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from issue no. 06/07 - 2004

In parvulis sanctis Ecclesia Christi diffunditur (Saint Augustine, Enarratio in psalmum 112)

Conferences on the relevance of Saint Augustine

Notes from the third lecture of don Giacomo Tantardini on “Augustine witness to Tradition” - University of Padua – Academic year 2003-2004

by don Giacomo Tantardini

<I>Suffer the little children to come unto me</I>, Vogel von Vogelstein, Gallery of Moderna Art, Florence

Suffer the little children to come unto me, Vogel von Vogelstein, Gallery of Moderna Art, Florence

I thank Massimo for the suggestions he has offered and in particular for the last question. Because it’s really true that a humanly attractive encounter, a humanly positive experience makes one curious about everything, makes one attentive to everything. It is fear that closes up, whereas it is the joy of the heart that opens. When a child is afraid, it closes up; when it is happy for the comfort of good people that it has near, it is free, it opens up to everything. If then problematicity means openness to all reality, to every encounter, Augustine is an admirable example of all this. The De civitate Dei has been described like a book-forest, an immense forest in which we can also find all the things that in that moment were the subject of cultural and political dialogue.
The De civitate Dei was suggested by the problematic caused by the great tragedy of August 410, when Rome was ransacked by the barbarians under Alaric. I was struck that Cardinal Ratzinger in his book on Saint Augustine, People and house of God in Saint Augustine1, which if I’m not wrong was his doctoral thesis, sets that tragedy in relation (because the fact that Rome, the eternal city, was destroyed, was a tragedy, and was so also for all the religious conception and politics of Rome) to the «first great manifestation of the immigration of peoples»2. Ratzinger then sets in relation the fact that «eternal Rome fell» into the hands of the barbarians with a «first manifestation» of a grandiose phenomenon that we have before our eyes and concerns us all, the immigration that concerns the European continent also. It is a suggestion that I want to take up next time, because according to me Ratzinger suggests (in his book it is only a suggestion) that it is not falling back on a culture or on a civilization even a religious one that makes living this phenomenon with hope possible. And that, too, seems to me very relevant.
Now I’d like to begin the reading of a passage from the De Trinitate that you will find in a note in the hand-out of the preceding lesson on page 16. It’s like a large premise to the three simpler passages we will then read, that will be the real content of today’s gathering. A large premise that I had in some way suggested last time. I’ll read you the point I start from. «If what separates from God are in themselves the finitude, outwardness, appearance, then the return to God is an ascesis». If what separates from God is the creation as such, as finitude, then the return to God is an effort to purify that finitude. «If instead what separates from God is a historical sin», what the biblical-Christian tradition calls original sin, «the return to God cannot but be a historical fact of forgiveness».
And one immediately sees that the first is a strenuous path, for few — because most people are satisfied with other things — and is mixed with oversights and mistakes. They are the three observations that the Vatican Ecumenic Council Vatican I made on the natural recognition of moral and religious truths3. If purification were an effort of ascesis it would be for few, because who have the problem of getting a living don’t even have time to think of ascetic commitment; would be long and strenuous, because it is something that is based on the so unstable efforts of mankind; and it could finally degenerate into a perversion, as I shall later suggest.
Let me go on reading page 16 of the last lecture: «Here lies all the difference between ascesis or philosophical and religious purification and Christianity. Because if creation itself in its finite being is evil, then to be free from evil requires freeing oneself from finitude: ascesis, purification consists of freeing oneself from finitude, in a going beyond appearance» (going beyond it is a characteristic expression of the gnostic religiosity4) «in a passing from outwardness to inwardness. If instead the creation is good…». All the creation is good. «Omnis creatura bona» (1Tm 4,4). Also the smallest instant of apparent beauty is good. And precisely as beautiful it is sign, witness/ confessio of the Creator5. Think to the words of Jesus on the beauty of the lilies of the field and on the small birds of heaven6. And the phrase of Jesus: «Even the hairs of your head are all counted»7. What is there more banal than a hair of our head?
