Becoming Perfect Praise

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Providing a brief introduction to St. Augustine is a bit akin to summarizing the biography and works of William Shakespeare in a two page essay.   Augustine, born in 354 in modern day Algeria, died in 430 at the age of seventy-five in the city of Hippo.   He is the pivotal bridge figure between early and medieval Christianity; he is a bishop, a theologian, a monastic founder, a preacher, a jurist, a rhetorician, and a friend.

Perhaps, during this Year of Faith, there is one pivotal feature of Augustine that we might highlight:  desire.  Augustine’s life is learning to desire, discovering that no matter what success, no matter what intellectual truth he is able to ascertain, no matter how important he is treated as bishop, he is incomplete, restless, a human being created and re-created by God.  Indeed, for most of our lives we envision ourselves reaching a point of completion.   Perhaps when we purchase our first home, when we get married, when we have children, when we reach the age of retirement, take the pivotal vacation—at that precise moment we’ll be complete and happy.  Yet we are all too familiar with the fact that we remain extraordinarily, remarkably incomplete.  We are on the way, on pilgrimage.  The temptation remains that we’ll forget that our lives are inscribed in total and absolute gift:  the gift of creation, the gift of the Christian life, the gift of hymns of praise offered to the Father.   We fall away from gratitude, from the truth of total love, and we seize instead of receive.

Augustine’s Confessions—from which we come to know the most about Augustine’s life—is a narrative of a life on the way toward real gratitude, of genuine and authentic praise.   Of a life begun innocently enough, of signs of God’s providential care in the humility of the nursemaid; but of a life that came to be filled with pride—a desire to become the creator, to seize what is to be received as gift.  The medicine for such pride (as it is throughout The Confessions) is praise.   To praise God is to open ourselves up to him, to admit that we are incomplete, a creature who is being formed and reformed by God alone.  A creature whose lives are a mystery, inscribed in gratitude, in gift from the very beginning.   To confess for Augustine is not simply to admit one’s sins but to pour forth praise of the God who continues to woo us despite every attempt we make to consider ourselves complete, in need of no heavenly assistance.

Thus, central to Augustine’s teaching is the Eucharistic nature of the Christian life.   All of our desires, our incompleteness can be offered to the Father as a gift of love from a wounded heart, a heart that is slowly being attuned to find its completeness in God alone; of a human life that is being taken up into the mystery of love.  And that through this process we become ourselves a hymn of praise, of love itself.   Augustine’s Confessions begins with praise, it is written as a prayer of praise to the Father (complete with psalm quotations), and it finishes with exasperated praise.  A praise that de-stabilizes us.   Until, as Augustine writes in his City of God, our very lives become in eternity a belching forth of praise:   “There we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise.   Behold what will be, in the end, to which there shall be no end!   For what other end do we set for ourselves than to reach that kingdom of which there is no end?” (22.30).

In this way, the Year of Faith is less about achieving what we believe as the perfection of faith, of intellectual mastery, and the total movement of the affections.   Through the Year of Faith, we are invited to learn from Augustine a disposition of praise, the recognition that we are still becoming what we have received through our baptism and the Eucharistic life of the Church.   We are becoming perfect praise.

Timothy O'Malley

About Timothy O'Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D. is director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life, University of Notre Dame.