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Αυγουστίνος

by Fr. John Palmer

Every second Thursday evening, with an open invitation to the public, members of our community meet in a public venue – a coffee shop – where we read aloud and then discuss a section of St Augustine’s beautiful work, the Confessions.  This initiative, which I have aptly dubbed ‘Coffee House Theology’, has been one of the greatest joys and consolations in my work as a mission priest.

On the one hand, joy springs from the fact that our sessions have been relatively well attended and met with enthusiasm.  Indeed, every priest rejoices to see the flame of holy learning kindled in the faithful committed to his charge.  Moreover, I rejoice that in an age where Christ has been pushed into the background – both in broader society and in the lives of individual Christians – this remnant, this two or three gathered in his name, offers a small confession, setting our Lord before men without any regard for strange, disapproving looks.

On the other hand, joy has come from my re-discovery of the absolutely Orthodox heart of St Augustine.  Yes, it is true, in places Augustine was tempted by his truly staggering intellect and fell; yes, on occasion he exchanged the revelation of God acquired by a pure heart for his own speculations, choosing a lowly, created light over the uncreated; yes, he seriously errs on occasions. Consequently, he needs to be read with a degree of discernment, plucking the rose from among the thorns, just as we see him approached by his strongest advocates within the Patristic Tradition.  However, despite all this, when it comes to the vigilant attention to God’s Providence; when it comes to the struggle with the passions; when it comes to repentance; when it comes to Christian living, I continually stand in awe of him.

In the last section we read together this past Thursday, what particularly struck me was the witness he bears to the Orthodox tradition of Eldership in the Pre-Schism West.  In Book VIII, Augustine is faced with a question with no obvious correct answer, at least in the abstract.  He is torn between marriage and monasticism.  “The voice of truth had told me that there are some who have made themselves eunuchs for love of the Kingdom of Heaven.  But he also said, let only those take this in whose hearts are large enough for it.” (VIII.[1])  Unsure of what to do with respect to one of the fundamental question of life, he uneasily spun his tires, succumbing to listlessness.

Faced with this quandary, what does the Saint do?  Addressing God he writes, “By your inspiration it seemed to me a good plan to go and see Simplicianus…” (VIII.[1]),  the spiritual father of St Ambrose of Milan.  And listen to how he describes this man:  Simplicianus, “…I could see for myself,” he says, “was a good servant of yours [of Christ]”; “…the light of grace plainly shone in him…”; “…from boyhood he had always led a most devout life…”; and, “…in all the long years he had spent to such a good purpose in following your way he must have gained great experience and much knowledge”.  And so Augustine hoped that if he put his problem to him, “…he would draw upon his experience and his knowledge to show me how best a man in my state of mind might walk upon your way.” (VIII.[1])  Simplicianus was deeply experienced in the spiritual life, had served Christ well, and had obviously acquired the grace of the Holy Spirit which shone in him.  Is there any better definition of an Elder?

Augustine, in the midst of a dilemma which required the grace of discernment and insight and not just the reiteration of general principles, might have simply gone to the local parish priest, but he didn’t.  Clearly, in his inherited Orthodox consciousness he knew that ordination itself does not render one an infallible guide in such matters; only experience and grace will suffice.  And so he – often criticized as the ‘least orthodox’ of Holy Fathers – does something very Orthodox: he goes to an Elder.

And what is the result?  The Elder recounts a story for Augustine which itself is a monument to his discernment, and not surprisingly his discerning words hit their mark, stirring the Saint from his listlessness.  “When your servant told me the story of Victorinus, I began to glow with fervor to imitate him.  This, of course, is why Simplicianus had told it to me.”  (VIII.[5])  Words spoken in the spirit of discernment are the words of eternal life for an individual.

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Blot out, O Lord, all my memories – except one.
St. Nikolai Velimirovich, Bishop of Ochrid
Poem XXX (30)

Blot out, O Lord, all my memories–except one. For memories make me old and feeble. Memories ruin the present day. They weigh down the present day with the past and weaken my hope in the future, for in legions they whisper in my ear: “There will only be what has already been.”

But I do not wish for there to be only what has been. I do not wish and You do not wish, O Lord, for the future to be the past repeated. Let things happen that have never appeared before. The sun would not be worth much, if it only watched repetitions.

Worn paths mislead a wayfarer. Earth has walked over the earth a long time. Earthly walkways have become boring, for they have been traveled again and again from generation to generation throughout all time. Blot out, O Lord, all my memories except one.

Just one memory do I ask You not to blot out, but to strengthen in me. Do not blot out but strengthen in my con­sciousness the memory of the glory that I had when I was en­tirely with You and entirely in You, before time and temporal illusions.

When I, too, was a harmonious trinity in holy unity, just as You are from eternity to eternity.

When the soul within me was also in friendship with consciousness and life.

When my soul also was a virginal womb, and my consciousness was wisdom in virginity, and my life was spiritual power and holiness.

When I, too, was all light, and when there was no darkness within me.

When I, too, was bliss and peace, and when there were no torments of imbalance within me.

When I also knew You, even as You know me, and when I was not mingled with darkness.

When I, too, had no boundaries, no neighbors, no partitions between “me” and “you.”

Do not blot out this memory, my Father, but strengthen it. Even if it reveals to me the abyss along which I am journeying in humbleness and nothingness.

Even if it separates me from friends and pleasantries, and demolishes all the barriers between Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.

Even if it leads me outside of myself, and makes me seem mad in the eyes of my fellow wayfarers.

In truth, no companionship pleases me except Yours, and no memory pleases me except the memory of You.

O my Merciful Father, blot out all my memories except one alone.

 

 

From the spiritual desert to the geographic desert, from a land surrounded by physical water to a land springing forth spiritual water.

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20190814_173648

Set a rampart about me mind, O my Saviour, for I make bold to sing the praises of Thy most-pure Mother, the rampart of the world. Establish me firmly within the fortress of my words and make me strong within the defenses of my thoughts: for Thou dost promise to fulfill the petitions of those that entreat Three with faith. Endue me with a tongue and ready speech, and with thoughts that are without shame; for every fight of enlightenment is set down from Three, O guiding Light, Who dwelt within her ever-virgin womb.

-Oikos for the Dormition of the Theotokos

20190814_173716The little Theotokos is from Jerusalem, a gift from a dear friend.

May the Mother of God be with us all!

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