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Posted July 9, 2003

Book: Our Restless Heart: The Augustinian Tradition
Author: Thomas F. Martin, OSA
Orbis, Maryknoll, New York, pp.170

Excerpt from Introduction:

Augustine of Hippo, that man of restless heart, has profoundly shaped Western Christianity. As God-seeker, philosopher, convert, contemplative monk, literary artist, busy bishop, theologian and polemicist, he sought to make sense of himself and humanity before God — and in so doing left behind a spiritual and literary heritage that thoughtfully, eloquently and often provocatively recounts that effort. The restless heart of Augustine prompted a searching, a commitment to truth and love, an unrelenting desire to engage the mystery of God that unfolded before him, both overwhelming and beckoning him.

No one can deny his formative role in shaping the spirituality of Western Christianity, though for some it is a cause for concern. It is, perhaps, impossible to remain indifferent before Augustine. Such reactions would probably not surprise him, this multifaceted Late Antique man — for even in his lifetime his theological positions and his spiritual vision were not without critics. This volume is intended to be an excursion into the rich history that is the spiritual tradition identified with St. Augustine. Given the volume of his writings, the enormous response they have generated, the crowded field of those who label themselves or are labeled ‘Augustinians’, as well as the ample debates they too have prompted, this excursion can only claim to be a brief but representative entry into a tradition that is vast, complicated, and as much discussed today as it was in Augustine’s time.

This study begins with Augustine himself and then traces the legacy of his spiritual vision as it is taken up by representative thinkers and seekers through the centuries.

Excerpt from Book:

Approaching Augustine

A perennial challenge for students of Augustine is both the sheer volume of his writings and the nature of those writings. The output of four decades of pastoral ministry, controversy an devotion, it is the largest collection of any ancient author. It presents a lifetime project for anyone undertaking a complete knowledge of Augustine. What makes such a study even more daunting is the fact that the vast majority of his works are situational, addressing particular problems at a particular point in history. Thus they do not represent an ordered system of thought. Furthermore, Augustine makes it clear that there was a movement and development in his thinking. Late in life he will chide some of his devoted but confused admirers for not growing with him in theological understanding even regarding his own work . . .

Augustine admonishes these readers to study him carefully and, in this case, to progress in thought as he did, to pay careful attention to the chronology of his works. Would he not insist on the same today?

Further, modern readers will often find themselves tested by Augustine’s writing techniques, at odds with modern expectations of a certain kind of literary logic and systematisation. But what may appear t us as a rambling and digressive approach must be understood in the light of an ancient world that remained more oral than literary. It was indeed a world of great literature but even the written word was set down to be spoken out loud and heard. Thus ‘readers’ in the ancient world were almost always ‘listeners’ as well, even when reading alone. Augustine recounts in the Confessions his surprise at coming upon Ambrose reading silently, so strikingly different was the practice. Furthermore, an oral culture might be said to reason cumulatively rather than systematically; Walter Ong characterises orality as additive , aggressive, copious, agonistic and participatory. What that means, for example, is that when one reads Augustine for any length of time, one can have the feeling of bing pummelled by wave after wave of scriptural quotes, repeated words or phrases, questions asked over and over again; and sometimes all this occurs in the course of a single dense paragraph. This is not our world of communication but an oral world where repetition and redundancy are standard fare. What often holds his thought together is not systematic or thematic order but verbal and rhetorical resonance and repetition. Arguments, concepts, questions and principles are repeatedly reasserted, but these recurring themes, when taken together, reveal the centre and unity of his spiritual vision. The student of Augustine can sometimes be tempted to isolate singular and often dramatic ideas from this larger configuration, the very artistry and power of a single theme repeated over and over thus misleading the incautious or inexperienced reader. This is why the study of his thought and spirituality demands a conscious effort to link exceptionally compelling and dramatically expressive ideas into his larger, often implicit and certainly intricate framework of ideas. The oral-rhetorical-polemical world of Augustine demanded an emphatic insistence upon the circumstantial and particular, and expected the reader to possess the ability to integrate it into a wider context.

Table of Contents:

1. The Journey: Augustine’s Spiritual Vision

2. The Glue of Love: A ‘Rule’ for Community

3. To Teach by Word and Example: Canonical Spirituality and the Apostolic Life

4. Exemplar and Rule of All Our Actions: Augustine and the Hermits

5. A Theological Life: A Spirituality for Reformers

6. Pilgrims to the Self: Modern and Postmodern Augustinians

Conclusion: The End with End: The Still Restless Heart