Radical Conversion
Wednesday January 30th 2008, 11:14 am
Filed under: Patristics

The Holy Father gave his third audience on St. Augustine today. Teresa Benedetta translated :

Dear friends,

After the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we return today to reflect on the great figure of St. Augustine.

In 1986, my dear Predecessor John Paul II dedicated to Augustine, on the 1600th anniversary of his conversion, a long and dense document in the form of the Apostolic Letter Augustinum Hipponensen (Augustine of Hippo).

The Pope himself defined the text as “an act of thanksgiving to God for his gift to the Church, and through it, to all of mankind, with that miraculous conversion” (AAS, 74, 1992, p. 802).

I wish to return to the topic of Augustine’s conversion in a future audience. It was a fundamental theme not only for Augustine’s life, but also for ours. In last Sunday’s Gospel, the Lord himself summarized his preaching in the words, “Convert yourselves”.

Following the path of St. Augustine, we can meditate on what this conversion means: it is something definitive, decisive, but the fundamental decision must be developed and must be realized throughout our whole life.

The catechesis today will be dedicated instead to the theme of faith and reason, which was a determinative theme, or better still, the detrminative theme in the biography of St. Augustine.

As a child, he learned the Catholic faith from his mother Monica. But as an adolescent, he abandoned this faith because he could no longer see its reasonableness, and he did not want a religion that could not be, for him, also an expression of reason, and therefore, of truth. His thirst for truth was radical and led him to distance himself from the Catholic faith.

But his radicality was such that he could not content himself with philosophies which did not arrive at truth itself, which did not arrive at God. To a God who was not just the ultimate cosmological hypothesis, but the true God, the God who gives life and who enters our own life.

Thus all of St. Augustine’s intellectual and spiritual itinerary constitutes a model valid even today for the relationship between faith and reason, a theme not only for believers but for every man who searches for the truth, a central theme for the equilibrium and destiny of every human being.

These two dimensions, faith and reason, are not to be separated nor to be opposed to each other, but should always go together. As Augustine himself wrote after his conversion, faith and reason are “the two forces that bring us to knowing” (Contra Academicos, III, 20, 43).

In this respect, two Augustinian formulations (from Sermons, 43,9) remain rightly celebrated for expressing this coherent synthesis between faith and reason: Crede ut intelligas (I believe in order to understand) – belief opens the way to get to the threshold of truth – and, inseparably, Intellige ut credas (I understand in order to believe): to scrutinize truth in order to find God and believe.

Those two statements by Augustine express with effective immediacy and with profundity the synthesis of this issue, in which the Catholic Church sees the expression of its way.

Historically, this synthesis had been taking shape, even before the coming of Christ, in the encounter between the Jewish faith and Greek thought that resulted in Hellenistic Judaism. Successively, this synthesis was recovered and developed throughout history by many Christian thinkers.

The harmony between faith and reason means, above all, that God is not far: he is not far from our reason and our life; he is close to every human being, close to our heart and close to our reason, if we really put ourselves on the right way.

It was precisely this closeness of God to man that Augustine experienced with extraordinary intensity. The presence of God in man is profound and at the same time, mysterious, but we can discover and recognize it in our most intimate being.

Do not go out, the convert says: “but go back into yourself – truth resides in the interior man, and if you find that your nature is changeable, transcend yourself. But remember, when you transcend yourself, that you transcend a soul which reasons. Then reach beyond – to where the light of reason is lit” (De vera religione, 39, 72).

As Augustine himself underscored with that most famous statement at the start of Confessions, his spiritual autobiography written in praise of God: “You made us for you, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (I,1,1).

Distance from God is equivalent therefore to distance from our selves: “Indeed, you,” Augustine writes (Confessions, III, 6,11), addressing himself to God, “are more intimately present to me than my inmost being and higher than the highest element in me” – interior intimo meo et superior summo meo – such that, he adds in another passage, recalling the time before his conversion, “you were in front of me, but I, instead, had gone far from myself and could not find myself again, and even less could I find you again” (Confessions, V, 2, 2).

Precisely because Augustine had lived firsthand this intellectual and spiritual itinerary, he knew how to render it with such immediacy, profundity and wisdom in his works, recognizing in two other famous passages from Confessions (IV, 4, 9 e 14, 22) that man is ‘a great enigma’ (magna quaestio) and ‘a great abyss’ (grande profundum) – enigma and abyss that only Christ illuminates and saves.

This is important: a man who is far from God is also far from himself, alienated from himself, and can recover himself only if he meets God, and thus, he will also arrive at himself, his true I, his true identity.

The human being, Augustine then underscores in De civitate Dei (The City of God, XII, 27) – is social by nature but anti-social by fault, and is saved by Christ, the only mediator between God and mankind and the “universal way of freedom and salvation”, as my predecessor John Paul II repeated (Augustinum Hipponensem, 21): Outside this way, which has never failed humanity, Augustine says in the same work, “no one was ever liberated, no one can be liberated, no one will be liberated” (De civitate Dei, X, 32, 2).

As the only mediator of salvation, Christ is the head of the Church and is mystically united to it, to the point that Augustine could say: “We have become Christ. Indeed, if he is the head, and we are the members (limbs), the total man is he and us” (In Iohannis evangelium tractatus, 21, 8).

People of God and house of God, the Church in the Augustinian vision is thus closely linked to the concept of the Body of Christ, based on the Christologic re-reading of the Old Testament, and on sacramental life centered in the Eucharist, in which the Lord gives us his Body and transforms us into his Body.

It is therefore fundamental that the Church – the People of God in the Christologic and not the sociological sense – should be truly in Christ, who, Augustine says in a very beautiful test, “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 – so we recognize in him our voice, and in ours, his” (Enarrationes in Psalmos, 85, 1).

At the conclusion of the apostolic letter Augustinum Hipponensem, John Paul II asked whatthe saint has to say to men today, and responded with the words that Augustine dictated in a letter shortly after his conversion: “It seems to me that man should be led back to the hope of finding the truth” (Epistulae, 1, 1): that truth which is Christ himself, true God, to whom one of the most beautiful and famous prayers in Confessions (X, 27,38) is addressed:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new,
late have I loved you!
You were within me, but I was outside,
and it was there that I searched for you.
In my unloveliness
I plunged into the lovely things which you created.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
Created things kept me from you;
yet if they had not been in you
they would have not been at all.
You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.
You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.
You breathed your fragrance on me;
I drew in breath and now I pant for you.
I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.
You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

So it was! Augustine had encountered God and all his life experienced him to the point that this reality – which was above all an encounter with a Person, Jesus – changed his life, as he has changed that of so many men and women in every age who have had the grace to encounter him.

Let us pray that the Lord may give us this grace and to make us find his peace by doing so.


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