Essays, Theology

Augustine: Saint of Suspicion

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Saint of Suspicion! Wow! It’s kind of a suspicious title! Does it actually mean anything? I have my suspicions, and perhaps you do too, but we will have to put them on hold for now, laying aside the hermeneutic of suspicion, which is never to be applied to the one making claim to it, after all, and replace it with the hermeneutic of trust, until the appropriate time.

This presentation is actually about the meaning of life. Yes, I am actually going to reveal the meaning of life, in a simple, declaratory sentence, without any admission fee, tuition, or other compensation. Perhaps you are suspicious of that claim! Both the claim that I can reveal the meaning of life in one simple sentence, and also the claim that I am doing it for no compensation at all. Perhaps you are thinking, true, he isn’t charging admission or looking to be paid, but perhaps he is hoping we will praise him, clap for him, cheer and acclaim him for such an accomplishment. After all, just as it’s not every lecture series that is an anticipation of eternal life, it’s not every lecture that reveals the meaning of life in one simple sentence. With the added advantage that it is true. All the more reason, then, to suspect that the speaker is doing it so that we all, including the speaker himself, might, at least mentally, praise, clap, extol, and acclaim the one who delivers such a gift to humankind.

You may be wondering (and properly so) what the term hermeneutics of suspicion means. It means an approach to a cultural product, a speech (such as this one), a text (such as the Declaration of Independence), a religion (such as Christianity), or an institution (such as the Catholic Church, or patriarchy—and some allege there is no difference), which does not receive or interpret it on the terms or identity it lays out for itself, but rather “suspects” that these terms or identity serve to disguise a deeper intention or investment which the author or institution would prefer to remain hidden.

Prophets of Suspicion: Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Photo: Aza Raskin; CC-BY-NC-2.0.

Prophets of Suspicion: Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Photo: Aza Raskin; CC-BY-NC-2.0.

So: religion is not true but is rather the “opiate of the people” used by capitalists to dope the proletariat into willing submission (Marx); religion is not true but is only the by-product of repressed sexuality (Freud); religion is not true, nor is anything else true, but rather all truth claims are simply exercises of the will to power, especially Christianity, despite its critique of the will to power. The latter claim comes from Nietzsche, the most radical of the ‘prophets of suspicion,’ as they have been called; and its ultimate trajectory, as you can easily see, is nihilism. God is dead, and with his death is the death of all truth claims except, paradoxically, the claim that none of them can be taken at face value, but all are exercises of the will to power hoping to go unnoticed as such, so that it may operate all the more effectively. Example: the claim that there is a feminine nature or essence is not true, but is an effective move by the will to power of men to preserve patriarchy and the marginalization of women from the spheres of power that results. In fact, the claim that anything has a nature, including human nature, is false, but is a way for those in power, men in general, white men in particular, the rich, etc., to categorize and therefore manage their inferiors more effectively.

And, although the prophets of suspicion have applied their hermeneutic to Augustine in force—for example, it is claimed that Augustine’s doctrine of the constriction of human freedom as a result of original sin is just a way to cow most people into submission to church and civil authority, to keep them from becoming saints who “spoke up and spoke out”—I want to suggest that not only can Augustine take his place confidently among the prophets of suspicion, but that in the end he is more than that: he is a “saint” of suspicion. But again, what I intend by this designation must be postponed until the exposition has been more fully developed.

So, to return to the meaning of life. What is the meaning of life? Is it the quest for sexual gratification (Freud)? Is it at bottom economic (Marx)? Is it seeking and exercising power (Nietzsche)? Let’s hear what Augustine has to say about it. Here are the famous opening lines of the Confessions (and you could do worse on a Saturday morning than to listen to these!):

You are great, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise! Your power is immense! And your wisdom is beyond all reckoning. And so we humans, who are but a small part of your creation, long to praise you—we who carry our mortality about with us, the evidence of our sin and the proof that you resist the proud. Yet we humans, small part of your creation though we be, still do long to praise you. You so excite us to praise you so that it may bring us joy, because you have made us, and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.

