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August 28, 2013
St. Monica's 'Unfinished Symphony'
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

He was in love with love. He was in love with beauty. Into his extended adolescence, he sought to find their perfection in all the wrong places. Some commentators have called him “the patron saint of college students.” Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), “a world-class figure,” as Peter Brown, a leading biographer calls him, sinner-turned-saint of international repute. An early life of debauchery was eventually overcome in one of the greatest conversions in the annals of Christian hagiography.

St. Monica

In his Confessions (397-98), Augustine poured out his love for his mother Monica “who was weeping for me more bitterly than ever mothers wept for the bodily death of their children.” The Lord heard her prayers and “did not scorn those tears of hers which gushed forth and watered the ground beneath her eyes wherever she prayed” (Bk III, 19). Today, St. Monica is a role model for mothers whose children have thrown away their faith,“the pearl of great price.” They suffer with and for their children who have succumbed to addictive and dangerous behavior. For some twenty-five years, Monica prayed that her son would abandon his licentious way of living. Her persevering love merits high praise in a culture that too often forgets the long suffering of parents, and especially of mothers, stuck in these situations. The Church celebrated her feast day yesterday, August 27.

The Odyssey Begins

After an erratic attempt at education, a sixteen-year old Augustine began his long odyssey of debauched living – a youth’s fugitive’s freedom and his slow interior wandering back to God. His school days of idling with the boys laid the foundation for future disorders. Sex and vandalism were outlets for his reckless energy. In the matter of sexual sin, he had difficulty competing with his peers, and sometimes, to outdo them, he actually invented escapades. In these torrid moments, he showed how vulnerable he was to their esteem and how unsure of himself he was despite the show of bravado. For some fifteen years, he lived with a young woman with whom he had a son named Adeodatus. Until about 384, he studied the Latin Classics and interned as a teacher of rhetoric. These years enthralled him with wisdom and an aesthetic ideal. He was sucked in to esoteric thought and sought the wisdom of Manicheism without satisfaction. Although he was a bright and serious student, his emotional development lagged far behind his intellectual acumen. Later in cooler, saner moments, he could admit feeling ashamed at feeling ashamed.

Return to God

Monica had a plan for her son. She wanted him respectably married and found a bride for him. To make way for the wedding, his mistress was sent back to Africa, while their son, Adeodatus, remained with his father.

However, the promised bride was two years under age, and with his mistress back in Africa, he entered into another liaison. Monica was beside herself. Though he enrolled as a catechumen, he failed to show up for instruction. In 384, he was awarded the Chair of Rhetoric at Milan. There he met the future saint, Ambrose, then the archbishop of Milan. In Book Eight, Augustine writes: “But there I was, going mad on the way to sanity.”

Ambrose could read Augustine’s soul. Attracted to his eloquence and preaching, Augustine was eager to hear him speak and to test whether his performance as a rhetorician matched his reputation. The internship in Milan became the turning point of his life where his wandering was to be turned into a pilgrimage. Though Augustine resisted reading and meditating on Sacred Scripture calling it naive, Ambrose broke through the wall. Augustine continued to listen half heartedly to Ambrose’s sermons but began to inquire more about the Christian religion.

At age thirty, he was still a reluctant catechumen and still hesitant to be baptized. He feared livingwithout a woman; in Book VII,7I of The Confessions, he writes: “Give me chastity, O Lord, but not yet.” He could not see that married life and being a Catholic were compatible. For him, to be a Catholic was to be celibate. In 387, at age thirty-three, Augustine was baptized. His mother died that same year, as if to state finally thather life’s mission – her “symphony” had been partially completed. Details regarding his conversion follow below.

The Confessions

Augustine is probably the author of the autobiography, the first to write a tell-all book about himself, but, in doing so, he is addressing God and only indirectly, the reader. No part of it is intended to be purely autobiographical (Brown). It is curious that he details the matter of stealing some pears in Book Two.

