various peoples have interpreted a theological problem. No doubt Lawler and Salzman are correct in their view that excluding “unsafe dissenters” from the consultation “creates polarization between itself and both the faithful who disagree with the doctrinal pronouncements and the theologians who articulate this disagreement.” I think that Lawler and Salzman are blowing smoke when they imply that the majority of the faithful disagree with the Vatican and wish that the Vatican would change its doctrine to agree with that of the dissenters. Let’s be clear I have no problem with dialoguing with Lawler and Salzman, but there apparent assumption a thinking person would agree only with their views and that anyone who agrees with a traditional view is a mere apologist for the magisterium is clearly false thinking.

The truth many lie in the adjectives here. I truly do admire the theologian Karl Barth, but since he is a famous Protestant theologian it would be silly to look to him as a Catholic theologian. My question is how far outside the norms of Catholic tradition can a theologian go before they lose the right to hold the adjective “Catholic?” Todd A. Salzman currently is a professor of Catholic theology at Creighton University. Can he teach anything he wants and still be a professor of Catholic theology at a Catholic University?  In my view it is a sad day if the answer is “yes.”

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

In persona Christi

chair-of-st-peter-largeAfter the sign of the cross the priest begins the Mass with one of three greetings. Perhaps the most commonly used greeting by priests is, “The Lord be with you.” After this greeting we find the first change in the new translation that we will have to get used to. The people now respond, “And with your spirit.” This is clearly a more accurate translation of the Latin but it also emphasizes the word “spirit.” Official commentators on the Mass have noted that the word spirit used here draws attention to the elevation of the priest’s spirit in the Sacrament of ordination. We are greeting the priest who acts in the person of Christ.

If you would like to learn more about your faith, and take classes with the Bishop Helmsing Institute visit

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Entrance Antiphon

IMG_0040On Sundays in most parishes the Mass begins with a hymn. In many parishes on week days the Mass begins with the recital of a short antiphon or psalm taken from a verse of Scripture that relates to the liturgical season or the feast for that day. These antiphons were intended to be sung and are taken from special coral collections called the Propers or the Roman Gradual. In the new instruction for Mass the Church has reemphasized its desire to see these traditional chants sung at the beginning of the Mass. Many Catholics would be surprised to find out that there are corresponding sets of antiphons or Propers that are also intended to be sung at communion.

If you are interested in a fuller account of the more accurate translation 2011 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal on this issue click here for an article from the Chant Cafe.

If you would like to learn more about your faith, and take classes with the Bishop Helmsing Institute visit

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

New Roman Missal (Part 2)

jerome readingFinding the right balance between a stilted word by word translation and one that is accurate but understandable is difficult. One of the most famous translators in the Church, St. Jerome complained, “If I translate word by word, it sounds absurd, if I am forced to change something in the word order or style, I seem to have stopped being a translator.”

The Church has done several things to help facilitate a new translation of the Roman Missal. First they changed the membership of the international committee responsible for the English translations, second the Vatican issued a new foundational document entitled Liturgiam authenticam (or the authentic Liturgy) which gives specific guidelines for translation, and finally an executive committee of cardinals and bishops was set up to supervise the whole project.

Some of the new principles or guidelines include translating the original Latin faithfully without omissions or additions. Using language that is understandable yet preserves dignity and beauty. Using language that is precise and doctrinally sound and avoiding anything that is trendy. One interesting point is that the new text is deliberately translated so that it will be suitable for singing and the new liturgical books will give priority to the chanting of the Mass.

See a summary of major principles of Liturgiam Authenticam in plainer language  here.

If you would like to learn more about your faith, and take classes with the Bishop Helmsing Institute visit

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Welcoming the New Roman Missal (Part 1)

NRM3The first question many people ask about the New Roman Missal that will be introduced this Advent is why the Mass needs to change?

The original translators of our current Mass used a method of translation that was not very literal. Unlike other modern translations in German, Spanish, French or Italian, the English translators took great liberties with the text summarizing and adapting whole passages and in some cases even composing material that did not occur in the original Latin text. This is the central problem that prompted the Vatican to produce a new more faithful translation of the Mass.

If you would like to learn more about your faith, and take classes with the Bishop Helmsing Institute visit

Friday, August 19, 2011

Must We Keep Our Vows?

Yesterday the first reading at daily Mass included the horrendous story of the ‘Judge’ Jephthah  (Judges 11) who makes a rash vow to the Lord;

Jephthah made a vow to the LORD.
"If you deliver the Ammonites into my power," he said,
"whoever comes out of the doors of my house
to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites
shall belong to the LORD.
I shall offer him up as a burnt offering." (Judges 11:30-31)

Jephthah is victorious over the Ammorites and is devastated to be greeted upon his return by his only daughter who is still a young child.  After a short compassionate delay, “he did to her as he had vowed” (11:39).

Clearly this is a negative moral example of what not to do. It might be helpful to unpack the morality of this situation.

The Church generally sees the act of making promises and vows in a positive light (cf. Catechism CCC 2101-2102).  There are many positive examples of vows in the Old Testament. For example Psalm 65:2; 66:13. The making and keeping of vows is related to the worship of God and virtue of religion.

Vows are a very serious matter and must not be made rashly.  As the writer of Proverbs warns “It is a trap to pledge rashly a sacred gift, and after a vow, then to reflect” (Proverbs 20:25). As the Israelites were warned in the Law, “When a man makes a vow to the LORD or binds himself under oath to a pledge, he shall not violate his word, but must fulfill exactly the promise he has uttered” (Numbers 30:3). Was Jephthah then required to fulfill his rash vow?

The current Code of Canon Law defines a vow as “a deliberate and free promise made to God, concerning some good which is possible and better” (CIC 1191 § 1).  The structure of this definition may at first seem confusing.  It implies, following the traditional understanding of the Church, that the matter or object of vows must be 1) possible, 2) morally good, and 3) better than its contrary. Dominic M. Prümmer O.P. notes, “It is not required that what is vowed should be absolutely and objectively better than its omission; it is sufficient if it is relatively better for the individual making the vow” (Handbook of Moral Theology, p. 179).

Jephthah’s vow is made freely and not under compulsion but it is clearly rash and does not have a morally good object and is not better than the contrary.  With a different morally good object such as, “if I am victorious I will praise you each day before I begin any work or eat,” this could have been a virtuous act.  As it stands, Jephthath made a false or mock vow according to the Church’s definition.  In effect he sinned doubly by speaking rashly and dangerously and then by committing an evil act in fulfillment of his words.


© Scott McKellar a Scripture quotes from the NAB-RE.

Image: Edouard Bernard Debat-Ponsan (1847-1913) The Daughter of Jephthah, Oil on canvas 1876

Friday, June 24, 2011

Comprehending the Trinity

trinity detailAugustine complains that although many people talk about the Trinity, and argue and wrangle over its meaning, rarely do people understand it. Augustine turns to the triad of being, knowledge and will. He notes;

I am, and I know, and I will. Knowing and willing I exist; I know that I am and that I will; I will to be and to know (13.11.12).