There, according to Augustine, is the meaning of life! To praise God. “Resting in God” means, according to this famous passage, praising God, and even sin does not erase this desire, or longing, that we have as creatures, which cannot be fulfilled in any other way.

Wow, that was easy!

But wait! What does it mean, to praise God? Does it mean saying something like, “God is SO COOL,” and that I, in saying that, have fulfilled my life’s purpose? Or maybe I’m almost there, but I need to avoid philosophically imprecise language like COOL so that I can describe God in a more worthy way, with proper philosophical language, as Augustine tries to do next in the prologue of the Confessions? “What are you, my God?” Augustine asks, and in answer tells God that he is so great that he is “everywhere whole at once,” ubique totus simul in Latin; in other words, something so transcendent that it cannot be pictured in the mind! Wow that IS cool, but I don’t mean God in saying that; I mean the ability to describe God that way! Someone who can do that is smart! It’s kind of dazzling! Something like today’s speaker, who can use this language, including in Latin (hopefully you noticed), with such ease! Why, thank you! Thanks for the praise!

Funny how our speaker was able to turn that around so fast! Instead of praising God, he used his praise of God to elicit praise for himself! Something that is “everywhere whole at the same time” seems like nothing at all, actually, but the person who can analyze the matter so expertly and express it so precisely, well, he’s definitely a something! Augustine does intend to dazzle by his philosophical accomplishments, but only to show us that this is not enough, for then only the learned would be able to fulfill the meaning of life, and, as we have seen, they would be irresistibly tempted to use their accomplishments to draw attention to themselves, as much as if not more than to God, and thus, in a sense, actually to subvert the praise of God and define the meaning of life as seeking praise and esteem for one’s accomplishments instead. In fact, it’s worse even than that, because in this case one is using the praise of God, and thus God himself, as a way of seeking praise for oneself. I—the great theologian—have mastered God! He is now a line item on my CV, in an article entitled, “The Greatness of God: Everywhere, Whole, At Once.”

Photo: Lawrence Lew, OP; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

Photo: Lawrence Lew, OP; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

Having dazzled us just enough to show us the dangers of doing so, Augustine introduces a new question. Instead of the philosophical question (addressed to God) “What are you?”, modifying it slightly, he asks, “What are you TO ME?” “Have mercy on me,” be begs, “so that I may tell.” Why does he say this? Because to answer this question, as opposed to the other one, might cost you something. It might be a little embarrassing and make you hot under the collar for a minute. You might have to say something to God like

O Lord, I am your servant, I am your servant and your handmaid’s son. You burst my bonds asunder, and to you will I offer a sacrifice of praise. May my heart and tongue give praise to you, and all my bones cry out their question, “Who is like you, O Lord?” Yes, let them ask, and then do you respond and say to my soul, “I am your salvation.” But who am I, what am I? Is there any evil I have not committed in my deeds, or if not in deeds, then in my words, or if not in words, at least by willing it? But you, Lord, are good and merciful, and your right hand plumbed the depths of my death, draining the cesspit of corruption in my heart. . . . (Confessions, 9.1.1)

That’s a little harder to say than “God is everywhere whole at once”—that’s why it’s a sacrifice of praise. Instead of a deflection of God’s praise onto myself, it describes what God has done for me, how I needed salvation, how I needed rescuing from a self-destructive course of my own choosing, my helplessness to save myself. It’s hard to turn God’s “draining the cesspit of corruption” in one’s heart into an occasion of self-praise, even if the description of the rescue is elegantly stated. Now we’re getting a little closer to the meaning of life: it’s praise as confession of God’s goodness in answer to the question, “What is God to me,” praise in the form of a testimony of sorts, and not simply a dry philosophical description.

