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Just Deserts

Today is the Memorial of St. Anthony of Egypt, honored as the “Father of Monasticism.” Jeff Ziegler gives us these links:

St. Anthony (251-356), abbot, Patriarch
of Monks.
— The classic Life of St. Anthony by St. Athanasius.
Today’s readings at Mass: 1 Sm. 4:1-11; Ps. 44:10-11, 14-15, 24-
25; Mk. 1:40-45.
— Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony (1505-6).

Last year I posted many Anthony links myself, along with my own reflections on his life (and my own). My KVSS interview is up on my audio page, way down toward the bottom.

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Top D’Aug

The Holy Father went back to Augustine in today’s audience. Teresa Benedetta translated:

Dear brothers and sisters!

Today, as last Wednesday, I wish to speak of the great Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine.

Four years before he died, he wanted to name his successor. So on Sept. 26, 426, he assembled the faithful in the Basilica of Peace in Hippo, to present his choice to the faithful.

He said: “In this life we are all mortal, but the last day of life for anyone is always uncertain. Nevertheless, in our childhood, we expect to reach adolescence; in adolescence, young age; in young age, adulthood; in adulthood, maturity; in maturity, old age. We are not sure of reaching all these stages, but we hope. Old age, on the other hand, has nothing more to look forward to, and its own length is uncertain… By the will of God, I came to this city in the vigor of my life, but now my youth has passed, and I am an old man” (Ep 213,1).

At this point, Augustine gave the name of his designated successor, the priest Heraclius. The assembly erupted in approving applause, repeating twenty times, “Thanks be to God! Praise be to Christ!”

With other acclamations, the faithful greeted what Augustine said about his intentions for his future: he wanted to dedicate the years left to him to a more intense study of Sacred Scriptures (cfr Ep 213, 6).

In fact, there followed four years of extraordinary intellectual activity. He was able to finish important works, he undertook some more which were less demanding, and he held public debates with heretics – he always sought dialog – and intervened to promote peace in the African provinces besieged by barbarian tribes from the south.

This is the context in which he wrote to the Count Darius, who had come to Africa to repair a dispute between Count Boniface and the imperial court, which the Mauritanian tribes were taking advantage of to make their incursions.

“The greatest title of glory,” he wrote, “is to kill war itself with words, instead of killing men by the sword, and to obtain and maintain peace with peace, and not through war. Certainly. even those who fight wars, if they are good men, want peace, but at the cost of spilling blood. You, on the contrary, have been sent here precisely to prevent that anyone should seek to shed the blood of others” (Ep 229,2).

Unfortunately, the hope for a pacification of the African territories was destined to be disappointed: in May 429, the Vandals, invited to Africa by Boniface himself out of spite, went beyond the Strait of Gibraltar and poured into Mauritania. The invasion quickly spread through the other rich provinces of Africa.

In May and June 430, “the destroyers of the Roman Empire” as Possidius described the barbarians (Vita, 30, 1), had surrounded Hippo, which they besieged.

Boniface had sought refuge in Hippo, having reconciled too late with the court, and now he tried in vain to keep the barbarians at bay. Possidius describes the sorrow of Augustine: “More than usual, tears became his bread day and night, and having now reached the end of his days, bitterness and mourning marked his old age” (Vita 28,6).

He explained: “In fact, he saw, this man of God, the massacres and destruction in the city; the houses in the countryside levelled and their inhabitants killed by the enemy, or forced to flee in confusion; the churches deprived of priests and ministers; the sacred virgins and the religious dispersed all over – some of them placed under torture, others killed with the sword, others made prisoner, losing the integrity of body and soul and even their faith, reduced to a long and sorrowful slavery at the hands of the enemy” (ibid., 28,8).

Even if he was old and tired, Augustine nevertheless stayed on the job, comforting himself and others with prayer and meditation on the mysterious designs of Providence. He spoke at this time about the “aging of the world’ – and the Roman world at that time was old – he spoke of this aging, as he did years earlier to comfort the refugees who had come from Italy, when the Goths under Alaric invaded Rome in 410.

In old age, he said, ailments abound: coughing, colds, blindness, anxiety, exhaustion. But if the world grows old, Christ is perpetually young. Thus, his invitation: “Do not refuse to be rejuvenated in union with Christ, even in an old world. He tells you, Do not be afraid, your youth will be renewed as that of the eagle” (cfr Serm. 81,8).