The creation is good, then. Good but wounded. Because that, too, is a given fact: that the heart of man was created good, but man is far from his heart. We are told so by that fugitivus cordis sui, that is one of the most brilliant expressions of Saint Augustine8. Man is far from his heart; the heart was created good, it desires beauty, truth, goodness, justice, but man is far from his heart, and hence runs elsewhere.
«If instead the creation is good but wounded, the wound has simply to be healed. And that is Christianity». This, according to me, is the heart of the whole cultural – let us say - affair, in the noble and lofty sense of the term, of Augustine. Augustine, who passed from Manicheism to Neo-platonism finding in the Platonic books a possibility of truth and freedom, was not only to describe all this effort like presumption9, but didn’t hesitate, we’ll read it now, to put this intellectual and spiritual ascesis in relation to the works of the devil10.
Now let us read the passage from De Trinitate11. «Haec est vera pax et cum Creatore nostro nobis firma connexio, / This is the true peace, this is the stable communion with our Creator, given to us / purgatis et reconciliatis per Mediatorem vitae, / purified and reconciled through the Mediator of life». Purificatis et reconciliatis: purification and reconciliation coincide, for Augustine, with the possibility of being happy. This is the great insight that Augustine discovered in Neo-Platonism: that happiness does not lie in the pleasures of the body, nor in the virtues of the soul, but in unity with the only Creator, in unity with the One. To reach the One the Neo-Platonists said that a whole intellectual and spiritual ascesis was necessary. Because the One is far away, between the One and the lapsed creature there is all the space in which the demons live. And so this ascesis at a certain point can only turn into sacrificing to the demons12. This is the religious perversion at which according to Augustine the Platonists and Plato himself arrived13.
Let us look again at the passage we’re reading: «purgatis et reconciliatis per Mediatorem vitae,/ purified and reconciled with God through the Mediator of life [the man Christ Jesus, as Saint Paul says14] / sicut maculati et alienati ab eo recesseramus per mediatorem mortis / as first we distanced from him, stained and alienated through the mediator of death». Alienati means “separated from him”, but it seems to me a term to keep even in English. The devil is called mediator of death. And here I open a little parenthesis. Augustine has been accused even by modern theologians of conceiving the redemption in such a concrete manner as to reduce it to the “mercantile” image of the “rights of the devil”. As if the redeemer, in order to tear away man the prey of the devil, must pay the devil a price. The perception Augustine has of redemption is so concrete that he is accused of emphasizing these “rights of the devil”. Madec has a phrase on this that is surprising in its relevance. «He [Jesus Christ] is that one who ransoms (Redemptor) in the concrete sense of the term; the people who listened to Augustine were not misled and thought immediately of the sad reality of the period: there were raids, trafficking in women and children, etcetera»15. The ransom of man from the devil had and has this concreteness. They had before their eyes «raids, trafficking in women and children, etcetera». When Augustine speaks of the devil as mediator of death, he had, as unfortunately we also have before our eyes, this concreteness16.
«Sicut enim diabolus superbus hominem superbientem perduxit ad mortem,/ As in fact the proud devil has led to death man who has become proud...». Superbiens intus, says Augustine17, who has become proud in his inwardness, in the effort of ascesis, of going beyond: superbiens intus. «As in fact the proud devil has led to death man who has become proud,/ ita Christus humilis hominem obedientem reduxit ad vitam; / so humble Christ has led man who obeys him back to life; / quia sicut ille elatus cecidit et deiecit consentientem,/ in fact as he [the devil] fell from the height of his pride and made man fall who consented to him,/ sic iste humiliatus surrexit,/ so he [Jesus] from the humiliation [of the cross] is risen [surrexit means risen again from his humiliation, risen after the death of the cross]/ et erexit credentem/ and has raised up man that believes in him. / Quia enim non pervenerat diabolus quo ipse perduxerat/ But the devil had not reached where he had led man». The devil did not die; being pure spirit he could not die; he has been condemned, but he has not died. Whereas man, who has consented to the devil, has also died in the flesh.
