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from issue no. 12 - 2007

The heart and grace in Saint Augustine. Distinction and correspondence



by Cardinal Angelo Scola


Cardinal Angelo Scola

Cardinal Angelo Scola

Humility: the highroad
Some months ago, during the Eucharistic celebration in the Orto of the Almo Collegio Borromeo in Pavia, His Holiness Benedict XVI – whose ties with Saint Augustine are well known, as transpires in his Magisterium – going over again the path to conversion of the saintly bishop, indicated the last and definitive stage in these words: “Augustine had learned a further degree of humility – not only the humility of inserting his great thinking into the humble faith of the Church, not only the humility of translating his great knowledge into the simplicity of the message, but also the humility of recognizing that he and the whole wayfaring Church continuously was and is in need of the merciful goodness of a God who forgives every day. And we – he added – make ourselves like Christ, the only Perfect one, to the greatest possible extent, when we become like Him persons of mercy”1.
The Pope’s reference to Augustine’s humility leads us directly to the core of the teaching of the Bishop of Hippo on “the heart and grace”. In fact the word humility expresses in very compact fashion what happens in the person who, out of pure grace, encounters the living mercy of God. Don Giacomo Tantardini rightly says in the book we are introducing this evening: “Augustine says that only in the encounter between the heart, that is inwardness, and grace, that is the presence of the Lord, does inwardness return to itself, the heart return heart, that is return to being a child’s heart [...] The humility of Jesus is the virtue that we can imitate. We cannot imitate His performing miracles, but His being meek, His being small and humble, we can all imitate it”2.

Will and grace: an Augustinian lectio
From the immense treasure of the works of Saint Augustine, I have chosen a “page” from De libero arbitrio “to read it” this evening along with you.
As we know the origin of this dialogue is a debate that took place in Rome between the autumn of 387 – Augustine had been baptised in Milan by Saint Ambrose on the Easter vigil of that year, between 24 and 25 April – and the summer of 3883. The work was completed in Africa after the priestly ordination of the author in the early months of 391. Having become coadjutor bishop of Hippo by the wish of his bishop Valerius in 395 (according to some in 396), Augustine sent the three books of the work to Paulinus of Nola (Christian poet and bishop, 355-431)4.
The dialogue opens with a question from Evodius to Augustine: “Dic mihi, quaeso te, utrum Deus non sit auctor mali?/Tell me, I pray you, whether God is not maker of evil?” (I, 1, 1). The topic, therefore, is not directly the freedom of man, but the responsibility of God for evil. According to Madec, in fact, “the dialogue could very well have the title of the work by Leibniz: Essays in theodicy on the goodness of God, the freedom of man and the origin of evil5. In the dialogue between Evodius and Augustine the question emerges that, in more or less explicit way, in more or less acute form, dwells in the heart of every man of every time: why does evil exist? A question that reveals all its ability to wound our humanity if formulated still more concretely: why do I find myself performing evil deeds?
From the ouverture one knows that an author is a “classic” – and Augustine is in eminent fashion – because in reading him one finds oneself immediately confronted by the profound questions posed by the reader of every age, collapsing in a flash any gap in culture and time.
But there is another reason that impelled my choice to read with you this evening a passage from the De libero arbitrio. I refer to the fact that Augustine reread and personally interpreted this work of his. In fact, as Don Giacomo remarks, “in 388 Augustine wrote the De libero arbitrio against the Manichees. It is an interesting work not least because later on the Pelagians used it to say that when just converted Augustine did not accept either the doctrine of original sin or the doctrine of grace of which instead he would then become defender. Augustine was to write the Retractationes also to demonstrate that even in the De libero arbitrio, that is a defense of the freedom of man, the doctrine of original sin (as Saint Ambrose above all had taught him) is present, and the doctrine of grace is present”6. In this way the De libero arbitrio offers us the possibility of meeting Augustine as interpreter of himself.
We can therefore know firsthand his genuine thought on an aspect, correlated to the problem of evil, so decisive for the life of all mankind: the role of human will in the relation between grace (Jesus Christ) and freedom (mankind).
Let us go over together, therefore, a short passage from this dialogue. It is taken from Book III, 3, 7: “Ev. – Mihi si esset potestas ut essem beatus, iam profecto essem: volo enim etiam nunc, et non sum, quia non ego, sed ille me beatum fecit/E. – If it were in my power to be happy, I would already be so for sure; I want it even now and I am not because not me but He makes me happy”.
Giacomo Tantardini, <I>Il cuore e la grazia in sant’Agostino. Distinzione e corrispondenza</I>, Città Nuova, Roma 2006, pp. 343-344

