Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Augustine the Lector, Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 

I know, I know, the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time was last Sunday.  But, since I played hooky last week, and don't want to get things out of order, I'm going to cover last Sunday before I move on to the readings for the coming week. 

This [last] week our Gospel reading comes from the eleventh chapter of Luke's Gospel:

"And he said to them, 'Suppose one of you has a friend to whom he goes at midnight and says, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey and I have nothing to offer him,' and he says in reply from within, 'Do not bother me; the door has already been locked and my children and I are already in bed. I cannot get up to give you anything.'  I tell you, if he does not get up to give him the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.  And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.'"

St. Augustine's most direct exposition of this passage, in his 55th Homily on the Gospels, utilizes the allegorical sense, using Jesus' parabolic narrative to suggest a scenario in which the reader is approached by a nonbeliever (the 'visitor') who is 'hungry' for the truths of the faith (the 'three loaves,' in particular, the Trinitarian mystery), and must in turn beg himself from the Lord the benefit of divine wisdom, by means of which he might enlighten the inquiring mind (2). 

But in this same homily, the 'doctor of grace,' almost off-handedly, plucks a more dynamic string, which reverberates with spiritual potency: "Therefore unto the Lord Himself, unto Him with whom the family is at rest, knock by prayer, ask, be instant.  He will not, as that friend in the parable, arise and give thee as overcome by importunity.  He wishes to give; thou for thy knocking hast not yet received; knock on; He wishes to give!"(3). 
If our Lord's parable here is an analogy for prayer, it is, to all appearances, an analogy that limps.  But, of course, theologically speaking, all analogies from human to divine activity 'limp.'  But this one seems to limp more than others: Does God answer prayer only through 'importunity' (the Greek anaideia, is poorly rendered as mere 'persistence'; it is more accurate to translate it as 'impudence,' as it literally derives from 'shamelessness,' anaideuomai), rather than out of friendship?  More to the point, why must we ask repeatedly, or 'persistently,' at all?  Is God so stubborn as to only be moved by our obnoxiousness?

St. Augustine's answer here is piercing: "What He wishes to give, He deferreth, that thou mayest long the more for it when deferred, lest if given quickly it should be lightly esteemed" (3).

St. Augustine picks up on this point and expounds it more thoroughly in an earlier homily, the Eleventh Homily on the Gospels

"When at times He giveth somewhat slowly, it is that He is showing us the value of His good things; not that He refuses them. Things which have been long desired, are obtained with the greater pleasure, whereas those which are given quickly, are held cheap. Ask then, seek, be instant. By the very asking and seeking thou dost grow so as to contain the more.  God is keeping in reserve for thee, what it is not His will to give thee quickly, that thou mayest learn for great things to long with great desire"(6).
And here St. Augustine's theology of prayer joins with his theology on grace.  Grace is here conceived as a massive reorientation of our interior desires, so that that which is truly Good becomes 'pleasant' for us, whereas left to ourselves we would simply have no stomach for it.  But, once the innermost wellsprings of our being are opened up by a Higher Love, that which is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, we recognize the lesser, corporeal goods around us for what they are, mere table scraps from the Wedding Feast.  Yet this capacity to enjoy the Good cannot be infused immediately or unreflectively, lest we short-circuit the natural [sic] cycle of awakened desire being satisfied by unexpected pleasure.  Or, put otherwise, unless our hearts 'stretch wide' so as to contain this Beauty, we could never receive it in a personal fashion.  And this 'stretching' is accomplished only by the prolonged and wearied task of repeated prayer and ever-increasing longing.

# posted by Jamie : 2:45 PM


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Ad Limina Apostolorum: An ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the sepulchres of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome, i.e., to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles and to the Basilica of St. Paul "outside the walls".

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