Augustine’s baptism

The baptism of St. Augustine, San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, Pavia, Italy

Anyone reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, of course, knows exactly where the book is leading, even if the story itself recounts a tortuous journey from doubt and confusion to faith. Augustine dedicates relatively few words to his baptism–at the time, Christians avoided describing what happened during the celebration of the sacraments to those not yet initiated–but what he does say reveals much about the power of the rite. Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose in the baptistry of Milan’s cathedral on April 24, 387, along with his fifteen-year-old son Adeodatus. Adeodatus died only two years later. Looking up the passage anew, I was struck by the feeling in what Augustine wrote about his son:

“You had made him a fine person. He was about fifteen years old, and his intelligence surpassed that of many serious and well-educated men. I praise you for your gifts, my Lord God, Creator of all and with great power giving form to our deformities. For I contributed nothing to that boy other than sin… I learned many other remarkable things about him. His intelligence left me awestruck. Who but you could be the Maker of such wonders? Early on you took him away from life on earth. I recall him with no anxiety; there was nothing to fear in his boyhood or adolescence or indeed his manhood.”

Augustine goes on to describe his baptism, side by side with Adeodatus, both now reborn “the same age in grace”.

“We were baptized, and disquiet about our past life vanished from us. During those days I found an insatiable and amazing delight in considering the profundity of your purpose for the salvation of the human race. How I wept during your hymns and songs! I was deeply moved by the music of the sweet chants of your Church. The sounds flowed into my ears and the truth was distilled into my heart. This caused the feelings of devotion to overflow. Tears ran, and it was good for me to have that experience.”

St. Augustine, Confessions, Book IX, vi (14)

More on Augustine (and Ambrose)

Last week, I mentioned visiting the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro in Pavia, resting place of the relics of St. Augustine. This week, I thought I’d share a few more pictures of the church and the tomb, as well as a favorite panel from the monument, a scene of young Augustine listening to St. Ambrose preaching.

San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, Pavia, Italy

Ambrose, then bishop of Milan, is another of my favorite theologians. He was the first Christian thinker to formulate the doctrine of baptism of desire, which–1530 years later–became the subject of my doctoral dissertation. (Augustine was the second… I’m not quite sure where I fall on the list, but it’s significantly farther down.)

In any case, below is Augustine’s description of his encounter with Ambrose to accompany the photos.

Continue reading “More on Augustine (and Ambrose)”

Visiting Augustine’s Tomb

Arca di Sant’Agostino (1362), San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, Pavia, Italy

Theologian don’t have a G.O.A.T. designation. (That’s “Greatest of All Time” for those who aren’t as hip as yours truly.) But if we did, Augustine of Hippo would probably get my vote. Sure, he’s not as systematic as Thomas Aquinas, but he more than makes up for it with humanity and passion, the way you can feel him throw himself so completely into the quest for God in his sermons and treatises. If you read Augustine’s sermons out loud, you can feel the power of his rhetoric. I’ve had many a conversation with the saint as I worked on my dissertation.

So it was quite a thrill–like visiting Graceland, or Disney World before it went woke–to spend an afternoon at the tomb of St. Augustine in Pavia last week. You might reasonably wonder how the North African theologian’s bones ended up in a smallish city in the north of Italy. Pavia, today sensible and pleasant, was the capital of the Kingdom of the Lombards in the 8th century. After his death, Augustine’s relics had been hustled out of Hippo to save them from the Vandals (today the tribe would be called the Mostly Peaceful Protesters) who lay siege to Hippo as its bishop lay dying. The saint’s body ended up in Sardinia, which, like much of the Mediterranean coastline in the Middle Ages, was subject to vicious Saracen raiding. For safekeeping, Liutprand, King of the Lombards–who is buried in the same church–had the bones brought to Pavia. There they reside in the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro.

Continue reading “Visiting Augustine’s Tomb”

St. Jägermeister?

Sant’Eustachio, Rome

With more than 900 churches, as I’ve noted before, if you’re looking for church-related curiosities, there’s no place like Rome. A friend recently pointed out an oddity that seemed to take the cake. Atop a church between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona is what seems to be a stag with a cross between its antlers, which looks suspiciously like it was taken straight from… a Jägermeister bottle.

Continue reading “St. Jägermeister?”

