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The Church is called to ask for the gift of faith for unbelievers

Dr. Augustin Sokolovski, priest

Since the August issue of Russian Mind dedicated to Italy, it seems extremely important and interesting that this theological, biblical and ecclesiastical reflection of the month, should be devoted to the personality of someone whose biography would be largely connected with this great, unique and beautiful country.

On August 28, at the end of the final summer month, the Church celebrates the memory of St. Augustine. It was on this day that the saint completed his earthly journey in the Carthaginian city of Hippo, besieged by vandals. And although the place of Augustine’s birth and death was Roman Africa, the main milestones of his life are connected with Italy.

It was in Italy, in Milan, that Augustine experienced his brilliant career as an orator and teacher, here he converted to Christianity and was baptized by the bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose (340-397). In Rome, Augustine received a special revelation, which went down in the history of philosophy under the name “Vision at Ostia”. He was a friend and companion of other great Italian saints: Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, Pope Damas and Celestine of Rome.

Immediately after the death of the bishop in Hippo, his body and library were transferred by his direct disciples to Sardinia, and then, in the era of the Arab conquests, at the beginning of the VIII century, it was bought for its weight in gold by the Langobard kings and has since been buried in the ancient capital of these rulers, in the city of Pavia in northern Italy.

St. Augustine. Mosaic in the St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. XI

The Orthodox faithful are aware of the existence of the great host of saints, but they venerate only a few of them. Some of the saints we remember only by name, about others we know nothing at all. Of course, scholars will offer us their explanation. “After all, the veneration of saints,” they will say, “was always dependent on something, dependent on the circumstances and needs of a particular time and a particular era”.

You and I, dear readers, however, live in a different, mysterious, sacramental perspective. We know that the saints, having finished their earthly wanderings together with the wandering Church, contemporary of their own, remain in the communion of saints in heaven before God, living, thinking, loving, virtuous people. And all the virtues they have acquired in this life continue to shine through them with divine light. Some of the saints, in their humility, asked the Lord to remain hidden. In contrast to the greatness and glory of the earthly achievements they accomplished. In my humble opinion, based on my own work on Augustine, one such saint, who preferred oblivion on earth in the Orthodox Church was and is St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430). So named for his service in the city of Hippo, which is in present-day Algeria and is called Annaba. This large port city today, was once called Hippo Regius, or “King’s Hippo”, because in ancient times it was the capital of the Phoenician kings.

Augustine is one of the great twelve Fathers and Teachers of the Universal Church, recognized as pillars of doctrine in the decrees of the Fifth (553) and Sixth (680-681) Ecumenical Councils. This means that the “Rule of Faith and the Image of Humility”, i.e., “Faith and Order” – the infallible and inerrant doctrinal and moral preaching of the Church – is based on these twelve Fathers, who are like the twelve foundations of the New Heavenly Jerusalem in the Apocalypse (cf. Rev. 21:14). Among them are Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, Nectarius and Proclus of Constantinople, the Alexandrian saints Athanasius, Cyril and Theophilus, the Roman bishop Leo the Great and Hilary of Poitiers.

Augustine wrote more than all the Church Fathers of antiquity put together. Augustine was converted to Christ as he was a famous orator. He once even had the privilege of writing a solemn speech for the Emperor himself, an unprecedented honor at the time. Eventually, however, he left everything and fled the Italy that had made him famous for his home in Roman Africa, with Carthage as its capital. Many schismatics, heretics, false teachers filled these areas, but Augustine sought only one thing: seclusion in a small monastic community and to devote his life to asceticism, philosophy and penance. The great orator sought oblivion. For unlike the other Church Fathers, Augustine had been a great sinner before his conversion.

He knew life, was the father of his only son, born from a long-term concubine, whom he left in order to get together with another woman, interesting to him at that time solely for career reasons, but without waiting for her coming of age, he got together with another one. Augustine’s son Adeodatus, that is, according to the literal translation of the name from Latin, Given by God, lived only 16 years. Augustine experienced his conversion to Christ in adulthood and was baptized on the eve of his thirty-third birthday. The name Augustine itself was extremely rare for that time. Meaning “little August”, that is, as if “mini-emperor”, it, from the parents who called their child so, was a rather audacious name. And much, much more, which we read about in his Confessions …an immortal work that inspired so many generations, among the imitators and commentators of which there were so many, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Tolstoy Nietzsche and Heidegger.

Augustine experienced his conversion to Christ at a ripe old age and was baptized on the eve of his thirty-third birthday. The community Augustine had founded was too small in number, and in order to call to himself another congregation, he went to the city of Hippo, which we have already mentioned. When he entered the local basilica, the multitude of the faithful literally seized him, led him forcibly to the episcopal throne, and demanded that the bishop ordain him presbyter at once. Augustine protested and wept with indignation and hopelessness. What happened to him was what the practice of the ancient Church knew by the name of acclamation: unanimous election by the power of the Holy Spirit. For then the priests and especially the bishops for his Church were chosen by the Lord himself.

Thus began the work of the great Father of the Church. Augustine was ordained at the age of 36, which was unusually late even for those times. However, enough to remember that at the same age, but from quite different biographical premises, Great John Chrysostom (+407) was ordained as presbyter. Both saints, John and Augustine, brought great fruit to the Church, and, most importantly, to the Universe!

