Augustine is one of those sources that you can’t help but turn to again and again in spiritual life. Catholic and Protestant arguments during the Reformation drew from Augustines’s work. He contains multitudes and yet his sentences can be so simple. “Magnus es, Domine,” You are great, Lord begins a work of monumental philosophical and devotional sophistication. Augustine know that reading is only worthwhile when it works toward particular truths.
When Augustine struggled to become Catholic, it was not out of any difficulty with philosophy. He had abandoned his old Manichean ways by a leap of faith. Not the sort of faith that comes from extensive study, though few had studied as much as Augustine. Rather, Augustine’s ideal faith goes back to childhood. He realizes that because he is sure of who his parents are, based only on what others told him, he must celebrate believing what he has heard. This is not an impressive form of faith to modern ears. It seems submissive, naïve,and un-analytical. Yet it is in the limits of our own knowledge that faith sneaks up on us.
Augustine wrote some of the funniest pages on the selfishness of infants. He was selfish too. He stole pears from an orchard and, when he was older, fell into lust that lingered long after his mind had found Catholicism. Augustine’s lust was conquered by reading. The passage, however, isn’t particularly magical. There Augustine is: miserable, aware of all of his failings when all of a sudden he hears a voice tell him to read. He goes over to his copy of St Paul’s Writings, and reads a passage from Romans:
“Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its ‘lusts’” (Rom 13: 13-14)
It’s hard to believe Augustine didn’t already know this passage. Even if he didn’t, the message is hardly surprising. Anyone with even a small knowledge of Paul knows he is no fan of lust. So why this passage? From Romans no less, one of the stricter epistles written by Paul (there are stricter epistles written by the Pauline School to be sure)? It is not what the text said that is important. The text arrives in a context where maximum legibility was possible. He was ready to hear it, he had prepared himself to hear it by indulging in his shame and misery, and he submitted to the offer of the text.
I called this post “How to Read like a Catholic” not because I think there is a way Catholics should read that is different from others. Rather, in the Catholic tradition we know that focus and receptivity are important for discovery. Our devotional life and are reading life are linked, no matter how we build walls between them. Not because we cannot be free thinking, but because we know the way text can change our days and our lives. Augustine did not try to outsmart the text in front of him. He surrendered to it. Though Catholics have been some of the most brilliant and prolific textual commentators in history, a Catholic reader knows when to put the pen down and listen, aware of the gift of time, text, and place that came together in the moment of reading. A miracle if you think about it, but don’t think about it too hard.