Giacomo Tantardini, Il cuore e la grazia in sant’Agostino. Distinzione e corrispondenza, Città Nuova, Roma 2006, pp. 343-344

In just a few phrases Augustine’s text sets out two fundamental issues for the people of our time, so-called post-modern man. First of all happiness: remember the pregnancy that the term beatus has in Christian Latin: it speaks of that complete and definitive happiness that is not within the direct reach of mankind. And nevertheless it generates a joy that does not pass, that is not destined to perish like pure terrestrial pleasures. Well, just as the demands for justice and truth have been the most debated by modern man (up to the fall of the walls, to make myself clear), today the demands for freedom and happiness have become the master emblem of the post-modern. I have identified freedom as the second great theme of the passage chosen. Augustine expresses it in two terms of great anthropological density: will (volo) and power (potestas). We shall return to these categories farther ahead.
Aug. – Optime de te veritas clamat/A. – Truth cries out of you exceedingly well” (“In the highest fashion the truth manifests itself and cries out of your experience”), Augustine replies to Evodius.
The saintly bishop indicates to us therefore that human experience, considered in itself, opens to mankind the question on the truth of itself. In what does the elementary human experience to which Augustine refers consist? It consists of two elements. Desire for happiness – the first element – and knowledge of the fact that mankind cannot reach this happiness by itself. It is an Other who can fulfil this desire – the second essential data.
In reference to happiness so conceived the saint deals with the topic that I am interested in focusing on directly: the role of the will.
Non enim posses aliud sentire esse in potestate nostra, nisi quod cum volumus facimus. Quapropter nihil tam in nostra potestate, quam ipsa voluntas est. Ea enim prorsus nullo intervallo, mox ut volumus praesto est/You cannot be unaware that in our power is only what we can achieve when we want. Therefore nothing is so much in our power than the will itself. Without any gap it is available in the action that we want”.
This was one of the affirmations that Pelagius and his followers used to diminish the weight of original sin and grace in the controversy with Augustine. Father Agostino Trapè remarks that going beyond the Manichean illusion, that enabled mankind not to consider itself responsible for evildoing because it explained sin not on the basis of free will but on the basis of the co-presence in mankind of two principles (good and evil), Augustine wrote the De libero arbitrio precisely “in order to demonstrate that the human will is essentially free, that it has within its power its own actions”7. In fact, some lines further on from the passage already quoted, Augustine asserts: “Voluntas igitur nostra nec voluntas esset, nisi esset in nostra potestate. Porro, quia est in potestate, libera est nobis/Therefore our will would not be will if it were not in our power. Hence because it is in our power, it is free for us” (III, 3, 8). This was the affirmation by Augustine used by the Pelagians against Augustine himself. How did the saint react to this interpretation?
Let us listen to him directly by reading a passage from the Retractationes (I, 9, 3): “However let the new heretical followers of Pelagius not vaunt too much. If in these books I have let myself go in many affirmations favorable to freewill in line with what the topic demanded, that does not mean that I meant to put myself on the same level as people like them, who support the freedom of the will to the point of taking space away from divine grace and thinking that it be granted to us in consequence of our merits”.
And further ahead he states: “The Pelagians think or may think that I was in line with them. But it is a baseless supposition. It is certainly the will that makes us sin and live righteously, and this is the concept that I have developed in the expressions given here [the reference here is to the passages of the De libero arbitrio that Augustine quotes in the Retractationes]. If therefore divine grace does not intervene to free the will from the servile condition that enslaves it to sin and does not help it overcome its defects, it is not possible for mortals to live according to mercy and justice. And if this divine beneficial intervention, that frees the will, did not precede it, it would have to be considered as a compensation granted to its merits and would no more be grace, inasmuch as for grace in any case is meant that which is given gratuitously” (I, 9, 4).
Keeping in mind these direct clarifications of Augustine we can return to the passage from the De libero arbitrio the object of our lectio and go into the relation between willing and being able and hence, ultimately, between human freedom and divine freedom, that is between the “heart and grace”.
Augustine starts from some unquestionable facts that are part of everybody’s life and are not in the power of the will. “Et ideo recte possumus dicere: ‘Non voluntate senescimus, sed necessitate’; aut: ‘non voluntate infirmamur, sed necessitate’; aut: ‘non voluntate morimur, sed necessitate’; et si quid aliud huiusmodi/And one may rightly say: ‘We age not through will but by necessity’, or ‘we become sick not through will but by necessity’, or ‘we die not through will but by necessity’, and so on for cases of the sort”.