Although each of these is distinct there is one inseparable unity to their life—one mind, one essence. Obviously this analogy ultimately fails to do justice to the mystery of the Trinity, though it helps us to dare to make some assertions about it.

Allegorical Interpretation of the ‘Days’ of CreationThe Creation of Eve by Michelangelo c. 1509

The whole series of the days of creation are treated as metaphors for illumination, conversion and growth in the spiritual life. Beginning with the first day, Augustine compares the divine command to “Let there be light” to spiritual illumination and conversion. There are many scriptural metaphors about darkness and light and salvation as divine illumination. The second day involves the vault of the sky which is compared to Scripture. The Sacred Scripture have the power to ‘lay pride low’ and efficacy to persuade one to confession and invite one to worship (13.15.17). The third day involves the creation of the sea, the dry land and fruitfulness. The sea is ‘the unruly urges of our souls’ (13.17.20) while the dry land is the souls thirst for God (13.17.21). When this thirst is quenched “the soil of our soil grows fertile in works of mercy according to kind” (13.17.21). The fourth day involves the creation of the luminaries of the heavens. Rising up from our works of mercy into the delights of contemplation we ‘lay hold of the Word of Life above” (13.18.22). The graces of this contemplation result in spiritual renewal and the heavenly blessing of the gifts of the Spirit (13.18.22). Contemplation must first be preceded by Baptism and a reformed life before receiving the holy fires of Pentecost (13.19.25). On the fifth day the Seas brings forth living things that crawl and fly. These are compared to the holy signs and wonders which accompany evangelization and the Sacraments which follow. This stage represents the elementary attainment of spiritual life and doctrine before moving on to maturity. On the sixth day the living soul is created. Breaking free of attachments to this world the soul becomes a pure heart. Your ministers make themselves a “an example to the faithful by living alongside them and arousing them to imitation” (13.21.30). No longer do the believers “merely listen, but listen with a view to acting on what they hear, when they are bidden” (13.21.30). Drinking from the fountain of eternal life they struggle to restrain themselves from excesses by imitating those who imitate Christ (13.21.31). They begin to recognize the dignity of their nature created in the image and likeness of God (13.22.32) discerning God’s will for themselves and judging with the virtue of grace approving and rebuking the activities and conduct of the faithful (12.23.34).

Taking up the command to “increase and multiply” Augustine admits that this could be subject to various interpretations. The literal interpretation is obvious but he suggests figurative interpretation. He suggests that it relates to the “way that one truth may be articulated in various modes, or on articulation understood in many different senses” (13.24.37). He suggests that it relates to the “faculty and the power both to articulate in various forms something we have grasped in a single way in our minds, and to interpret in many different senses something we have read, which though obscure, is couched in simple terms” (13.24.37).

In the Genesis narrative God gives man the food of every seed bearing plant and the fruit of trees. Augustine notes that ”these fruits of the earth symbolize and represent in allegorical terms the works of mercy produced by fertile soil to meet the need so the present life” (13.25.38). Those who are not yet ready to do these works are the fish and whales who have not yet journeyed deeply in the spiritual life.

Augustine next comments on God’s proclamation that seven times God looked on the creation he had made and found it ‘good.’ Augustine is puzzled by the connection of temporarily with the act of seeing on God’s part, but then realizes that this is a figure of speech. He remembers some of the false views of the Manicheans, and counters that when people see creation through the Spirit they come to know that it is good. One could have a false belief that creation is evil, or a purely natural knowledge that it is good, but we need to see the way God views its goodness (13.31.46).

Augustine surveys the literal meaning of the creation account noting that each part of creation is good and taken together they are exceedingly good. He again discusses how the creation account figuratively describes the journey of the interior life from works of mercy, to illumination and spiritual gifts, to sacraments, miracles, doctrine, self-control and impulses to good order in the Spirit leading to maturity which bears fruit for the life to come and is exceedingly good.

Finally God’s rest of the seventh day is linked to God’s peace and it is an exceedingly good eternal rest. We shall rest in God’s immense holiness and supreme goodness.

Text © Scott McKellar 2011

All quotes in this series of blogs from Confessions are from, St. Augustine,Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed John Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 1997)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Book 13: Why did God create?

BWcreationAugustine begins by outlining key ideas about the doctrine of creation. God created out of his ‘abundant goodness’ but gained no profit from the experience. He created something which was other than his own substance. Both spiritual and corporeal creations have no rights to exist or no claim on God (13.2.3).

Augustine relates the words, “Let there be light” to the spiritual creation. Just as not part of creation has the right to live or exist so also we have no right to be illuminated and converted to a life of beatitude. God exists alone in utter simplicity, and for him simply to live is to be in beatitude (13.3.4).

God lacked nothing that would drive him to create or to convert or to illumine, he did so out of sheer goodness. He has no need of these things for his own happiness or perfection. The imperfection of creation is displeasing to God in the sense that he wills them to perfection, but not in the sense that he reaches his own perfection by helping them to theirs (13.4.5).

Augustine sees as symbolic form of the Trinity in the words ‘God’ who represents the ‘Father’ the ‘Beginning’ who represents the ‘Son’ and the ‘Spirit poised above the waters.’ He compares this to Romans 5:5 “the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was been given to us.” The Spirit is supereminent love the narrative is not to be taken literally of places but of “movements of the heart” (13.7.8). The holiness of the Spirit “bears us upward in love for peace beyond care, that our hearts may be lifted up” to God(13.7.8). The words “Let there be light” relate to divine illumination drawing us into more passionate love. The figure of the spirit poised above also relates to “the eminence of the unchangeable Godhead” far above all that is changeable. Why then is the spirit alone mentioned? The Spirit is said to your Gift and in your gift we find rest. Augustine describes the divine ascent of contemplation and illumination;

Your Gift set us on fire and we are drawn upward; we catch his flame and up we go. In our hearts we climb those upward paths, singing the songs of ascent (13.9.10).


Text © Scott McKellar 2011

All quotes in this series of blogs from Confessions are from, St. Augustine,Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed John Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 1997)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Heaven and Earth: Book 12

adam and eveSt Augustine’s final two chapters, Books 12 and13, are an exegesis of Genesis 1:2-2:3. There are even links to the previous chapter which touched on Genesis 1:1. Book 12 deals with Genesis 1:1-2 and Book 13 deals with Genesis 1:2-2:3. Vaught notes that Augustine “connects the last three Books of the text as links in a chain.”[i]

Following the Greek translation of Psalm 113 (115):16 Augustine contrasts ‘Heaven’s heaven’ with the earth. ‘Heaven’s heaven’ is the dwelling place of God and is contrasted to the ‘heaven that overarches our earth’ or what we would call the sky (12.2.2). Focusing on Genesis 1:2, Augustine notes that God created a ‘formless matter’ which may be described as undifferentiated in its order. He sees this state as ‘midway between form and nothingness’ (12.5.5, cf. 12.12.15).[ii] He states that “the mutability of mutable things itself gives them their potential to receive all those forms into which mutable things can be changed” (12.6.6). But since God is immutable, he did not create heaven and earth from his own substance but out of nothing (12.7.7).

