St. Augustine—The Great Lover of the Soul and Spirit

St. Augustine, also known as Saint Augustine the Bishop of Hippo (Aurelius Augustinus, 354-430 CE), caroused in promiscuity at the age of 18 while a student at Carthage. Sex was an overriding obsession. He would later write in his Confessions, “From a perverted act of will, desire had grown, and when desire is given satisfaction, habit is forged; and when habit passes unresisted, a compulsive urge sets in.” Hence, his early life can be likened unto the Prodigal Son, who this time in the person and prayers of his mother, Monica, was inspired to end his carousing ways. He was later officially converted through the sermons of Bishop Ambrose, who was also later to be crowned a Saint. Augustine and his teacher Ambrose are the first Latin Christian writers to maintain that the human soul is incorporeal.

The Bishop’s erudite and wide-ranging knowledge of philosophy, coupled with a profound and other-worldly intimacy with the Christian message, was to change the young teacher’s understanding forever. For Ambrose, a human being is his soul; the human body is merely ‘a tattered garment’. In going against his soul, a human ceased to exist, and in returning to God, the soul cast off its impediments, ‘like washing the mud off gold’. (Paul S. Macdonald, History of the Concept of Mind, Volume One, pg. 146)

Actually for Augustine this was a second conversion since his exposure to Platonism culminated in an arduous intellectual journey in pursuit of Truth and Wisdom. It needs to be stated that this also coincided from his conversion from Manichaeism:

Manichaeism had Persian origins and proposed as its salient credendum a type of “conflict dualism,” that is, a thesis about two opposite principles at the core of reality. A power of goodness and light was locked in a cosmic clash with the power of evil and darkness. Curiously the light was a passive principle, unable to resist in a forceful way the powers of darkness. But this cosmology was not meant metaphorically. It was as much physics as metaphysics. The two powers were identified literally as the actual forces that make up the physical cosmos, with the sun as the central locus of goodness. Manichees understood themselves to contain a ruined fragment of that primal light within themselves. They could escape at death by means of this inner energy and rendezvous with other light-filled souls on a post-mortem journey through the physical heavens. (John Peter Kenney, The Mysticism of Saint Augustine:Rereading the Confessions, pgs. 49, 50)

After these conversions, Augustine inferred that only a celibate could hope to achieve the state of grace that existed in the Garden of Eden. In fact, what we today call “Christian attitudes toward sex” are really Augustinian attitudes. He was thus also the originator of the concept of “original sin”, a cornerstone of Christian Orthodoxy. One’s own soul was a major player in these formulations.

The imperfection of the soul is not found in its lack of knowledge of reality, but in its inability to act upon the divine truth it knows. Its carnal desires are both sicknesses within the soul and a dissemblance before the truth. This is the prevalent character of the human condition, eradicable except through divine mercy. That must come through a mediator, one who is both divine and human, an “immortal righteous one, mortal like humanity, righteous like God.”

What stands in the way of the soul’s continuous association with the transcendental and the divine is its moral condition. The body is only a token of the soul’s moral state, exhibiting the soul’s perversity of will, and not the cause of its falling away from the eternal. The pilgrim soul thus lacks stability and the capacity for sustained enjoyment of its God because of its inherent moral character. It is weighed down by a propensity to the things “below,” to carnal things, especially sexuality. Freedom from this awesome weight must be found if the soul is to sustain the promise of transcendence. (ibid, pg. 64, 102)

Augustine devised a seven-fold tier of the soul:

1 animatio, animation. The soul is the animating force of the body.
2 sensus, sensation. The soul is capable of sensing its surrounding environment,
of movement, and of memory.
3 ars, art. The soul as maker, through thought and language, of the entirety
of human culture.
4 virtus, virtue. The soul as moral and ethical aesthetic interpreter, capable of
moral discernment and progress. This is only possible through the help of
God’s justice.
5 tranquillitas, tranquility. The soul, in a state of moral self-possession grasps
its worth and begins to seek contemplation of God as Truth.
6 ingressio, entrance. Here the soul is so morally purified that its yearning to
understand what is true and best leads into intellectual vision.
7 contemplatio, contemplation. The soul is now in a state of settled enjoyment
of God. (ibid, pg. 91)

From all of these, it is Contemplation itself that serves as the best guardian of the soul. It serves as a protective seal for its development and a direct route to an inner “Dwelling place” wherein the soul experiences comfort and peace.

For Augustine the soul was subservient to the spirit (spiritus). The spirit actually proceeds from the Father and Son, being in Essence the third part of the Holy Trinity—thus, the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that inspires the soul to become freed of its tethers and thus enjoy its rightful position of “function” in the Divine Economy. It is the mission of the Holy Spirit to confer sanctification upon the human soul. And the soul, as function of the spirit, makes it possible for all the different parts of the body to function according to their True Nature within the Body of Christ, or the Church. But the Holy Spirit plays the dominant role as a harmonizing factor so that all members of the body become one in soul and spirit. Hence for Augustine,

The Church of God is like that; in some of the saints it works miracles, in other saints it proclaims the truth, in other saints it preserves virginity, in other saints it preserves married chastity; in some this, in others that. All doing their own thing, but living the same life together. In fact, what the soul is to the human body, the Holy Spirit is to the body of Christ, which is the Church. The Holy Spirit does in the whole Church what the soul does in all the parts of one body. (St. Augustine, “Sermon 267”.)

For our series, Augustine acts as a bridge between our Greek Philosophers and the incorporation of their teachings as witnessed by the Holy Spirit in an ecclesiastical setting—something that has been occurring now throughout the millennium.

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