“Grades are things not to worry about. Says who? Well, I do, in a way. No one is in a university to ‘get good grades’, even though your grades may be the main concern of the good tuition payers back home… If to get a good grade a student reads St. Augustine – well, terrific. But I am also impressed by someone who reads St. Augustine and gets a D-, but who five or twenty-five years later is still reading him. It takes all one’s life to read St. Augustine, so the first dozen times through probably deserve a D- anyhow.”
– James V. Schall, “Grades,” in Another Sort of Learning (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1988), 42.
Monica, the pious, long-suffering mother of Augustine, for whose soul she shed many tears because her greatest desire was to see him leave behind the Manichean heresy and become a baptized Christian, was not only a terrific mother but, as Augustine tells in his Confessions, she was also an infinitely patient and loving wife to a difficult husband (the unbelieving Patricius, for whom Augustine seemed to have little affection), and a wise and devoted daughter-in-law to a woman who otherwise might have made life even more difficult for her and her husband. To our modern sensibilities Monica probably put up with more than she deserved from Patricius, but then again, this was a pious woman who put her faith and the covenant of marriage above her own temporal comfort and happiness. Whether male or female, we can all learn from her example.
“She never ceased to try to gain him [Patricius] for you as a convert, for the virtues with which you had adorned her, and for which he respected, loved, and admired her, were like so many voices constantly speaking to him of you [God]. He was unfaithful to her, but her patience was so great that his infidelity never became a cause of quarreling between them. For she looked to you to show him mercy, hoping that chastity would come with faith. Though he was remarkably kind, he had a hot temper, but my mother knew better than to say or do anything to resist him when he was angry. If his anger was unreasonable, she used to wait until he was calm and composed and then took the opportunity of explaining what she had done… Many women…used to gossip together and complain of the behavior of their men-folk. My mother would meet this complain with another – about the women’s tongues.
“…Her mother-in-law was at first prejudiced against her by the talebearing of malicious servants, but she won the older woman over by her dutiful attentions and her constant patience and gentleness. In the end her mother-in-law complained of her own accord to her son and asked him to punish the servants for their meddlesome talk, which was spoiling the peaceful domestic relations between herself and her daughter-in-law. Patricius, who was anxious to satisfy his mother as well as to preserve the good order of his home and the peace of his family, took the names of the offenders from his mother and had them whipped as she desired. She then warned them that anyone who told tales about her daughter-in-law, in the hope of pleasing her, could expect to receive the same reward. After this none of them dared to tell tales and the two women lived together in wonderful harmony and mutual goodwill.” (194-195).
The hour Augustine became a Christian is a watershed moment in Christian history, for this young man would go on to become not only a beloved bishop in a small town in north Africa but arguably the tallest intellectual mountain in the history of the church. Before his conversion, Augustine was engrossed in one of the heresies of his day, something that caused much grief to his pious mother, Monica. Following his assent of the Christian faith, however, he devoted his vast intellectual energies to exploring and expounding upon the Christian doctrines, producing a great number of works, including the Confessions and the City of God, which would have a lasting influence in such fields as psychology, philosophy, history, politics, and even war (e.g. Just War theory is often traced to Augustine). His famous conversion story is a powerful example of the power of Scripture – God’s revealed thoughts and will – to pierce the heart and spark new life. If you never read the Confessions (though I hope you don’t deprive yourself of such a treat!), at least read of the conversion of this mountain of the church, a great moment in history.
(The passage begins when Augustine, with his equally philosophically-oriented but heretical friend Alypius, are sitting at a friend’s house listening to a man tell the story of St. Antony, one of the first monks who retreated to the desert and whose monastic life of deep sacrifice and devotion inspired many to follow in his steps. This provokes Augustine to reflect seriously upon his own spiritual condition, causing him to leave the house in anguish.)