Nor does it have to be a confession so dramatic as a rescue from turning one’s heart into a cesspit of corruption. At the end of Book 1 of the Confessions we read this adorable little passage, where Augustine describes himself as a little boy, with nothing specific to himself—it’s really just a generic description of a little boy or, it could equally well be, a little girl:

O Lord our God, I give thanks to you, the most perfect, most good creator and ruler of the universe, and I would still thank you even if you had not willed me to live beyond boyhood [though Augustine doesn’t clue us in as to how he might have managed that. . .]. Even then I existed, I lived and I experienced; I took good care to keep myself whole and sound . . . and in my little thoughts about little things I delighted in truth . . . In a living creature such as this everything is wonderful and worthy of praise, but all these things are gifts from my God. I did not endow myself with them, but they are good, and together they make me what I am. He who made me is good . . . and I thank Him for all those good gifts, which made me what I was, even as a boy. . . . I give thanks to you, my sweetness, my honor, my confidence; to you, my God, I give thanks for your gifts. Do you preserve them for me. So will you preserve me too, and what you have given me will grow and reach perfection, and I will be with you, because this too is your gift to me—that I exist. (Confessions, 1.20.31)

Here is the most fundamental praise that we can offer to God: praise to God as Creator, Creator not just of things in general, but of myself; praise that recognizes that everything in creation and in particular and most especially one’s own existence, is a gift, completely un-owed, completely gratuitous, completely one-sided. Appropriate praise of God is not simply a philosophical description of God’s greatness, nor is it even simply a description of God as Creator and giver of gifts, but it is to say thank you to the giver of these gifts. There you have it: if the meaning of life is for our heart to rest in God by praising God, then the meaning of life is for our heart to rest in God by thanking God. So—ready for this? Here is the simple declarative sentence containing the meaning of life:

The meaning of life is to learn to say “Thank you” better.

 

Now you might wonder why I said to learn “to say ‘Thank you’ better,” instead of just “to say ‘Thank you,’” when the passage I read doesn’t mention this, although growth into perfection is mentioned, and I am talking about a kind of growth here: growth in gratitude and in the expression of gratitude. But I say, “learn to say ‘Thank you’ better” because Augustine believes that we resist gratitude, and in fact, that was the original sin of Adam and Eve. In the City of God Augustine points out that in Paradise, before the Fall, Adam and Eve had everything they could possibly need given to them. First and foremost themselves, and on top of that all varieties of food and no need to labor for it beyond a little gardening, immortality, temperatures comfortable enough so that no clothes were needed, and company, namely each other, and they could have had sex anytime they wanted. God gave them a simple command, so simple that there was nothing they could have gotten from disobedience that they could not have gotten from obedience. So why did they disobey? Because, Augustine says, they did not want to receive creation, including their own beings, as a gift; rather, they wanted it on their own terms, as though everything they had received, including themselves, were not a gift. Thank you? No, thank you.

This is the primal sin of “pride,” or, in Latin, superbia. Of course the opposite of pride is humility, but because we customarily and wrongly think of humility as some kind of self-deprecating loathing or disgust, thinking of “humility” doesn’t per se help us to imagine what its opposite, pride, might be, in this special Augustinian sense of superbia which has no positive connotations, unlike the English word “pride.” Pride in the Augustinian sense is the refusal of gratitude; it is a deep, mental reservation about gratitude, that gratitude is weakness; it is an habitual state of ingratitude, even more, an addiction to ingratitude that is so deep we don’t even notice it as such, an insistence on having life on our own terms and denying that any of it is a gift. We’d rather see it as a result of blind chance—it is not as humiliating as to have to receive it as a completely un-owed gift which we can never adequately repay and which we could never have deserved.

Pride is the mythos, the fiction, of absolute self-sufficiency, and if we can’t actually believe it, at least we can have the empty void of the universe on our own terms, creating our own canons of excellence as we go, and in any event it doesn’t matter if we believe it, because this is not a matter of belief but of deep, affective commitment on the level of the will, before thought. We could say, somewhat inexactly, that it is unconscious, though to use that term of another prophet of suspicion (Freud) misses the point to some extent because, though unthinking or unconscious, it is still culpable, not because some repressed Father figure is tallying up our ingratitude and writing it down to hold against us on the day of judgment—that is the jejune fancy of a junior prophet of suspicion, meaning Freud—but because “you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” In other words, pride—unthinking, unconscious, or conscious—is culpable because it is the irrational rejection of the very thing that would make us happy: to receive ourselves as an utterly undeserved gift and to continually be saying “Thank you,” to live in a state of perpetual gratitude that the prideful person considers undignified, embarrassing, humiliating, and childish. Thank you? No, thank you.

