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CHRISTIANITY
from issue no. 09 - 2009

“Grant what you command”


This invocation sparked a very harsh reaction from Pelagius when he heard it in Rome at a reading of Book X of the Confessions, where Augustine several times repeats: “Da quod iubes et iube quod vis”: a prayer that refers to God what, according to Pelagius, is instead the task of man. An interview with Nello Cipriani Professor at the “Augustinianum” Patristic Institute, Rome


Interview with Nello Cipriani by Lorenzo Cappelletti


The covers of the French, Spanish and English editions of <I>30Days</I>, n. 8, 2009

The covers of the French, Spanish and English editions of 30Days, n. 8, 2009

As always, we find Father Cipriani at work. And as for that, what is true for the manual labor of workmen and artisans, should apply to what is called, sometimes emphatically, “intellectual work”. That is, it too, should have its workbench where the task is taken up again with daily assiduity. The most recent product from Father Cipriani’s workbench is a book just published by Città Nuova: Molti e uno solo in Cristo. La spiritualità di Agostino [Many and just one in Christ. The spirituality of Augustine]. Which gives us the starting point to talk briefly with him about prayer in St Augustine, beginning from the sentence of the saintly Bishop of Hippo which Pope Benedict XVI set as a seal on the homily given to his former students last summer (see 30Days, n. 8, 2009): Da quod iubes iube et quod vis (Grant what you command and command what you will).

NELLO CIPRIANI: Do you know the phrase triggered a very harsh reaction from Pelagius when he heard it for the first time at a gathering in Rome where Augustine’s Confessions were being read? It was around 405 and Pelagius, a bishop friend of Augustine and others met there. Book X of the Confessions was being read where Augustine (as he himself points out in De dono perseverantiae 20, 53) several times repeats: Da quod iubes et iube quod vis. Faced with that invocation, Pelagius stood up angrily, because he considered it an offense to God. It referred back to God, in fact what, according to Pelagius, is a task of man: God commands and man must deliver. Da quod iubes? No, says Pelagius, it is not God who must give, because otherwise the fault, in the case that man does not accomplish what God commands, would fall on God Himself. In this all the distance between Augustine and Pelagius comes to light. It is a matter of two opposing concepts of the Christian life. While Augustine makes all good works derive from the gift that God Himself makes of the Holy Spirit, the beginning of prayer and a new life, for Pelagius it is man, instructed by Christ through teaching, example and grace understood only as a light for intelligence, who then decides for himself whether to do good or evil. There is no other help from God. For Augustine, however, I repeat, it is the Holy Spirit who makes us groan (as St Paul says in Chapter VIII of the Epistle to the Romans), who inspires holy desire in us, who inspires in us feelings of filial affection towards God whereby we address him as Father, who inspires prayer in us. For Pelagius this further inspiration doesn’t exist, this inner affection moved by the Holy Spirit.
You could say that in the end the whole argument between Augustine and Pelagius hinges on prayer. In the Pelagian conception prayer becomes something superfluous, or at least not absolutely necessary.
CIPRIANI: That’s right. The whole of Augustine’s insistence on the necessity of prayer depends on his conception of the Christian life, centered on the Holy Spirit who dwells in the believer. We talk even too much of Augustinian Christ-centeredness and the Holy Spirit in Augustine is hardly spoken of, to the point that some people arrive at denying this aspect. In fact the Holy Spirit is also at the center. The doctrine of grace is tied closely to that belief, that is that the Holy Spirit was given to us to renew ourselves, to make us children of God, to make the stony human heart a heart of flesh, to make the man a child capable of loving the Father and capable of loving everything that is right and good according to His will. This whole inner action of the Holy Spirit is not considered at all by Pelagius. That Pelagius gave no importance whatever to prayer we can see from reading a text undoubtedly his, the Letter to Demetriade, a girl from the Roman nobility who had consecrated herself to God. Pelagius wrote the letter as a piece of spiritual instruction. Well, in the letter, he refers only once to the Holy Spirit and prayer. And not to the prayer of supplication, so that God will help the young woman to remain faithful to her consecration, but only to prayer understood as meditation on the Law. The idea that we must ask God for help to do good is quite foreign to Pelagius. He says so explicitly in the Letter to Demetriade: you, being of a noble family, have much wealth, many honors, but these goods, even though they belong to you, are not really yours, because you’ve inherited them, but virtue instead is yours only, because only you can reach it, it’s only in your hands. So he exhorts her without any reference to supplication, to the invocation of help from God, pointing out that everything depends on her. Whereas Augustine continually urges his Christians to pray.
The Collect of Sunday Mass a few weeks ago had us say, “May Your mercy always precede and accompany us, Lord, so that supported by Your Fatherly help we never tire of doing good”. The liturgy has integrated Augustine’s emphasis entirely.
CIPRIANI: Without a doubt the liturgy very much reflects the teaching of Augustine on grace and the necessity of prayer. It should however be noted that everything that Augustine says about prayer he took from Scripture and from the Our Father above all. Prayer, in other words, is not linked only to the Holy Spirit but also to the Gospel. We cannot ask for anything justly except in conformity with the prayer that Jesus taught us. It’s important also to stress this, that is, how to Augustine, who makes so much of the Holy Spirit, the teaching of Jesus Christ is equally essential. So much so that in the Our Father he strongly highlights the second part which follows the request “forgive us our trespasses”, that is the “as we forgive those who trespass against us”. And he also insists against Pelagius on the “lead us not into temptation”, precisely because it is found in the prayer that the Lord has taught us and which is for us the rule by which we must inspire our prayer. Pelagius, who does not ask God not to lead us into temptation because he believes that everything is the task of man, sets himself against the teaching of the Lord. At the beginning of Book II of De peccatorum meritis Augustine writes of “being unable to express in words how damaging, how dangerous and contrary to our salvation (since it is in Christ), how opposed to the very religion we have embraced and to the piety with which we honor God, not to pray to the Lord to obtain the benefit of not being overcome by temptation, and to hold that the prayer ‘lead us not into temptation’ contained in the Lord’s prayer is futile” (II, 2, 2). St Augustine always repeated to the Pelagians: what is the value of this prayer that the Lord has taught us if everything depends on us? He argues that even the apostles had to pray every day not to be led into temptation and be delivered from evil.
<I>The Presentation in the Temple</I>, by Fra Angelico in the Convent of San Marco in Florence