With great perspicuity, Augustine takes into consideration old age, sickness and, above all, death. They are facts that happen necessitate, without the human will being able to rule them. And furthermore they bring out the contrast between the desire for beatitudo and the impossibility of achieving it by ourselves. Death, in addition, seems to deny radically that desire for happiness and freedom of which we spoke earlier. It seems, in fact, to reduce the person to what happens necessitate. But here Augustine in lightning fashion brings out his powerful argument. Even faced with these incontrovertible data: “‘Non voluntate autem volumus’, quis vel delirus audeat dicere?/Who, even if crazy, would dare to say: ‘We do not will with the will?’”.
In our experience we can recognize a point at which this necessitas is radically dismantled: the possibility of willing, that is at the heart of the experience of freedom.
Augustine continues: “Quamobrem, quamvis presciat Deus nostras voluntates futuras, non ex eo tamen conficitur ut non voluntate aliquid velimus. Nam et de beatitudine quod dixisti, non abs teipso beatum fieri, ita dixisti, quasi hoc ego negaverim: sed dico, cum futurus es beatus, non te invitum, sed volentem futurum. Cum igitur praescius Deus sit futurae beatitudinis tuae, nec aliter aliquid fieri possit quam ille praescivit, alioquin nulla praescientia est, non tamen ex eo cogimur sentire, quod absurdissimum est et longe a veritate seclusum, non te volentem beatum futurum/Therefore even if God does have foreknowledge of our future wishes, it does not follow that we will something without will. When you said, with regard to happiness, that you do not become happy by yourself, you said it as if I would deny it. But I say that, when you become happy, you will become so because you want it and not because you do not want it. Therefore God foreknows your future happiness and only the event of which He has foreknowledge can take place, otherwise it would not be foreknowledge. However, we are not thereby forced to think that you will become happy without willing it. It would be just absurd and far from the truth”.
In a particularly acute way Augustine asserts that happiness, that is that beatitude that is not in our power to reach but that is bestowed by God, has to do (and how!) with our will. Nobody, in fact, says the saintly bishop, will become happy without willing it
In a particularly acute way Augustine asserts that happiness, that is that beatitude that is not in our power to reach but that is bestowed by God, has to do (and how!) with our will. Nobody, in fact, says the saintly bishop, will become happy without willing it. Not because the will is able necessarily to achieve what it decides on – it is not able to achieve fulfilled happiness though it ardently wish it – but because truly and definitively free will has the power to will what is bestowed on us.
I can want the gift (grace). Indeed, I am truly free and I decide for the fullness of my existence when I decide to want to cleave to the gift of grace. It is this dignity of human freedom that renders the heart true interlocutor of grace. And therefore grace, absolutely and always gratuitous, when freedom says “yes” becomes truly effective (not like something automatic that imposes itself on the person); it does not cancel freedom but calls it to involvement and thereby exalts it. Father Trapè makes this relevant comment: “In the Pelagian controversy, then, he was constantly concerned to assert both the freedom of mankind and the necessity of grace [...] he was also concerned to tirelessly recommend steadfast maintenance of the two truths (without the first all of human life is subverted, without the second all of Christian life), even when one does not understand how they can stand together. It is wrong to claim that Augustine sacrificed freedom in order to defend grace. Grace, the Doctor of Grace states forcibly, helps the will not to fail in front of the weaknesses of its nature, it does not take it away [...] ‘Free will is not taken away because it is helped, but it is helped, precisely, because it is not taken away’ (Ep. 157, 10)”8.
The very well known expression of Augustine in Sermo 169, 11, 13 is a wonderful summary of this position: “He who has created you without you, does not justify you without you: He created [creatures] who did not know, He does not justify those who do not want”. In the wake of this tradition Dante, with the acuteness proper to the literary genius, asserts with decision: “The greatest gift that God in his open-handedness/made in creating, and to his bounty still/most befitting, and what is most priceless/was the freedom of the will”9. And the Council of Trent was to take up the thought in that brilliant formula, an expression of the equilibrium of Catholicism, that to describe the dynamism of freedom, ever moved by redeeming grace, speaks of consenting cooperation: “Si quis dixerit liberum hominis arbitrium a Deo motum et excitatum nihil cooperari assentiendo Deo excitanti atque vocanti quo ad obtinendam iustificationis gratiam se disponat ac praeparet, neque posse dissentire, si velit, sed velut inanime quoddam nihil omnino agere mereque passive se habere: anathema sit10.
The heart, thus, is called to will freely that beatitude that can only be fruit of the gift of grace. What are the privileged expressions of its free willing with regard to grace? The desire and the grateful acceptance of the gift. In fact “those who ask for salvation are saved: those who ask it, who desire it. And such a thing is valid for every man. Only the Mystery knows the heart of man. An instant of desire is enough”11.