Therefore, the Christian should not allow himself to be knocked down even in difficult situations, but to adapt himself in order to help those who are in need. It is what the great Doctor suggested, responding to the Bishop of Tiabe, Honoratus, who had asked him if, under pressure from the barbarian invasions, a bishop, a priest or any man of the Church could flee to save his life: “When the danger is common for all – for bishops, clergy and laymen – those who have need of others should not be abandoned by those whom they need. In this case, they should all transfer to safer places. But if anyone has to remain, they should not be abandoned by those who have the duty to assist them with the sacred ministry, in such a way that either they are saved together, or together suffer what our Father wills them to do” (Ep. 228,2).

He concluded: “This is the supreme test of charity” (ibid.,3). How can we not recognize in these words the heroic message that so many priests, in the course of centuries, have grasped and made their own?

Meanwhile, the city of Hippo resisted. The monastery-house of Augustine had opened its doors to welcome his fellow bishops who had asked for hospitality. Among them was Possidius himself, who was already one of his disciples, and therefore he was able to leave us his eyewitness account of Augustine’s last tragic days.

“In the third month of that siege,” he wrote, “he was laid up in bed with a fever. It was his last ailment” (Vita, 29,3).

The sainted old man used his finally free time to dedicate himself more intensely to prayer. He used to say that no one – bishop, religious or layman – no matter how irrepressible in life, could face death without adequate penance. That is why, weeping, he always repeated the penitential psalms that he had recited so many times with his flock” (cfr ibid., 31,2).

The more his condition worsened, the more the dying bishop felt the need for solitude and prayer: “In order not to be disturbed during his meditations, he asked – about 10 days before his soul finally left his body – not to let anyone enter his room outside of the times the doctors came to visit him or when his meals were brought in. His wishes were followed to the letter, asnd all that time, he spent in prayer” (ibid., 31,3).

His life ended on August 26, 430. His great heart finally rested in God. “For the deposition of his body,” Possidius tells us, “the Sacrifice was offered to God, which we attended, and then he was buried” (Vita 31,5).

His body, at an unknown date, was transferred to Sardinia, and from there, around 725, to Pavia, at the Basilica of San Pietro in Ciel d’oro, where he rests today.

His first biographer had this concluding judgment of him: “He left the Church a numerous clergy, as well as monasteries for men and women that were full of persons who had vowed chastity and obedience to their superiors; and libraries filled with books and the discourses by himself and other saints – from which we can see his merit and greatness, by the grace of God, in the service of the Church, and in which the faithful will always find him alive” (Possidius, Vita, 31,8).

It is a verdict we can share: in his writings, even we can “find him alive’. When I read the writings of St. Augustine, I do not have the impression that this is a man who has been dead 1600 years, but I feel him as a man of today: a friend, a contemporary who speaks to me, who speaks to us, with a faith that is always fresh and actual.

In St. Augustine who speaks to us, who speaks to me, in his writings, we see the permanent actuality of his faith, the faith that comes from Christ, eternal word incarnate, Son of God and son of man.

We can see that this faith is not a thing of the past, even if it was preached in the past. It is always of today, because Christ is – yesterday, today and always. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

In this way, St. Augustine encourages us to entrust ourselves to this Christ who is ever living and to find thereby the way of life.

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Zalot for the Kingdom

I’d say that my friend Bill Zalot is a tireless advocate for people with disabilities — but that’s not true, because he always has a set of tires on the ground. How could he be tireless in a wheelchair?

Bill was one of my regular authors when I edited New Covenant magazine (1996-2002). He’s currently a syndicated columnist appearing in several diocesan newspapers. And now he’s blogging as Wheelz. Please drop in and leave him a welcoming comment. You’ll be happy you got to know Bill.

He’s loyal even to his friends who are plagued by compulsive punning.

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The Maureen Corps

The Great and Powerful Maureen has been busy with patristics on both her blogs. She’s been posting her very own translation of Prudentius’ Psychomachia, and it’s true English poetry. Read it, and you’ll know why his Latin poems made him immortal (in the literary and human sense). I’m no professional critic, but I have to say: Until now I knew the lines of this saint as historical and cultural artifacts. For the first time, now, I think I’ve known them as poetry. (Here’s hoping Maureen will go on to Paulinus next!)

On her other blog, she’s been reading aloud: Basil the Great, Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature; more from Origen On Prayer; and soon-to-be-Blessed Newman On the Development of Christian Doctrine.

