Friday, August 28, 2020

Saint Augustine's "Hundredfold"

Saint Augustine.

There's no end to what we could say about his life, his holiness, his wisdom, his importance as a theologian, philosopher, teacher, and writer.

Here is one particular thing (among many others) that amazes me about him: Saint Augustine is a special example - a witness for the whole world and the entire history of human culture - of what Jesus calls "the hundredfold" (Mark 10:31).

Jesus says that if we follow Him, we will receive eternal life... but also, we will receive a hundredfold in this life (along with "persecutions"). He also says "seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be added as well" (see Matthew 6:33).

What does Jesus mean?

He does not mean the we should follow Him in order to get stuff in this life. That would be to reduce Jesus to our own measure. Jesus wants to transform us according to God's wisdom. He wants to give us a new mind and a new heart. He promises eternal life, which is the mystery toward which everything in this life points, and which is therefore the real meaning of everything in this life.

If we follow Jesus, if we trust in Jesus, we will attain the fullness of salvation - we will live forever in communion with God, in that transcendent joy that God has promised to those who love Him and remain faithful to Him. This is what corresponds to the longing of the human heart, and is the fulfillment that everyone seeks (whether they realize it or not). To amplify this point, Jesus also assures us that if we follow Him, our lives even in this world will be enriched in value and significance beyond anything we could aspire to according to our own measure.

Luigi Giussani often said something that resonates deeply with me, and corresponds to my own experience. He said that if you really follow Christ, you will also discover that you love your wife a hundred times more than you ever could have imagined; that you love your children a hundred times more, your work a hundred times more, your friends a hundred times more. You will discover the real greatness of this life, and you will even be able to embrace suffering.

There is a particular way in which Saint Augustine's life indicates this pattern. Here was a man who set out to be a great rhetorician, a master of articulation and persuasion, an all-around "artist with words." He pursued this ambition with relentless passion, but without understanding its true value. And then he found Christ, and he gave up all thought of being a rhetorician. He gave up the desire to be known for his speeches and writings and works in this world. He longed for Christ, followed Christ, and kept his heart fixed on Christ.

And from out of his singular passion for Christ - without even thinking about it, or caring, or noticing it - he wrote an amazing book. Desiring only to praise Christ, he wrote a book (his Confessions) that was not only the greatest book of its epoch, but one of the greatest ever written in human history. He gave the world inimitable and unforgettable Latin prose, soaring and poetic diction, and timeless, soul-penetrating insight into the heart of the human being.

Aurelius Augustinus the rhetorician and scholar, had he followed his own ambition, might have become a teacher with some following, or even perhaps a minor provincial statesman of his period. Students of late antiquity might have known his name. But Saint Augustine, by following Christ, became also a hundred times more in the history of this world. He wrote books that speak to every time and in every language, and he gave us words that ring out through the ages - words that rival any that have ever been uttered in human speech.

There is something of the hundredfold here, even if he himself didn't perceive it or concern himself with it - even if it has been more for our benefit than for his.
"Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace" (Confessions X:27).