The “task” of freedom
Do the words of Augustine, that we have gone over again together, have anything to teach us men and women of our time, thirsty for happiness and freedom?
We can’t, in fact, deny that the dominion of technoscience over our personal and social existence has become very great in the advanced democracies, above all in the West. In the current mind-set technoscience seems to replace the religions or the philosophies in telling us what life is at its origin, in its development and its ending. When one looks closely at the phenomenon of globalization one sees it is closely dependent on the fact that the West is imposing a conception of happiness as pure progressive product of technoscience on the whole world.
It seems, at first sight, that contemporary culture denies the whole lesson of Augustine contained in the affirmation of Evodius from which we started: “If it were in my power to be happy, I would already be so for sure; I want it even now and am not because not I but He makes me happy”. Now, technoscience seems to give mankind the power of being happy. Not only to want happiness but to be able to achieve it by itself, directly, without receiving it as a gift in any way.
The pretension to unconditional freedom expresses itself in this fashion. A freedom that has everything in its power: “I can, therefore I must”, that is the categorical imperative of technoscience.
Don Giacomo Tantardini and Cardinal Angelo Scola

Don Giacomo Tantardini and Cardinal Angelo Scola

Perhaps already Descartes had identified the historico-cultural justification of the power of scientific knowledge: the promise to make man master and owner of nature (“maître et possesseur de la nature”). The power of scientific knowledge is documented, on the one hand, in its theoretical and practical universalism (in antithesis to the variety and confrontation of religions), on the other in the enormous increase in possibility that science, through technology, is making available to the world. Thus technoscience in fact stimulates the refusal of reason to pose the questions on the basics (“And who am I? Who in the end assures me, beyond death, with his love?”). And they urge freedom to engage almost exclusively in enterprises entrusted to a technicism ever more powerful and thereby in the end ever more self-justifying.
One glimpses here a post-modern form of utopia not lacking in weighty consequences at the social level. In fact everything that does not come within the sphere of this sort of “scientific universalism” is at best relegated to a kind of Indian reservation, that cannot aspire to assume universal public importance.
What to set against this mentality? Certainly not complaint and an obsessive search for the guilty. The faith understood as humanly completed answer. The living faith that witnesses to the truth, the beauty and the goodness of the free gift of the encounter with Christ. The path of the encounter between the heart and grace. Between the ability to will, that never fails, and the gift that fulfils the desire for happiness. And it is no accident if still today, after the Bible, the Confessions of Augustine are the most repeatedly printed publication in the world.