Initially God created two realities. One near to himself, Heaven’s heaven and one bordering on nothingness—“invisible and unorganized, an abyss over which no light dawned” (12.8.8). From this abyss of primal nothingness God created heaven and earth. Heaven’s heaven was created before any ‘day’ existed. Augustine refers to Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning god created heaven and earth” but in Genesis 1:2 “the earth was a formless wasteland” or “abyss.” From this ‘formless matter’ God creates earth, sky and the visible creation in a series of ‘days.’ Heaven’s heaven is some kind of ‘intellectual creation’ which participates in eternity but is still not coeternal (12.9.9). There are no day’s mentioned in relation to the ‘primal formlessness’ since without form there is no order and ‘nothing comes or passes away’ (12.9.9).

God is eternal and exists with “no alteration of form.” Nothing is able to change God and his will does not vary with changing times (12.11.11). God created all natures and substances which are not him but still have being. Only that which has no being is not created by him.

Together these truths lead us to acknowledge that God is eternal and so not subject to variance and change. God “did not bring creation into being by some new act of will, nor is his knowledge subject to any impermanence” (12.15.18).

In the section (12.17.24-12.22.31) Augustine discusses at length a series of alternative interpretations of Genesis 1:1 (12.1928). He allows these alternate interpretations to play out their views and then highlights certain truths which they articulate and attempts to integrate them with the second verse of Genesis. This leads to a discussion of truth and meaning in relation to Scripture. He identifies questions about the truth of what is said, and secondly questions about the intension of the person who spoke. (12.23.32). Is what Moses tells us about the process of creation true? Do we understand what Moses intended? He has little patience with those who doubt the truth of Moses’ account, but he is willing to journey together with those in the second who struggle to find his intension. He admits that there are a great variety of legitimate interpretations (12.24.33) and therefore he needs to argue his point calmly to show its strength (12.25.34). Ultimately the answer is found in the “immutable truth itself that towers above our minds” (12.25.35). The truth of Scripture is illuminated by God’s Truth, and is opposed to our pride. Augustine notes, “Since, then, so rich a variety of highly plausible interpretations can be culled from those words, consider how foolish it is rashly to assert that Moses intended one particular meaning rather than any of the others” (12.25.35).

Vaught points out,

In fact, “Truth” as Augustine understands the term can be identified with infinite riches, where Truth itself is the highest truth, the meaning of Truth, and the distributive collection of all true propositions . . . the concept of truth points in all three directions, calling our attention first to a cluster of truths, then to the standard by which they are measured, and finally to the arche [source, beginning] to which they can be referred.[iii]

This does not mean that Augustine is willing to accept any interpretations. They must at least be coherent and consistent (12.29.40). Augustine distinguishes four priorities for non-contradiction. On must be able to distinguish,

. . .what precedes in virtue of eternity, what precedes in time, what precedes in order of choice, and what is purely logical priority (12.29.40).

Eternity and logical priority are the most difficult to understand. Logical priority is compared to a song. In singing we hear sound and song both at once. “The song, therefore, happens in its sound, and this sound is the matter of the song” (12.29.40). The matter which is sound has priority over the form that is sung. Yet he notes that,

The song is not mere sound, but sound endowed with beautiful form. But the sound does not have logical priority, because it is not the song that is given form to make it into sound, but the sound which is formed to turn it into song (12.29.40).

This analogy leads Augustine back to creation and his view that primal matter was made first and called “heaven and earth” (12.29.40). He points out that because the matter was formless the term ‘first’ is meaningless since only the forms of things give rise to time.

Returning to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, he notes that dual authorship implies that “God carefully tempered his sacred writings to meet the minds of many people” (12.30.41). He sees this divine tempering as the ability to “reinforce for each reader whatever truth he was able to grasp” rather than “to express a single idea so ambiguously as to exclude all others” (12.31.42). Having said this certain interpretations are still false (12.31.42). Finally he proposes that God may have hidden things in Scripture to be revealed to later generations of readers (12.32.43).

Text © Scott McKellar 2011

All quotes in this series of blogs from Confessions are from, St. Augustine,Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed John Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 1997)

[i] Ibid. p. 153.

[ii] He later summarizes this as “an absolute privation of all from without pushing the idea to nothingness” (12.12.15).

[iii] Vaught, Access, p. 186.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Book 11: Time and Eternity

AugustineTeachingIn this book Augustine tackles the topic of eternity as it relates to the nature of God and creation. He is particularly intrigued by the quality of time. He begins with the biblical narrative of creation. He is convinced that biblical narrative is true but puzzles over the mystery of how God made heaven and earth (11.3.5). Clearly his senses prove that heaven and earth exist and that they undergo both change and variation which demonstrate that they are things which were made and were not previously there (11.4.6). Augustine repeatedly asks how God made heaven and earth. They were made by God’s word and they were not made not out of that which already existed (11.5.7, 11.6.8). How did God speak his word? He notes, “It seems my God made use of audible, evanescent words to say that heaven and earth should come to be” (11.6.8).

The very nature of God demands that the Word is God and “and through him are eternally uttered all things . . . [and] all things are uttered in one eternal speaking” (11.7.9). The Word is coeternal with God and speaks simultaneously and eternally and God’s creative act is no different from his speaking.

Augustine confesses that the eternal Word is the Beginning and that in Beginning God made the heaven and the earth. He notes that some have asked the meaningless and impious question, “What was God doing before he made the heaven and earth?” (11.10.12). This question does not make sense because, “if some element appears in God’s substance that was previously not there, that substance cannot accurately be called eternal” (11.9.11). Eternity can have neither future nor past (11.11.13). In response to the previous question he is tempted to respond, God “was getting hell ready for people who inquisitively peer into deep matters” such as this (11.12.14) but he acknowledges this is to evade the question. He answers boldly, “Before God made heaven and earth he was not doing anything” (11.12.14). Since God also created time there can be no ‘measureless ages’ or ‘time’ before he created heaven and earth. God is outside of time and there is not time in existence before God who exists in ever-present eternity (11.13.16).

In Augustine’s analysis time is an elusive quality which rushes toward non-being (11.14.17). In fact the past no longer exists and the future does not yet exist. The ‘presents’ only claim to be ‘time’ is that it is slipping away into the past. If we try to measure time he notes, “on what ground can something that does not exist be called long of short?” He observes that whether we consider a century, a year or day, none of these can be present all at once, but rather is divisible into past and future. The past is only an image of events which have taken place. The future, even if we had mysterious presentiments of events, would still be announcements of events which as yet have no being (11.17.24). He notes that “What is clear and unmistakable is that neither things past nor things future have any existence” (11.20.26). Although in common usage we talk about past, present and future, neither the past nor the future actually exist (11.20.26). All things are present. “The present of past things is memory, the present of present things is attention, and the present of future things is expectation” (11.20.26).