The Presentation in the Temple, by Fra Angelico in the Convent of San Marco in Florence

Is the Our Father the only scriptural auctoritas on which Augustine relies?
CIPRIANI: Apart from the Lord’s Prayer it’s from the Psalms that Augustine draws the reasons for the Da quod iubes et iube quod vis. All the Psalms are really a cry for help to God to do what He commands. A little further on, always in De peccatorum meritis (II, 5, 5), after saying that God offers His help not only to those who have turned to Him, but also to those who have not, so they may turn to Him, he motivates the Da quod iubes precisely with the words of the Psalms: “When, therefore, He commands us: ‘Turn to me and I will turn to you’, and we say to Him: ‘Bring us back, God our Savior’ [Ps 84, 5] and ‘Sabaoth, bring us back’ [Ps 79, 8], what else are we saying to Him than ‘Grant what you command’? When He commands: “Understand, O foolish of the people’ and we say, ‘Give me understanding and I shall learn your commandments’ [Ps 118, 73], what else are we saying to Him but ‘Grant what you command?’”, and so on. Augustine wrote the Confessions themselves basing himself on the Psalms. The Confessions are not only confession of sins but praise and thanksgiving to God, and very often invocations, as when he repeated Da quod iubes et iube quod vis. That phrase quoted by the Pope is really the most significant expression of the Christian view.
Your mention of the Psalms brings to mind the fact that the Rule of St Benedict consists very largely of the detailed indication of the psalms to be recited at different times of day and reminds me that the prayer of St Francis also – very recent studies have confirmed – was all inspired by the Psalms. In other words, I mean that the tradition of Christian sanctity has always adopted that basic inspiration.
CIPRIANI: The authentic spirit of the liturgy that those saints had assimilated is all based on the Psalms. Augustine’s own Confessions begins with two verses from the Psalms, “‘Great is Yahweh, and most worthy of praise’ [Ps 47, 1 and 144, 3], ‘Our Lord is great, all-powerful, his wisdom beyond all telling’ [Ps 146, 5]”. And the style of the Confessions is also inspired by that of the Psalms, almost every line quotes words and expressions. Augustine, who had learned precisely from the Psalms that God works in the world for the salvation of mankind, goes over, as the Psalmist does, his own story in quest of this presence of God at work for our salvation. And having discovered this action of God for mankind, praises and thanks Him. That is why the Confessions is indeed a very original book. It is not an autobiography. Augustine claims to have written them to praise God for His justice, both for good things He has bestowed and for the evils which He caused him to avoid, and to involve readers in the praise of God. That is the purpose of the Confessions, which reiterates the idea I mentioned at the outset, namely that the life of the believer is moved and animated by the Spirit of God and therefore everything good mankind does is a gift of God. He must first ask God for help, to be able to do good, and then must praise and thank Him. The prayer of supplication and thanksgiving are complementary, one cannot stand without the other: the Confessions is the one thing and the other. Let me add something.
Please do.
CIPRIANI: Augustine remains always in quest and continually prays, and not only to God... In the sense of asking help even from the reader. That is the interesting thing about Augustine’s theology. No modern theologian does so. Read any book by any theologian. Whenever do they ask people to pray for them and ask for criticisms to be made? Augustine is truly a fascinating man precisely because he is not only fully aware of his intelligence, but also of his limits and therefore lives in continual conversation with God and his brethren and hopes for help from everyone to make some progress. He is not a thinker closed in on himself, or proud of his intelligence. He is always in prayer asking God for enlightenment, but he does not ask it of God alone, he asks his readers also.


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