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Asia Pacific Augistinian Conference

David Kelly OSA: St. Augustine on Interiority: Spirituality of the Heart


The author, Fr David Kelly O.S.A. lectures at Dublin, Ireland at the Milltown Institute, which offers full-time courses in theology, spirituality and church history. He has given Augustinian retreats in a number of nations.

In the religious order that I belong to – the Order of St. Augustine – we have an insignia or emblem which consists of a heart pierced by an arrow and this is depicted above an open book of the scriptures.  This emblem appears to have been suggested by Augustine’s words in his classic work, Confessions:

            With the arrows of your charity you had pierced our hearts and we bore

            your words within us like a sword penetrating us to the core [Conf. 9, 2, 3].

            You pierced my heart with your word, and I fell in love with you [Conf. 10, 6, 8].

Christian iconography has often portrayed Augustine holding a flaming heart, a symbol of ardent love and perhaps a trademark of Augustinian spirituality. If it is the word of God that has pierced Augustine’s heart, it comes as no surprise to learn that Augustine was immersed in the scriptures. He wrote from them as much as he wrote about them.  During his 34 years as bishop of Hippo (Annaba in modern Algeria), Augustine was tireless and indefatigable in preaching the word of God.  Such is Augustine’s absorption in the biblical text that one almost gets the impression that the scriptures are speaking about Augustine as much as Augustine speaks about the scriptures. He had imbibed deeply from the scriptures and so he could speak about the word of God from the heart.  Even a cursory glance at the text of the Confessions will reveal the amount of scripture that he either quotes directly or alludes to in various ways.  For instance, the opening words of the Confessions are a quotation from Ps 47:2 (Ps 48:1): ‘Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise.’ [Conf. 1,1,1].

This then is what ‘wounded’ or ‘pierced’ Augustine’s heart, God’s word as mediated by the scriptures. In this regard an image which made a lasting impression on Augustine was that of the apostle John resting his head on the bosom of Jesus at the Last Supper (Jn 13:23).  He says that this image speaks of the kind of relationship we are meant to have with Christ but which is sometimes lacking: ‘they had eyes to see his body but no discerning heart to reach the Word’ (On Ps 21, (2), 19).  Christ speaks to our own hearts and our human condition.

The heart of Augustine’s spirituality

The emblem referred to above has often contained the words, tolle, lege, tolle, lege (take and read! take and read!), a reference to the words heard by Augustine at the moment of his conversion at Milan in 386 (see book (8) of the Confessions).  Looking back on this decisive turning-point in his life, Augustine in conversation with God, prays: ‘our hearts are restless until they rest in you’ (Conf. 1,1,1).  The heart, then, is an image of central importance for Augustine. It recurs frequently in his writings and in his preaching.  It is an image that speaks powerfully to Augustine’s personal inner journey. The image of the heart also expresses Augustine’s characteristic emphasis on interiority, on the inner self, where God is present.  The heart in Augustine’s writings, is not only the place of God’s presence, but it is also a key image in Augustine’s efforts to articulate his own self-understanding: ‘my heart is the place where I am whoever I am’ (Conf. 10, 3, 4).  Here Augustine shows that the heart symbolises the spiritual journey that is God-inspired, graced and ongoing towards ‘my true self, my God-self’ (T.F. Martin, Our Restless Heart, 41).  Authenticity is an essential aspect of Augustine’s spirituality, a spirituality rooted in his personal journey of conversion.  Indeed, Augustine’s quest to know God entails the quest to know oneself, as Augustine prays in his early work, Soliloquies: God, who is always the same, may I know myself, may I know you (noverim me, noverim te) [Sol. 2, 1, 1].

The heart in prayer and the heart of prayer

We have noted in passing Augustine’s disposition towards praying, especially in his Confessions, and in the Soliloquies, just cited.  Augustine sees prayer as very much a conversation with God and not only in words, but first and foremost from the heart.  For Augustine, prayer is fundamentally a desire for God, the God for whom our hearts are restless.  Indeed, for Augustine, prayer is not primarily a matter of words, although words may be used, but rather ‘it is an interior matter, a matter of the heart’ (G. Corcoran, ‘Saint Augustine on Prayer’, Augustinian Heritage, 1988, 207).

Elsewhere, in one of his sermons, Augustine points out how the dynamic of prayer is rooted in the heart, one’s deeper self: ‘It is with the heart one asks, with the heart one seeks, with the heart one knocks, to the heart the door is opened’ [Sermon 91, 3, 3].  Prayer for Augustine is not therefore just external discourse but rather the heart’s cry to the Lord. To call on God in this way is to express our love for God.  Love and desire are intimately related and so when one desires one prays and when one loves, one prays.  Augustine sees such a desire as springing from ‘the bosom of the heart’ or the ‘innermost depth of the heart’ for ‘longing is the heart’s bosom’ (On John’s Gospel, 40, 10). Whether we are praying to God for something or praying in order to praise God, our prayer expresses itself not merely with the lips but also with the heart: ‘how many people there are who make plenty of noise with their voices but are dumb in their hearts!  And how many others have no sound on their lips but shout with love! God’s ears are alert to the human heart’ (On Ps 119, 9).

