Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Augustine on worship and love

"To this God we owe our service - what in Greek is called latreia - whether in the various sacraments or in our selves. For we are his temple, collectively, and as individuals. For he condescends to dwell in the union of all and in each person. He is as great in the individual as he is in the whole body of his worshippers, for he cannot be in creased in bulk or diminished by partition. When we lift up our hearts to him, our heart is his altar. We propitiate him by our priest, his only-begotten Son. We sacrifice blood-stained victims to him when we fight for truth 'as far as shedding our blood'. We burn the sweetest incense for him, when we are in his sight on fire with devout and holy love. We vow to him and offer to him the gifts he has given us, and the gift of ourselves. And we have annual festivals and fixed days appointed and consecrated for the remembrance of his benefits, lest ingratitude and forgetfulness should creep in as the years roll by. We offer to him, on the altar of the heart, the sacrifice of humility and praise, and the flame on the altar is the burning fire of charity. To see him as he can be seen and to cleave to him, we purify ourselves from every stain of sin and evil desire and we consecrate ourselves in his name. For he himself is the source of our bliss, he himself the goal of all our striving. By our election of his as our goal - or rather by our re-election (for we had lost him by our neglect); by our re-election (and we are told that the word 'religion' comes from relegere 'to re-elect'), we direct our course towards him with love (dilectio), so that in reaching him we may find our rest, and attain our happiness because we have achieved our fulfilment in him. For our Good, that Final Good about which the philosophers dispute, is nothing else but to cleave to him whose spiritual embrace, if one may so express it, fills the intellectual soul and makes it fertile with true virtues.

"We are commanded to love this Good with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength; and to this Good we must be led by those who love us, and to it we must lead those whom we love. Thus are fulfilled those two commands on which 'all the Law and the prophets depend': 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind', and, 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.' For in order that a man may know how to love himself an end has been established for him to which he is to refer all his action, so that he may attain to bliss. For if a man loves himself, his one wish is to achieve blessedness. Now this end is 'to cling to God'. Thus, if a man knows how to love himself, the commandment to love his neighbour bids him to do all he can to bring his neighbour to love God. This is the worship of God; this is true religion; this is the right kind of devotion; this is the service which is owed to God alone."

- Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, X.3.

This passage is critical for all kinds of reasons. Notice how Augustine takes the regular elements associated with worship in the ancient world and shows how they are transformed in Christian worship. The temple is our body and the body politic of the Christian community. The altar is our heart. The sacrifice is humility. And so on. This is not, as is sometimes thought, merely a "spiritualisation" of outward religion, in which meaningless rituals are replaced with right motives. The difference between ancient religions and Christianity is not merely captured by the opposition between "outward" and "inward" piety. True worship is always both. The key difference for Augustine is captured better by the concept of "wholeheartedness". True worship is the wholehearted turning of the self to God, without reservation or any hedging of bets. It is to turn our entire orientation, to re-turn, to a God-ward direction in our life story.

And this is why, Augustine explains, true worship is so closely tied to love in the biblical tradition. For wholehearted love is a motion of the entire life towards the object of our love. If we are to worship God, we must love him wholeheartedly.

And the command to love our neighbour must be understood, not in competition with this primary love, but as its horizontal expression. We love God by loving our neighbour. Yet this also means we love our neighbour by loving God, and inviting them to share that same passionate commitment to the origin of our bliss and goal of our striving.

Notice also that while the love of God is the source and destination of our love of neighbour, it is only through being loved that we learn how to love. Only as we are loved by our neighbour do we learn that God loves us, and only in the light of God's love are we able to love God and others for God's sake.

Finally, a word on Augustine's metaphors. Love is both resting in, and striving after; both choosing of a goal, and finding fulfilment; it is both active and passive. It is an embrace, where I am both taken and held, and also warmly grasp in return. But this is not merely the embrace of a friend, a comfort hug, a warm greeting or a fond farewell. It is the fertile cleaving of lovers, whose embrace produces the gift of new life.