I spent Hilary term 2008 in Oxford, thanks to the generosity
of Gladys Sweeney and her Institute for the Psychological
Sciences, the Dominican welcome of Blackfriars College and the
Benedictine cordiality of St. Benet's house in which I lived.
This residence is on St. Gilles, equidistant from Blackfriars
in one direction and the Oratorian church in the other. Is
this what is meant by triangulation? But enough about me.
What did you think of my latest book?
The master of St. Benet's was newly appointed and
told me that each time he takes on a new duty he rereads the
Confessions of St. Augustine. As it happened, the Holy
Father was in the midst of a long, remarkable series of
presentations on the Bishop of Hippo. In bringing the series
to a close, Pope Benedict told us that it would be wrong to
think of Augustine's conversion as a single event, a moment
decisively dividing the past from the present. Of course in
that garden when he took up St. Paul and read the words that
he was certain were addressed directly to himself, Augustine's
life changed radically. But life continues to be life and, so
long as we live, past choices can be undone or endorsed, No
mere mortal is confirmed in the good in this life. In that
sense, the process of conversion is continuous and lifelong.
Only the dead can be definitively saved. Thus Aristotle warned
that to call someone happy - by which he meant virtuous - is
always a revisable judgment while that person is alive.
This gives new meaning to the lovely phrase we
encounter at the very outset of the Confessions, "late
have I loved thee." Sero te amavi. The lateness there
could be taken simply as Augustine having reached thirty-three
before turning to Christ. But Pope Benedict's series on
Augustine suggests a deeper sense. In Evelyn Waugh's The
Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold we read that there was a phrase,
popular at the time: It is later than you think. "It was never
later than Gilbert Pinfold thought." "Later" is of course a
comparative and admits of innumerable gradations without
becoming "latest." What is that phrase of Paul's? We are
closer now than when we first believed?
The daily renewal of Augustine's conversion was not
simply the reiteration of exactly the same deed. The Pope is
suggesting a deepening of that turning as it is renewed and
the acquisition of a critical attitude towards our previous
selves. He even links the composition of the Retractationes
to this, seeing in this critical review of his writings a
humility not many authors have or even perhaps want.
Nietzsche's "Why am I so wonderful?" would likely serve as the
title of most authors' review of their work. In his writing,
as in his life, Augustine could see the flaws in the earlier
stages of his converted life.
One of the Pope's most memorable addresses on
Augustine, at least in my view, was that in which he talked of
the saint's retiring from his bishopric so that he could spend
his final years preparing for death. It can astound us that
the greatest saints looked on themselves as sinners. And yet
so many of our prayers, so much of the liturgy, draws
attention to our unworthiness as we approach God. "Lord, wash
away my iniquities and cleanse me from my sins." The Our
Father is a plea for forgiveness; the Ave Maria in effect a
prayer for a happy death. "Pray for us sinners, now and at the
hour of our death."
The danger of such reflection is that it encourages a
kind of leveling. If the greatest of saints are beating their
breasts in contrition, maybe you and I aren't so bad after
all. Of course we intend to change our lives -- maybe
tomorrow. But even the holy are constantly doing the same. In
this aren't we all pretty much the same?
Sure. "Late' for Augustine meant his early thirties;
forty years later, he could repeat the phrase, sero te
amavi. Some of us are still, in old age, counting on
later. Is it always later than Gilbert Pinfold thinks? Make
me chaste, Lord, but not yet? When we are late it will be too
late to expect a later. Today is late enough.