Essentially for Augustine our praying at its most genuine originates in the deepest recesses of ourselves, in our hearts.  There our prayer maybe wordless but no less real for all that. It is a contemplative form of praying, which acknowledges the presence of God within us who are created in God’s image.  In Augustine’s understanding of prayer, we must pray and live from ‘the inside out.’ To be ‘outside’ is to be outside of my own self, as Augustine came to realise on his conversion: ‘you were within, it was I who was outside’ (Conf. 10, 27, 38).  It is not a matter then of God or my heart, but rather of God and my heart. To diminish the relationship I have with God would in the last analysis be a diminishment of my very self. The matter of the heart is the heart of the matter where prayer, desire for God and love of God and of my sisters and brothers are concerned.  The heart of prayer is found when the heart is in prayer, in other words when we pray genuinely from within our true selves.

Heart imagery in Augustine

As Augustine developed his understanding of the heart or inner self in relation to God, he drew inspiration especially from St. Paul, and from three texts in particular: Rom 7:22; 2Cor 4:16; Eph 3:16.  These texts speak about the inner being of the person in relation to God.

For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self (Rom 7:22).

Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day (2Cor 4:16).

I pray that according to the riches of his glory he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit (Eph 3:16).

The restlessness of the heart that Augustine speaks of at the beginning of the Confessions, points to our profound sense of connectedness with God, a relationship that will not be satisfied elsewhere.  Augustine’s experiences of the journey inwards to the heart or inner self show that the journey is not only inwards but also upwards to the transcendent God.  Augustine, in his articulation of this journey, deploys a rich and varied imagery in his writing and preaching, especially the imagery of the heart.  This can be seen in the following examples drawn from Augustine’s writings, including his commentary on the Psalms, his commentary on St. John’s gospel and some of his sermons.

Eye of the heart

On Ps 26, 2, 15

To you my heart has spoken: I have sought your face. If our joy were in the sun up there, it would not be our heart, but the eyes of our bodies that would be saying, I have sought your face.  To whom does our heart say, I have sought your face? Only to him who offers himself to the eyes of the heart. One kind of light is what the eyes of our flesh seek, the other is sought by the eyes of the heart.  But you want to behold the light which is seen by the eyes of the heart, because God is that light itself.  God is light, says John, and in him there is no darkness at all  (1Jn 1:5).  Do you aspire to see that light?  Make your eye clean, so that you can see it, because, blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God (Mt 5:8).

Song of the heart

On Ps 86, 1

The King of the city has made himself the way through, so that we may reach it.  As we walk along in Christ, pilgrims still until we arrive, sighing with desire for the unutterable peace that abides in that city – a peace concerning which we are promised what eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor human heart conceived (1Cor 2:9) – as we walk, I say, let us so sing as to enkindle our longing. All who long for it are singing in their hearts, even if their tongues are silent, whereas anyone who has no longing is dumb in God’s presence, however great a din such a person makes in human ears.

Inner ear or ear of the heart

On Ps 147, 5

Now let us hear what city it is of which the psalm sings.  Let us hear and sing about it ourselves, for the joy we feel in hearing is already a song to our God.  It is not only when we frame a song with our voice and our lips that we are singing; there is also a song that is sung within, because we have interior ears.  We sing with our voices to stir up our own devotion, but we sing with our hearts to please God.

Mouth of the heart

On Ps 125, 5

Then was our mouth filled with joy, and our tongue with gladness. If we think this means our bodily mouth, brothers and sister, how can it be filled with joy?  It is generally filled with food, or drink, or anything else of that kind that we put in our mouths.  So our mouths are certainly filled sometimes. And there is something else we must point out to you holy brethren: when our mouths are full, we cannot speak. 

But we have also an inner mouth in our hearts and if, what comes out of it is bad, it defiles us; but if good, it cleanses us.

Blindness of the heart

On Ps 118, 18, 3

But when he speaks of those who have no share in the new birth, he warns, This I must say, and adjure you in the Lord: Walk no more now as the pagans walk. Their minds are empty; they are darkened in their understanding and estranged from the way of God by the ignorance that is in them, owing to the blindness of their hearts (Eph 4:17-18).  The blindness of the inner eyes is a lack of understanding, but as hearts are cleansed by faith (see Acts 15:9) eyes are opened and become ever clearer.

