Remembering St. Augustine
St. Augustine’s Confessions is a humble, direct, and transparent look into the spiritual life of a Doctor of the Catholic Church. The testament of his life has been a bountiful source for anyone in search of the true, good, and beautiful. Reflecting on Augustine’s words has for years been a source of great spiritual fruit.
Augustine’s life spanned from 354 AD to 430 AD. His life took place during the twilight of the Roman empire, thought for hundreds of years to be impenetrable and ever-lasting. This adds weight to his reflections upon heaven, our true kingdom, and how this earth is transitory. While he was on his deathbed in Hippo, Vandals were besieging the city’s walls. The city of Rome itself, was sacked in 410 AD driving home the fact that as cities rise and fall it is truly the “City of God” (the title of one of his other great works) which will truly never go asunder.
In his Confessions, there is much one could pore over. For starters, we have the narrative text of his life. Included in this are his childhood, his academic upbringing, and his rebelliousness towards his mother (St. Monica). All of this leads to his eventual conversion to Catholicism and his ordination as bishop of Hippo. Outside of his autobiography, Augustine takes time to examine questions of philosophy as well. I found these discussions, in preparation for this blog post, to be of heightened interest.
Augustine takes time to devote almost an entire section to the topic of the senses and memory. Upon reading it I was able to reflect on how our senses and memories can effect our spiritual life. This can be reflected upon in our own personal memories but also in the memory of the Church, which is vast and wonderful.
Augustine begins his discussion of the senses and memory by posing the question in Book 10, Section 8 asking God “What is it then that I love when I love you?” He begins answering by saying that surely, it cannot be by something that is passing such as “clear shining light” or “sweet melodies” or “the soft smell of flowers.”
A few sentences later he admits “Yet, I do love a certain light, a certain voice, a certain odor, a certain food, a certain embrace when I love God . . .where his light, which no place can contain, floods into my soul; where he utters words that time does not speed away; where he sends forth an aroma that no wind can scatter; where he provides food that no eating can lessen;”
In Book 10, Section 9, Augustine searches for these senses on earth, but is naturally, disappointed. He then acknowledges that it is the soul, “the inner man”, which is better for seeking God. Augustine says “The inner man knows such things through the ministry of the outer man.” Our bodies are good. God made them this way. It is through the senses that we are able to know and learn more about God. This can, of course, be forgotten in an overly sensualized world that debases the original intention for men and women’s bodies.
When we go to Mass, we are surrounded by things that fill the senses. We are able to see the priest consecrate the bread and wine into the body and blood of our Lord which we then consume. We can hear beautiful music, bells, singing. We can smell the incense burning in the church. We can hear words that “time does not speed away.”
In Book 10, section 12 Augustine then comments on memory in that it surpasses the power of the senses. He says, “ . . . I come into the fields and spacious palaces of my memory, where are treasures of countless images of things of every manner, brought there from objects perceived by sense. Hidden away in that place is also whatever we think about, whether by increasing or by lessening or somehow altering the things that sense attains to. There also is whatever else has been entrusted to it and stored up within it, which forgetfulness has not yet swallowed up and buried away.”
He mentions whatever we think by “ . . . increasing or by lessening . . .”. Aren’t there things we should dwell on more often? Heaven, for example, is something that we may not be able to completely comprehend on earth, yet we should look forward to arriving at our true home. What should we think about less frequently? Is there a grudge that we hold? Do we harbor avarice? Are we consumed by ourselves in our selfishness?
How much easier is it for us at times to forget about a multitude of kind words, all of our blessings, than the one insult someone gave us five years ago? It was important for myself to ponder this and remember what we choose to retain in our memories effects us. Augustine in Book 10, section 26 said “Behold! In the fields and caves and caverns of memory, innumerable and innumerably filled with all varieties of innumerable things, whether through images, as with all bodies, or by their presence, as with the arts, or by means of certain notions and notations, as with the passions of the mind-for these memory retains even when the mind does not experience them, although whatever is in memory is also in the soul . . .”
Take, for example, a physical wound we may have suffered a year ago, however large or small. With memory, we can still imagine the feeling we had when it occurred even though it is not physically present to us. Augustine speaks on this when reflecting on image and reality. He says “I name a stone, for instance, or I name the sun, and although the things themselves are not present to my senses, certainly their images are present in my memory. . . I name bodily health, when I am sound in body. The reality itself is present to me, but truly unless its image were also in my memory, I could in no wise recollect what the sound of this name should signify. When the word health is used, the sick would not understand what was said unless the same image were retained by force of memory, even though the reality itself is absent from the body.”
We have all been in need of the divine physician. There have been times when we have been sick and have sinned. Be that as it may, we still strive to have as many healthy days as we possibly can. We look for people who model holiness for us. We all have the lives of the saints to look to as an image for our holiness. Hopefully, we have memories of holy people in our lives. It is our memories that allow us to have an image at the forefront of our mind as we strive to make this image a daily reality.
In order to keep our memory fresh, it is important to participate, practice, and dwell on what is taking place at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass lest we forget the gifts that God has given us. Our primary example of holiness, made present to all of us in our lives, is through the Eucharist. This speaks to frequency of attending Mass as well. We don’t go to Mass to simply “clock in” but because, if you’re like me, we need the care of the divine physician. The presence of the Eucharist is the reality which we have longed for in order to heal us of our brokenness.
We don’t need to have a theology degree to encounter this reality. I remember the first time I experienced Eucharistic adoration. My teenage self went back home to my Mom and told her straight away, “I don’t know what that was but it was awesome!” I think through the grace of God, I already had some vague image in my mind of Christ. He was in my memory and when the reality was presented to me through the Eucharist I could do nothing else but give my assent.
Memory is mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in relation to the Eucharist as well. It states in paragraph 1366:
The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit: ‘[Christ], . . . [wanted] to leave to his beloved spouse the Church a visible sacrifice (as the nature of man demands) by which the bloody sacrifice which he was to accomplish once for all on the cross would be re-presented, its memory perpetuated until the end of the world, and its salutary power be applied to the forgiveness of the sins we daily commit.’
This “memory perpetuated” is what we have to be thankful for. I would encourage anyone to read Augustine’s Confessions in its entirety. Once you read through it, it would be worth your while to read it again. The times I have gone back to re-visit Augustine’s Confessions have not been in vain.