THE TIME OF THE CHURCH ACCORDING TO AUGUSTINE
“Grant what You command”
The beautiful prayer of St Augustine, recently revivified also by Benedict XVI, can also summarize this book: “Grant what You command, and command what You will”. So writes Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, in the preface of the book Il tempo della Chiesa secondo Agostino (The Time of the Church according to Augustine)
by Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio
Giacomo Tantardini, Il tempo della Chiesa secondo Agostino. Seguire e rimanere in attesa. La felicità in speranza, Città Nuova, Rome 2009, 388 pp., 22 euros
It can be said in so many ways that the holy Bishop of Hippo is relevant. One can venture reviews of his theology, rediscover the modernity of his gaze at the motions of the human spirit, bring out the brilliance of his judgments on the historical vicissitudes of his time, in some ways so similar to those of the present day.
In his lectures on Augustine, with the texts read and commented on directly, Don Giacomo has picked and followed another pattern. If Augustine is relevant, if he is our contemporary – as this book documents – he is so especially because he describes just how to become and remain Christian in the time of the Church. That time which is His, as it is ours. “That short time – Augustine repeats several times commenting on the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John (John 16, 16-20) – which goes from the Lord’s ascension into heaven in His true body to His glorious return” (p. 123).
The most striking image for me of how one becomes a Christian, as it emerges in this book, is the way in which Augustine recounts and comments on Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus (pp. 279-281). Zacchaeus is small, and wants to see the Lord pass, and so he climbs a sycamore. Augustine says: “Et vidit Dominus ipsum Zacchaeum. Visus est, et vidit / And the Lord looked at Zacchaeus himself. Zacchaeus was seen, and therefore saw”. What strikes one are those three seeings: that of Zacchaeus, that of Jesus and then that of Zacchaeus again, after being seen by the Lord. “He would have seen Him pass even if Jesus had not raised his eyes”, comments Don Giacomo, “but it would not have been a meeting. He would perhaps have satisfied that minimum of good curiosity out of which he had climbed the tree, but it would not have been a meeting” (p. 281).
There is the point: some believe that faith and salvation come with our effort to look for, to seek the Lord. Whereas it’s the opposite: you are saved when the Lord looks for you, when He looks at you and you let yourself be looked at and sought for. The Lord will look for you first. And when you find Him, you understand that He was waiting there looking at you, He was expecting you from beforehand.
That is salvation: He loves you beforehand. And you let yourself be loved. Salvation is precisely this meeting where He works first. If this meeting does not take place, we are not saved. We can talk about salvation. Invent reassuring theological systems that turn God into a notary and His gratuitous love into a due deed to which He is supposed to be forced by His nature. But we never enter into the People of God. Whereas, when you look at the Lord and you realize with gratitude that you are looking at Him because He is looking at you, all intellectual prejudices go away, that elitism of the spirit that is characteristic of intellectuals without talent and is ethicism without goodness.
If the beginning of faith is the work of the Lord, Saint Augustine also describes how you remain in this beginning. Here the keywords are those contained in the subtitle: following and awaiting. And the figure that represents them is John, the beloved disciple. John represents those awaiting to be loved, and remains by grace and not effort in this expectation. In him it is obvious that “if one is not loved first (cf. 1 Jn 4, 19) one can neither love nor follow” (p. 171). The awaiting of the acts of the Lord is renewed in him in every instant, the expectation of those new beginnings in which freedom adheres to grace “through the pleasure by which it is drawn” (p. 372).
According to Augustine, there are distinctive features – Don Giacomo points out – indications of when one is seen and embraced by the Lord.
The first sign is gratitude, the spontaneous motion of the heart that gives thanks. Augustine shows that even the clear understanding of what it takes to obtain salvation can become a source of pride, of the sort that he registered among the Platonic philosophers of his time, who “have seen where one must reach to be happy, but decided to attribute to themselves what they saw, and become proud, have lost what they saw” (p. 27). One can arrive at discovering that only in God is there happiness, but this knowledge does not by itself move the heart. The heart remains sad and full of itself. It does not dissolve in tears of gratitude (pp. 19-25). Instead, when one is picked up in His arms by the Lord and “humbly embraces my humble God Jesus” (p. 40), without even thinking about it, he becomes full of gratitude and gives thanks. And in this gratitude also becomes good. Don Giacomo writes that “one is good not because one knows what goodness is, one is glad not because one knows what happiness is. One is good and is happy because one is embraced by goodness and by happiness” (p. 330).
Jesus and Zacchaeus, fresco in the Basilica of Sant’Angelo in Formis, Capua (Caserta)
These are some of the many tones and ideas in this book that can be an invaluable comfort to many, well beyond the circle of experts and scholars.
For this I wish it luck, while all the friends of Augustine are preparing to remember that 1600 years have passed since the holy Bishop of Hippo, faced with the sack of Rome, was inspired to write the City of God.