August 2007


You’ve seen those bumper stickers “Christ is the answer”? If St Augustine had had a car – and if he liked bumper stickers – he’d likely have that one. For him, Christ is the center.

Christ, in fact, is everything for Augustine. Of all the things we could say about Augustine, that fact is probably the most important.

Focus on Christ

At the end of an interesting and informative talk on Augustine’s spirituality Fr. Tom Martin, a well-recognized Augustine scholar at Villanova University, said that Augustine would be upset with the group of us gathered there for the talk.

And the audience wondered why. We spent, Fr. Martin explained, an hour and a half talking about Augustine, when Augustine would say we should have spent that time talking about Christ. That wasn't the first time - or the last - that he emphasized the importance of Christ for St. Augustine.

Put on the Lord Jesus Christ

In Our Restless Heart: The Augustinian Tradition (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2003), Fr. Martin cites Augustine’s conversion scene in the garden (p. 28) with the famous Tolle Lege passage. (“Tolle lege” [toe-lay lay-jay] is Latin for “Pick it up and read.”)

The passage Augustine then read was Romans 13:13-14. There St Paul makes two strong moral points: “Not in dissipation and drunkenness…” at the beginning, and “make no provision for the flesh or the gratification of our desires” at the end.

This is the whole Biblical quote, Romans 13:13-14:

Not in dissipation and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh or the gratification of its desires.

That’s it, isn’t it? Those two points are what we’re used to finding emphasized, aren’t they? They’re emphasized so much that it seems this is exactly what moved Augustine to take the next step of conversion to a moral life in Christianity.

What we miss, each time we hear or read or learn about that passage, is the middle point: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ”! This, Fr Martin points out, is the key.

And from what he, among others, helps us see about Christ in St Augustine’s life and thought, we cannot but agree. The point is Christ – “put on the Lord Jesus Christ”!

It’s All Christ

Christ is not an object among others in Augustine’s thought, but something deeper and more pervasive; Christ is “the source and method for [Augustine’s] philosophical and theological thinking” – “the condition, the author and the method of all his thinking,” Fr Martin adds (p. 28, quoting Hubertus Drobner, “Studying Augustine: An Overview of Recent Research” in Augustine and His Critics, ed. Robert Dodaro and George Lawless (London: Routledge, 2000) p. 29.).

Christ is thus “constitutive” of Augustine’s thought – really of who Augustine is (p. 28). That is, if you leave Christ out, you don’t have Augustine.

Christ is “source and method” for Augustine: Christ is where Augustine gets his ideas from and Christ is even the way Augustine wants to think about everything – about life, death, being human, knowing, willing, working, speaking, writing, praying, loving.

An Understandable Error

Fr Martin, however, is kind. He lets us off the hook – at least up till now – for ignoring something so central.

He says its very fundamental and thorough-going importance can mask its presence; in addition, selective reading of Augustine (Remember, Augustine’s biographer Possidius said there was too much of Augustine’s writing for any one person to read it all!), and the tendency to downplay the theological importance of Augustine’s sermons in favor of his “more formal theological writings” (p. 29), help account for our past mistakes in this matter.

I appreciate my confrere’s much accustomed kindness here, for I am one of the people he is generously excusing. But I wonder if other, less excusable faults are part of our passing too quickly over that absolutely key center point in the Romans passage. A moral fault and an intellectual one come to mind.

A Morally Mistaken Focus

Leaving the dissipation, rioting and drunkenness behind and refusing to make provision for the desires of the flesh are moral actions that, if they happen at all, are things that we do; these could be seen as our efforts – just as they could be seen as Augustine’s efforts. There’s the rub: it’s all our action; we do it! We can be emphasized here: in these first and third points, we seem to be in the spotlight.

In that second, center matter, Christ is in the spotlight, not us. And now that I think of it that way, I am forced to acknowledge that Augustine would insist that’s the whole point: not me, not even Augustine, but Christ – Christ is the issue.

An Intellectual Laziness

An intellectual weakness plays a role here, too. We know – perhaps we don’t like it, but we know it – what leaving debauchery or dissipation behind means; we understand that idea. It’s really quite clear. We know also what we would have to do to quit making provision for the gratification of the flesh; that’s very simple – simple idea, I mean. We may wish we didn’t know what it would mean to do that, but we do know.

But “put on the Lord Jesus Christ”?

People don’t know what that means right off the bat. And we are used to clear directions, used to naming definite actions. We are told – and we’ve come to think – we mustn’t confuse people.

We’re accustomed to advertising that tells us to go straight out and buy this or that. People don’t have time for thinking about these things, puzzling them out. We’re plain-dealing, down-to-earth, ordinary people. We “just do it!” “Don’t give me choices! Tell me ‘Do this’ or ‘Do that.’”

We often seem to be allergic to thinking. Even in a land where we prize democracy so highly, we don’t want to be bothered by figuring out what our choices mean.

Even in our sermons, we don’t want to be incited to think. “Keep it short and simple.”

Something to Think About, Something to Live Out

Putting on the Lord Jesus Christ is not short, simple, immediately clear. It has to be a way of life, not a sound-bite – that is, if we really want to do it and not just shout it like a slogan that can be bent to mean anything we want it to.

“Put on the Lord Jesus Christ” – the meaning is not immediately clear, so we pass over it as though it had no meaning, and we run on to things that require less thinking.

But for Augustine, this was the key, the center. Christ is the whole point. We ought to think about it.

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