As I was reading Augustine’s discussion of true worship in the City of God this past week, I was struck by how naturally Augustine holds together things that contemporary Catholic culture has divided. Let me illustrate this by posing a question: If Augustine were alive today would he be a traditionalist, a charismatic, or a social justice warrior? The question sounds ridiculous, even embarrassing, when asked of a man like Augustine. He would have rejected the premise. Yet, contemporary Catholic culture has comfortably settled into just these unnatural camps.
At the risk of overgeneralizing, I want to drive the point home with a few more questions. Why is it that traditionalist fight for beauty and reverence in the liturgy, but don’t fight as hard for the poor? Why is it that the charismatics listen to the Holy Spirit, pray spontaneously for people, and receive spiritual gifts, but are also strangely wedded to Protestant praise music? Why is it that the leaders in social justice are immersed in the lives of the most vulnerable, but often play fast and loose with doctrine and liturgy? Why is it that so few Catholics can integrate the best of these three factions? Indeed, we should ask what it means that we live in a context where they need to be integrated at all, rather than simply being of a piece.
Book 10 of Augustine’s City of God is the locus classicus for the early Christian understanding of worship and, surprisingly for us (but not for him), Augustine seamlessly presents all the key elements above as an integral whole. For Augustine, true worship involves sacraments and ourselves, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit collectively and individually, personal piety, liturgical seasons and sacrifice, body and soul, and a heart burning with love for God and neighbor. Perhaps most importantly, his understanding of true worship is framed, indeed defined, by mercy.
Defined by the mercy of Christ
For Augustine, the Incarnation is the ultimate act of mercy. This culminates in the crucifixion where Christ offers the perfect sacrifice to the Father and in doing so offers the perfect act of worship. From this perfect sacrifice, this supreme act of mercy, the Church is born: the blood and water that pour from the side of Christ symbolize the Eucharist and baptism, the two sacraments that constitute us as Christ’s body. Augustine here is drawing on a common Patristic reading of the crucifixion scene in John’s Gospel. Christ is presented as the New Adam who, like the old Adam, “falls asleep” and from whose “side” (the same word pleuron is used in both John and Genesis) God creates the Woman, the bride of Adam. For Augustine, this moment defines the whole reality of the Church. We are saved by Christ’s mercy. We are made new by Christ’s mercy. Our whole Christian existence is defined by Christ’s mercy.
This means that in order to achieve our final end—to be united with God—we must practice mercy. It is worth quoting Augustine at length here:
Since true sacrifices are works of mercy, whether shown to ourselves or shown to our neighbors, which are directed toward God; and since works of mercy are performed with no other object than that we might be delivered from misery and so become blessed—which only happens by means of that good of which it is said, But for me the good is to cling to God (Ps 73:28)—it obviously follows that the whole redeemed city, that is, the congregation and fellowship of the saints, is offered to God as a universal sacrifice through the great priest who, in his passion, offered himself for us in the form of a servant, to the end that we might be the body of such a great head (City of God, 10.6).
Works of mercy are the true sacrifices. This is true worship. This is true religion, as Scripture repeatedly reminds us (e.g. Psalm 50, Micah 6:6-8, Matthew 9:13, Hebrews 13:16). This is the path of salvation. And this reality is what the Church, born from the side of Christ, is.
Mercy for the miserable
Augustine pithily defines mercy (misericordia) as “a kind of fellow-feeling (compassio) in our hearts for the misery (miseriae) of another that compels us to come to his aid if we can” (City of God, 9.5). To relieve someone’s misery we must aid them in ways that truly help them. Certainly, this means the corporal works of mercy (see Matthew 25), but even these are not ends in themselves. “Even the mercy which we extend to human beings,” Augustine says, “is not a sacrifice if it is not done for God’s sake” (City of God, 10.6). Works of mercy must be undertaken with our—and our neighbor’s—ultimate end in mind. We must aid people in ways that help us and them achieve union with God, the only thing that can make any of us happy. “The true sacrifice, then, is every act done in order that we might cling to God in holy fellowship, that is, every act which is referred to the final good in which we can be truly blessed” (City of God, 10.6).
We cannot say that we love God if we do not love our neighbor. Yet, we also cannot say we love our neighbor if we do not love him in a way that will bring him and us to true happiness. We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. To love ourselves means to will our own good, to seek true happiness. It means to have mercy on ourselves by doing the things that will relieve our misery, that is, the things that will aid us in clinging to God.