“I probed the hidden depths of my soul and wrung its pitiful secrets from it, and when I mustered them all before the eyes of my heart, a great storm broke within me, bringing with it a great deluge of tears. I stood up and left Alypius so that I might weep and cry to my heart’s content, for it occurred to me that tears are best shed in solitude… Somehow I flung myself down beneath a fig tree and gave way to the tears which now streamed from my eyes, the sacrifice that is acceptable to you. I had much to say to you, my God, not in these very words but in this strain: Lord, will you never be content? Must we always taste your vengeance? Forget the long record of our sins. For I felt that I was still the captive of my sins, and in my misery I kept crying, ‘How long shall I go on saying, “tomorrow, tomorrow”? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?
“I was asking myself these questions, weeping all the while with the most bitter sorrow in my heart, when all of a sudden I heard the sing-song voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain, ‘Take it and read, take it and read.’ At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall. For I had heard the story of Antony, and I remembered how he had happened to go into a church while the Gospel was being read and had taken it as a counsel addressed to himself when he heard the words Go home and sell all that belongs to you. Give it to the poor, and so the treasure you have shall be in heaven; then come back and follow me. By this divine pronouncement he had at once been converted to you.
“So I hurried back to the place where Alypius was sitting, for when I stood up to move away I had put down the book containing Paul’s Epistles. I seized it and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell: Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites. I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, confidence flooded my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” (177-178)
One of the best things about St. Augustine’s Confessions (397-8) is the bishop’s deeply personal, searching expressions of praise to God. These are not only fascinating statements by perhaps the most important and influential mind in the history of Western Christianity, but also fine examples of prayers of confession and praise. Here’s another short excerpt that struck me for its beauty and which I wanted to share:
“Eternal Truth, true Love, beloved Eternity – all this, my God, you are, and it is to you that I sigh by night and day…I gazed on you with eyes too weak to resist the dazzle of your splendor. Your light shone upon me in its brilliance, and I thrilled with love and dread alike. I realized that I was far away from you. It was as though I were in a land where all is different from your own and I heard your voice calling from on high, saying, ‘I am the food of full-grown men. Grow and you shall feed on me. But you shall not change me into your own substance, as you do with the food of your body. Instead you shall be changed into me'” (147).
Which is more impressive: the man who observes, studies, and investigates a plant, knowing all its properties and contents and even uses for medicinal and other beneficent purposes, but who denies the existence of God, or the man who owns a plant and, while knowing little about it, eats from it and thanks God for creating it and giving it to him? Most of us moderns might more readily be impressed by the first man, whose scientific prowess and non-religious, humanitarian sensibility accords well with the spirit of our age. Yet as Augustine – that intensely religious thinker among the ancients – makes clear in his Confessions (Penguin, 1961), it is of no lasting benefit to know all about a created thing if one does not know the One who created it: the God of life-giving power, “whom all things serve.”
“A man who knows that he owns a tree and thanks you for the use he has of it, even though he does not know its exact height or the width of its spread, is better than another who measures it and counts all its branches, but neither owns it nor knows and loves its Creator. In just the same way, a man who has faith in you owns all the wealth of the world, for if he clings to you, whom all things serve, though he has nothing yet he owns them all. It would be foolish to doubt that such a man, though he may not know the track of the Great Bear, is altogether better than another who measures the sky and counts the stars and weighs the elements, but neglects you who allot to all things their size, their number, and their weight” (95).
