The text below is written by St Augustine of Hippo, sometime early in the 5th century. St Augustine is one of the most important writers in Christian history, and I have to admit one of my favourites. I find the best way to approach his work is not as a Religious Studies textbook for the fifth century, but on the contrary, almost like poetry. Words that try to give meaning to something we feel or believe, but is very hard to articulate.
As often the case with poetry as well, the first time, or times, you hear it, a lot of it doesn’t quite make sense when you think about it. But, most of the time, there is even on a first reading, something that strikes you and resonates. So, as you read the reading below, I’d like you to try and read it as poetry, trying to look out for something that connects; something that strikes a chord.
From Saint Augustine’s On the Trinity:
No one should say: “I do not know what I love.” If people love their brothers and sisters, then they will love the love that is God. For we know the love with which we love better than the brother or sister who is the object of our love. Thus we can already know God better than we know our brother or sister. We can know God more clearly because he is more clearly present, more deeply within us and therefore more sure.
We begin with that which is nearest to us, namely, our brother or sister. So let us stop worrying about how much love we ought to spend on our neighbour and how much on God. The answer is incomparably more on God than on ourselves, and on our sisters and brothers as much as on ourselves. But in reality, the more we love God, the more we love ourselves. We are loving God and our neighbour out of the one and same love.
No one should say: “I do not know what I love.” If people love their brothers and sisters, then they will love the love that is God. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who at times has the feeling that I don’t know where to begin. By this time in term, I’m sure your preps have started to pile up, and you spend at least a few minutes looking at which one to do first, probably looking for the one that is the easiest to get out of the way.
And I guess some, or many, of us, sometimes have the same feeling as we think of how to become ‘good’ people, how to become loving and caring people. Should we give some money to charity? Help someone with their work? Spend time on our own development by reading a book or finding material beyond the syllabus. Or, is it time for us to realise we’ve been doing too much, and we need to look after ourselves?
I think what Augustine is trying to say in the reading this morning is that if we want to become loving and caring people, the only thing we really need to do is make a start, and not to worry too much what that start may look like.
At the root of this advice is the belief that we as people are made to be loving and caring people. Yes, we get it wrong at times, but instinctively, we long to look after each other. In Christian terms, we are made in the image of God, a God who loves and is love.
You may recognise some of Augustine’s Neoplatonic tendencies: by loving we participate in God, who is love, and thereby we become more loving. However, philosophy aside, it is an important life lesson for all of us. If we want to do something that is really good for ourselves, not in a short-sighted, but wholistic way, we will soon recognise that this is good for others too.
When we work hard to get good grades, we will be more able to make a contribution to public discourse and society at large. When we work hard on the sports field, we’ll discover that a good and fair game is much more important than the winning itself. And I am sure you can think of other examples too.
It also works the other way around: when we do something for someone else, we will soon come to see that we benefit from this ourselves too. Helping someone with their physics makes you realise you gain a deeper understanding yourself. And often when we put others before ourselves, we see that together we enjoy things much more than alone.
So, doing the right thing can seem burdensome and tedious, or just a bit boring, but actually, it makes life much more fun. And I would agree with Augustine, this is precisely what God wants for us, he wants us to love, because he loves us.
The more I think about this dynamic of loving one another, and how in any good relationship one and one makes more than two, the more I am convinced that life is not just a series of transactions from birth to death in which there are winners and losers. Of course, you don’t have to agree with me: I think a good discussion often teaches both sides something new. But to have that discussion, I suggest we all do need to think about what we believe and why, so I am looking forward to any comments, criticisms and suggestions: as long as they are well-informed!