Home > Archives > 12 - 2007 > The heart and grace in Saint Augustine. Distinction and correspondence
from issue no. 12 - 2007

The heart and grace in Saint Augustine. Distinction and correspondence

by Don Giacomo Tantardini

What I have to say aims only at being a thank-you. In the first place to His Eminence Cardinal Angelo Scola. As His Eminence mentioned, we have known each other and been friends for many years. Then thanks to the Rector of the University, who with liberality and cordiality has found room for these meetings over all these years. Finally to Doctor Calogero, to whom I am bound by esteem and, may I say, such a gratuitous friendship.
I would like to thank you by reading a passage from Saint Augustine. His Eminence’s closing words prompt me also to read a passage from Saint Ambrose. I propose the passage from Augustine for a very contingent reason. This morning I read the heading and summaries of an article by Barbara Spinelli in the Turin La Stampa1. In one of the summaries it is said that the good life is born out of an encounter, as is evident with Zaccheus, in the encounter of Jesus with Zaccheus. So I read some phrases from Augustine’s commentary on the encounter of Jesus with Zaccheus2. Among Don Giussani’s very imaginative explanations of the Gospel, as His Eminence pointed out, perhaps the one that most struck many university students was when Giussani spoke of the encounter of Jesus with Zaccheus3.
After mentioning, quoting Saint Paul, that the Son of the Man came to save sinners (1Tm 1, 15) (“si homo non periisset, Filius hominis non venisset”), Saint Augustine says: “Do not puff yourself up, be like Zaccheus, be humble. But you will say to me: if I be like Zaccheus I shall not be able to see Jesus because of the crowd. Do not be sad: climb the wood where Jesus was crucified for you and you will see Jesus”. In Augustine’s discourses on Saint John, one of the finest passages, imaginatively also, is the one in which he says that to cross the sea of life towards the blessed life, towards full and perfect happiness, to cross this sea it is enough to let oneself be carried by the wood of His humility, it’s enough to let oneself be carried by the humanity of Jesus4.
Augustine continues: “Iam vide Zacchaeum meum, vide illum/Look at my Zaccheus, look at him”. This is how to read the Gospel, this is how to imagine the Gospel.
Then Augustine describes a dialogue, as it were, between the crowd and Zaccheus, between the crowd, that for Augustine represents the arrogant who are blocking the view of Jesus, and Zaccheus, who instead represents the humble man who wants to see Jesus.
The crowd in fact says to Zaccheus “that is, to the humble, to those who walk in the path of humility, that leave to God the insults they receive, that do not seek revenge on their enemies, the crowd insults him and says: you are defenseless, you are in no position to avenge yourself. The crowd prevents Jesus from being seen. The crowd glorifies itself”, that is seeks in itself its own substance. This is the first sin – Saint Augustine writes in a letter – to seek in oneself one’s own substance5, or, to take up the words of His Eminence, to try to construct our happiness by ourselves. “The crowd prevents Jesus from being seen. The crowd that glories in itself and enjoyed being able to avenge itself blocks the recognition of Him who on the Cross said: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’”.
Zaccheus goes on: “I think that you are mocking the sycamore”. In fact, according to Augustine, the term “sycamore” means “tree of false figs”, that is a tree that counts for nothing, a worthless tree. “I think that you are mocking the sycamore. You are mocking this tree, but it is just this tree that let me see Jesus”.
Augustine finishes with what for me are definitive words: “Et vidit Dominus ipsum Zacchaeum./And the Lord saw Zaccheus himself./ Visus est, et vidit/He was seen and then he saw”. He would have seen him pass even if Jesus had not raised his eyes, but it would not have been an encounter. It might have satisfied the minimum of healthy curiosity enough for him to have climbed the tree, but it would not have been an encounter: “sed nisi visus esset, non videret/if he had not been seen, he would not have seen Him./ [...] Ut videremus, visi sumus; / to see, we must be seen; / ut diligeremus, dilecti sumus/to be able to love, we must be loved”. Augustine concludes by saying: “Deus meus, misericordia eius praeveniet me/O my God your mercy will go before me, it will always go before”.
<I>Saint Augustine</I>, 6<Sup>th</Sup> century fresco, Lateran, Rome

Saint Augustine, 6th century fresco, Lateran, Rome

Now let me read you a passage from Saint Ambrose. Ambrose is suggesting what it means to put hope in the word of the Lord6. I read it because these words help me in prayer. Augustine says that for the City of God, unhoused in this time, in this mortality, “to put hope in the prayer is totum atque summum negotium/the activity, the task [thus adopting Giussani’s word], the totalizing and supreme task”. And Augustine, when he says this in the De civitate Dei7, is speaking of the City of God made present by even a single person, a single person in a great surround of people who do not recognize Jesus by grace. For the City of God rendered present even by a single man, the negotium (the word negotium is very interesting because it indicates precisely task, activity), the totalizing and supreme task is to put hope in asking.
Ambrose says: “Adiutor meus et susceptor meus/You are my help and my support. You help me with the law, you take me in your arms with grace. Those whom he has helped with the law, he has carried in his flesh, for it is written: “This [Jesus] takes on Himself our sins” and for this [because His grace carries me] I hope in His word”.
But it is the phrases that now come that help my poor prayer. “It is truly beautiful that he says: ‘I have hoped in your word’. That is: I have not hoped in the prophets [the prophets are a good thing, but I have not hoped in the prophets]. I have not hoped in the law [the ten commandments of God are a good thing, but I have not hoped in the law]. /In verbum tuum speravi/I have hoped in your word/hoc est in adventum tuum/that is in your coming”. I have hoped in your word, that is in your coming. Because the child does not hope abstractly in the mother, the child hopes that the mother will come close to it.
In verbum tuum speravi, hoc est in adventum tuum, ut venias,/that you come,/et suscipias peccatores/and take us sinners in your arms, and forgive us our sins and set on your shoulders, that is on your cross, this tired little sheep”.
I thank you all.

1 Cf. B. Spinelli, Il grande inverno della Chiesa [The great winter of the Church], in La Stampa, 27 November 2007, pp. 10-11.
2 Augustine, Sermones 174, 2, 2-4, 4.
3 Cf. L. Giussani, “As for Zaccheus. The grace of an encounter” (August 1985), in Un avvenimento di vita, cioè una storia [An event in life, that is a history] (introduction by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger), Edit-Il Sabato, Roma 1993, pp. 187-206.
4 Cf. Augustine, In Evangelium Ioannis II, 4.
5 Cf. Augustine, Epistolae 118, 3, 15.
6 Ambrose, Enarrationes in psalmos 118, XV, 23-25.
7 Augustine, De civitate Dei XV, 21.

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