Instead of saying “Thank you” to God, I prefer to BE God instead: to act, or at least feel, as though I were the creator and the one who set the value and worth of everything according to its value and worth TO ME. It is to replace reality with what Augustine calls the “hierarchy of utility,” namely, that things have no intrinsic worth as sprung from the hand of a beneficent Creator, but have value only as I assign it, and that, usually, is the cash value. “What are you worth?” comes to mean “How much money do you have?” Sound Marxist? But Marx is another innocent in this view, a prophet of suspicion not worth his salt. For a social reformer—one who tries to find the causes of economic injustice and reverse them—is him- or herself just as likely to congratulate him- or herself on their own righteous action, seeking praise for it, just like the speaker looking for applause, even if only in their own minds, and this corrupts the action because, under the guise of reforming social bonds, it actually breaks them. What are you worth to the revolution? If nothing, then you are worth . . . nothing.

Here is the most fundamental praise that we can offer to God: praise to God as Creator, Creator not just of things in general, but of myself; praise that recognizes that everything in creation and in particular and most especially one’s own existence, is a gift, completely un-owed, completely gratuitous, completely one-sided.

Pride always prevents the formation of true human community because it is ceaselessly forming a community-that-is-no-community, a kind of truce based on mutual self-interest of whatever group has power. We do say “Thank you,” but only to seal the current deal—only insofar as we are thanking anyone for their part in buttressing the hierarchy of utility, our scale of self-worth, a sliding scale based on convenience and comfort, where everything else can be thrown away, actually thrown away if it is legal, and if not, thrown away in our hearts. What a “cesspit of corruption!” By saying “Thank you” we actually subvert true gratitude subvert the very act of thanks that would satisfy our being if we said it truly and from the heart, as a sacrifice of all of these attempts to find a stable place of our own making in the (conveniently conjured) void of the cosmos. But this is actually an addiction to our own destruction, pace Nietzsche, who turns out to be the most jejune of all the prophets of suspicion, seeing in the will to power the fulfillment (instead of the subversion) of the meaning of life! In other words, from an Augustinian point of view, seeing fulfillment precisely in the void we must create if our puny attempts at self-assertion are not to have any threats from something we did not make, never mind something that made us. Fulfillment in the void . . . what a “cesspit of corruption!” And we need not look over our shoulders at Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, the person in the seat next to us, Adam or Eve, or whomever we might want to blame for this—we do not have to look farther than our own hearts.

I am suggesting that Augustine’s idea of original sin—pride or superbia—is the primal hermeneutic of suspicion, which, when applied to cultural realities, unmasks their pretensions and reveals the deepest source of social stagnation and human decline in the refusal of humility, understood as a passion for gratitude for our own being as a gift; that is, a refusal to praise God. Under the rubric of “the pursuit of excellence,” or, in Latin, sometimes “excellentia” but more often “virtus”—so often heard in political speeches and not least at universities—is disguised the very thing that causes human communities to come apart. It’s not that there is no true excellence or virtue to pursue; that would be outright nihilism. Rather, it’s that the pursuit of excellence by fallen human beings inevitably tilts towards the rejection of excellence or virtue, even in its very pursuit, because the pursuit of excellence is inevitably confused with the pursuit of praise, glory, fame, or, we could say, translating into our own idiom, prestige.

