Today we honor St. Augustine of Hippo, that problem child whose mother’s prayers of 16 years (St. Monica, whose feast day we celebrated yesterday) helped lift her son from spiritual danger and become a doctor of the Church and one of our most influential saints.
Augustine was attracted to the popular doctrine’s of his day, which happened to be Manichaeism, that heresy which elevates the spiritual and denigrates that which is the material. Augustine’s philosophical confusions mirrored his disordered personal life: He lived in fornication and fathered a child out of wedlock. He hung in a rough crowd at the university. Nevertheless, his searching led him to find Our Lord in an dramatic encounter with Scripture. Augustine’s conversion lead him away from a life of chaos and destruction to lead the Church through the great trial of Rome’s collapse.
He also led the Church through the Donatist heresy, which is relevant to Church scandals today involving the priesthood. When priests in Northern Africa handed over Scripture to the enemy who desecrated and destroyed them, some people called for these priests to be punished for their cowardice. They even claimed these men were not priests because of their failure of courage. St. Augustine clarified that the priest is just a man, like the rest of us. But, when vested and in his priestly role in celebrating the sacraments, he is persona Christi, the person of Christ. When unvested, he remains a man. We are not to confuse the man elevated in his office and the man of flesh.
Augustine lived at a time where not only the priests were under attack, but the entire Christian Church was considered at blame in the fall of Rome. The Roman senatorial class said that Christianity weakened the muscular militarism of the Roman spirit, and undermined the worship of the emperor and the pagan gods of Rome. As such, the messages of peace and worship of the Christian god emasculated Rome. Nietzsche, in the 20th century blamed Christianity for weakening the natural power of man best expressed in the spirit of conquering Aryan tribes. This philosophy inspired Hitler. Later, Sigmund Freud used similar assumptions when he suggested that messages of self-control in Christian traditions subvert the natural expression of sexual desire and cause guilt and psychological trauma. The impact on Augustine’s message in 5th century Rome continues through to our current age.
Augustine went further: He clarified that the world is divided between the City of Man and the City of God. This is the realm of souls, whom only God can distinguish. Our vision is limited, and we just see others as mere flesh; only God sees through to our souls. As a result, Augustine warned that we cannot judge who is destined for heaven and who is destined for hell, among the laity or the priesthood. Only God does that kind of sorting.
He gave us a clue as to how to discern among those we encounter in this world. He said, notice what motivates them. Are they dominated by a lust for power or are they dominated by a love to serve others? This not only clarifies people like Hitler, but think about the control freak or the person at the office who seeks to elevate himself over others. Notice the one who is humble, self-effacing, and seeks to lift up the good of others and stay out of the spotlight. Notice the one working for advancement and recognition, in contrast to those quietly doing their jobs and contributing to the common good.
Maybe you tend to dominate conversation and you’re not as good a listener. Maybe you think that your ideas are better than others, your talents superior. Perhaps you demand people in your life yield to your preferences. These are all ways in which we exercise the lust for domination. The root sin here is pride, but pride of that first order — the desire to be God, rather than humbly serve where called at each moment in this life.
We live in a world which is both sanctified and perilous. Those we encounter reflect the same dichotomy. St. Augustine gave us a lens to assess that which is in communion with Our Lord and that which works against the Good.
On his feast day, may he help you discern others among the laity and priesthood with more care and charity. Most of all, work to eradicate tendencies where you seek to dominate rather than serve.