August 26, 2011

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The wisdom of the saints: St. Augustine

John F. FinkMany people are familiar with the life of St. Augustine, whose feast is on Aug. 28 when that date doesn’t fall on Sunday. He is considered to be the greatest of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.

He was born in 354 in Tagaste, northern Africa. He was a brilliant student, but in his late teens he joined a dualistic heretical sect, lived with a mistress, and had a son, Adeodatus.

After teaching in Rome for a while, he went to Milan, where he was influenced by St. Ambrose and baptized a Christian in 387. Back in Tagaste, he was ordained a priest and began a life of penance. He became Bishop of Hippo in northern Africa when he was 42, and led the Church there for 34 years.

He wrote 113 books, 218 letters and more than 500 sermons. His subject matter ranged from the psychological complexity of the autobiographical Confessions to political insights in the City of God—his two most famous books. Still today, he is quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church far more often than any other ecclesiastical writer.

With so much to choose from, I chose one of his commentaries on the psalms, which is really a commentary on prayer. He said that God could give no greater gift to us than to make his Word our head and to join us as his members “so that the Word might be both Son of God and son of man, one God with the Father, and one man with all men.”

Therefore, when we speak to God in prayer, “we do not separate the Son from him, and when the body of the Son prays it does not separate its head from itself—it is the one Savior of his body, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who prays for us and in us and is himself the object of our prayers.

“He prays for us as our priest, he prays in us as our head, he is the object of our prayers as our God.”

In our prayers, Augustine wrote, we must contemplate both Christ’s divinity and his humanity. We contemplate his glory and divinity when we listen to the beginning of the Gospel of St. John, he said, but in other parts of Scripture we hear him as a man sighing, praying, giving praise and thanks.

“We hesitate to attribute these words to him,” he wrote, “because our minds are slow to come down to his humble level when we have just been contemplating him in his divinity. It is as though we were doing him an injustice in acknowledging in a man the words of one with whom we spoke when we prayed to God.”

We pray to Christ as God, he said, and he prays for us as a servant. In the first case, he is the Creator, in the second a creature. “Himself unchanged, he took to himself our created nature in order to change it, and made us one man with himself, head and body. We pray, then, to him, through him, in him, and we speak along with him and he along with us.” †

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