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Wales Tales

Readers of this blog might be interested in a new online offering, The Journal of Late Antique Religion and Culture, published by Cardiff University. Volume 1 is available for your browsing right now. Some samples:

“Poets, Prophets, Critics, and Exegetes in Classical and Biblical Antiquity, and Early Christianity,” by Josef Lössl

“The Rhetoric of Antiquity: Politico-Religious Propaganda in the Nestorian Stele of Chang’an,” by Max Deeg

“From Sophistopolis to Episcopolis: The Case for a Third Sophistic,” by Alberto Quiroga (esp. interesting if you’re devoted to St. John Chrysostom)

Check it out!

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If You Can Drive to Youngstown

If you visit often, you’ve heard me gush about the work of the Society of St. John Chrysostom (Youngstown-Warren, Ohio Chapter). The society promotes ecumenical dialogue of the east-west variety. Most members belong to Orthodox or Catholic churches. I’ve had the honor of speaking twice in their lecture series (though I am not worthy to fasten the sandalstrap of the other speakers).

Next up is Dominican Father Giles Dimock, who will speak on Summorium Pontificium, the recent motu proprio of Pope Benedict XVI dealing with the liturgy. Father Giles will consider how the implementation of the motu proprio might influence east-west ecumenical dialogue. The meeting is Tuesday, January 15, at 7 p.m. as St. Dominic’s Church, 77 E. Lucius Ave., Youngstown.

Hope you can make it!

Here’s a nice quote from SSJC’s most recent e-newsletter. It’s from Thomas Merton’s journal, April 28, 1957:

I can unite in myself, in my own spiritual life, the thought of the East and the West, of the Greek and Latin Fathers, I will create in myself a reunion of the divided Church and from that unity in myself can come the exterior and visible unity of the Church. For if we want to bring together East and West we cannot do it by imposing one upon the other. We must contain both in ourselves, and transcend both in Christ.

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But He Stole My Title ;-)

It has been many years — far too many years — since the English-reading world has had a comprehensive, single-volume, academic textbook on the study of the Church Fathers. At last, it’s here, in Hubertus Drobner’s The Fathers of the Church.

Drobner is professor of Church history and patrology at the University of Paderborn, Germany. His text first appeared in German in 1994 and has since become a standard work. Drobner concentrates on the major figures of Christian antiquity, the saints and the arch-heretics, and he sifts as only a true encyclopedist can. Thus, the book will be useful not only as an introductory text, but also as a reference work — a handy source of names, dates, and places.

The Fathers of the Church is organized chronologically, in four sections: Apostolic and Postapostolic Literature; Literature of the Period of Persecution (Mid-Second to Early Fourth Centuries); Literature of the Ascending Imperial Church (Early Fourth Century to ca. 430); Literature of the Transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages (ca. 430 to the Mid-Eighth Century). Each of the sections is further divided according to controversies, genres, events, or historical currents. Within these divisions, Drobner profiles each of the major Fathers. A fifth section provides an overview of Literature of the Christian East, which surveys the Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian, Arabic, and Paleoslavic traditions — outside the dominant cultures of ancient Christianity.

There are excellent accounts of historical events such as the accession of Constantine, the Council of Nicaea, and substantial treatments of the development of the major Christian schools. Drobner examines the heresies in detail, and always as heresies rather than “alternative Christianities.” Drobner’s doctrinal frankness — his hermeneutic of faith — is refreshing and sets his work apart from the usual run of politically correct studies of early Church history.

The heart and soul of the book, though, are the profiles of the Fathers. Each begins with a biographical sketch before proceeding to overviews of the individual’s works, sometimes organized by genre, sometimes by theological themes. Each section is followed by ample bibliography, which is further supplemented at the end of the book.

History buffs and academics have long awaited this volume. The book arrived almost two years after its originally scheduled press date. It is clear that the extra time was well spent, as the Hendrickson edition is more than a translation. Some material has been updated in light of more recent scholarship. And the bibliographies have been adapted (by William Harmless, S.J.) to emphasize studies and texts available in English.

Drobner’s Fathers of the Church will, in some ways, take the place of Johannes Quasten’s multivolume Patrology, which is now many decades old. Drobner’s great virtue, however, is his only great shortcoming. To squeeze all of Christian antiquity into one volume — and call it an introduction — requires an heroic effort of compression. Inevitably, some saints get squeezed out; and history buffs and academics alike will take issue with some of Drobner’s de-selections (Prudentius?! Paulinus of Nola?!). But that’s part of the fun of reading a book like this.

So, despite the word “comprehensive” in the subtitle, students of patrology should still keep their Quastens close at hand for the small detail.

But thank God that Drobner’s well bound in hardcover, because it’s going to be well-used!

(Rico has also posted a few words on Drobner’s book, including some criticism in an area that’s far beyond my ken.)

