Me and Saint Augustine – Sinners

When I was 12 years old and attending catechism classes at my Catholic church on Sundays after mass, the nun who taught us assigned a report on a saint to the class. There was a list of saints and you put your name next to one. I randomly picked St. Augustine because he was at the top of the alphabetical list and that meant I could get my oral report over with it at the beginning of class.

After the list went around the classroom, Sister Wanda called me to her desk.
“I think you should choose a different saint.”
“Why?” I asked.
She hesitated and then said, “His is – a difficult story.”
“I’m a good student. I can handle it,” I replied confidently.
She thought about it a bit and then said I could do St. Augustine.

This exchange piqued my interest in the man.

Vittore carpaccio, visione di sant'agostino
St. Augustine in His Study by Vittore Carpaccio, 1502  Link

Augustine came back to me when I saw that today is his birthday. He was born in Tagaste, Numidia in 354 – a year that was incomprehensible to me in seventh grade and still is incomprehensible. I had to look up his birthplace which is a part of North Africa that is now Algeria.

I remember only a few things from that early research. One thing he believed that I found ridiculous was the idea that no one could be free from sin. Sinfulness is the nature of humans. He developed the idea of Original Sin, saying that all humans are born sinful because all humans are descended from Adam and Eve, who committed the first sins. That seemed incredibly unfair.

Sin was a big thing with Augustine who turned out to be a pretty good sinner himself. Reading about him (probably in a library copy of The World Book Encyclopedia and in a Lives of the Saints book that my mother had on our bookshelf), I started to see why Sister Wanda wasn’t sure I should learn about him.

His book, The Confessions, is one of the first memoirs of Western literature. In that book, he described all the sins he had committed in the years of his life before his conversion. There were a lot of them. The sins ranged from small ones (stealing pears from a neighbor’s tree) to ones he considered major (sexual fantasies and fornication). Augustine’s story got quite interesting and I found other books in the library about him and looked for the “dirty parts.”

He wrote, “Lord, how loathsome I was in Thy sight. Lust stormed confusedly within me. The torrent of my fornications tossed and swelled and boiled and ran over.”

I identified – at least in the fantasy parts – with him. Augustine’s life got me thinking about things that I probably would have to include in my next confession.

Augustine’s mother arranged a respectable marriage for him which he agreed to, but it meant he had to dump his concubine (I had to look that one up in the dictionary)  and that pained him. He wrote, “My mistress being torn from my side as an impediment to my marriage, my heart, which clave to her, was racked, and wounded, and bleeding.” Augustine confessed he was a slave of lust, and he procured another concubine since he had to wait two years until his fiancée came of age.

Around that time, he said he first professed his famously insincere prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence – but not yet.” I think I may have said that a few times myself after doing my report. I thought it was funny.

I considered his Original Sin idea to be crazy. You’re telling me that the innocent newborn is doomed? No way. But I agreed that it was hopeless to think we could be innocent or free from what he considered to be “sin.” Since it is hopeless to be free from sin, I felt more relaxed about sinning.  After all, Augustine did a lot of sinning and became a saint! His ideas about sin became the doctrine of the Catholic Church. At least he thought that if Christian churches baptized infants it would cleanse them of the sin they have inherited from their ancestors.

I wrote my report and turned it in. The following Sunday, we had to do a brief summary oral report. I was smart enough to not include anything about sex in my report. I stuck to him being a scholar whose writings covered theology, philosophy, and sociology. He realized he was a sinner and that we are all sinners and that we can only be redeemed by recognizing that and so our only hope is in God’s forgiveness.

Sister Wanda liked my report. I didn’t believe everything I had told the class, but I knew what I had to say to her and them.

His life story is still interesting to me. The lesson I took away is probably not what he or Sister Wanda wanted me to learn. I too want to be granted forgiveness and self-restraint – but not yet.

St. Teresa of Avila

Teresa of Ávila s a young woman by François Gérard, 1826

Last March 28, I saw on a website that it was the birthday of St. Teresa of Ávila. I’m not a “religious” person these days in the sense of organized religion, but I have an odd relationship with St. Teresa.

It started when I was 13 and attended “Sunday school” at St. Leo’s Church in Irvington, New Jersey. That year my teacher was a young and very kind nun. Those two qualities set Sister Teresa Avila apart from all the other nuns I encountered.

I knew nothing about the real Saint Teresa of Ávila whom she was named after until many years later. Saint Teresa (28 March 1515 – 4 October 1582), was a prominent Spanish mystic, Roman Catholic saint, Carmelite nun and author during the Counter Reformation, and theologian of contemplative life through mental prayer.

Teresa grew up in a wealthy household in the province of Ávila, Spain. She was a beautiful and social girl who loved her privileged life, perfume, jewelry, and elegant clothes. Her mother died when she was 14, and her father sent her to a convent school to protect his beautiful daughter.

Perhaps surprisingly, she found the religious training very appealing and she decided to become a nun.

After twenty increasingly important years, she established her own monastery, She then traveled around Spain on a donkey, setting up 16 new monasteries for women. She also wrote several books, including The Way of Perfection (1566) and The Interior Castle (1580).