I just started my second reading of Augustine’s Confessions (I first read it in the spring of 2012), a work that merits multiple readings both for its importance in the canon of Christian literature and as a richly edifying meditation on the self in relation to God. There are many translations of this classic work, and a couple of years ago I came across the one I’m now finally reading at the Barnes & Noble on M Street, which, sadly, has been replaced by a Nike store (You take back those Air Jordans and give us back our books!). This version, translated by Maria Boulding, a Benedictine nun, is incredibly readable and accessible to a modern audience. In other words, It’s not stuffy, making it easy to get swept away in Augustine’s deeply personal, earnest, and brilliant self-examination before the God he loves and longs to know more deeply. You can expect more posts with excerpts from this book, but for now, I’m happy to share this doozy of a passage – an expression of praise to God worthy of the theological mountain that was the Bishop of Hippo (the town of his bishopric in North Africa):
“What are you, then, my God? What are you, I ask, but the Lord God? For who else is lord except the Lord, or who is god if not our God? You are most high, excellent, most powerful, omnipotent, supremely merciful and supremely just, most hidden yet intimately present, infinitely, beautiful and infinitely strong, steadfast yet elusive, unchanging yourself though you control the change in all things, never new, never old, renewing all things yet wearing down the proud though they know it not; ever active, ever at rest, gathering while knowing no need, supporting and filling and guarding, creating and nurturing and perfecting, seeking although you lack nothing. You love without frenzy, you are jealous yet secure, you regret without sadness, you grow angry yet remain tranquil, you alter your works but never your plan; you take back what you find although you never lost it; you are never in need yet you rejoice in your gains, never avaricious yet you demand profits. You allow us to pay you more than you demand, and so you become our debtor, yet which of us possesses anything that does not already belong to you? You owe us nothing; yet you pay your debts; you write off our debts to you, yet you lose nothing thereby” (5).
In writing about the power of suffering to reveal someone’s true character, St. Augustine gave us this great metaphor: “Stir a cesspit, and a foul stench arises; stir a perfume, and a delightful fragrance ascends.” (I featured this quote as part of a recent post.)
So we might say that in his hour of greatest suffering – when for two months several doctors tried to save his life and remove the bullet fired by his murderer – President James Garfield gave forth a truly “delightful fragrance,” giving us an example of patience, grace, and charity in suffering that can only be found in the best of persons.
This is taken from the excellent Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (Anchor, 2012) by Candice Millard:
“Despite the fact that his health, his work, and quite possibly his life had been suddenly and senselessly taken from him, he remained unfailingly cheerful and kind, day after day.” His doctor said that throughout his illness, he never approached Garfield “without meeting an extended hand, and an expression of thankful recognition of the efforts being made for his comfort and recovery.”
“While Garfield’s body had begun to fail him, his courtesy never did, nor his sense of humor…[he] now used humor to put those around him at ease” (208).
“Garfield…made every effort to assure those around him that he was not only well but content…He endured without complaint excruciating pain and daily humiliations,” and and attendant said that he “rarely spoke of his condition and seldom expressed a want” (223).
It’s easy to feel happy and be nice when life is going well, but how do you react when things get difficult? How do you treat others, how do you view life, and what do you think of God when affliction comes knocking? Perhaps it’s not even dramatic suffering, such as losing a loved one, but even mundane, ordinary inconveniences and difficulties. To use the metaphor below, do you begin to shake in the wind and lose your leaves at the first drop of temperature? And if you say you believe in God and his promises, does this faith flee at the first sign of misfortune?
In his classic work, Holiness (Charles Nolan, 1877), the Bishop of Liverpool, J.C. Ryle (1816-1900), wrote the following about the power of affliction to reveal our true nature:
“The winds of winter soon show us which of the trees are evergreen and which are not. The storms of affliction and care are useful in the same way. They discover whose faith is real, and whose is nothing but profession and form.”
St. Augustine, a giant of the Church unrivaled in his brilliance, also wrote on the effect of affliction in City of God (Penguin, 2003), which he wrote following the fall of Rome:
“The fire which makes gold shine makes chaff smoke; the same flail breaks up the straw, and clear the grain…in the same way, the violence which assails good men to test them, to cleanse and purify them, effects in the wicked their condemnation, ruin, and annihilation. Thus the wicked, under pressure of affliction, execrate God and blaspheme; the good, in the same affliction, offer up prayer and praises. This shows that what matters is the nature of the sufferer, not the nature of the sufferings. Stir a cesspit, and a foul stench arises; stir a perfume, and a delightful fragrance ascends” (14).
Related to this topic, I encourage you to see my post about the failure of modern society to account for suffering here.
2012 has been a year of many great reads, but these were the standouts.