As Augustine moves on to explore the ‘intricate enigma’ of time (11.22.28) he talks about the measurement of time and the physics of time in relation to the movements of heavenly bodies. He concludes that although we can measure time, we cannot define it (11.26.33). In the case of a voice that sounds, we can measure it only while it is sounding. It exists while it is sounding and can be measured but it is in the process of moving on into the past (11.27.34). The present exists but is not extended. The measurement of sound is bounded by a beginning and an end. A limitless time cannot be measured.

Vaught summarizes Augustine’s complicated argument,

Augustine draws conclusions about the nature of time from conclusions about how time is to be measured. Since we measure what we remember, and since memories are distensions of the soul, he claims that time itself is to identified with the distensions in question. By contrast with the past, the present, and the future, which do not exist (non esse) in the strict sense of the term, a distention of the soul exists (esse) in the present all at once.[i]

Vaught notes that for Augustine, time is identified with the flux that comes to be and passes away and participates in relative nonbeing (non esse). It is the mind that stabilizes this situation by measuring our “present mental states rather than things that come to be and pass away.”[ii] Time is identified with measured states of the soul. Time is experienced through the mental states of expectation, memory and attention. Augustine notes “the mind expects and attends, and remembers, so that what it expects passes by way of what it attends to into what it remembers” (11.28.37).

Having established how attention can bind expectation and memory together, Augustine moves on to discuss how distraction is part of the Fall state of man. The Mediator can take the torn fragments of his soul’s thoughts and purge them through the fire of God’s love (11.29.39). Our minds are stretched to what lies ahead and to understand God who exists before all ages of time (11.30.40). God’s created time flows out of his unchangeable eternity and unifies past, present and future (11.31.41).


Text © Scott McKellar 2011

All quotes in this series of blogs from Confessions are from, St. Augustine,Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed John Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 1997)


[i] Vaught, Access, p. 138.

[ii] Ibid. p. 139.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Augustine and Concupiscence (10.30.41- 10.35.57)

021The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines concupiscence as “the movement of the sensitive appetite contrary to the operation of the human reason” (CCC 2515). Augustine did not invent this concept.[i] In fact the concept of ‘concupiscence’ described in Latin as libido and cupiditas was known to the greatest writers of antiquity (Homer, Plato, Virgil) and of course is of course the concept is a key doctrine for St. Paul (esp. Romans 7). Other patristic writers such as Tertullian (adv. Marc. 5.7) and Athanasius (De incar. 4-7) emphasized this topic. Although some modern scholars have attempted to see Augustine as a theological innovator, claiming that his views were at odds with the views of some earlier fathers, careful examination of the relevant texts does not bear out this hypothesis. Augustine’s treatment of this topic is connected to his doctrine of original sin and to grace. There is no doubt that Augustine’s ever deepening reflections on these topics over his life time profoundly influenced the Church’s later views. Augustine’s reflections are a deepening and systematizing of earlier views.

In Confessions Augustine highlights the triplex concupiscence of the flesh, the eyes and worldly pride following 1 John 2:16. In his case he is called to celibacy and has been granted this grace. Augustine is troubled by his memories of sexual images. He is not bothered much by them when he is awake but during his sleep he finds his control over these faculties greatly reduced and this leads him into involuntary impurity. All he can do it to entrust himself in humility to God.

He moves on to what he can control and discusses the pleasures of eating and drinking. Although this is a necessary activity he recognizes that the pleasure derived from it needs to be tempered in order that it does not control him (10.31.43). While his not greatly tempted by drunkenness he finds gluttony a different matter. By the sounds of his struggle he is much more self-controlled than the average person in our modern culture and he considers excesses in this area to be gluttonous. In the area of pleasant smells he confesses that he is not much troubled by this as sensuality. He doesn’t seek or reject them. In the area of hearing again he feels relatively free though he notes that he was greatly enthralled by this pleasure in earlier days (10.33.49). He notes how “. . . all the varied emotions of the human spirit respond in ways proper to themselves to a singing voice and a song, which arose them by appealing to some secret affinity” (10.33.49). Yet in the Church he sees the undeniable benefits of song since through its pleasures a “weaker mind may rise up to loving devotion.”

Moving on to the temptations of the flesh, he discusses the dangers of the over-indulgence of the eyes. He is attracted to beautiful things and notices how alluring and entangling certain sights can become. This temptation is especially seen in many consumer items which various craftsmen have created. A further temptation is this area is that of ‘curiosity’ which he also counts as a ‘concupiscence of the eyes’. (10.35.54). Augustine sees a distinction between two kinds of activity on the part of the senses that of pleasure seeking and that of curiosity (10.35.55).

The final great temptation is pride (10.36.58). Augustine’s fear is that he can’t be free of this temptation in his earthly life. He worries that the enemy of true happiness lies in wait for those in society who by reason of official positions “must be loved and honored by their fellows” (10.36.59). He fears affection, honors and human flattery. He notes, “We are put to the test by these temptations every day” (10.37.60). These temptations are not easy to discern, and are difficult to apply self-examination and measure his self-restraint. He examines his conscience with some penetrating questions. Is he reluctant to have to have a person who speaks highly of him, to hold an opinion of him that differs from his own opinion of himself? Is he less concerned when some other person is unjustly criticized that when he himself is? (10.37.61).

Augustine retraces the steps he has taken in this book and relates how God has accompanied him in his examinations of his amazing faculty of memory. God is not in the memory but is the Light he consulted throughout his search (10.40.65). He notes that from time to time God led him on an inward experience which gave him “sweetness beyond understanding” (10.40.65) and he notes that if he was granted the fullness of this experience his life would not be what it is now. What he needs to be reconciled to God is the true Mediator, the Word whose example of humility we must follow.


Text © Scott McKellar 2011

All quotes in this series of blogs from Confessions are from, St. Augustine,Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed John Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 1997)

[i] Jesse Couenhoven, “St. Augustine’s Doctrine of Original Sin,” Augustinian Studies 36:2 (2005) 359–396.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Power of Memory

conversin st augLooking for God within Memory (10.8.12-10.28.39)

Augustine discovers the power of the mind to remember as the faculty of his nature which allows him “mount by stages toward” God. He will journey beyond the power of sensation inwardly to the “fields and vast mansions of memory” (10.8.12). He begins to reflect on what he finds when he turns inward. Memory is stored in innumerable images from the senses. There is an active dimension to this remembering on his part. He also notes that some images easily present themselves while others hide in secret unimaginable caverns (10.8.13).

Looking within he can also find memories which are not images of realities, but the realities themselves. He gives as examples his knowledge of literature and or skill in debate (10.9.16). How do we recognize these things as true? He answers,

Surely because they were already in my memory, but so remote, so hidden from sight in concealed hollows, that unless they had been dug out by someone who reminded me, I would perhaps never have been able to think about them (10.10.17).