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By Decree

Roger Pearse has posted an English translation of the Gelasian decree, a document of (perhaps) the fifth or sixth century, and one of the early attempts to specify who’s a Church Father and who’s not. Scroll down to Roman numeral IV.

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Augustine: First in a Series

The pope delivered the first in a planned series of addresses on St. Augustine. Here’s Teresa Benedetta‘s translation:

Dear brothers and sisters:

After the major Christmas festivities, I wish to return to our meditations on the Fathers of the Church and speak today of the greatest Father of the Latin Church, Saint Augustine.

A man of passion and faith, of supreme intelligence and tireless pastoral concern, this great saint and doctor of the Church is quite known, at least by fame, even to those who know nothing of Christianity or have not been exposed to it, because he has left a most profound imprint on the cultural life of the West and of all the world.

For his singular relevance, St. Augustine has had a vast influence. It can be said, on the one hand, that all the roads of Christian literature in Latin led to Hippo (today Annaba, on the coast of Algiers), the place where he was bishop; and on the other, that from that city of Roman Africa, where he was bishop from 395 until he died in 430, many other roads of Christianity and of Western culture itself branched out successively.

Often a civilization finds a spirit so great that embodies its values and exalts its intrinsic riches, inventing ideas and forms that would nourish posterity, as Paul VI underscored once: “One can say that all the thought of antiquity converged in his work and from it came currents of thinking that pervade all the doctrinal tradition of succeeding centuries” (AAS, 62, 1970, p. 26).

Augustine is also the Father of the Church who has left us the greatest number of works. His biographer Possidius said it was impossible to think that one man could write so much in one lifetime.

We will speak about these different works in future meetings.

Today, our attention shall be on his life, which can be reconstructed very well from his writings, especially from his Confessions, that extraordinary spiritual autobiography, written in praise of God, which is his most famous work.

Rightly so, because the Augustinian Confessions, with their attention to interiority and psychology, constituting a unique model in Western literature, is not only Western, and not even merely religious, but is also quite modern.

This attention to the spiritual life, to the mystery of the ego, the mystery of God which is hidden in that I, is extraordinary and unprecedented, and which will always remain, so to speak, a spiritual ‘summit’.

But to get back to his life: Augustine was born in Tagaste – in the province of Numidia, Roman Africa – on November 13, 354, to Patricius, a pagan who later became a catechumen, and Monica, a fervent Christian.

This passionate woman, venerated as a saint, exercised a very great influence on her son whom she educated in the Christian faith. Augustine received the salt that was a sign of acceptance to the catechumenate [those preparing for baptism].

He was always fascinated by the figure of Jesus. In fact, he says he had always loved Jesus, but that he grew ever farther away from the ecclesial faith, from ecclesial practice, which happens to many young people today.

Augustine had a brother, Navigius, and a sister whose name we do not know and who, after she was widowed, became the head of a female monastery.

The young Augustine, with a lively intelligence, received a good education, even if he was not always an exemplary student. Nonetheless, he studied grammar well, first in his native city, then in Madaura, and from 370, he studied rhetoric in Carthage, capital of Roman Africa.

He came to have perfect mastery of the Latin language, although he did not manage to gain the same mastery of Greek, and he never learned Punic, the language of his homeland.

It was in Carthage that he first read Hortensius, written by Cicero but since lost, which started Augustine on his road to conversion. The Ciceronian text awakened in him a love for wisdom, as he would write, as Bishop, in Confessions: “That book truly changed my way of thinking”, such that “suddenly every vain hope lost value and I desired, with incredible ardor, the immortality of wisdom” (III, 4,7).

But since he was convinced that without Jesus, one cannot say that one has really found the truth, and because in that fascinating book (Hortensius), Jesus was lacking, immediately after reading it, he started to read Scriptures, the Bible.

But he was disappointed. Not only because he found the Latin translation inadequate, but also because he found the contents themselves unsatisfactory. The Scripture narratives on wars and other human events did not reach the heights of philosophy nor have the splendor of the search for truth which he thought was appropriate.

Nevertheless, he did not wish to live without God, and so he looked for a religion that would answer his desire for truth and his desire to come close to Jesus.

And so he fell into the net of the Manichaeans, who presented themselves as Christians and promised a completely rational religion. They affirmed that the world is divided into two principles, good and evil, and that this explained all the complexities of human history.

Augustine liked the dualistic morality because it demanded very high morals of the ‘elect’- and for those who, like him, allowed a life that was very appropriate to the times, especially for a young man. So he became a Manichaean, convinced at the time that he had found the synthesis of reason, search for truth and love of Jesus Christ.