5. Augustine of Hippo (Peter Brown)
Peter Brown’s masterful Augustine of Hippo is widely considered the definitive biography of the bishop, and with good reason. He is exhaustive in his use of original sources and other scholarly material (it seems that every other line has a footnote); he skillfully re-creates the world in which Augustine moved, giving us a tangible feel for the rich and volatile atmosphere of North Africa in the 3rd century; and most gratifying, he writes beautifully, making it a great pleasure to read and soak in. For the uninitiated in Augustine, this book should be like the main course that comes after some appetizers that can give you a taste for what is to come. It also is abundant in details, concerning not just Augustine but surrounding controversies and political problems, which might not interest the reader meeting Augustine for the first time. For such a reader, I recommend beginning with his Confessions.
4. Confessions (Augustine)
Augustine’s Confessions is an important and rich work. It’s important because it is the first autobiography of the modern world, containing deep psychological and existential reflections, long before such terms and concepts came into popular use. And it is a rich work in that it is no mere recounting of events and reflections on these, but rather a lengthy prayer to God that takes the reader (and as a renowned and popular bishop, Augustine knew he would have many readers) from the earliest memories of infantile selfishness (he shows us why babies are not really “little angels”) to the loftiest meditations on the nature of time and memory, and his place in God’s cosmic plan. The Confessions give us Augustine in full measure: the young and promiscuous “lusty stallion,” the demanding and intense friend, the brilliant rhetorician and philosopher, the loving son who never spoke a harsh word to his mother (she commended him for this in her dying moments), and ultimately, the giant of the church who was, through and through, a true lover of God.
3. Churchill (Paul Johnson)
The list of Churchill biographies is almost endless. This is part of what makes Paul Johnson’s book a great contribution: it gives us a great sense of the man, and covers the crucial events of his outsized life. More than this, Johnson generously shares all those quirky and fascinating details that have made Churchill one of the most closely studied persons of history (e.g. his talent for going from hard-charging, energetic work to being able to, almost at will, relax and recuperate his energies; it helped that he was a great napper!). Johnson writes of Churchill, whom he once met, with warmth and affection, yet he does not try to hide character defects and other less than flattering facts about him. And in true form to the kind of historian he is, he concludes his brief but highly enjoyable biographical portrait with five lessons (see my post, listing these, below) we can take away from the life of Churchill.
Just Courage was the most challenging book I read this year. It is International Justice Mission president Gary Haugen’s highly personal account of his work to end human trafficking as well as an impassioned call to Christians to take justice seriously, because justice matters to God. He compellingly shows that justice for the vulnerable (e.g. the poor, the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan) is a major concept in Scripture which we ignore to our own spiritual loss. One thing I appreciate about Haugen is that he understands the fears and hindrances that keep many of us, with our comfortable jobs and pretty houses and neat lives, from engaging in this kind of work (granted, not everyone is called to fight human trafficking halfway around the world; many can do it from their own house or church, even). He admits that it can be scary to leave what to us mean comfort and security and predictability, and to go risk your safety by upsetting the snake pit that is the world of human trafficking. But as a man who knows and loves Jesus, he then reminds us that we have better reasons not to fear: because God is the one doing the work; we are but the instruments he chooses to use to accomplish his purposes in this world.
Before he wrote the recent, highly acclaimed biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy), Eric Metaxas wrote of another great man: William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a highly successful Member of Parliament from the late-18th century to the early 19th century, whose lifelong mission as a gifted politician was to abolish the slave trade. This was my favorite book not only because it is about my historical hero, but also because it is superbly written. Furthermore, It is not an exhaustive biography of Wilberforce. It focuses on his conversion to Christianity and his subsequent decades-long struggle to abolish the slave trade. Metaxas does a great job of showing us Wilberforce the person – lively, cheerful, witty, indefatigable, and keen on putting his faith into action. This was not only a pleasurable read, but personally important in that it painted a picture for me of how a committed Christian can successfully navigate the dangerous world of politics, and not just survive or keep his position, but accomplish a great victory in the cause of justice in this dark world.