The Abiding Relevance of Saint Augustine

As today is Saint Augustine’s feast day, and he is one of my favourite saints, I have spent the last few days trying to decide which aspect of his teaching represented him the best, and so what to focus on in writing about him. I considered the breadth and depth of his writings – on grace, love, the Church and its divine authority, the Eucharist, the sacraments in general, the relationship between the Church and the surrounding culture, the nature of God and His omniscience, the Incarnation. But the process of trying to decide what feature of his teaching to present was too daunting – Saint Augustine wrote too much, and on too many subjects, for his thought to be adequately summarised in one single blog post, least of all by me.

Nevertheless, I do think that there is a common core of Augustine’s thought, a foundational impulse of sorts, to which we can look if we want to understand this great Doctor of the Church, and which has an ongoing relevance for all ages. The essence of this impulse is encapsulated in two of his most famous sayings, the first of which is:

Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.

Confessions of Saint Augustine, Book I, Chapter I.

The second passage, which is in a sense an outworking and elaboration of what is written above, describes the sense in which this restlessness that Augustine found within himself was drawn out by God – the way in which the saint was gradually drawn away from the things of the world and his own tendency for self-justification, and towards God Himself:

Belatedly I loved thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new, belatedly I loved thee. For see, thou wast within and I was without, and I sought thee out there. Unlovely, I rushed heedlessly among the lovely things thou hast made. Thou wast with me, but I was not with thee. These things kept me far from thee; even though they were not at all unless they were in thee. Thou didst call and cry aloud, and didst force open my deafness. Thou didst gleam and shine, and didst chase away my blindness. Thou didst breathe fragrant odours and I drew in my breath; and now I pant for thee. I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst. Thou didst touch me, and I burned for thy peace.

ibid, Book X, Chapter XXVII.

            In these two excerpts I believe we can truly see the heart of Saint Augustine’s thought, belief and devotion. He was a man who sought unrelentingly for Truth, and who, in his Confessions, explored his own personal journey by searching for it in ways that display a profound understanding of human psychology and the innate impulse for God that resides within us all. This impulse, which with Augustine did not start out as a desire for God per se, but for the True, the Good and the Beautiful, is one that people in all ages should be able to identify with, and his exploration of the yearning for these three, which led ultimately to their identification with God, provides a compelling reason for belief – one which confirms the path of purely rational argument, but goes beyond it, to the depths of our very being.

Our persons do not just consist of intellect, and far less do they consist of a kind of disembodied, impersonal reason that one gets the impression many non-believers of a particular stripe appeal to today. We are also creatures of will, and our wills are seldom (if ever) commanded by the reason alone, but are directed by a complex mixture of rationality, affection, and imagination. Saint Augustine’s recognition that within this complex mixture that makes up each one of us is a deep desire for God, and that this desire is something that emanates from the whole person, moreover from the very heart of the person, is an important corrective to the idea that we can simply reason our way to belief (though again, this is not to discount the role of reason in that process).

That our hearts are ‘restless, until they find their rest in thee’ is something that Augustine, through a penetrating analysis of his own experience and reflection on the experiences common to others, saw as a basic fact of existence. There is a desire for God that will not go away, and cannot, no matter what we tell ourselves, be written off as just wishful thinking. This desire commends itself to our will, conscience and intellect as something that reaches out to ultimate reality itself, to the source and ground of our very being, and thus it is something that, if not allowed to express itself naturally, will be misdirected to lower things, either things sinful in and of themselves, or ‘the lovely things thou hast made’.

That the existence of God is the final end of all our creaturely endeavour, and that recognition of not only His existence, but His sovereignty over us is to accept our proper place in the order of things and so give us lasting peace, is not something that gains much currency in contemporary Western culture. However, having spent a great deal of time with non-believing friends and family, as well as being witness to some bizarre and frenzied invective against religious believers online, as well as frequent wilful misrepresentation of what believers have said or actually believe, I am gradually coming to the conclusion that a lot of the reasons given for atheism are not reasons at all, but excuses designed to obscure that innate desire for and knowledge of God that Saint Augustine describes.

Recognising the existence of God is to recognise that we are not masters of our own destiny, and that we are beholden to a standard of conduct that we cannot alter but must simply submit to, and it seems that a lot of atheism, as well as the popularity of moral relativism, is down to this. Again, reasons are presented, and we may differ about the viability of these reasons ad infinitum, getting nowhere with it. But what is constant in the unbelief I have encountered is a deep resentment that God should exist, as opposed to a purely rational conviction that He doesn’t. The hostility of so many atheists is due to the fact that deep down, they are aware of what Augustine witnessed to in his Confessions, and that, if they open the door to God just a little, they might then find themselves saying ‘I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst’.

This is not just a problem for non-believers. Many Christians spend a great deal of time distracting themselves, and this is in great part because we know that to spend some quality time before the Lord will result in His uncovering our lack of virtue, our lack of faith, our weaknesses and sinful tendencies – we do not want to be exposed before the light, so we hide from Him. The innate knowledge of God – of who He is and what consequent obligations are placed on us as creatures – will not go away, and nor will our desire for Him. But we can mask this with many things, and such masking is at the root of much of our frivolity, as well as much of our despair. Having suppressed a natural desire for the one thing we know can give us lasting happiness, we either lose ourselves in trivia, or are left to face the schism we have caused in our souls.

Saint Augustine realised also that ultimately, whilst we can reason to a knowledge that God exists, and that He is the source of all Goodness and Truth, it requires an act of the will in order to have faith in Him – because to have faith does not just mean to assent to an idea, but to trust in and submit to God. Augustine recognised that it was not enough for him to believe who God is and that He exists – he must also change his life, and this meant giving up the tendency to pride which we all share. He would ask God to be made chaste, but not yet, and this request is played out again and again in the lives of those who refuse to believe at all, and those of us who believe but do not want to accept the change in life that follows.

Augustine’s recognition that within each of us there is a deep desire for God, and that the world around us – the awe we feel before creation, the call of our conscience, the desire to know Truth – speaks to us of Him, that ‘day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge…their words to the end of the world’ (Psalm 19:2,4), can speak to each generation, because it is a constant feature of human experience. New arguments for God’s existence (and arguments to the contrary) appear, or old ones are refined; the Church produces new saints, and continues to consist of sinners; fads come then pass, and new ideas grip the public imagination. But the desire for ultimate things, the intuitive sense we all have that this life is meaningful, that Truth and Goodness exist objectively, and that these intimations find their resolution in God, does not pass.

People will always reject God, and will always suppress the desire for Him, finding new and various ways to do so, because with the desire we all have for that ‘Beauty so ancient and so new’ comes the knowledge that to meet Him and give ourselves to Him also means to change our lives, to give up our false ideas of autonomy and put away whatever pet sins we might have. The writings of Saint Augustine though, are a powerful testimony to the force of this desire, to the fact that, whilst it can be misdirected it can never be killed, and also to the relentless desire of God that we do finally find our rest in Him.

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2 thoughts on “The Abiding Relevance of Saint Augustine

  1. Pingback: Saint Rafael Arnaiz Baron: Desiring God | Journey Towards Easter

  2. Pingback: Saint Rafael Arnaiz Baron: Desiring God | Christians Anonymous

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