Is Augustine agreeing with Plato that learning is simple remembering (Meno 81D) and that this learning is the result of the soul’s prior existence? Augustine will later explicitly repudiate this view in his Revisions I, 8.2. Rather than a full blown Platonic notion, following John Rist can we not see something like what Plotinus calls the ‘upper soul’ where certain truths are ‘naturally impressed’, but perhaps in a more limited fashion?[i] Rist notes the following examples from Augustine;

In On Human Responsibility there are impressed ideas of the eternal law (I.6.15), or numbers (2.8.20-21) and of wisdom (sapientia) (2.9.26). In Trinity we read of a just law impressed on the human heart (14.15.21) –this would include a version ‘which even inequity does not blot out’ of the Golden Rule (‘Do not do unto others what you would be unwilling to suffer’) (Confession 1.18.29, 2.4.9) –and of the good itself (8.3.4)[ii]

None of these examples require the belief in the pre-existence of the soul. While it is conceivable that initially Augustine held some Neo-Platonic beliefs about the pre-existence of the soul there is no conclusive proof that this is what he meant and he later clarified his position to the contrary.

Augustine moves on to discuss the active role of the subject in memory. He talks about knowing as cogitating or collecting ones thoughts (10.11.18). He notes that not only do we retain things in our memory we also store the way in which we learned them. (10.13.20). He notes how we can remember erroneous arguments and yet not be in error when we recall them, and how we recall emotions without feeling them in the present. He notes, “Mind and memory, however, are one and the same” giving us an imperfect analogy “the memory is like the mind’s stomach” (10.14.21). Since what we remember we retain in our memory, forgetfulness is a serious problem. Forgetfulness seems to involve a volitional component that orients us away from our deepest self and ultimately away from God. Augustine seeks to ascend to God beyond his memory (10.17.26). He turns to Scriptural images of seeking and finding (Luke 15:8) though he notes that they imply the person has not forgotten entirely.

How then should we seek God and find happiness? (10.20.29). How do we seek the happy life? Is it by way of remembering? Is it true that all of us want to be happy, yet happiness is not experienced through any kind of bodily sense? (10.21.30). Some think that happiness consists of enjoyment, but Augustine denies this. The happy life is found in rejoicing in God alone (10.22.32). He notes that we cannot assert without qualification that everyone wants to be happy (10.23.33) since some people are unwilling to find joy in God. In another sense if the happy life is joy in the truth (meaning God who is the Truth), then all want joy in the truth. He notes, “I have met plenty of people who would gladly deceive others, but no one who wants to be deceived” (10.23.33). But then why does preaching the truth engender hatred from some? “It must be because people love truth in such a way that those who love something else wish to regard what they love as truth . . . They love truth when it enlightens them, but hate it when it accuses them” (10.25.34).

Augustine asks where God is in his memory. “You have honored my memory by making it your dwelling-place, but I am wondering in what region of it you dwell?” (10.25.36). He soon realizes that “Place” has no meaning for God there is only the surrender of the will. He prays,


Late have I loved you.

Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!

Lo, you were within,

But I outside, seeking there for you,

and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong,

I, misshapen.

You were with me, but I was not with you (10.27.38).

Set ablaze with the divine fire of Charity, Augustine desires to a line his will with God’s will. Augustine prays for continence recognizing that it is a gift from God. He notes that anyone who loves something along with God, and who does not love it for God’s sake, loves God less (10.29.39) “You command continence: give what you command, and then command whatever you will” (10.29.40).[iii]

Text © Scott McKellar 2011

All quotes in this series of blogs from Confessions are from, St. Augustine,Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed John Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 1997)


[i] Rist, p. 76.

[ii] Ibid., internal footnotes omitted.

[iii] Peter Burnell, “Concupiscence and Moral Freedom in Augustine and before Augustine Augustinian Studies 26.1 (1995): 49 – 63, Ibid., “Concupiscence,” in Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A., Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1999, p. 224-227.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Book 10

sept9maynooth 015

Book 10: Introduction

In this book Augustine makes a transition to the present time of his writing the Confessions. The story moves from the death of his mother in 386 A.D. to a period ten to thirteen years later. The concept of memory is the means through which recollection has been made possible. The shift in time also allows for a shift in audience. There is a shift from a universal audience in Books 1-9 to a Christian community in Book 10.[i] The Structure of Book 10 is a mirror of the first nine books.

Who is like the Lord? (10.1.1)

Augustine begins with a prayer as he did in 1.1.1. In this prayer he no longer says his “heart is restless,” though he continues to long for God. Augustine brings his faith and understanding together in a trusting quest for knowledge of God.

The Benefits of Confession (10.2.2-10.5.7)

In the next section Augustine thinks about his motives for making a confession. Clearly he notes that nothing is hidden from God (10.2.2). Yet should he make this public? He notes the danger of other people’s poor human motives for hearing. He complains, “A Curious lot they are, eager to pry into the lives of others, but tardy when it comes to correcting their own” (10.3.3). In the end he must act with charity assuming the best of everyone.

He also notes the graces he receives in confessing his sins and how this transforms his soul. We must remember that public, rather than private confession, was common in this era as part of the rite of penance. He notes, “It is cheering to good people to hear about the past evil deeds of those who are now freed from them: cheering not because the deeds were evil but because they existed once but exist no longer” (10.3.4). Those who hear will congratulate him and pray for him as fellow citizens on a pilgrimage with him (10.4.6).

Looking for God in Earthly Loves (10.6.8-10.7.11)

Augustine confesses his love for God who has pieced his heart with his Word (10.6.8). He reflects of various kinds of earthly loves and their relation to his love for God. His love for God has transformed his loves. He notes, “none of these do I love when I love my God” (10.6.8). Yet how does his love of God manifest itself. It is not like the love of earthly things. He asks, “What is it, then, that I love when I love my God?” (107.11).

Text © Scott McKellar 2011

All quotes in this series of blogs from Confessions are from, St. Augustine,Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed John Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 1997)


[i] Vaught, Access, p. 28.

Friday, June 3, 2011

St. Monica

monica detailMonica’s Story (9.8.17-9.10.22)

Augustine begins this section by introducing a new African friend, Evodius[i] who converted after working in the Roman Special Branch (9.8.17). Evodius is a younger contemporary of Augustine from his home town Thagaste. Evodius will later become the Bishop of Uzalis, a small city near Carthage. He remains in close contact with Augustine after starting out as in the circle of “monks” at Thagaste.[ii]

Seemingly abruptly, Augustine notes, “And while we were in Ostia on the Tiber my mother died” (9.8.17). He does not want to speak of her gifts but of the gifts which God endowed her. He recounts the severity with which a certain servant trained her in temperance as a young girl and yet how for a time she was given to “a furtive fondness for wine” (9.8.17) in which she had developed the bad “habit of quaffing near goblets-full of wine” (9.8.18). She was cured of this when a maid accused her of being a “wine-swiller” (meribibulam).

Later in life she is given in marriage to a hot-tempered pagan man, who was guilty of many marital infidelities. She practiced a type of passive resistance whereby she would not confront her husband in word or deed when he was angry, but would wait for a time when he was calm and then explain her action. Recognizing that her culture gave her few alternate options, this plan of action resulted in marital harmony and good reputation with other wives in her community. Toward the end of his life her husband became a Christian and apparently behaved much better after his baptism (9.9.22).

