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Asia Pacific Augistinian Conference

John McCall OSA: The Spirituality of St Augustine Expressed by his choice of Language

This article by John McCall OSA of the Augustinian Centre for Spirituality, Greystanes (Sydney), Australia, and then appeared in the Prayer Resource supplement edited by Fr Paul Maloney O.S.A. for the November 2011 issue of Amici, the newsletter of the Friends of St Augustine (Australia). 

    Fr John McCall OSA

Fr McCall was a member of the team at the Augustinian Spirituality Centre in Sydney, Australia throughout its entire existence from 18 February 1979 until 30 November 2014. He is also a spiritual director; he studied for two years at the Institute of Spiritual Leadership in Chicago, Illinois, USA. 

The Spirituality of St Augustine expressed by his Choice of Language.

A study of the language of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas reveals at least one significant difference. St Thomas invariably uses either/or, whereas St Augustine uses both/and. At first glance this information may seem to be interesting and nothing more.

What it can do for us as Augustinians and those we minister to is to invite us to reflect on how we ourselves use equivalent language in our daily lives. We may find that we hardly ever use both/and, or and by itself. Rather, we use the language of but in our general conversation. When speaking about ourselves or others we might say such things as, "He is a very good parish priest and has a wonderful parish, but he is no good at finance" – and we put greater emphasis on the second part of the statement. What the word but does is to neutralise the first part of the statement where very significant gifts are mentioned and focuses the attention on the negative or limitation of the person in the second part of the statement in a totally unbalanced way. It causes a significant split in how the person sees others or themselves. They own their faults and sins and downplay their gifts.

It may be a characteristic of our own language about ourselves, where we briefly acknowledge some gifts we have and insert but; this, as it were, puts a line through the gifts and focus our attention solely on own weaknesses. In a sense we put ourselves down, just as we put others down at times. Even though it might seem to be only a matter of words, it is in fact much more than that. It reveals a mind-set that can do considerable damage to our perception of how we allow God to relate to us, and in fact, can be a symptom of a real block to our spiritual growth. It is my experience that this may be a crucial adjustment that may need to be made if we are to continue to experience God's love and presence in a way that is wonderfully modelled by Augustine.

If we can let go of the use of the word but, and in its place use the word and, as Augustine does, then the way we speak and think about ourselves, or others, is much more whole and forms a community of inclusion, where we can hold both our gifts and our sinfulness together. Holding the truth of both gifts and limitations together, with truth and honesty, which is true humility, can make a profound difference to our stance before God. When we do this it feels right and our image of a God who loves me can now include the all of who I am, the good and the not so good. In the Confessions, Augustine is able to hold the truth of God's wonderful bounty and his own sinfulness with an “at-homeness” that reflects both God's gifts and Augustine's awareness of his absolute need and reception of God's love and forgiveness.

When companioning others who are experiencing God's consolation and a deepening of God's enfolding love to then introduce but into the conversation may be a block to any further grace that is being offered. The but, as it were, says "I am not worthy" and thwarts God any further room to go further, not in any real way, but that is the implication and result. If the person can change that but to an and, holding the all of who they are together and owning the all of who they are, then there is a release of any hindrance to God's action of grace, for they know that the enfolding experience of God's love includes the all of who they are.

If the person is advancing in the spiritual life and is experiencing a state of desolation the but tends to separate the gifts of the person from the faults. When there is an experience of absence of God's presence there is a tendency to want to leave that state of waiting in the darkness (or emptiness) and attempt to quickly move into activity in order to try and fix up the faults so as to earn or better prepare for God's grace, instead of staying in the waiting.

This involves much activity that generates a real block in our response to God's apparent absence, for it takes the centre of attention from God and focuses it on faults and failings. Again the invitation is to let go of the but that separates the way we see ourselves and change to the and that unites us into wholeness. With the both/and we become real, grounded, truthful and whole.

Of course the words we use are just the external manifestation of a deep interior attitude. This can be illustrated by a remark of St Therese of Lisieux when she states, “I have my faults, but I have my courage." She reverses the usual way we speak, placing the faults first and hence downplaying their importance and moves the focus to the second part of the sentence with the but which speaks of her gifts. This is a much healthier and positive way of speaking, yet it is still divisive. The call is still to hold both gifts and failings together, to be totally inclusive, to claim our wholeness, to be the one who we are.

The invitation in this reflection is for us to get off our but(t)s and speak with a real sense of the community of inclusion that uses the word and, rather than speak with a sense of exclusion using the word but. Augustine has set us both an example and an invitation to come to be the whole of who we are as he so wonderfully models when holding with peace and love both the sinfulness of his life in close union with the giftedness of his life, - holding them as one.

The union of love between ourselves and God is a matter of memory, of understanding, of will, “of being taken up with God, especially of the will' (1). Augustine does just that. Augustine's understanding was that God was with him even when he was wandering away from God and not only when he finds his way home to God with tears. He does not just remember the things of his past, but allows them to speak and responds with the “Thanks” of his will for God's compassion and healing, and the "Yes" that takes away fear of God and the fear of the future. "Thanks" the overcoming of regret, and "Yes" the overcoming of fear, are not possible, it seems, without an understanding of the past that enables him to see his way into the future. (2) With this understanding he is able to grow in peace and love. In a beautiful summary he states "Leave the past to God's Mercy, the present to God’s Love and the future to God's Providence."

We need a similar understanding of our own past, and the past of our companions to see our way into the future. There is a wholeness about Augustine, a wonderful humanness, a realness, a truthfulness, an honesty that still touches the people in our day. His use of the language of the both/and is but one external reflection of his profound spirituality.

[The most common word in the Confessions is the word “and,” used 4,673 times]

  1. St Teresa of Avila: Complete Works of St Teresa of Jesus, Vol.1, p109-111,Sheed & Ward, 1946.
  2. Dunne, John S.: Love's Mind, An Essay on contemplative Life, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, 1993.

                                                                                                               John McCall O.S.A.

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