Augustine the Lector
All right, so I lied. I'm back. I rarely blog on weekends, but this is a feature I've been meaning to start for some time, and I got the opportunity today. Since 'John' at Disputations has done such a fine job of dispensing Thomistic wisdom in the blogosphere, and proving especially adept at applying it to current events, I thought someone ought to do the same in the Augustinian tradition. Hence I nominate myself.
As one of my new resolutions is to be more liturgically aware, a convenient platform for the present purposes seems to be the Sunday readings from the lectionary, and in particular the Gospel. For St. Augustine, as for all the Fathers, theology was first of all exegesis, and much fruit might be borne of an Augustinian 'commentary' on the liturgical texts. We'll see how it goes for a couple of weeks, and if it does prove useful, I'll try to do it on a weekly basis. I may be scrounging for this liturgical year, since St. Augustine has written neither commentary nor homilies on St. Luke's Gospel, but I'll see what I can dig up.
The Gospel for the Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time focuses on the commissioning of the seventy-two (or sometimes, the seventy) by Christ, but I want to focus in on their 'debriefing' by Jesus upon their return:
The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!" And he said to them, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven" (Lk. 10:17-20).
St. Augustine, unlike modern theologians, has a great interest in demons, and their cosmological role and significance. He spends some time in his City of God (X, 22) speculating about what gives men power over demons.
He notes that the primary role of demons is to increase sin in the world, and that it is precisely through sin that the demons hold sway over men: "The devil cannot conquer or subdue any but those who are in league with sin." Conversely, men gain power over demons inasmuch as they free themselves of sin: "It is by true piety that men of God cast out the hostile power of the air which opposes godliness." But St. Augustine's vision is always theocentric, and he never lets men imagine that they can free themselves of sin of their own power: "For men are separated from God only by sins, from which we are in this life cleansed not by our own virtue, but by the divine compassion." Thus, in the realm of spiritual warfare, St. Augustine underlines the crucial role of prayer: "They overcome all the temptations of the adversary by praying . . . to their own God against him." In sum, by allowing God to remove them from the reign of sin, and by being "governed by faith" which comes from Christ, men are not only exempted from the devil's power, but in fact gain power over him.
The reason this is so important, in my view, is that it is easy to see spiritual warfare in almost 'magical' terms, as if the key to victory were simply to possess more power than the enemy. This view can even be read into the response of the seventy-two, who seem to be rejoicing in their own power: "Even the demons are subject to us!" St. Augustine emphasizes that the only power which can overcome the demons is moral power, i.e. virtue, and that this is only "vouchsafed to us through the Mediator," Christ Jesus. In other words, St. Augustine moves the entire discussion of spiritual warfare into the moral realm, where the battle is pitched between sin and godliness, vice and virtue, and takes place in the hearts of men. This may have been what Christ was getting at in His response to the seventy-two: "Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."
# posted by Jamie : 10:39 AM