Reading and Writing Week (2): Reading St Augustine, a guide

Whoever first applied the verb ‘surfing’ to the internet was a genius. Was it ever used about spending time in a good library? It’s the same thing. Catching wave after wave, one wave leading to the next, following leads and reaching places you had never expected.

Last year when the new edition of the Collected Works of John of the Cross was published I was fascinated by it and began re-reading his prose works. An online reference took me back to David Knowles’ brilliant book on the English Mystical Tradition, because of an essay in which he shows how the spiritual teaching of John of the Cross relates to that in the Cloud of Unknowing. Reading around on the Cloud I found two essays which challenge the consensus that the Cloud author’s method of prayer is just about the use of a mantra or like the Jesus Prayer, and show how in fact it is derived from St Augustine of Hippo’s teaching on time and eternity.

This in turn has led me to a binge read of Augustine. As well as the books in the picture Rowan Williams on Augustine has been on my Kindle and audible book in the car.

Jason Byassee’s A Guide to the Confessions, I found very helpful in enabling me to suspend my own preconception about what the book is.

In particular my reading has led me to re-assess the Confessions which I first read many years ago. And the Expositions on the Psalms which I keep at my prayer desk and often read alongside praying a psalm at the Office.

The key problem with the way I had read the Confessions was to be taken in by the claim that it is the first proper autobiography. It does indeed reveal many autobiographical details. However, it is written as a prayer, addressed directly to God and contain considerably more than just autobiography.

Likewise, I had been reading the Expositions on the Psalms as if they were a modern biblical commentary. What both these texts, and Augustine’s On the Trinity and On the Teaching of the Church together are, is a work of systematic theology. In particular they provide, I believe, a Christian theology of mindfulness, of living in the sacrament of the present moment, because of the understanding Augustine has of time. They also show how important the Psalms are for Christians in expressing the voice of Christ, of the Church, and a way of dealing with the messiness of the church.

I am still very much beginning to digest all this. I hope to read and write more on Augustine, on time and on mindfulness and the spiritual life. I am certain that the Cloud author must have been familiar with Augustine and that this is a much neglected strand in our thinking about prayer and experiencing eternity/nowness.

For some more on Augustine and time see here.

For Rowan Williams on Augustine’s use of the psalms see here.

There is a good piece from The Way on the psalms and Augustine by Mary T Clark here.

This article on ‘groaning’ in the psalms is also useful.

Time As a Psalm in Augustine by AM Johnston is an excellent read, here.

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