Friday, August 28, 2015

Ever Ancient, Ever New

Today is the feast of St. Augustine, bishop and doctor. In one of the most well-known passages from his Confessions, he describes his experience of coming to know divine Truth, which he compares to light. At first it is entirely overwhelming, so that he only knows that there is such a light; but in time, he comes to see by this light and to know Him as Christ. Here's the excerpt used in the Office of Readings:
Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your guidance the innermost places of my being; but only because you had become my helper was I able to do so. I entered, then, and with the vision of my spirit, such as it was, I saw the incommutable light far above my spiritual ken and transcending my mind: not this common light which every carnal eye can see, nor any light of the same order; but greater, as though this common light were shining much more powerfully, far more brightly, and so extensively as to fill the universe. The light I saw was not the common light at all, but something different, utterly different, from all those things. Nor was it higher than my mind in the sense that oil floats on water or the sky is above the earth; it was exalted because this very light made me, and I was below it because by it I was made. Anyone who knows truth knows this light.

O eternal Truth, true Love, and beloved Eternity, you are my God, and for you I sigh day and night. As I first began to know you, you lifted me up and showed me that, while that which I might see exists indeed, I was not yet capable of seeing it. Your rays beamed intensely on me, beating back my feeble gaze, and I trembled with love and dread. I knew myself to be far away from you in a region of unlikeness, and I seemed to hear your voice from on high: “I am the food of the mature: grow, then, and you shall eat me. You will not change me into yourself like bodily food; but you will be changed into me”.

Accordingly I looked for a way to gain the strength I needed to enjoy you, but I did not find it until I embraced the mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who is also God, supreme over all things and blessed for ever. He called out, proclaiming I am the Way and Truth and the Life, nor had I known him as the food which, though I was not yet strong enough to eat it, he had mingled with our flesh, for the Word became flesh so that your Wisdom, through whom you created all things, might become for us the milk adapted to our infancy.

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
The phrase "ever ancient, ever new" has particular resonance for me of late, as a description not only of God but also the Church's life of faith. (Incidentally, it is no surprise that the same phrase could apply to both, since the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ.) Admittedly, this blog is a strong supporter of tradition and a whole variety of ancient things. It is tempting to assume that the oldest forms of the faith are the best and we should simply strive to replicate such storied practices. But Jesus himself teaches that “every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old” (Mt 13:52). There was a time when monasticism was new. There was a time when the mendicants were new. Today we too are called to express Christianity in ways that engage with new cultures and the contemporary world, without abandoning the riches of our religious patrimony.

H/T to The Crossroads Initiative for the excerpt from the Office of Readings.
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