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Regnum Christi | Legionaries of Christ

St. Augustine and the Hope of Finding the Truth

If one were to ask an ordinary young American Catholic today who his favorite authors were, I doubt very much that any of them would be among the so-called “Fathers of the Church”. These influential Christian scholars, living in general before 700 A.D., set the theological foundations of Christianity. Today, however, they seem distant at the best. This probably is not too surprising. Even among those committed young Catholics who do read, most of them will dedicate their reading time to contemporary Christian writers who at least seem capable of responding to today’s challenges with today’s language. St. Athanasius’s “Apologia Contra Arianos” (Apology against the Arians) might be a Catholic classic, but for our contemporary reader, the problem of the Arians seems as antiquated as a grandfather’s style of dress, and why one would have to “apologize against” them seems an even greater, and non-relevant, mystery.

There is one exception. St. Augustine of Hippo. The Share Faith Magazine (a Protestant publication) [1] rated Augustine’s Confessions as the third most important Christian book of all time (before Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” and Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy”), while Church Times, (self-proclaimed as “the world’s leading Anglican Newspaper”)[2] placed it number one in their list of “100 Best Christian Books”. Catholic surveys, of course, nearly always put it among the top five spiritual classics of all times.[3] Such examples as these could go on and on, and there is little doubt that St. Augustine has remained one of the very few ancient Christian authors, if not the only, still read widely in the world today. Why is this?

I think the reason lies in St. Augustine’s passionate and constant concern for spiritual realities that today we need, and nevertheless neglect, more than ever. In 1986, Saint Pope John Paul II wrote to the entire Church an apostolic letter about St. Augustine (Augustinem Hipponsensem). At the end of this letter, the Pope addresses himself to St. Augustine, and asks the great Bishop what he has to say to modern man. Pope John Paul describes in this way Augustine’s answer: “It seems to me that one must bring men back…to the hope of finding the truth. One must seek the truth with piety, chastity and diligence, in order to return into oneself, to the interior realm where truth dwells; and likewise to overcome the materialism and rationalism which prevent the mind from understanding the “mystery” of the human person.”[4] At the end of the letter, the Pope reminds the young people of the world that Augustine constantly recalls them to the great things in life without which they would not wish to live: love, freedom, and beauty.[5]   More compelling still is that he recalls them not only with his teaching, which is indeed brilliant, but even more so by his example and sincerity. In his Confessions Augustine opens up his personal struggles and history with a style centuries before its time, and arguably more personal, poignant, and authentic than even that of our modern Robert Lowells and Sylvia Plaths.

When I first turned to St. Augustine (and his Confessions in particular) in my early 20’s, I suppose it was because I saw in Augustine’s life aspects of my own. I expect this is also true for that great mass of struggling Catholics who, though they would like to be good and faithful, are a bit overwhelmed by their weaknesses, failures, and downright confusion. Constantly pummeled by an ever-more secular and aggressive society, contemporary Catholics shadowbox with those same elusive themes with which Augustine struggled: sexual practice outside of marriage or the norms of the time, flirtation with peripheral religious and spiritual tendencies, exacerbated rationalism, love of fame, fortune, and well-being, etc., etc. If we recognize all these only too easily today, they were also the bread and butter of Augustine’s everyday life. The pre-conversion Augustine really was not so different from a Brad Pitt “Fight Club style” wild young man, confident and cocky on his self-destructive path, or from a Camus-like rebellious freethinker set on carving out his own way through the meaningless forests of the world. Add to this fascinating history a man fearlessly sincere, acutely sensitive, and profoundly intelligent, and it is little wonder that his writings still appeal to readers today.

Nevertheless, it is one thing above all these that probably makes Augustine not only a perennial, but also a contemporary favorite: his deep-seated love of truth.   For a world plagued by relativism, where everyone would have his own truth and feel morally obliged only by it, Augustine represents the man that the partial, the individual, or the relative will never satisfy.   The great fault of relativism is that it locks us into our individual cages; the hope of an ultimate truth and love that binds us all is lost, and with the loss of that hope, we lose our hope of meaningful relationships and finally of happiness itself. To that, however, Augustine would never submit. In his passion for man and for the truth, Augustine strove to seek the source of that truth in a God he imagined as the great and inaccessible One. He found instead, in a blaze of faith-filled light, the Incarnate Christ. As Pope Benedict XVI once wrote: Christ made him (Augustine) understand that God, apparently so distant, in reality was not that at all. He in fact made himself near to us, becoming one of us… (and taught us that) a man who is distant from God is also distant from himself, alienated from himself, and can only find himself by encountering God. [6] Through his studies and reflection but above all through his own experience, Augustine became the great teacher of the possibility of finding the truth, and with the truth, love, and with love, peace. Even for the most contemporary of men, even for those most sold out to the cynicism of relativism, these never lose their force of attraction: they are simply too tempting.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of the first famous American poets, once wrote a poem entitled “The Ladder of Saint Augustine”. It is read very little today. The poem speaks of how Augustine teaches us to use our weaknesses as rungs of a ladder that will eventually lead us to God if we are not afraid to climb them. Perhaps this is why Augustine remains so pertinent and popular even today: a strange and wonderful mix of realism and faith permit us not to lose “the hope of finding the truth”.

We have not wings, we cannot soar;
But we have feet to scale and climb
By slow degrees, by more and more,
The cloudy summits of our time.

Standing on what too long we bore
With shoulders bent and downcast eyes,
We may discern — unseen before —
A path to higher destinies,

Nor doom the irrevocable Past
As wholly wasted, wholly vain,
If, rising on its wrecks, at last
To something nobler we attain.[7]

 

This article was written Fr. Bruce Wren, LC in August 2017.

[1] Share Faith Magazine, May 6, 2015.

[2] Church Times, https://ct100books.hymnsam.co.uk/

[3] A simple Google search under “Top Ten Catholic Spiritual Books” will make this immediately evident.

[4] Augustinum Hipponsensem 4, August 28, 1986

[5] Ibid, 5.

[6] Cfr. Papal Audiences of Benedict 16th, January 2008, 3 and 5.

[7]The Ladder of Saint Augustine”, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, stanzas 7, 11, and 12.