An example of this is given in Augustine’s description of his own education. He remembers his time in school as a time when he believed that “living a good life consisted in winning the favor of those who commended [him],” motivated by the desire for excellence, to the point where there seemed no difference between pursuing excellence and pursuing praise. Given an assignment in rhetoric class to re-present the Aeneid’s opening lines describing Juno’s wrath towards the Trojans-soon-to-be-Romans in a prose rendition, Augustine reports that he set as his object to “win praise and honor” by his success, and indeed he was gratified to find that this speech was “acclaimed above those of his many peers and fellow-students.” Augustine drily comments that he should have been learning all along how to praise God rather than to seek out praise for himself, but so loudly did those around him shout, “Euge! Euge! Well done! Bravo!” that he felt ashamed to fall short of their expectations. Augustine points out that he was not only learning the art of rhetoric; he was at the very same time learning to seek praise at all costs. He was learning to prefer the creature (himself) to the Creator to the point where, he says, committing a barbarism in his syntax or a mistake in the pronunciation of a word such as “human” was more embarrassing to him than actually hating another human being. He was more attached to praise and honor, to prestige, than to truth, and sought truth for the sake of prestige.

This doesn’t mean that there is no truth, but only the will to power. That, we have seen, is the jejune fantasy of that supposed paragon of suspicion, Nietzsche. It means something worse: that real truth, real knowledge, and the pursuit of such, is turned into an occasion of praise, of glory, of prestige; and so, ever so subtly, knowledge itself, truth itself, excellence itself, becomes a function of prestige, and the pursuit of it comes to seem to have no other value than the pursuit of prestige.

The pursuit of excellence by fallen human beings inevitably tilts towards the rejection of excellence or virtue, even in its very pursuit, because the pursuit of excellence is inevitably confused with the pursuit of praise, glory, fame, or, we could say, translating into our own idiom, prestige.

In such circumstances, knowledge becomes the occasion and the substance of a culture of prestige, sought after as a form of power. This is a poignant truth, for as one can see, Augustine is not talking about specious accomplishments, but the very highest and most intimate attainments of education and culture. Indeed, for Augustine, it affects the very highest achievements of cultural endeavor. If, for example, philosophy (returning to our opening remarks) gives us access even to the very vision of God’s transcendent being, then even this moment of vision is seized, loved, precisely as a personal accomplishment—available to the educated few, who then “affect to be above other souls which are given over to their senses” (City of God, bk. 10). In such a culture, one may be able, with the aid of the liberal arts, to arrive at a vision of truth, even to learn to contemplate God through contemplating his image in our own soul, but it is an image distorted by pride as one’s attention—and hopefully everyone else’s—is riveted finally on one thing only: the power, or at least the prestige, of being oneself “wise.” The very vision of God, and the disciplines which allow us to attain it, are formatted not unto the praise of God but as a cultural excellence separating an elite from the masses. One learns this value as one learns the discipline and one’s imagination is fired by the glory or prestige associated with the attainment of excellence. And it is this which keeps the imagination from recognizing the limitations of the excellence one’s culture teaches, for letting go of these means relativizing the prestige of one’s own attainments. This means that it is not adequate, from an Augustinian point of view, to train the mind or the imagination simply by appealing to excellence, for that has as much potential to restrict our vision as to open it.

Lest we leave the listener there in the pit of corruption, let me hasten to point out that there is a remedy, which is charity or love—the only thing that can shake the imagination, even shock the imagination, out of its addiction to fame and prestige and free it to be able to rethink cultural conventions of excellence without fear of loss of status, position, job, or even, at the extreme, life. In charity we are free to give up the prestige of our accomplishments because we come to love the Creator more than the creature, or rather love the creature IN the love of the Creator; and so we are free to speak up and speak out, free to critique the assumptions of excellence on which the very prestige attaching to our own accomplishments is based.

