National Catholic Register


Providential Encounter

St. Augustine’s Meeting With Christ Changed His Life

BY The Editors

February 10-16, 2008 Issue | Posted 2/5/08 at 1:57 PM


Weekly General Audience January 30, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI continued his catechesis on St. Augustine during his general audience on Jan. 30. His teaching focused on St. Augustine’s recognition of the importance of bringing together faith and reason. St. Augustine’s message for people today, the Holy Father suggested, is his emphasis on our need for the truth, which St. Augustine highlighted not only in his teachings but also in his poetic works.

After the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we will take a look once again at St. Augustine. On the 16th centenary of St. Augustine’s conversion in 1986, my beloved predecessor, John Paul II, devoted a long and detailed document to him, his apostolic letter Augustinum Hipponensem (Augustine of Hippo).

Pope John Paul II himself described this document as “a thanksgiving for the gift he made to the Church and through her to the whole human race, with this wonderful conversion” (AAS, 74, 1982, p. 802). I would like to return to the theme of conversion in a future audience. It is a fundamental theme not only in his personal life but also in our lives.

In last Sunday’s Gospel, the Lord summed up the message of his preaching with the word, “Repent.” By following St. Augustine’s journey, we can meditate on what conversion is. It is a fundamental decision that is definitive and decisive, a decision that has to develop and become a reality in our lives.

Faith and Reason

However, today’s catechesis will be devoted to the topic of faith and reason, which is a significant theme — or better yet — the most significant theme in the life of St. Augustine. He learned the Catholic faith as a child from his mother, Monica.

As an adolescent, he abandoned this faith because he could not see any rationality in it and did not want to have anything to do with a religion that, in his eyes, was not an expression of reason, that is, of truth.

His thirst for truth was radical and it led him away from the Catholic faith. However, because of this radical approach, he was not content with philosophies that did not lead to truth itself — that did not ultimately lead to God — not to a God who was merely some last-resort, cosmological hypothesis, but to the true God, the God who gives life and who becomes part of our own lives.

Thus, St. Augustine’s intellectual and spiritual journey is still a model that is valid today for the relationship between faith and reason, a theme that concerns not only believers but everyone who seeks the truth, a theme that is vital for the stability and destiny of every human being.

These two dimensions — faith and reason — should not be separated from each other and should not contradict each other but should always go hand in hand.

As St. Augustine himself wrote after his conversion, faith and reason are “the two forces that lead us to knowledge” (Contra Academicos, III, 20, 43). In this respect, two of Augustine’s maxims, which express this coherent synthesis of faith and reason, remain famous to this day: crede ut intelligas (believe in order to understand) — the act of believing opens the way to entering the gates of truth — and, inseparable from this, intellige ut credas (understand in order to believe) — delve into the truth in order to be able to encounter God and believe.

These two statements by St. Augustine express in a very effective way and with immediacy and depth the synthesis of this problem, which the Catholic Church sees as the expression of its own approach.

From a historical perspective, this synthesis was being formulated even before the coming of Christ in the encounter between the Jewish faith and Greek thought through Hellenistic Judaism. In subsequent history, this synthesis was taken up again and again and further developed by many Christian thinkers.

The harmony between faith and reason means, above all, that God is not far away from our reason and from our lives. He is close to every human being — close to our hearts and close to our reason — if we truly follow his path.

The Quest for Truth

It is precisely this closeness of God to man that Augustine experienced in an extraordinarily intense way. The presence of God in man is deep and, at the same time, mysterious, but we can recognize it and discover it in our innermost being.

Don’t go outside, St. Augustine tells us. “Rather, go back into yourself. Truth resides in the inner man. If you find that your nature is changeable, transcend yourself. But remember, when you transcend yourself, you transcend a soul that reasons. Therefore, reach beyond to where the light of reason is lit” (De vera religione, 39, 72).

He himself emphasizes this with a well-known statement at the beginning of the Confessions, his spiritual autobiography that he wrote in the praise of God: “You have formed us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you” (Confessiones I, 1, 1).

Thus, being distant from God is equivalent to being distant from ourselves. Addressing God directly, Augustine acknowledges: “Interior intimo meo et superior summo meo (You are more intimately present to me than my innermost being and higher than the highest element in me, Confessiones, III, 6, 11).

In another passage, he remembers the time preceding his conversion and adds, “You were in front of me, but I, instead, had gone far from myself and could not find myself and even less could I find you” (Confessiones, V, 2, 2).

Because Augustine experienced this intellectual and spiritual journey personally, he knew how to convey it in his writings with immediacy, depth and wisdom.

In two other famous passages from the Confessions (Confessiones IV, 4, 9 and 14, 22), he acknowledges that man is magna quaestio (a great enigma) and grande profundum (a deep abyss), an enigma and an abyss that Christ alone enlightens and saves.

This is important. Those who are distant from God are also distant from themselves. They are alienated from themselves and can encounter themselves only by encountering God.

In this way, they will arrive at their innermost being — their true inner being — and attain their true identity.

The Path to God

In De Civitate Dei (XII, 27), Augustine emphasizes the fact that human beings are social by nature but antisocial in their vices. They are saved by Christ, who is the only mediator between God and mankind, and who is “the universal path to freedom and salvation” as my predecessor, John Paul II, reiterated (Augustinium Hipponensem, 21).

In this same text, Augustine tells us that outside of this path, which is always accessible to man, “no one has ever found freedom, no one is set free and no one will ever find freedom” (De Civitate Dei, X, 32, 2).

Christ, as the only mediator of salvation, is head of the Church and mystically united to her to the point that Augustine is able to state: “We have become Christ. Indeed, if he is the head, we are the members, and together we make up the whole man” (In Iohannis Evangelium Tractatus, 21, 8).

People of God and house of God, according to Augustine’s vision, the Church, therefore, is closely associated with the concept of the Body of Christ, which is based on a Christological interpretation of the Old Testament and on a sacramental life that is centered on the Eucharist in which the Lord gives us his body and transforms us in his Body.

It is essential, therefore, that the Church — the people of God in the Christological sense and not in a sociological sense — be truly part of Christ, who, as St. Augustine tells us in one beautiful passage, “prays for us, prays in us, is prayed to by us. He prays for us as our priest, he prays in us as our head, he is prayed to by us as our God. Therefore, we recognize in him our voice, and in ours, his” (Enarrationes in Psalmos, 85, 1).

His Message for Today

At the conclusion of his apostolic letter, Augustinum Hipponensem, John Paul II wondered what St. Augustine would say to the men of today, and answered with some words that Augustine dictated in a letter shortly after his conversion: “It seems to me that men have to be brought back to the hope of finding truth” (Epistulae, 1, 1).

That truth is Christ himself, true God, to whom one the most beautiful and famous prayers of the Confessions (X, 27, 38) is dedicated: “Too late did I love you, O Fairness, so ancient, and yet so new! Too late did I love you! For behold, you were within, and I without, and there did I seek you; I, unlovely, rushed heedlessly among the things of beauty you made. You were with me, but I was not with you. Those things kept me far from you, which, unless they were in you, were not. You called, and cried aloud, and forced open my deafness. You gleamed and shined, and chased away my blindness. You exhaled fragrances, and I drew in my breath and panted after you. I tasted, and hungered and thirst. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”

So Augustine found God. Throughout his life, he experienced God to the point that this reality — which was above all an encounter with a person, Jesus — changed his life as it has changed the lives of so many men and women who, throughout the ages, have had the grace of meeting him.

Let us ask the Lord to give us this grace and, in this way, to help us find his peace. Let us pray that God grants us this favor and, in so doing, allows us to find his peace.

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