The Vision at Ostia (9.10.23)

While alone together with his mother in a room overlooking a garden in Ostia they both ascend in a vision to God. On could compare this experience with the mystical vision of Book 7 with the conversion of Book 8. These experiences are united by this new mystical experience. He experiences Father, Son and now the Spirit. Augustine describes how both he and his mother ascended in their minds together into a mystical vision of God. In this vision they see uncreated Wisdom who is the creator and exists in eternity. Augustine describes this vision quoting Romans 8:23 “. . . having the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for our adoption.” He describes the shared vision in his own words returning to “articulate speech” he describes the encounter. He describes the Creator and notes we hear his Word “and in a flash of thought touch that eternal Wisdom” which leaves them feeling joy and aching for more. Now that God has granted Monica the privilege of seeing Augustine in the Catholic Church she has no other earthly desires.

monica's deathMonica’s Death (9.11.27)

About five days after this vision Monica became ill with a fever and lapsed into unconsciousness for a short time. When she returned to her senses she insisted that they bury her there in Ostia rather than take her back to Africa. All she asked is that they remember her at the Altar (9.11.27). She had originally wanted to buried beside her husband in Africa. He notes, “So on the ninth day of her illness, in the fifty-sixth year of her age, in my thirty-third year, that religious and Godly soul was set free from her body” (9.11.28).

As Augustine closed her eyes for the last time a huge sadness surged into his heart (9.12.29). He judged it unfitting to mark her death with “plaintive protests and laments” to mourn the misery of the dying or the belief that death is extinction. In light of her virtues and faith her held on to a firm hope for her eternal rest. He recounts how his son Adeodatus was not able to restrain his tears, and how he struggled himself to control his tears and eventually gave in privately on his bed (9.12.33). Because of his belief he struggled with his obvious human grief believing it to be some kind of carnal affection (9.13.34). While he acknowledged her good deeds on this earth he prayed fervently for her sin’s (9.13.35) asking God to have mercy on her and the might enter eternal rest (9.13.37).

[i] James J. O’Donnell, “Evodius of Uzalis” in Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A., Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1999, p. 344.

[ii] Ibid. Cf. n. 10 above.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Book 9: Death and Rebirth

baptism of Jesus carivagioWho is like the Lord? (9.1.1)

Augustine begins this book with a prayer which parallels the pray at the beginning of book I. This book begins with Augustine entering into a new life with Christ and ends with the death of his mother. From a different perspective Augustine undergoes a spiritual death of his own as his mother undergoes physical death. There is also a Trinitarian theme in this section. Augustine has a vision of the Father in Book 7, of the Son in Book 8, while in Book 9 he enters into life in the Spirit.[i]

Renouncing His Former Career (9.2.2)

Augustine’s encounter with God in the garden (Book 8) leaves him ready to renounce his former career. He calls the craft of rhetoric “lying follies” (9.2.2). At the same time he is concern about the appearance of making “an abrupt and sensational break” (9.2.2). He decided to resign after the vintage holidays (a normal summer and harvest break). The news of his pending resignation was kept private by his friends so that it did not cause a stir in the community.

As it turned out, Augustine became ill around this time with lung problems which made it difficult for him to breathe and gave him pains in his chest. As he “could not manage any sustained vocal effort” (9.2.4) the condition would require him either to give up his profession or at the very least to take some rest. This was the perfect excuse to finish the twenty remaining days and then to retire. He was somewhat concerned that other Christians might think his continuing to teach even for twenty days was an unacceptable compromise, but if this was wrong God would certainly forgive this in the waters of Baptism (9.2.4).

A wealthy friend of Augustine’s named Verecundus, was also interested in becoming a Christian but was not interested in celibacy since he was married (his wife was a Christian). For some reason this made him feel inferior to Augustine and his friends who were choosing a monastic type of life. Verecundus offered Augustine and his friends the use of his “country estate at Cassiciacum” (9.3.5). Soon after this, Verecundus became fatally ill and experienced a death bed conversion.

Nebridius was happy to hear Augustine’s news but had himself fallen into a “dangerous error” (9.3.6). He falsely believed that Jesus had not truly come in the flesh. Shortly after Augustine’s conversion and baptism, he too converted and returned to African to live “perfect chastity and continence. Eventually he was able to convert his whole household by his Christian example before his departure to “Abraham’s bosom” (9.3.6).

Summer at Cassiciacum (9.4.7-9.5.13)[ii]

When the holidays arrived in in August of 386, Augustine, his son, his mother and some friends (Alypius, Licentius, Lastidianus, Rusticus, Trygetius) traveled to the villa at Cassiciacum for the vacation. Modern scholars believe this location to be Cassiago di Brianza, 21 miles North East of Milan. An inscription of the pagan Verecundus was found there.[iii] Augustine composed some treaties during this time but he notes that this work “they still had whiff of scholastic pride about it (9.4.7).”[iv]

Augustine combats this pride by pouring out his heart in the Psalms. He recounts the ardor with which he recited them (9.4.8). He notes how the Psalms changed his heart, “As I read these words outwardly and experienced their truth inwardly I shouted with joy, and lost my desire to dissipate myself amid the profusion of earthly goods. . .” (9.4.10). When the vacation was over he announced his retirement to the people of Milan (9.5.13). He was still experiencing “difficulty breathing and pains in the chest” (9.5.13).

Egnatian WayA Journey Back to Milan and Baptism (9.6.14)

Augustine, Alypius and his son Adeodatus all notify Bishop Ambrose of their intension to be baptized. At the Eastern Vigil 24-25 April, 387 they are baptized by immersion and then as white clad neophytes are lead from the baptistery to the church to receive their first Eucharist.[v] Augustine is particularly moved to “loving devotion” by the singing of hymns and canticles.

Arian Persecutions in Milan (9.7.15-9.7.16)

Augustine recounts a persecution which broke out as a result of Justina the mother of Emperor who was an Arian. She persecuted Bishop Ambrose, who risked his life to oppose her. Many of the faithful stayed up all night in the church to accompany him. Monica was among them. Augustine recounts how they borrowed the custom of singing hymns and psalms in the manner familiar in the East.

At this time Ambrose received a vision about the location of the bodies of the martyrs Gervasius and Protasius. Their bodies had been found and dug up and transported to Ambrose’s basilica. On the way to the basilica “some people hitherto tormented by unclean spirits were restored to health” and a well know citizen who was blind for several years had his sight restored after touching a handkerchief to the relics of the martyrs and then applying this to his eyes (9.7.16). These events caused “a change of mind” for Justina, who relent in her persecution.


Text © Scott McKellar 2011

All quotes in this series of blogs from Confessions are from, St. Augustine,Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed John Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 1997)


[i] Vaught, Encounters, p. 106 following James O’Donnell.

[ii] Angelo Di Berardino, OSA, trans. Allan D. Fitzgerald, “Cassiciacum” in Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A., Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1999, p. 135.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Augustine wrote his first works here, Contra Academicos, De beata vita, De ordine, and Soliloquia.