Photo: Lawrence Lew, OP; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

Photo: Lawrence Lew, OP; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

Yet it is important to remember that the charity or love we are talking about is not something we are able to grab out of the air or to imagine on our own, for such a construction of charity or love will always respect and follow the contours of our own pride. The works of love on their own are just as vulnerable to distortion as any other accomplishment: we await the congratulations of others, we love being thanked and being praised instead of thanking and praising, or at least we expect an even exchange— after all what’s fair’s fair—and so pride subverts the one and only way out, once again. The charity or love that can free us from addiction to our own destruction in the pursuit of the myth of absolute self-sufficiency is not, in the first instance, our own. Rather, it is something we hear about—for faith “comes through hearing” (Rom 10:17)—when we hear of the story of the Creator’s loving descent into finitude and history: into finitude as a helpless baby, as vulnerable, naked, and non-prestigious as any other; and into history as the mess of corruption and fraud and betrayal that we have made of history—a descent without reserve and with no special exemptions for himself, as vulnerable to mocking laughter and spitting and slapping and betrayal and torture and murder as anyone who speaks up and speaks out against the prestigious of this world who have substituted their own canons of excellence for truth. In the end he died with his blood splattered all over the place. Yeah, pretty prestigious.

Augustine drily comments in a sermon that the Cross is the Incarnate Word’s chaired professorship, the place from which he teaches as magister, and yet there are not many would-be educational leaders vying for that particular Chair, which, I suppose, could be called the Word-Made-Flesh Professorship of Suffering Love and Compassionate Self-Gift, endowed not with cash but with blood. Can we listen, Augustine asks us, to Professor Jesus? Can we afford to let that love seep into our own closed hearts? And suddenly, out of gratitude for the sacrifice of love, for something so beautiful, we, in love with something completely non-prestigious, non-excellent as we have come to construe and constrain it, blurt out “Thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you!” “You burst my bonds asunder, and to you will I offer a sacrifice of praise”—a sacrifice that extends not only to my lips and my heart but becomes a “Thank you” that even enters “all my bones” so that even they cry out the question, “Who is like you, O Lord?” And then he answers, “I am your salvation.” And then, maybe even we reply:

Late have I loved you, Beauty ever ancient and ever new, Late have I loved you! … You called, shouted, broke through my deafness; you flared, blazed, banished my blindness; you lavished your fragrance, I gasped, and now I pant for you; I tasted you, and I hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burned for your peace. (Confessions, 10.xx)

By the way, no self-respecting academic “gasps,” let alone “pants.” Such an unprestigious admission of incompleteness, of neediness, of the lack of excellence, of dependence. From Augustine’s point of view, it is the moving story of God’s loving descent into history and ultimately death, and the resounding proclamation of the victory of this love in the Resurrection, which frees the imagination from the bonds of the absolutization of any form of excellence or virtue, even justice, besides love; for Christ’s love IS the only excellence, the only justice or righteousness, that can resist co-optation into self-righteousness and—yes—prestige.

Praising God, or worshipping him, or giving him thanks, the truest excellence in life, is achieved only by receiving this love, and this excellence, and being formed into it as something we cannot finally co-opt or claim to our own glory. For Augustine, two things are key in this regard: the stories of the saints, especially the martyrs, and the Eucharist. It is especially appropriate to think about the first because of the 2015 beatification of Oscar Romero. We talk about the glory of the martyrs, but what, precisely, is that? Augustine comments that it is the martyrs’ glory to refer their courage, their witness, their speaking up and speaking out, not to themselves, but to God, and not to claim it, in the first instance, as their own:

Amid curses and reviling amid bitter persecutions and cruel tortures, they were not deterred from preaching . . . [we could say, from speaking up] . . . But they did not rest in . . . glory as though it were the goal of their enterprise of excellence or virtue. Instead, they ascribed that very glory to the glory of God, by whose grace they were such as they were. (City of God, 5.14)