The heart’s ardent love

On Ps 126, 1

These psalms are therefore the songs of lovers, afire with holy longing.  All who sing them from the heart are on fire too, and their burning hearts are revealed in their way of life: in their good conduct, their sincere observance of God’s commandments, their refusal to set much store by the fleeting things of time, and their love for things eternal.

Desires of the heart and desires of the body

On Ps 36, 1, 4-5

Delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desire. Notice that it expressly says, Your heart’s desire. Distinguish this cry of the heart from the cravings of your flesh; draw the distinction as clearly as you possibly can.  Another psalm says with good reason that he is the God of my heart, and backs this up by continuing, God is my portion for ever (Ps 72(73):26). Let me make this clear by some examples: suppose someone is physically blind, and asks to receive his sight. By all means let him ask, for God does this too; such benefits are also God’s gifts. But even the wicked ask for these. This is a carnal request. Or suppose someone is ill, and begs for recovery, and is heard, even at the brink of death. This too is a carnal petition, and so are all similar requests. What is the petition of the heart?  Just as the carnal petition envisages the healing of one’s eyes, that one may see the kind of light bodily eyes are designed to see, so the petition of the heart is concerned with a different light: blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God (Mt 5:8).

The road of the heart

Sermon 4, 9

So also after baptism, when Christians begin to walk along the road in their hearts in the hope of the promises of God, they must not deviate.  Temptations occur, you see, suggesting something else – the delights of the world, another kind of life – in order to deflect you from the road and turn you aside from your purpose.  If you overcome these desires, these suggestions, the enemy is beaten on the road and the people are led to their native land.

Heart in Pilgrimage

These eight passages from Augustine’s writings illustrate the extraordinary variety of ways in which he was able to deploy the image of the heart.  At times, the heart seems to be almost a separate entity from the individual with its ‘eyes’, ‘ears’, ‘mouth’ etc.  The dispositions of the heart are also crucial for the pilgrimage of the Christian through this world.  We are only passing through this life; our real home is the life to come – this is a frequently-recurring theme in Augustine.  The antithesis he often sets up between what is bodily or external and what is spiritual or internal illustrates the influence of St. Paul and of course, prior to his conversion, the Platonic view of the world.  Operating in a largely pagan environment, Christians in Augustine’s time were subject to all sorts of contrary enticements.  Augustine therefore felt obliged to alert his congregations to the dangers involved so that they would not lose sight of their ultimate destiny – Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Augustine ‘s own spiritual odyssey, his personal searching for God (and for himself) had no doubt heightened his awareness of the pitfalls of that experience.  Frequently he urges his hearers to turn and return to themselves (‘return to the heart’) and discern therein the presence of God.  A good example of this is the following passage from his commentary on St. John’s Gospel.

On John’s Gospel 18, 10, 1-2

Return to the heart!  Why do you go away from yourselves, and perish from yourselves?  Why do you go the ways of solitude? You go astray by wandering about.  Return. Where?  To the Lord, it is quickly done!  First, return to the heart. You are wandering without, an exile from yourself!  You do not know yourself, and you ask by whom you were made!  Return, return to the heart; remove yourself from the body.  Your body is your dwelling-place; your heart perceives even through your body, but your body is not what your heart is.  Forsake even your body, return to your heart. In your body you found eyes in one place, ears in another.  Do you find this in your heart? Or is it that in your heart you do not have ears? About what (ears) therefore was the Lord speaking, He who has ears to hear let him hear? Or is it that you do not have eyes in the heart? Of what (eyes) does the Apostle say, the eyes of your heart enlightened? Return to your heart! See there what you perceive about God because the image of God is there.  In the inner person Christ dwells; in the inner person you are renewed according to the image of God.

Purity of heart and the Vision of God

We have quoted in passing one of the beatitudes from Matthew’s gospel: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Mt 5:8).  This was a text frequently cited by the patristic writers of the early Church, including Augustine. The beatitude highlights the desire of the human heart ‘to see God’ and also points to what is necessary for the attainment of such a vision, purity of heart. Heart in this context represented the mind or thought, not the feelings and therefore it denoted honesty of mind together with purity of intention.  For examples of Augustine’s use of the beatitude, it will suffice to cite some sections of Sermon 53, preached in Carthage sometime between the years 413 and 416:

Sermon 53, 6

When we attend to the vision of God, we won’t seek such things any more.  What after all is there to seek, if you have got God?  Or what will you be content with, if you are not content with God? We want to see God; we are looking for ways to see God; we are on fire to see God. Who isn’t?  But notice what it says: Blessed are the heart-pure, for they shall see God.

Provide what you need to see with…make your eyes healthy and that light will be a joy; make your eyes unhealthy, and that light will be a torment.  You will not be permitted to see with an impure heart what can only be seen with a pure heart.

