One of the many things I love about the Lord’s Prayer, the subject of today’s gospel (Matthew 6. 7–15), is the fact that it reminds us that we are all poor, all equally undeserving of God’s love and care. It is He, and He alone, who gives us everything. When we pray, it is because He has first poured prayer into our hearts. When we do anything at all, it is because He has given us both mind and body with which to think and act. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we are mere robots, programmed by some super intelligence to perform certain tasks in a way determined for us by another. On the contrary, we have been given free will. We have been enabled to choose for ourselves. That leads to a paradox. We stand before God with empty hands, the undeserving poor, yet, at the same time, we are blessed with a freedom the poor of this world do not know, the freedom to choose. We are both rich and poor at the same time. How we use our riches, and how we use our poverty, is up to us.
St Augustine of Hippo, Doctor of the Church, wrote so much and so well that it is almost impossible to get him into any kind of focus. Most people know and love his Confessions; many will have read his City of God; a few more will have read some of his treatises or his reflections on the psalter; I myself acknowledge having plundered his sermons on many occasions for readings in choir; but it is perhaps those who live according to his Rule who know him best. It is very short, and full of north African sunshine. His theme is love and his words simple, but I don’t think his thought is; and that’s the great challenge of reading Augustine today.
We have a tendency to assume that the way in which we read a text is the way the writer intended. Unfortunately, because most of us are not schooled in rhetoric or are unfamiliar with many of the references and allusions contained in his works — even the text of the Bible he quotes is different from any we customarily use — there is often a gap in our understanding. Perhaps that is why his speculative theology is so attractive. One does not have to beaver away at understanding the context of North African Christianity but can attempt to follow his mind as it ranges over the created universe in pursuit of the Eternal Uncreated. (A propos of which, modern physics enhances one’s understanding of his treatise on the Trinity rather better, in my opinion, than all the footnotes of Augustine scholars, but that’s a dangerous point to argue!) Is that enough? Don’t we have a duty to get to know the Augustine who has been so influential in Christian history?
I think we do, and that is where his life-story becomes important and very contemporary. The profligate youth; the sudden conversion at the age of thirty-one; the thinker and teacher who engaged with the important issues of his day; these different aspects of Augustine helped determine his opinions and proved to have a long currency. His concept of Original Sin, for example, and his understanding of the workings of grace have made the Church of the West very different from the Church of the East. Today we tend to concentrate on his anthropology: his condemnation of abortion and slavery, his strict sexual morality, etc.; but to his contemporaries, Augustine’s teaching on the nature of the Church, her sacraments, especially Baptism and the Eucharist, and free will were possibly of greater moment. He became the pre-eminent Doctor of the Western Church, and it is not without significance that, as Augustine lay dying in 430, the Vandals were laying siege to the city of Hippo. The brilliant Christian culture of North Africa was about to sustain its first destructive blow. Everything was to change.
Today, when Christianity in North Africa is only a shadow of its former self, when the Churches of East and West are divided and secular morality has moved very far from the positions held by St Augustine, one might argue that it would be vain to look to him for any guidance. Yet there is a perennial freshness about Augustine’s work that makes him as relevant to us today as he was to his fifth-century contemporaries. He makes us think, and he makes us pray. Who could ask more of him than that?
People often tell me why they don’t believe in God: he has not answered their prayer; he has allowed someone close to die; he does not do away with all the evil and suffering in the world; the Church is full of abuses. I have to agree that I don’t believe in such a pathetic God, either. I don’t believe in someone who is merely there to rubber-stamp whatever I want; who doesn’t take me seriously enough to allow me free will but wants me to be a puppet on a string; who only has time for those who are good. I don’t believe in a God who is capricious, small-minded and mean; whose existence can be ‘proved’; who is as finite as I am.
You see, the arguments against the existence of God that many people use are actually rooted in unthinking petulance. I asked God for something, but he didn’t give it (question: why should God give you what you ask?); God took away someone I love (question: what kind of love desires what is good for itself rather than what is good for the other?); I want there to be nothing difficult or cruel in the world (question: what kind of world is that?); I want the Church to be full of saints (question: isn’t the Church meant for sinners in the process of becoming saints?)
The God in whom I believe is a Person of infinite tenderness and love, of breathtaking beauty and intellect. Eternity will not allow me to plumb the depths of God, how much less this brief life on earth! But this I can assert with absolute trust and confidence. Whatever I believe about God is so much less than the truth of God. ‘As the heavens are high above the earth, so are my thoughts above your thoughts.’ Ultimately, it is not a question of the God in whom you or I believe or don’t believe but of the God who is.
Today is the feast of St James, patron of Spain. Every loyal Spaniard will tell you that the apostle’s head is kept in a beautiful reliquary above the high altar of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. It is as certain as the fact that Spain is the land of lands, and intense though local patriotism always is, there are times when my tierra is identified with the whole country. Today that must surely be the case. The bagpipes which blare out the apostle’s triumph before the cathedral will be silent because Spain is mourning the loss of all those killed or injured in yesterday’s rail accident near Santiago.
Why does God allow such things? Why does he not intervene to save his children from such a terrible fate? That is a question asked in every generation, and the only answer that to me makes any sense at all is that it is the price we pay for free will. We are not pieces of clockwork, wound up, set running, and kept to pre-determined tracks. God respects our freedom, allows us to use or abuse it, to make mistakes. But that is only a partial answer. Ultimately, we do not know why God allows such tragedies. We must live with the pain of not knowing, of feeling loss. That is the price we pay for being human; and the only consolation is knowing that God has shared that being human and himself paid the price along with us.