To claim one’s virtue as ultimately one’s own, to claim that one’s excellence is not ultimately a gift of God’s grace rather than a merit, deserving of praise, is to situate oneself, even offer oneself, as entirely assimilable to whatever the power structure has decided is meaningful, praiseworthy, and glorious. But if there is no place within the self which is ultimately thought of as praiseworthy, if one’s virtue—what is absolutely best and excellent in oneself—is a gift and not an heroic achievement in the first instance, then there is no place in oneself for the power structure to “catch” in one’s soul, no place for the co-optation of excellence into (in Augustine’s terms) empire. A whole new realm, previously out of the reach of the imagination, becomes revealed as the martyr’s resistance to prevailing opinion to the point of death becomes testimony to their own courage as a gift of God, and to their own gratitude for the gift of Christ’s sacrifice, to which they bear witness. These stories are “lights,” they move us to see an excellence which is not bound to the vocabulary of power and prestige, one that tells of the glory of the Creator, and all that he has created, not the glory of the structure of power. Finally, human excellence, in the voice and witness of the martyrs, is allowed to speak in a language that rises above the vocabulary of power and prestige as supposedly absolute. And if the human virtue or excellence of the martyrs now stands as testimony to the glory of God, then they cast in a new light everything they presuppose—i.e. “nature”—the very existence of the one who is virtuous and that of every other human being. Nature, in the light of grace, recovers its sheen of wonder. In thanking God for the courageous and self-sacrificing witness of Oscar Romero, for example, we recover a wonder in the beauty of all of God’s children and all of creation as endowed with a dignity that is not self-made, but comes from him.

In charity we are free to give up the prestige of our accomplishments because we come to love the Creator more than the creature, or rather love the creature IN the love of the Creator; and so we are free to speak up and speak out, free to critique the assumptions of excellence on which the very prestige attaching to our own accomplishments is based.

All of this presupposes the second but even more primary way of being formed into the loving self-gift of Professor Jesus, and that is the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the sacrament of “the price of our redemption,” which is the innocent blood that endowed the professorship of the Cross. It is the sacrament of the most glorious thing there is in the universe: the mercy of God, which is revealed and enacted on the Cross. It means that we can stop grasping at any kind of self-justifying gestures, trying to find a self-made excellence or virtue that has any kind of leverage against God or has any claim on its own to praise. Augustine points to the example of his mother Monica in this regard, for though she was a saint, she did not reify her own righteousness as an excellence to brag about, and knew that it was to be ascribed to the mercy of God, to which she clung in the reception of Communion. Remembering her, Augustine says:

She desired no special monument or grave in her native land, but only to be remembered at your altar, where she had served you with never a day’s absence. From that altar, as she knew, the holy Victim is made available to us, he through whom the record of debt that stood against us was annulled. . . . In him we win our victory. Who will reimburse him for that innocent blood? Who will pay back to him the price he paid to purchase us, as though to snatch us back from him? To the sacrament of that ransom price your handmaid made fast her soul with the bonds of faith. (Confessions, 9.36)

The fact that no one can reimburse Christ for his endowment of the professorship of the Cross, the professorship of mercy, means that there is nothing more precious anywhere. There is nothing that can be learned that is more important, nothing that can be achieved that is more prestigious, because there is nothing, paradoxically, that resists the tyranny of prestige more than this act of mercy. We can stop trying to find the place in the void that is our leverage for self-creation. It’s just not as interesting by comparison to this love, and the more we are formed in it by receiving its sacrament, the more we are formed in the sacrifice that fulfills the meaning of our lives, the sacrifice of praise, which is the sacrifice of gratitude. The Eucharistic life IS the life of learning to say “Thank you” better, of wanting to say “Thank you” better, and it is not incidental to remember that the word Eucharist comes from the Greek work for giving thanks. The Eucharist is the sacrament of gratitude, of continual formation of our beings into a living “Thank you” that is not afraid to speak up and speak out because of the gratitude that always fills our hearts, and not out of hatred or revenge or out of showing off. Let’s just say this: the Eucharist is the sacrament of the meaning of life. Thank you!

Editorial Note: This essay was originally delivered as a presentation in the “Saturdays with the Saints” series, hosted by the Institute for Church Life during the fall of 2015.

Featured Image: Benozzo Gozzoli (1420–1497), The Conversion of Augustine of Hippo (Tolle Lege), detail (1464–65); courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

John Cavadini

John Cavadini is the McGrath-Cavadini Director of the Institute for Church Life and a professor in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame. In November 2009, he was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to a five-year term on the International Theological Commission and was also created a member of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great, classis civilis, by Pope Benedict.