Don Giussani, by whom the “Augustinian readings” of Don Giacomo are nourished, identified in a commentary on the Gospel passage of the rich young man, the highway for speaking to the man of today by describing the task of freedom in its encounter with grace: “Think of the rich young man – who makes his way between the bystanders and listens opened-mouthed to Jesus – and of Jesus who looks at him. Then he asks him: “Good Master, what must I do to enter into what you call the Kingdom of Heaven, into the truth of reality, the truth of being?”. And Jesus stared at him and said: “Keep the Commandments”. “But I have always kept them”. And “Jesus, having stared at him, loved him” – having looked at him, loved him: “‘You lack one thing: come right to the bottom”. It was a task, he proposed him a task: that the gratuitousness in which he had been submerged become a task [...] the value of life, of my life, is Your work, this is a task. The pertinence of freedom to the possibility that Being makes shine forth is called task”12.
But where to learn a similar faith? It is necessary that the men and the women of our time – there where they find themselves loving and working, that is in their real lives – concretely encounter Christian communities in which the experience of wanting that gift (grace), that fulfils desire, is practicable. Communities that offer to the lost and thirsty freedom of post-modern man the chance to live all the Christian mysteries down to their daily personal and social implications. Communities in which the living and personal gift of the Resurrected Crucified (grace) is, as von Balthasar said, like a fertile wound that no human pretension can deceive itself into thinking it can heal.
Christian communities formed of men and women at work, as Giussani says. That want to live the gratuitousness by which they are surprised. Communities in which the individual person can, in full freedom, undergo the experience of how the will is fulfilled so much more in the acceptance of the gift than in the pretension to conquest.


Notes
1 Benedict XVI, Sermon at the Eucharistic celebration, in the Orti of the Almo Collegio Borromeo, Pavia, 22 April 2007.
2 G. Tantardini, Il cuore e la grazia in sant’Agostino. Distinzione e corrispondenza [The heart and the grace in Saint Augustine. Distinction and correspondence], Città Nuova, Rome 2006, pp. 343-344.
3 Cf. D. Gentili, Introduzione, in Dialoghi II. Opere di Sant’Agostino III/2 [Introduction, in Dialogues II. Works of Saint Augustine III/2], Città Nuova, Rome 1976, pp. 137-151.
4 Cf. Epistolae 31, 4.7.
5 G. Madec, Saint Augustin et la philosophie. Notes critiques, Paris 1996, p. 61.
6 G. Tantardini, op. cit., p. 47.
7 A. Trapè, Introduzione generale a sant’Agostino, Città Nuova, Rome 2006, pp. 112-113.
8 Ibid., p. 113.
9 Paradiso V, 19-22.
10 Council of Trent, decree De iustificatione (13 January 1547), can. 4: “If anyone says that the free will of man, moved and stimulated by God, does not cooperate in any way expressing its own assent to God, who moves him and prepares him to obtain the grace of justification; and that he, if he wants, cannot refuse his consent, but remains absolutely inert like an inanimate thing and plays an altogether passive role: let him be anathema”.
11 G. Tantardini, op. cit., p. 208.
12 L. Giussani, Affezione e dimora, Bur, Milan, 2001, p.272


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