[v] Pamela Jackson “Ambrose of Milan as Mystagogue” Augustinian Studies 20 (1989), pages 93 – 107.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Book 8: Conversion

11baptismHesitations (8.1.1-8.1.2)

Augustine’s glimpses of God led him to seek out the advice of the older Priest Simplicianus. Augustine wrestles with the issue of his vocation. Is he called to marriage or is he called to singleness and celibacy. He notes that although the Apostle Paul does not forbid marriage he proposes that the life of celibacy is a better choice (8.1.2). Simplicianus is pleased that he has read Plontinus rather than certain other philosophers who may have lead him away from the truth.

Victorinus’ Conversion (8.2.3-8.4.9)

Simplicianus told Augustine about the conversion of the cultured author Gaius Marius Victorinus. This man was a teacher and author of great repute in Rome who was originally a Pagan. Victorinus talked with Simplicianus and confided in him that he had become a Christian. The wise old priest replied, “I will not believe that, nor count you among the Christians, until I see you in Christ’s Church.” Eventually, Victorinus agreed to go to the Church and make a very public profession of faith, asking for baptism. Augustine is struck by this story as it clearly paralleled his own. He notes, “On hearing this story I was fired to imitate Victorinus; indeed it was to this end that your servant Simplicianus had related it” (8.5.10).

A Struggle in the Will (8.5.10-8.5.12)

Although Augustine is moved by these experiences he feels trapped by his former sinful habits. He notes, “The Truth is that disordered lust springs from a perverted will; when lust is pandered to , a habit is formed; when habit is not checked; it hardens into compulsion” (8.5.10). He prays to God that he might wake up and stop procrastinating. He related the force of habit to the law of sin found in Romans 7:24-25.

A meeting with Ponticianus (8.6.13-8.8.19)

One day while living in Milan with his friends, a certain man who was also an African named Ponticianus visited them. This man held an important post at court but was an extremely pious baptized Christian. Ponticianus began to tell Augustine and Alypius about the monk Anthony of Egypt. He also told them the story of the conversion of two officials at Trier. Upon reading The Life of Anthony, the men impulsively abandon their secular lives in favor of the monastic life. Augustine describes his response as “spellbound.” (8.6.14) and as he thought further “fiercely shamed and flung into hideous confusion” (8.6.18). In order to process his feelings he enters the garden adjacent to the house in the company of Alypius.

conversion of st AugustineThe Struggle in the Garden and Conversion (8.8.19-8.12.30)

He is left in great interior turmoil that leaves him almost paralyzed (8.8.20). His heart is raging in argument with itself (8.11.27). Finally he breaks into sobs and flings himself under a fig tree (8.12.28). Suddenly from nearby he hears the voice of a child, “Pick it up and read, pick it up and read.” He toke this as divine command to open the book and read the first passage from Scripture just as St. Anthony had done in Ponticianus’ story. Augustine opened to Romans 13:13-14 and read “Not is dissipation and drunkenness, not in debauchery and lewdness, nor in arguing and jealousy; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh or the gratification of your desires.” He noted at this moment, “the light of certainty flooded my heart and all dark shades of doubt fled away” (8.12.29).

Alypius had his own experience with the Lord and insisted that Augustine read the next verse after his which read, “Make room for the person who is weak in faith” (8.12.30). Alypius took this as confirmation that he should journey where Augustine led. They immediately told Monica who was overjoyed and filled with triumphant delight.

Text © Scott McKellar 2011

All quotes in this series of blogs from Confessions are from, St. Augustine,Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed John Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 1997)

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Book 7 Augustine’s Neo-Platonism

Christianity and Neo-Platonism (7.9.13- 7.9.15) [i]

At this time Augustine began to “keep company with an ‘intellectual’ circle in which pagans and Christians mingled.”[ii] Lancel call this the ‘Millanese circle’ and it included both pagan and Christian dignitaries and philosophers. In the forefront was Manlius Theodorus, and Christian who wrote a history of philosophy and other treaties and was a fervent disciple of Plotinus.[iii]

platoAugustine also dialogued with an older priest named Simplicianus, who had read much of Plotinus and especially in the Latin translation of Marius Victorius.

Around this time Augustine notes that “a certain man grossly swollen with pride” provided him with “some books by the Platonists, translated from the Greek into Latin” (7.9.13).[iv]

Reading Plotinus helped Augustine to abandon his overly literal interpretation of divine substance. Plotinus talks about three first principles [Greek: archai] or hypostases, One (or the Good), Intellect, and Soul.[v] Bussanich notes that, “the One is the source [arche] of all beings and, as the Good, the goal [telos] of all aspirations”[vi] Plotinus believes that the nature of the One is ineffable, and that efforts to define it are doomed to fail as inadequate. At the same time it is possible to speak about it and examine its universal role in reality.[vii] Having become saturated in Neo-platonic thinking, Augustine is willing to see spiritual reality through figurative or metaphorical language rather than a crude literalism. This enabled him to see the close parallels between the philosophical presuppositions of Neo-Platonism and Christianity. Does Augustine simply accept Neo-Platonism and then project certain Christian doctrines on to it as if Plotinus believed them? There is sufficient evidence in Confessions to suggest that Augustine is well aware of the distinctions between the two systems and that ultimately he presents a contrast between the two systems.

In the next section he highlights some of the most distinctively Christian aspects. Vaught notes, “The Neo-Platonists know that the Word is the offspring of God, but they do not understand that the word became flesh and dwelt among us.”[viii] Augustine emphasizes that “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (7.9.14). He also quotes from Philippians 2 noting that although Christ was “equal to God” he “emptied himself taking the form of a servant” (7.9.14). This incarnational perspective is unique to Christianity and may even contrast the ‘pride’ of the Neo-Platonists with the ‘humility’ of Christianity. The humility of God allows one to participate in true Wisdom. The truths of the Neo-Platonists are compared to the ‘gold’ the Israelites plundered from the Egyptians during the Exodus.

Neo-Platonic Mysticism (7.10.16-7.17.23)

Following the advice of Neo-Platonism Augustine attempts to attain a mystical experience. Plotinus suggested that “our awareness (sunesis) of that One is not by way of reasoned knowledge (episteme) or of intellectual perception (noesis), as with other intelligible things, but by way of a presence (parousia) superior to knowledge (Enneads VI.9.4.1-3).”[ix] Augustine attempts to purify himself and enter in to a mystical vision of God. He describes a series of visual metaphors involving light, yet this light is the presence of God. God is real but far away and his intense rays beat back his feeble gaze. The experience shifts back to an auditory experience where he hears a word in his heart. The experience was so intense there could be not possibility of doubt about its truth or reality (7.10.16).

Although this does not immediately lead to his conversion, it does give him new light on the problem of evil. Augustine argues that “things prone to destruction are good” and that “all things which suffer some harm are being deprived of some good” (7.12.18). This leads to the conclusion that everything that exists is good, and that evil cannot be a substance or being at all. All created things are good is so far as they exist, yet they can be subject to corruption. Most finite beings are not just subject to corruption but have turned away from God and become corrupt. God is the only being not subject to corruption. A thing which lacked all goodness would not exist. But evil is not only a privation of the good, but a perversity of the will twisted away from God (7.16.22).