Years of Augustine’s life: 354-430. For a few years he was a priest, for a little over thirty years he served God as a bishop. Augustine confronted all the delusions that existed at that time. Thus, he defeated the schismatic Donatists. For this he organized a special dispute, under the terms of which the loser of the dispute was obliged to cede all his temples to the victorious side. All the people of the Church on both sides testified to this, and the guarantor in this particular case was the secular imperial authority. Thus, Augustine always acted boldly in Christ. He wrote, preached, spoke and exhorted.

A great theologian, a great thinker, whose worldview was subsequently reckoned with by all generations of philosophers, including our postmodern modernity. One of the greatest theologians of Modern Times, Bishop Cornelius Jansenius (1585-1638) called Augustine “The Matrix of All Conclusions” (in Latin: Matrix omnium conclusionum).

Augustine went down in history as the great Father of the Church. But perhaps least known about this saint, unknown to us 21st century Orthodox Christians, was the greatness of his pastoral ministry. His daily routine was to defend day after day the poor, the weak and the destitute, the humiliated and the offended, the poor people. For according to the laws of the time, every person could demand the judgement of the bishop and the Church instead of the secular judgement. The bishop of antiquity had to be the personification of mercy, otherwise Christianity would simply cease to exist. Indeed, the bishop of that time was obliged to decide to whom an inheritance should go, to pass his judgement on unjust wrongs, to protect the industrious and the burdened. Augustine’s days and years were spent in this service.

At the beginning of his journey as pastor and bishop, the future Church Father was certain that, just as he himself had once turned to Christ with seemingly perfect irrevocability, every human being was capable of believing, being baptized and living righteously. But pastoral concerns gradually brought Augustine, day by day, to the realization that this was not the case at all. There is a mystery. The conclusion that faith is an absolute, inexplicable, divine gift. “A gift according to the gift of your Christ,” says the final exclamation of the orthodox Pre-Sanctified Liturgy. The gift is not vain or accidental. The gift is without beginning, that is, if we take the word literally back to its Greek original “anarchic” and the gift is gratuitous. A gift given by God to a chosen human being for reasons unknown and above all inaccessible to us by our own forces. At the moment of his episcopal ordination, the truth of it was revealed to Augustine as a supernatural revelation by his own confession. The awareness of the gift at the moment of the greatest gift of the greatest teaching ministry of the Church in his episcopal ordination.

St Mark’s Basilica

In his letters and writings, the teacher of the Church of Christ told how he saw and knew profoundly faithful people who, moreover, clung fanatically to their convictions and renounced Christ on their deathbeds. Conversely, he was a witness to those who persecuted the Church, who “killed the Body of Christ”, like Paul, and who – as Augustine wrote about it – destroyed “the earth of the new creation in Christ” (Rev.11:18) through moral depravity and dogmatic error, all his life. That is why Augustine has gone down in the memory of the Church as the “Teacher of Grace”. In old pictures he is depicted with a burning heart in his hand. A heart engulfed by a divine flame. A heart filled with the mysticism of light and the fire of grace.

At the end of his life, Augustine subjected all his works to a revision in a treatise of his own, called “Retractions”. He wrote a special explanation for each of them. He admitted mistakes and corrected many things. The particular that began with the moment of his episcopate around 397, the period of his life dedicated to a new, tragic understanding of the relationship between human freedom and divine grace, the arbitrariness of human unbelief and the gift of divine faith, Augustine wrote in his own lines. At the top of his remarks are the following words: “All my life I have tried to reconcile grace and freedom. But … grace has triumphed”.

This victory of grace we should realise throughout our lives in such a depressive time we live in, following Augustine’s example and through his prayers. So that when we sin or fall, or mistake, we immediately get up and move on. That we leave the commandments and realise that in our own strength we are quite capable of doing worse and are infinitely talented at sinning, we should immediately turn and follow God who calls us with his voice – the Lord Jesus Christ.

Always give thanks for the gift of faith that has been given to us. Once and for no reason at all. Become that thankfulness yourself. Turn that thanksgiving into a prayer for those who do not believe. For a world that is suffering. Sick. Fearful. Panicked. Inventing false saviors, false deliverance and false gods. A world whose “sick being”, – as Till Lindemann sings, – “cries out for redemption”. So says the book of the prophet Amos, whose commemoration in the orthodox liturgical calendar surprisingly coincides with another Augustine’s day in June: “The days are coming, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I will send a famine upon the earth – not a of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. Men will stagger from sea to sea, and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, and they will not find it” (Amos 8:11-12).

The hunger for God’s word is what modernity lives by, or rather, what it ails and dies by. It is a real, unique, real, all-destroying, incurable by any human effort or antidote. The hunger for the Word of God is caused by human sin. Sin is glory lost, and sin is the failure to proclaim Jesus as Lord. A tragic, anti-humanistic and, in its hopelessness, deeply and authentically biblically based inability to believe. An inability to breathe the breath of God, which is the Holy Spirit – that is the true, valid and real breath of the human being – the absence of which transforms existence into irreconcilability. “Therefore, so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven human, neither in this age nor in the age to come,” says the Lord in the Gospel (Matthew 12:31–32).

The Church is called to ask for the gift of faith for unbelievers. The Church is the faith of those who cannot believe. Awareness of the absoluteness of the gift of faith received in Revelation taught Augustine not to neglect those who do not yet believe, to have mercy on those whose faith is weak, to believe himself, and to pray for those who seem never will believe.

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