In The Confessions, the reader encounters such a passionate man that one cannot resist being drawn into and caught up in his ability to describe his sins with so much openness and enthusiasm, as he observes: Human beings “warm themselves at each other’s flame” (Bk. VIII, 4). But we must remember that he is speaking to God. In The Confessions, we see something of our contemporary culture. Today we are privy to details about other people’s private lives, and the social media exploit them without judgment or blush.

Apprehended by Christ

In Milan, Augustine broke with the group called Manicheans and became a serious catechumen. Ambrose introduced him to prayer, but Augustine’s experience was foreign to such transcendent activity. He could hardly sustain this high sense of God and still square it with his sexual prowess. He doubted that God’s grace was enough for so great a change, though it was pulling him in that direction. He could not enjoy this divine relationship because of the attractions of the visible world.

Augustine was so desperate that, one day he flung himself down under the shade of a fig tree and began to weep at his miserable state. Then all of a sudden, he heard a child in some nearby house chant over and over, “Take up and read, take up and read.” He took Rom 13:13f: “Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” At that very moment, all that prevented him from becoming a Catholic seemed to melt away. “There was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty, and all the gloom of doubt vanished away” (Book VI, 12). Augustine’s vision of Christ cleared away his past, and he was totally enraptured by this vision.

Solitude Followed by Mission

Like St. Paul following his own conversion, Augustine made a prolonged retreat, one of deep prayer and study to reflect on his dramatic experiences. He returned toTagaste, his birthplace, sold his possessions and lived like a monk. He avoided all kinds of city life. In 391, he was ordained a priest, and four years later, a bishop.

Bishop of Hippo and Three Great Controversies

As bishop of Hippo, Augustine dealt with three controversies: The first was Manicheism which taught a kind of darkness about the goodness of the Creator and of the creature. Another was Donatism which demanded absolute purity in the ministry. For Donatists, the Church was a community of the saved rather than of community of sinners who are saved. The Church teaches that the validity of the sacraments does not finally depend on the personal holiness of the minister; God is their chief agent (ex opereoperato). Finally, Pelagianism taught that one earns God’s grace. Augustine corrected this notion: We cannot earn God’s grace; we do not save ourselves but cooperate with God’s free and loving grace to make us godlike.

The Restless Heart (Quia fecisti nos adte)

Among Augustine’s most quoted verses and most difficult to assimilate is that “man is a great deep” (IV, 14, 22). We know the version as: “Thou hast made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (Book I,1) A better translation is: “Because you have made us orientated toward yourself, O Lord, our hearts are restless until they rest in you." In other words, we have within ourselves a motion, a dynamism towards infinite beauty, infinite truth, infinite goodness, and infinite love. We are always in motion – restless – toward something outside of ourselves to complete “our symphony”(Gervase Corcoran, A Guide to Reading The Confessions).

Men and women necessarily either rise to the level of the angels, or sink to that of animals. We must find our identity outside of ourselves, and whether we rise above ourselves or sink below ourselves depends on the choices we make. If we opt for God, we will reach our full potential and find rest. If however, we choose something other than God, we will never find our identity or rest (Ibid). Until this is achieved, each of us remains an unfinished symphony, in the dark, brooding, agitated and afar off as Schubert’s ‘Unfinished Symphony’ suggests in its opening bars.

All three sections of the Confessions then speak of conversion and confession: it confesses one’s sin, confesses one’s faith, and confesses God’s praise. This last point recognizes the divine activity; God was always active in Augustine’s life – from the poison of sinful pleasure that first drew him away (Ibid).

Augustine is “a giant of the ages, the most outstanding intellect of the fourth century in the Latin Church,” and one of the most quoted people of in the world (Brown).Many of us have memorized: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new. Late have I loved you! Lo, you were within but I outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made, I rushed headlong.” (Bk 10: 27, 38ff).

The Unfinished Symphony

As Augustine finished his Confessions, he was still an unfinished symphony. So he concludes addressing God:“What man will give another man understanding of this, or what man will give another angel or what angel will give a man? Of you we must ask, in you we must seek, at you we must knock. Thus only shall we receive, thus shall we find, thus will it be opened to us.” (Book XIII, 38, 53).

Augustine died in 430 as the Vandals were breaking down the old Roman Empire.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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