St. Augustine and the Fine Art of Faithful Words

As we drove out to celebrate my wife’s birthday, our 12-year-old announced grandly from the back of the minivan, “My mom’s homely!” His grasp of the language affected by reading so many classic children’s stories, most of them English, he does not always know which country’s way of speaking he’s using.

In England, “homely” means what we would call “homey” or domestic. To us it means “plain” or “ugly,” and Jonathan was duly distressed when his older sister hissed at him the meaning of the word. His mother, being a mother, understood, and soothed his feelings.

Likewise, few people speak about the Catholic faith with real precision, and — speaking as someone who’s worked as an editor for three decades — that includes a lot of people who are paid to do it.

We can learn a lot about precisely conveying our faith from St. Augustine, the fourth-century bishop whose feast we celebrate Aug. 28 (the day after the feast of his mother, St. Monica).

One of the Church’s all-time great minds, a man whose works are still closely studied by scholars and theologians, Augustine of Hippo was also a pastor. He was not going to leave his people with the theory alone. He is going to help them live it out.

He offers his insights into speaking and writing about the faith in the fourth section of his On Christian Doctrine, which is the practical part of a dense book on how to understand Scripture. He writes about teaching, preaching, writing and even conversation as ways we are called to communicate the faith, but I’ll use “teaching” to cover all of them because he focuses on that himself.

First, St. Augustine says, teaching the Catholic faith is a high calling. In the Bible, he notes, even people to whom God had spoken directly were sent to men for instruction, like St. Paul after his Damascus-road experience. Indeed, he says, “the condition of man would be lowered if God had not wished to have men supply his word to man.” God honors us by letting us convey his truth. And he draws us together in doing so. Teaching others is part of “charity itself, which holds men together in a knot of unity.” It’s part of being a Church.

Second, whatever abilities you have, God gave them to you. “For what have we which we have not received?” Augustine asks. We can’t brag about our gifts. “No one should consider anything his own, except perhaps a lie, since all truth is from him who said, ‘I am the truth.’” The truth is God’s; the lies are yours.

This means that we always have to ask God to give more. The teacher prays. Before someone begins to teach, “he should raise his thirsty soul to God in order that he may give forth what he shall drink, or pour out what shall fill him.”

And besides, who knows better what we should say and how we should say it than he who sees “the hearts of all men”? God knows us and our hearers far better than we do. Teachers must pray for their listeners, that they will receive the message, and for themselves, that they will deliver it well. When they finish, they should thank God for “the profitable result” of their teaching (Augustine may have been optimistic).

Third, speaking well depends more on vision than skill, and clear vision depends upon holiness. “The mind should be cleansed so that it is able to see that light and to cling to it once it is seen,” he says. The more deeply you know God, the better you will see his truths, and, therefore, the better you’ll describe them, even if you’re not very good with words.

Part of holiness, Augustine insists, is soaking yourself in Scripture. A man “speaks more or less wisely to the extent that he has become more or less proficient in the holy Scriptures.”

Fourth, if you are called to write, God will give you the ability to do what you need to do and — this is an important point — a pleasure in doing it. “He has given to each gifts proper to the building of his Church, so that what he showed that we should do we may do, not only without murmuring, but also with delight.” You may not be able to do it well, but God will help you do it well enough.

Fifth, you are only responsible to speak as well as you can. You are not responsible for convincing anyone else. That is God’s work. The saint seems a little grumpy about this. “I am not to blame because they do not understand,” he declares at the beginning of the book, adding that his critics “should stop blaming me and ask God to give them the vision.”

Sixth, it’s not about you. You teach not to please yourself with your verbal skills, but to reach others. You try to teach so that the hearer “may be aware of that which lay hidden,” and the best way to do that is in accordance with the way “he who hears, hears the truth, and understands what he hears.”

Over and over, Augustine warns against valuing eloquence for its own sake, and he clearly speaks from his own experience as a master writer. Beautiful words are of little use if the hearers do not understand the teaching and are unmoved to accept it and live by it. “The speaker should not consider the eloquence of his teaching, but the clarity of it.”

Another way to put this is: Content matters more than style. “He who speaks eloquently is heard with pleasure,” which is not to be sneezed at but still isn’t really much, while “he who speaks wisely is heard with profit.” At another point, he asks, “Of what use is a gold key if it will not open what we wish?”

Seventh, teaching is work. The teacher has “the duty,” he insists, “of bringing the truth which we have perceived to the understanding of others, no matter how difficult it may be to comprehend or how much labor may be involved.”

Part of that work is learning the tricks of the trade so people enjoy hearing you and respond. Ideally, Augustine says, people should want the truth for itself, no matter how it’s presented to them, but in reality, most people need help. “Even that food without which life is impossible must be seasoned,” he points out.

Eighth, you do what you have to do to communicate to the people you’ve been given to teach. (It’s not, again, about you.) What good is correct and elegant language, he asks, if the people you’re teaching don’t understand it? The teacher trying to teach clearly may well avoid “a more cultivated language, not caring for what sounds elegant, but for what well indicates and suggests what he wishes to show.”

The words “should serve the teacher, not the teacher the words. … He who teaches should avoid all words which do not teach.” He might even have to use vulgar Latin, he says, and you can imagine how painful he found that, as highly educated as he was.

For Augustine, the goal is always to convey God’s truth. You do what you have to do as well as you can and leave the results to God.

As he put it: “The man who cannot speak both eloquently and wisely should speak wisely without eloquence, rather than eloquently without wisdom.”

David Mills is deputy editor of

First Things and author

of Discovering Mary (Servant).

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