Augustine describes another attempt to mystically ascend into God presence. He is draw towards God’s beauty but dragged away by his carnal habits (7.17.23). He attains a “tremulous glance” of That Which Is, but then is forced back through weakness. Yet he is comforted by a loving memory.

Christ as Mediator (7.18.24-7.21.27)

Finally he comes to realize his need for Christ as a mediator (7.18.24). Even so, in his pride he was not yet willing to embrace the full meaning of the incarnation. He notes that he regarded Christ “as not more than a man” (7.19.25). Christ was merely a good example of distain for earthly goods and a teacher of incomparable authority. Christ was to be preferred because of  “the outstanding excellence of his human nature and his perfect participation in wisdom” (7.19.25).

At this stage Augustine began to read the writings of the Apostle Paul. Earlier he had rejected these writings as contradictory, but now he was able to see their truth. He is particular struck by the contrast in Romans 7:22-23 between the inner desire to delight in God’s law and the other law in the bodily members “which strives against the law approved by his mind” (7.21.27).

Text © Scott McKellar 2011

All quotes in this series of blogs from Confessions are from, St. Augustine,Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed John Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 1997)




[i] John Bussanich, “Plotinus's metaphysics of the One” in The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus, Ed. Lloyd P. Gerson, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996) p. 38-65.

[ii]Lancel, St. Augustine, p. 82.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Most likely the Latin translation of Marius Victorius.

[v] Bussanich, p. 38.



[viii] Vaught, Encounters, p. 40.

[ix] As quoted in Bussanich, p. 41.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Problem of Evil (7.3.4-7.8.12)

Adam and Eve2Augustine now affirms his belief that God created man, both body and soul, and all other corporeal things without defilement and that God is “in all respects unchangeable” (7.3.4). At the same time he acknowledges that the “cause of evil has not been clarified or disentangled” (7.3.4.). He is aware of the Church’s answer, “that the cause of evil is the free decision of our will, in consequence of which we act wrongly and suffer your righteous judgment” (7.3.5). Yet Augustine is led to question. He begins to see that the human will is at the root of his failed perception. As a Manichean he was a mere spectator who was subject to involuntary acts. Now he realizes that he is a moral agent responsible for his own actions. This leads to further questions. If God who is “Goodness” himself made him how, did Augustine derive the ability to will what is evil and refuse to do the good? Can we blame the devil? Then where did the devil come from? What is the origin of the evil will in the devil who was also created “entirely by the supremely good creator?” (7.3.5). It seems that all these answers are a dead end leading back to seeing the cause of evil in the free decision of the will.

Anticipating the later argument of Anselm, Augustine proposes that “No intelligence has ever conceived of anything better than you …” because otherwise the mind would have been able to attain something better than God himself (7.4.6). If God’s nature is totally immune to corruption then where does evil come from? In the end the root of evil will be traced back to its origins and will express itself in the possibility that evil has no being at all.[i] At this point Augustine is able to point to his faith in Christ, and in the Catholic Church. His faith is “still in many ways uninformed, wavering and at variance” with the Church, yet his mind “drank it in ever more deeply as the days passed” (7.5.7).

Touching on his past beliefs as a Manichean, Augustine gives a brief digression on why he rejects astrology. He relates how Vindicianus convinced him with a story from Firminus who knew of two people born at exactly the same moment but from completely different circumstances. They had identical horoscopes but completely different lives. One pursued a brilliant career and made lots of money, while the other was a slave. Augustine notes that the same problem occurs with twins. They are astrologically identical but suffer different fates. The example of Esau and Jacob comes to mind.

Augustine returns to the problem of evil and fin himself still in an interior turmoil, though he affirms his faith the love of God and in his Son, Jesus Christ, and “in the holy scriptures which the authority of your Catholic Church guarantees” (7.7.11). In the light of this faith gradually the darkened vision of his spirit began to improve day by day.

Text © Scott McKellar 2011

All quotes in this series of blogs from Confessions are from, St. Augustine,Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed John Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 1997)

[i] Vaught, Encounters with God in Augustine’s Confessions: Books VII-IX, p. 33.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Book 7: Encounter with Neo-Platonism



In Book 7, Augustine encounters the writings of his contemporary Platonist philosophers[i], most likely the writings of Plotinus (c. 205-270).[ii] Plotinus is considered by modern scholars a Neo-Platonist, though there is some dispute about the use of this category. Plotinus was very knowledgeable about both Plato and Aristotle, but also the later developments in the Platonic philosophical tradition. He was able to produce an original synthesis of this material that was extremely faithful to the ‘spirit’ of Plato. He was a disciple of the philosopher, Ammonias Saccas. After his death, Plotinus’ disciple, Porphyry (c. 232-c.303) published Plotinus’ works as 54 treatises arranged in six Enneads (groups of nine), as well as his biography, The Life of Plotinus. According to his disciple, Porphyry, he born in Lycopolis, Egypt in A.D. 205 and became a philosopher at age 28.[iii] In 243 Plotinus attached himself to an expedition of the Emperor Gordian III to Persia in order to study to study Persian and Indian philosophy. When the Emperor was assassinated by his troops, Plotinus gave up these plans and moved to Rome in 245, remaining there until his death in 270 or 271.

The Nature of God (7.1.1-7.2.3)

As Augustine approaches the age of 30, he is to leave adolescence and enter “youth” (Iuventus).[iv] His philosophical thinking has become darkened by his insistence that the idea of substance must entail some sort of bodily existence. He imagined God as “something corporeal spread out in space, whether infused into the world or even diffused through the infinity outside it” (7.1.1). To deny this seem to him to predicate God’s non-existence. At the same time he believed that God must be imperishable, inviolable, and unchangeable (7.1.1). Looking back he sees how false this view is and how it contains many contradictions related to the presence of God in various sizes of objects.

Augustine moves on to recall an old argument of his friend Nebridius. What would happen, asked Nebridius, if God refused to fight against the powers of darkness? Would they have the power to injure God? Since God is inviolable, this is clearly not the case. He cannot suffer harm. This thought completely undermines the Manichean myths about an alleged fight between the powers of darkness and the powers of light which resulted in the entanglement of light and darkness in bodily existence (7.2.3). Augustine argues that either, God is incorruptible and, the Manichean myth is “shown up as untrue and to be rejected with loathing” (7.2.3) or God is corruptible and not really ‘god’ at all.

Text © Scott McKellar 2011

All quotes in this series of blogs from Confessions are from, St. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed John Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 1997)

[i] Mark J. Edwards “Neoplatonism” in Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A., Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1999, p. 588-591. Lancel, St. Augustine, p. 82-84. Brown, Augustine, p. 79-107. Carl G. Vaught, Encounters with God in Augustine’s Confessions: Books VII-IX. (New York: SUNY Press, 2004), p. 25-66.

[ii] For these dates see “Plotinus,” and “Porphyry “ in F. L. Cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd rev. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 1310, 1318.

[iii] Lloyd P. Gerson, “Introduction,” ” in The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus, Ed. Lloyd P. Gerson, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996, p. 2.

[iv] See above note 1.