One day in that thirteenth year, I had forgotten a homework assignment for Sunday school catechism class. Sister Teresa told me to go home, get the assignment, bring it to the convent and ask for her. The nun who answered my knock at the convent door went to get Sister Teresa.

When Sister Teresa Avila appeared she was not wearing her nun’s habit. I can only imagine how my face must have looked.

She was beautiful. She had long, dark, shiny hair. She asked me for my assignment which was in my hand. I was frozen. It probably took me a few seconds to respond but it felt like a lot longer.

I was in love with her in the way that a boy of 13 can be in love with an adult woman. I don’t know in what way a boy can be in love with a nun.

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa
The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini , 1652

In college, I took a course about religion in literature and although it was taught by a religion professor, it was the most influential literature course I took as an English major. Along with novels, we read religious works including The Wisdom of the Sufis, The Dark Night of the Soul by Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa’s The Interior Castle.

The Interior Castle was inspired by Saint Teresa’s mystical vision of a crystal castle with seven chambers, each representing a different stage in spiritual development. She immediately wrote her book which is divided into seven parts (also called mansions, dwelling places or chambers) Each level brings you closer to God.

Entrance into the first three mansions is achieved by prayer and meditation. The fourth through seventh mansions are considered to be mystical or contemplative prayer. The soul achieves clarity in prayer and a spiritual marriage with God in the seventh mansions.

Of course, as I read the book my thoughts often returned to Sister Teresa rather than Saint Teresa. The two have remained blurred in my mind. I imagine Sister Teresa before she took the veil as a beautiful young girl much like the Teresa of Avila in 1529.

Over the years, both Teresa’s have been in my thoughts and have been alluded to in other works. Simone de Beauvoir writes about Teresa as a woman who lived her life for herself in her book The Second Sex. George Eliot compared the character Dorothea to St. Teresa in Middlemarch. Thomas Hardy took Teresa as the inspiration for much of the heroine Tess (Teresa) in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a character who in one scene lies in a field and senses her soul ecstatically above her.

Saint Teresa appears in a few contemporary songs: “Theresa’s Sound-World” by Sonic Youth and in “Saint Teresa” by Joan Osborne.

But none of those allusions have had as much of an impact on me as reading The Interior Castle through the lens of a 13-year-old boy discovering another kind of love.

The Boundary of What Was and What Is To Be

It’s the Feast Day of Saint Michael or Michaelmas.

In the Greek and Roman Catholic Churches, it was once a very important day. It falls near the equinox and so marks the fast darkening of the days in the northern world.

This boundary of what was and what is to be, was the end of the harvest and the time to calculate how many animals could be feed through the winter and which would be sold or slaughtered.

It was the end of the fishing season, the beginning of hunting, the time to pick apples and make cider.

Some people made this a night for a goose dinner, as an old English proverb says: “If you eat goose on Michaelmas Day, you will never want money all the year round.”

Michaelmas (mɪkəlməs) is the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel also knowns as the Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael, the Feast of the Archangels, or the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels.

In Christianity, the Archangel Michael is the greatest of all the Archangels and is honored for defeating Satan in the war in heaven.  He is one of the principal angelic warriors, seen as a protector against the dark of night, and the administrator of cosmic intelligence. Michaelmas has also delineated time and seasons for secular purposes as well, particularly in Britain and Ireland as one of the quarter days.

Old Michaelmas Day falls on October 10 or 11, depending on the source, and a according to an old legend, blackberries should not be picked after this date. This is because, so folklore goes, Satan was banished from Heaven on this day, fell into a blackberry bush and cursed the brambles as he fell into them. It is said that the devil had spat or urinated on them.

Michelangelo, the Sistine Chapel and All Saints’ Day

hands-of-god-and-adam

Today is All Saints’ Day (also known as All Hallows, Solemnity of All Saints or The Feast of All Saints) celebrated on November first by parts of Western Christianity, and on the first Sunday after Pentecost in Eastern Christianity. It honors all saints, known and unknown. It is also the second day of Hallowmas and begins at sunrise on the first day of November and finishes at sundown. It is the day before All Souls’ Day.

The Writers’ Almanac
informs me that it is also the day that Pope Julius II chose back in 1512 to display Michelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for the first time.

Michelangelo, 33 at the time,  had worked for four years on the paintings which are scenes from the Old Testament, including the famous center section, “The Creation of Adam.” The chapel itself was only 25 years old and other painters had been commissioned to paint frescoes on the walls.

When he was given the commission to paint by the Pope, he tried to point out that he was a sculptor, and not really a painter. The Pope insisted and Michelangelo attempted to use his sculpting experiences  to make the two-dimensional ceiling look like a series of three-dimensional scenes. This was a new technique at that time and working from a scaffold 60 feet above the floor, he painted about 10,000 square feet of surface. Every day, fresh plaster was laid over a part of the ceiling. Then Michelangelo had to finish painting that section before the plaster dried.

Incredible.

creation
Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’ with Four Ignudi at the Sistine Chapel