Advance Always, Augustine’s account

St Augustine, Pulpit, Cathedral in Vienna

One semester I provided a student with a special directed studies on the theme of grace in Augustine and Aquinas. It was a splendid set of readings; it was something of repeat class I provided for an Air Force cadet a few years ago, although the cadet wanted us to add readings from Calvin as well. From Augustine we read Nature and Grace and the Spirit and the Letter; from Aquinas, the obvious “Treatise on Grace” from the Summa I-II. During this recent study my student and I were amazed how frequently Augustine cited Rom 5.5, the love of God is poured into hearts through the Holy Spirit. The text proved important as well in the Confessions, particularly Book XIII, in which Augustine uses the Book of Genesis as a framework (the firmament in the sky of our understanding, as he suggests) for understanding the opening line that “our hearts our restless, until they rest in Thee, Oh Lord!” The restless heart has no choice but to walk, run, or fly down the road of life, propelled by one’s love. For love is the weight of the soul. We either ascend upwards towards God, or we descend down to our own perdition, on earth and down to hell. In Book XIII Augustine presents to our vision, not sedentary bodies, or inert psyches, wrapped up in some homeostasis of comfort or managed satisfactions, but the soul in motion, the soul in flight. One suffers a salutary spiritual vertigo in making ones way through the final two books of the Confessions. For one peers into an abyss of energy swirling down to the dark abyss of death and peers upward towards the heaven of contemplation of the divine mysteries in a glorious beauty beyond telling. Let’s jump right into a passage giving such vertigo. Book XIII chap 7 —

Now let him who is able follow thy apostle with his understanding when he says, “Thy love is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who is given to us”[Rom 5.5] and who teacheth us about spiritual gifts and showeth us a more excellent way of love; and who bows his knee unto thee for us, that we may come to the surpassing knowledge of the love of Christ. Thus, from the beginning, he who is above all was “moving over” the waters.

The Holy Spirit hovers over the abyss, the depth, from the beginning of time, the moment of creation, and abides in the hovering presence over the abyss of the soul. From the formless depth one can be drawn up by love and into love, or languish in darkness and spiral down. Augustine works this allegorical interpretation for many previous pages, and thus he continues:

To whom shall I tell this? How can I speak of the weight of concupiscence which drags us downward into the deep abyss, and of the love which lifts us up by thy Spirit who moved over the waters? To whom shall I tell this? How shall I tell it? For concupiscence and love are not certain “places” into which we are plunged and out of which we are lifted again. What could be more like, and yet what more unlike? They are both feelings; they are both loves. The uncleanness of our own spirit flows downward with the love of worldly care; and the sanctity of thy Spirit raises us upward by the love of release from anxiety — that we may lift our hearts to thee where thy Spirit is “moving over the waters.” Thus, we shall have come to that supreme rest where our souls shall have passed through the waters which give no standing ground.

There it is the — in Augustinian terms — the admonition  to Advance always. Fall with the weight of ones own concupiscence and three fold sin (lust of the flesh, curiosity of the eyes and pride of life) or rise with the Holy Spirit of God, who is love.

In chapter eight, he marks the falling downward motion:

The angels fell, and the soul of man fell; thus they indicate to us the deep darkness of the abyss, which would have still contained the whole spiritual creation if thou hadst not said, in the beginning, “Let there be light: and there was light” — and if every obedient mind in thy heavenly city had not adhered to thee and had not reposed in thy Spirit, which moved immutable over all things mutable. Otherwise, even the heaven of heavens itself would have been a dark shadow, instead of being, as it is now, light in the Lord.For even in the restless misery of the fallen spirits, who exhibit their own darkness when they are stripped of the garments of thy light, thou showest clearly how noble thou didst make the rational creation, for whose rest and beatitude nothing suffices save thee thyself. And certainly it is not itself sufficient for its beatitude. For it is thou, O our God, who wilt enlighten our darkness; from thee shall come our garments of light; and then our darkness shall be as the noonday. Give thyself to me, O my God, restore thyself to me! See, I love thee; and if it be too little, let me love thee still more strongly. I cannot measure my love so that I may come to know how much there is still lacking in me before my life can run to thy embrace and not be turned away until it is hidden in “the covert of thy presence.” Only this I know, that my existence is my woe except in thee — not only in my outward life, but also within my inmost self — and all abundance I have which is not my God is poverty.

If we but turn to the light, if we but convert, the love of God will raise us up.  Augustine and St Francis de Sales both appeal to St Paul’s precise statement of the reality of grace:

“Thy love is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who is given to us”

Augustine in this Book XIII formulates the notion that is central to his work in the City of God, namely that “love is the wight of the soul.” The love pulls us up to God , or drags us down to perdition. It derives from the allegory of Genesis, “The Spirit hovers over the water.”

But was neither the Father nor the Son “moving over the waters”? If we understand this as a motion in space, as a body moves, then not even the Holy Spirit “moved.” But if we understand the changeless supereminence of the divine Being above every changeable thing, then Father, Son, and Holy Spirit “moved over the waters.”

Why, then, is this said of thy Spirit alone? Why is it said of him only — as if he had been in a “place” that is not a place — about whom alone it is written, “He is thy gift”? It is in thy gift that we rest. It is there that we enjoy thee. Our rest is our “place.” Love lifts us up toward that place, and thy good Spirit lifts our lowliness from the gates of death. Our peace rests in the goodness of will. The body tends toward its own place by its own gravity. A weight does not tend downward only, but moves to its own place. Fire tends upward; a stone tends downward. They are propelled by their own mass; they seek their own places. Oil poured under the water rises above the water; water poured on oil sinks under the oil. They are moved by their own mass; they seek their own places. If they are out of order, they are restless; when their order is restored, they are at rest. My weight is my love. By it I am carried wherever I am carried. By thy gift, we are enkindled and are carried upward. We burn inwardly and move forward. We ascend thy ladder which is in our heart, and we sing a canticle of degrees; we glow inwardly with thy fire — with thy good fire — and we go forward because we go up to the peace of Jerusalem; for I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go into the house of the Lord.” There thy good pleasure will settle us so that we will desire nothing more than to dwell there forever.

 Advance always — by God’s gift — “By thy gift, we are enkindled and are carried upward. We burn inwardly and move forward. We ascend thy ladder which is in our heart, and we sing a canticle of degrees; we glow inwardly with thy fire — with thy good fire — and we go forward.”


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