We come to the heart-pure; there is the promise made of seeing God.  Not without reason then we have the eyes that God can be seen with.  The apostle Paul is talking about those eyes when says, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened (Eph 1:18).  So now these eyes, for their weakness, are being enlightened by faith: afterward for their strength, they will be enlightened by sight.

Sermon 53, 10

So if we long to see God, how is this eye going to be purified?...Divine authority has given us the clear answer to our question: Purifying our hearts, it says, by faith (Acts 15:9).  Faith in God purifies the heart, the pure heart sees God.


With all of the emphasis on interiority and on the image of the heart as characteristic of Augustine’s spirituality, it is important to make clear that Augustinian spirituality is never an introverted one.  As the late Augustinian scholar, T.F. Martin makes clear, ‘what is fundamentally interior to me is, for Augustine, the point where I am closest to my brothers and sisters in the human family’ (Our Restless Heart, 43).  Martin goes on to say that ‘from the heart I come to Christian faith, become a member of the Church, the body of Christ, and begin to recognise Christ in my brothers and sisters, with a particular openness of heart for the poor’ (ibid.). Augustine, as noted already, states that ‘the heart is the place where I am whoever I am’ (Conf. 10, 3, 4).  It is the place where one finds one’s true self, one’s ‘God-self’ and it is from there that we commit ourselves to authentic living for God and neighbour and not merely for ourselves. Claiming to live from ‘the heart’ and failing to express this in love and community is mere self-deception (Restless Heart, 43).

Here it is useful to note that the most recent form of the Augustinian Order’s emblem has three key words surrounding it – Truth (Veritas), Unity (Unitas) and Love (Caritas).  Augustine’s Confessions recounts for us Augustine’s personal search for Truth and how he found that Truth residing within himself.  He spent the rest of his life proclaiming and unfolding the riches of that Truth.  In his Rule, he urges those following religious life to be ‘of one mind and one heart on the way to God’ (Rule 1, 2).  For the greater part of his episcopate, Augustine strove to bring unity to a Church divided by the Donatist schism and the later Pelagian controversy.  We have already noted how living ‘from the heart’ must find expression in love for God and neighbour and that love is at the core of Christian living embracing all especially the poor and those deprived of justice and dignity. Such an emblem as that of the Augustinian Order must not remain a mere emblem but must be activated ‘from the heart’ for God and others whom God wishes to reach through us.


Primary Sources:

Citations from St. Augustine’s writings have been taken from the following English versions:

The Confessions, I/1, introduction, translation/notes by M. Boulding, OSB; edited by J.E. Rotelle, OSA. New York: New City Press, 1997.

Sermons, III/1, (1-19) on the Old Testament, Introduction by Cardinal M. Pellegrino; translation/notes, E. Hill, OP; edited by J.E. Rotelle, OSA.  New York: New City Press, 1990.

Sermons, III/3, (51-94) on the New Testament, translation/notes by E. Hill, OP; edited by J.E. Rotelle, OSA.  New York: New City Press, 1991.

Expositions of the Psalms, III/15, Psalms 1-32, introduction by M. Fiedrowicz; translation/notes by M. Boulding, OSB; edited by J.E. Rotelle, OSA. New York: New City Press, 2000.

Expositions of the Psalms, III/16, Psalms 33-50, translation/notes by M. Boulding, OSB; edited by J.E. Rotelle, OSA. New York: New City Press, 2000.

Expositions of the Psalms, III/18, Psalms 73-98, translation/notes by M. Boulding, OSB; edited by J.E. Rotelle, OSA. New York: New City Press, 2002.

Expositions of the Psalms, III/19, Psalms 99-120, translation/notes by M. Boulding, OSB; edited by J.E. Rotelle, OSA. New York: New City Press, 2003.

Expositions of the Psalms, III/20, Psalms 121-150, translation/notes by M. Boulding, OSB; edited by B. Ramsey, OP.  New York: New City Press, 2004.

Soliloquies. Augustine’s Interior Dialogue, translation and notes by K. Paffenroth; introduction by B. Ramsey, OP; edited by J.E. Rotelle, OSA. New York: New City Press, 2000.

St. Augustine’s Tractates on the Gospel of John, 11-27, Fathers of the Church, vol. 79, translation by J.W. Rettig.  Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1988.

St. Augustine’s Tractates on the Gospel of John, 28-54, Fathers of the Church, vol. 88, translation by J.W. Rettig. Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1993.

The Rule of Saint Augustine with Introduction & Commentary by T. J. Van Bavel, OSA;  translated by R. Canning, OSA. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1984.


Secondary Sources:

G. Corcoran, ‘Saint Augustine on Prayer’, Augustinian Heritage 34/2 (1988), 203-215.

T.F. Martin, Our Restless Heart. The Augustinian Tradition, London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2003.



Citations from the Scriptures, other than those occurring within Augustine’s writings, are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

David Kelly OSA
Dublin, Ireland


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