We have mercy on ourselves by making our lives into a sacrifice. “Our body is also a sacrifice,” Augustine says, “when we discipline it with temperance” so that we can present “our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (City of God, 10.6, quoting Romans 12:1). We offer our soul as a sacrifice “when it directs itself to God so that, aflame with the fire of love for him, it loses the form of worldly desire and, now subject to him, is reformed to him as to an unchanging form, thus pleasing him by receiving its beauty from his beauty” (City of God, 10.6). We show true mercy, and therefore true love, for our neighbor when we relieve their misery in the same way: by helping them to make their lives a sacrifice to God.
Personal and communal dimensions
Augustine uses the Greek word latreia to name the worship that is due to God alone, which he calls a service we owe to God “whether enacted in certain sacraments or in our very selves” (City of God, 10.3). The phrase “in certain sacraments” refers to our collective worship wherein the Holy Spirit dwells in us together bringing about a harmony of heart and transforming us into the Body of Christ. The phrase “in our very selves” refers to our personal devotion and deeds wherein the Holy Spirit dwells in us ordering our loves to God and neighbor. The same Holy Spirit dwells in the Church as a whole and in the individual—there is one Temple of the Holy Spirit and individually temples of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit enables us to offer true worship collectively and individually.
Augustine beautifully weaves together the public and personal dimensions of this worship.
Our heart, when it is lifted up to him, is his altar. It is with his only-begotten Son as our priest that we propitiate him. To him we sacrifice bleeding victims when we fight for his truth to the point of shedding blood. We honor him with the sweetest incense when, in his sight, we burn with devout and holy love. To him we vow and return both his gifts in us and our very selves. To him we dedicate and consecrate the memory of his benefits in solemn feasts and on appointed days, lest ungrateful forgetfulness creep in as time goes by. To him we offer, on the altar of the heart, the sacrifice of humility and praise, kindled by the fire of love (City of God, 10.3).
Augustine begins with the idea of lifting up our heart which is both personal and communal. It is at once a piety that is intimate and affective as well as ecclesial and Eucharistic. The Holy Spirit who has been poured into our hearts sets them ablaze with love, so they can rise up to God, their true home. “Lift up your heart,” Augustine says in a sermon, “this is the whole life of true Christians” (Sermon 229.3). But “lift up your heart” is also liturgical (note the collective singular heart). This exhortation is part of the rite that precedes the Eucharistic sacrifice. The Church, together, lifts up the one ecclesial heart of the Body of Christ. For Augustine, this is a constitutive part of the Eucharistic sacrifice.
The Eucharist on the altar of the Church shows us an image of the sacrifices on the altar of our heart. And there is a kind of mystical identity between them. Quoting Romans 12:3-6 on how we are members of one body, Augustine says,
This is the sacrifice of Christians: although many, one body in Christ. And this is the sacrifice that the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar…where it is made plain to her that, in the offer she makes, she herself is offered (City of God, 10.3).
The offering on the altar of our heart is united to the Eucharistic offering on altar of the Church. We are the body of Christ and through the Eucharist we become the body of Christ. On the altar of our heart we offer “his gifts in us and our very selves.” Christ is there as our priest: he unites these gifts to himself in the Eucharist and offers them up to the Father. Or, to put it another way: in the Eucharist, Christ the Head offers himself and unites us, his Body, to his own offering. Therefore, in the pious offering of the Eucharist, “the whole Christ,” Head and Body, is offered to the Father as a perfect sacrifice.
An integral worship
The same Holy Spirit who is poured into our hearts so that we can say “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20) is the same Holy Spirit who unites us to the Eucharist so that we become the sacrifice of the Body of Christ. The same Christ we encounter in the Eucharist is the same Christ we encounter in the poor. The same mercy that gave us the Incarnation is the same mercy that is extended through time as we become more and more the Body of Christ. The unnatural divisions that afflict our Church today hinder our worship of God and our ability to love our neighbor. Spirit-infused affective piety, liturgical worship, and solidarity with our fellows, especially the poorest among us, are not optional activities for Christians. They are dimensions of the same true worship which is the only way we will achieve our final end.
(Editor’s note: This essay was first posted at CWR on February 17, 2020.)
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