It even had a concrete advantage for his own life: belonging to the Manichaeans opened up easy career prospects. To belong to a religion which counted with many influential personages also allowed him to continue a relationship he had started with a woman and to advance in his career.

With the lady, he had a son, Adeodatus, whom he loved very much, was highly intelligent, and would later be present a Augustine’s preparation for baptism near Lake Como, taking part in those Dialogues that St. Augustine has left us. The boy, unfortunately, died early.

After teaching grammar for almost 20 years in his native city, Augustine returned to Carthage where he became a brilliant and celebrated teacher of rhetoric. In time, he started to grow away from Manichaeism, which disillusioned him precisely from the intellectual point of view, since it was unable to resolve his doubts.

He therefore went to Rome and later Milan, where the imperial court resided then, and where he obtained a prestigious post thanks to the interest and recommendation of the Prefect of Rome, the pagan
Simmacus, who was hostile to the Bishop of Milan, Ambrose.

In Milan, Augustine developed the habit of listening – initially, with the goal of enriching his own rhetorical lore – to the beautiful preachings of Bishop Ambrose, who was the imperial representative for northern Italy. The African rhetoric master was fascinated by the great Milanese prelate – not only for his rhetoric, but above all, because what he said touched him to the heart more and more.

A major problem with the Old Testament – its lack of rhetorical beauty and of philosophical elevation – was resolved in Ambrose’s preaching, thanks to his typological interpretation. Augustine understood then that the Old Testament is a way to Jesus Christ.

So he found the key to perceive the philosophical beauty and profundity of the Old Testament and understood the unity of the mystery of Christ with history, and even that synthesis of philosophy, reason and faith in the Logos, Christ the eternal Word made flesh.

Before long, Augustine realized that the allegorical reading of Scriptures and the neo-Platonic philosophy practised by the Bishop of Milan allowed him to resolve the intellectual difficulties which, when he first approached the Biblical texts when he was younger, seemed to be insurmountable.

Thus, Augustine followed up his readings of the philosophers with a rereading of Scriptures, especially the Pauline letters. His conversion to Christianity, on August 15, 386, was therefore the culmination of a long and tormented interior itinerary, about which we shall talk further in a future catechesis.

The African had moved to the countryside north of Milan, near Lake Como – with his mother Monica, his son Adeodatus, and a small group of friends – to prepare himself for baptism. At age 32, Augustine was baptized by Ambrose on April 24, 387, during the Easter vigil, at the Cathedral of Mulan.

After his baptism, Augustine decided to return to Africa with his friends, with the idea of living a monastic communal life in the service of God.

But at Ostia [port of Rome], while waiting to sail for Africa, his mother suddenly took ill and died shortly afterwards, breaking her son’s heart.

Back in his homeland, the convert settled down in Hippo to set up a monastery as planned. But in this North African coastal city, despite his resistances, he was ordained a priest in 391 and then started with some friends the monastic life he had been thinking about, dividing his time between prayer, study and preaching.

All he wanted was to serve the truth, he did not feel a calling to pastoral work, but later he understood that his calling from God was to be a shepherd of others, and thus to offer the gift of truth to others.

In Hippo, four years later, in 395, he was consecrated Bishop. Continuing to deepen his study of Scriptures and of the traditional Cristian texts, Augustine was an exemplary bishop in his tireless pastoral commitment.

He preached several times a week to the faithful, helped orphans and poor people, attended to the formation of the clergy and to organizing female and male monasteries.

In short, the former rhetoretician affirmed himself as one of the most important Christian leaders of his time. Very active in the governance of his diocese – with remarkable civilian consequences even – during more than 35 years in the episcopate, the Bishop of Hippo, in fact, exercised a vast influence in the leadership of the Church in Roman Africa, and more generally, in the Christianity of his time, confronting religious tendencies and tenacious, disintegrative heresies like Manichaeism, Donatism and Pelagianism, which threatened Christian faith in the one God rich with mercy.

And Augustine entrusted himself to God every day, to the very end of his life. Seized with a fever, while Hippo was besieged for almost three months by barbarian invaders, the Bishop – we are told by his friend and biogrpaher Possidius in Vita Augustini – asked to have the penitential psalms written in large letters and “had the pages posted on the walls of his room so that he could read them from his sickbed, crying uninterruptedly” (31,2).

Thus passed the last days in the life of Augustine, who died on August 28, 430, before he turned 76. Our next meetings will be dedicated to his works, his message and his interior development.