There’s a lot of saints we particularly love at CORDA, but Augustine’s got a special place. Michael actually wrote a 316-page dissertation on Augustine and his conception of love, so it’s understandable. :o)
Today we all celebrate Augustine’s feast day (yep, we’ve got the Restless Heart candle burning), and Michael and I have been meditating on Augustine’s life with the help of this particular painting.
"Saint Augustine in Ecstasy" by Bartolome Esteban Murillo
What do you notice first when you look at the painting?
I’m immediately drawn to Augustine’s face. Not only is it central, it’s also one of the brightest parts of the painting. And once you look at Augustine, you can’t help but then look at what he is looking at, which is a big heart clearly on fire.
But before we dive deeper into that, take a look at the other side of the painting. Off to the side of Augustine, as well as in the shadows behind him, are his books and the signs of his office—a bishop’s mitre and crozier.
It’s almost as though Augustine has turned aside from these things, as he focuses on and is completely captivated by what is above him. And perhaps, too, the artist is saying that what these things symbolize— learning, the hierarchy of the Church, even Sacred Scripture —are in a sense secondary, because they all serve the one ultimate thing: man’s union with God.
While Augustine is kneeling in prayer, this is not a passive or indifferent stance. Rather, it’s as if he can’t help but sink down to his knees, radically receptive (notice his open hands) and overwhelmed by the light coming from above.
At the same time, his gaze is intent and straining upward. His eyes are not closed; he’s not “looking inward.” Rather, Augustine is looking beyond himself, absolutely captivated by Another.
To me, it’s a bit ambiguous as to whether Augustine is looking at the heart itself or what is beyond the heart, symbolized by the light in the top left corner. The heart is between him and the light. But why?
Augustine sees the heart as the core of our very self, but it isn’t simply interior… our hearts also draw us beyond ourselves, because “we are drawn by what we love.”
While we sometimes think that the restlessness of our hearts is simply negative, for Augustine it’s also something positive, because this wanting or longing we often feel pushes us toward something and Someone. In fact, this restlessness is a gift, because it reminds us that while all the genuinely good things we love communicate something of the goodness of God, we find true peace and happiness only in him and loving all other things in him.
In the end, for Augustine the ultimate gift of God—indeed, the very Gift of God, the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 4:10)—is a profound love for God given by God himself. The love we have for God, the longing that makes our hearts burn, is itself a gift of God, a graced sharing in the love that is the Holy Spirit.
St. Augustine, pray for us!