«Mortem quippe spiritus in impietate gestabat/ As spirit he brought death in his impiety [he died in the heart, he no longer lives of the glory of heaven] / sed mortem carnis non subierat quia nec indumentum susceperat/ but he did not suffer the death of the flesh because he was not garbed in it», he was pure spirit.
Because the devil has been condemned, but has not died, «magnus homini videbatur princeps in legionibus daemonum/ to man [the devil] appeared as a great leader [a great powerful person] among his legions of demons»: precisely because he doesn’t see him as dead as a consequence of his sin, in the eyes of the man the devil seems to be a powerful person surrounded by his legions of devils; «per quos fallaciarum regnum exercet. / through whom [the demons] he rules his kingdom of lies».
Several times in these meetings I have quoted the passages in the De civitate Dei on the power of the worldly city. Every power comes from God, Augustine repeats citing Saint Paul (Rm 13, 1). Yet men believe that to obtain power and to keep it one has to pray the devil, because they believes that the devil has a lot to do with making a career and keeping the positions gained18. Precisely because he hasn’t seen the devil dead, man considers him as one who has power, who disposes of a great power.
Here there is a rather long and complex sentence. We need to start with «Sic hominem» and then read «subditum tenet» three lines below. In what way does the devil hold man in thrall? And here Augustine (I repeat Madec’s phrase) «was happy to assimilate the neo-platonic mediation [the two techniques of purification of the soul according to Porphyrius19] to the work of the devil»20.
And here again forgive me a small parenthesis. I refer to these things because they seem to me relevant. In what way according to the neo-platonists does man purify himself? In two ways: at the level of intelligence with philosophical ascesis, at imaginative level through magic. In a passage of amazing relevance in the De civitate Dei Augustine says that magic, when practiced by poor people, is called witchcraft, when instead it is practiced by upper-class people it is described as theurgia, that is, we could say, culture. Just like what happens today! When it is practice by poor people, it’s black magic, when instead practiced by upper-class people, it’s culture, even worship21.
So true is it that Augustine in the De vera religione has a phrase that maybe only in these times has been grasped in all its tragedy. He says that men, because of original sin, are those who both admit the existence of only one God and those who don’t admit it and worship the fruits of their own imagination (if they are not graced by the grace of the Lord, if they don’t ask to remain in the grace of the Lord22), whether they admit the existence of a single God or don’t admit it, they become thralls of pleasure (voluptas), of ambition (excellentia), of curiosity (spectaculum). We could say of lust, usury and power23. And he adds that the Platonists, hence the most religious, most motivated, think that such vices are worthy of cultivation. He says precisely that: colenda24. And this is a perversion proper to a certain religiosity, whereby for example ambition becomes «a perverse imitation of the divine omnipotence»25.
«Sic hominem per elationis typhum, potentiae quam iustitiae cupidiorem, aut per falsam philosophiam magis inflans, aut per sacra sacrilega irretiens,/ Thus the devil with the arrogance of pride holds man in thrall, who has more desire for power than for justice, either by exalting him through a deceitful philosophy or snaring him through sacrilegious rites/ in quibus etiam magicae fallaciae curiosiores superbioresque animas deceptas illusasque praecipitans,/ in which he cast souls headlong, that he has seduced and deluded, too curious of the deceits of the magic and too proud; / subditum tenet; pollicens etiam purgationem animae per eas quas “teletaí” appellant,/ and also promises purification of the soul through those ceremonies that are called “teletai” / transfigurando se in angelum lucis/ disguising himself as angel of light [cf. 2Cor 11, 14] / per multiformem machinationem in signis et prodigiis mendacii. / through manifold machination of signs and lying portents».
In the face of this attempt at intellectual or cultual ascesis, stands the simplicity of Christian witness: «By making himself man, Christ has become priest and victim of the sacrifice in the same time»26. There is no need of striving to achieve happiness. Happiness itself has come. There is no longer need to pray and sacrifice to the demons to reach happiness. Happiness itself has stooped, has come forward, has humbled itself. «You are the Priest, you the Victim, you the Offerer, you the Offering»27. This familiarity in prayer is also very fine. You are the priest, you the victim. There’s no need to look for other victims. You the offerer, you the offering.

1. Enchiridion de fide, spe et charitate