I learned a long time ago that “successful” blog sites, whatever that means, must give evidence of daily life. I have seen some of my friends establish sites, and then wait for an inspiration to post, and then become discouraged and drift off because of few “hits” or visits or communications. My approach has been to operate like a daily paper in some respects; you might not have time to read it every day, and some days it is useful primarily for wrapping garbage, but like USA Today or the Cleveland Plain Dealer it is at your door on a more or less daily basis.
From the blogger’s perspective, putting forward something modestly useful takes a fair hunk of time each day (I could never do this were I still in practice) and there is the attendant research that for me generally begins late in the afternoon before supper for the next day. There is great relief when the day’s post is finished and edited, and I can move the cursor to the big “publish” icon in the right hand corner. And most days I am satisfied to “publish.” But I forget that The Café is a site, with other resources advertised, and these get lost in the shuffle. Most importantly, there is a front page, and invoking that truism about books and their covers, I would say that my front page needs work. I am still using the original one I chose when I was just getting my feet wet with Weebly, the site platform.
So as I was bemoaning the condition of my front page this week, I noticed that under “current reads” I have listed Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography of St. Augustine (354-431). It has been there for some time; I have completed about a third of the work, presently working my way through the chapter on Augustine’s classic Confessions, one of the most widely read and discussed autobiographies in Western Civilization. I am reading Brown’s work at a slow pace, in part because of the excellence of the text, and partly because the author does a magnificent job un-packaging the philosophy of the times that led Augustine to his most memorable insights.
Augustine, when referred to in many Catholic circles, is depicted as the poster child for the Church’s alleged negativity toward sex. There is some truth to this but not in the ways we imagine. In fact, Augustine in one of his many letters criticizes the prevalent theology of the North African Christian Church, which held that a boy was innocent until he reached the age of puberty. Augustine snorted his opinion on this belief, saying that it conveyed the impression “the only sins you could commit involved the genitals.” Despite being born to what Father Robert Barron (appointed new auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles this week) once called “the ultimate helicopter mom,” the fanatically Catholic Monica, Augustine was not baptized as an infant. Like other young and ambitious men of his age, he left North Africa (with his Berber mistress) and set roots at Rome under a generous patron.
Augustine seemed to have been a man of leisure, for he consorted with fellow philosophers and debaters on the pagan classics and the writings of the time in pursuit of the perfect life of an intellectual. Paganism, despite the era of Constantine in the fourth century, was not dead. In fact pagan philosophers continued to rule the reading and methodology for men of letters for years to come. The primary trend of the time was a renewed interest in Greek philosophy: Plato was revered, but given the seven centuries since his death, Augustine would have absorbed somewhat different brands of this philosophy under the umbrella of Neoplatonism and an attendant religious cult known as Manicheism. Although both the philosophical and the religious impact upon the sons of Plato would be diverse, as the concepts themselves are diverse, there were several constants: the spiritual world was emphasized over the material, and the quest for philosophical certainly by the thinker was a journey to perfection in the One. Augustine remained a Manichee for nine years.
Augustine’s eventual conversion to Christianity was complex, not dramatic. Among the factors involved were probably a disenchantment with the Manichean quest for perfection, the impact of his mother, and the introduction to Christian thought through the remarkable bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose. Gary Wills describes Augustine’s catechumenate in Milan in a splendid work, Font of Life. There is no doubt that Augustine took his conversion seriously. He discharged his partner of many years, the mother of his son, who returned to the rural life of North Africa penniless and broken-hearted.
Many years later, as Bishop of Hippo, Augustine would compose his Confessions. Brown observes that while the practice of autobiography by men of stature was common for the age, Augustine turned the art form upside down by his remarkable quest for psychological self-understanding. We can see why he may have been disillusioned with Manicheism, which believed that men could achieve perfection by discipline and thought. Augustine saw the human being as something of a product of his history: present day inclinations to sin and virtue are the inescapable end product of earlier sins, even in the formative years.
Thus we get some understanding of one of the most famous episodes in the Confessions: Augustine recalls an act of low-grade vandalism perpetrated by himself and his cronies in their youth. The crime was raiding a pear orchard; some of the fruit was eaten and some just destroyed. Augustine could not get past this random sinful act of a young man (himself) and came to believe that humans could neither explain nor overcome sinful tendencies on their own. Rather, Augustine embraced probably the first form of Christian predestination; we depend totally upon the fashion that God has made us and the mercy he extends for salvation.
Like all theological advances, this vision of Christian anthropology raised as many questions as answers. We will unpack these as I proceed through Brown’s work. I promise to read faster.
On Thursday night past I came upon that rarest of rarities, a Catholic Church that was unlocked and open, and in the late evening, no less, about 9 PM after we had eaten dinner. Of course, in fairness I have to admit I had to go some distance to find it, all the way to Dingle, Ireland. I scoured up a church bulletin, but the contents were entirely in Gaelic. I finally found the name of the church on an old plaque, St. Mary's, around the corner from an excellent pub I visited tonight. (Friday)
I took a red eye from New York Wednesday night and arrived in Shannon, Ireland, Thursday morning. After a stop in Limerick, my wife, who has experience driving on the narrow country roads of Ireland (and it is a trick) got us safely to Dingle, along with her two 30-something nephews. Both young men are well versed in the humanities and make excellent traveling companions. We are staying here in an excellent B&B until tomorrow, when we move on to a cottage on Valentia Island.
This is my first trip to Ireland, and I am very glad to have started on the western shore of startling rolling mountains, strewn with rocks but verdant green. Sheep are everywhere, and they are quite noisy when they get a mind to be. We will be here for a good while before heading into Dublin and other locations.
Today was that rarest of rarities, a sunny day for the most part, but extremely windy, and as we climbed out on some promontories I actually thought we might be in some danger of being blown off the edge into the ocean below. We made quite a day of it, starting of course with a "traditional Irish breakfast." If you have been here, you know that such a breakfast is "substantive;" to balance it off, I walked 18,000 steps according to Fit Bit, which also gave me credit for 81 flights of stairs, which gives you a good idea of the terrain.
I had the opportunity to visit several ancient church sites including the Gallerus Oratory, a rather extraordinary sacred space built in the "beehive" style with natural stones. Gallerus dates back 1300 years, to the 700's AD when a Christian community gathered there. It is speculated that the community was scattered or destroyed by Viking invaders. My first cursory impression is that the primitive Irish church had a distinctive architectural style which outlasted the communities who built them. When the medieval revival occurred, there was more effort to copy what was being done on the European mainland, and surviving churches of, say, 1200 take on more of the appearance we are used to.
I did catch a very good film at the Dunbeg Fort information center, which raised an interesting point. I had been wondering if it was possible to get inside the thinking and experiences of the people who built the beehive oratory with thousands of stones. The narrator of the Dunbeg film admitted that archaeology can tell us only so much. He stated that one must enter the myths and stories of a culture as the best clue of its experience.
This is a side of historical theologizing that is not my strength. But I do see the point, and I started asking myself about the Christian tales and myths that have shaped our historical continuity. And along those lines, what is the "sub-story" if you will that we fall back upon in 2015, and what myths (i.e. expressions of self understanding) do we pass along in the catechetical process.
Only about eight hours till another "traditional Irish breakfast."