Signs of Easter

With winter now banished, one of my favorite signs of Roman spring is here — flowers sprouting from the tile rooftops. Above, my favorite, the corner of St. Ignatius Church seen from the terrace of our building, below a more modest view from my room. I’m not sure what this annual effusion of greenery means for the structural integrity of the tiles — and, I guess, I don’t really care. I find the flowers exuberant and surprising and, yes, just a tad reckless. In other words, a perfect sign of Easter.

I’ve always thought the flowers — life and beauty — breaking through the tiles a nice metaphor for the Resurrection, like the angels dressed in dazzling white among the scattered tombstones. This year they’ve also put me in mind of Peter. Peter is, after all, a slightly reckless figure, the desires of his heart a step ahead of his own moral capacities. His love for Jesus leads him to boast of his fidelity on Holy Thursday — “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death” — and then to find that his steadfastness has fallen short of his aspirations. It is devastating to read of Peter’s betrayal; one can imagine how much more devastating it was to live it.

Continue reading “Signs of Easter”

Innsbruck revisited

I was thrilled to get the news this week that my essay “Angels in Innsbruck” was selected by Dappled Things as the winner of their 2021 Jacques Maritain Prize for Nonfiction. Dappled Things is a wonderful literary journal, the only one I know of with the explicit mission of publishing Catholic literature. They’re both online and in print; the print journal features some really beautiful artwork and is well worth the subscription.

To celebrate the occasion, I thought I’d post a few pictures from my summer in Innsbruck to go along along with the essay. First the angels in the Jesuit church…

And then a few pictures of beautiful Innsbruck.

Bernini’s beads

Can you spot the rosary?

When I reached the end of the station pilgrimage the last time around, I was struck by the details.

For the sacramental theologian such as myself, there’s a deep lesson in the details of the journey. The Son of God’s Incarnation meant entering fully into the reality of human life, with all its diverse moments of suffering and disappointment, of hope and joy, of sometimes just getting by. The Passion narrative is the most vividly detailed part of the Gospels, and the Resurrection stories too, though reflecting the discombobulation of that utterly unprecedented event, also retain the sort of vivid details that stick out in one’s mind even when the world has just gone outside-in. Mary thinks Jesus is the gardener. Jesus eats a bit of fish. The sacraments depend on the details of the Lord’s life, too, on what he ate at his last meal.

Continue reading “Bernini’s beads”

Holy Saturday

The Harrowing of Hell, Andrea di Bonaiuto, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Today’s reading from the Office of Readings put me in mind of the fresco of Christ’s descent into the limbo of the patriarchs in the chapter room of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Note the demon crushed under the doors of hell at Christ’s feet and the other bewildered devils on the right. (Don’t feel sorry for them.) It’s what the Middle Ages had instead of superhero movies.

Continue reading “Holy Saturday”

Rome’s Cosmatesque floors

Italy is such living sculpture that one could easily fill a coffee table book with pictures of otherwise mundane objects that, here, have have taken on artistic flare. You could fill a profitable day just searching out interesting door knockers or doorways, drinking fountains or the weeds that sprout from rooftop tiles. We owe much of this picturesqueness to the medieval spirit that allowed craftsmanship and creativity to flourish on a human scale–and which has become less common in our age of planned obsolescence and Made in China.

Making the station church pilgrimage this year, I’ve been looking at the ground. I wrote before of the marvelous Cosmatesque floors in so many of Rome’s churches. This style is named after the Cosmati family, the medieval craftsmen who made use of Rome’s overflow of broken marble to turn what would otherwise have been refuse into charming and sometimes Escher-esque designs. It’s especially appropriate that the Cosmati’s work paves Christian churches, where sins are absolved and, picking up the fragments left by our mistakes, we are reminded that, with the help of grace, we can still manage something beautiful.

So here’s a slideshow of a handful of Rome’s graceful floors…

Beating the mid-Lent blues

This week we passed Lent’s midpoint, which always seems the most grueling part of the journey, the part where you’re most tempted to ask, “Are we there yet?” The excitement of starting something new has worn off, and the end still seems distant. It’s the part of Lent where hitting the snooze button one more time comes oh-so-easily.

And here the Church again gives us a little boost with Laetare Sunday and the simple joy that comes from listening to your parish priest insist that his vestment is not pink, not mauve, not pepto-bismal, but rose, darn it, it’s rose.

Santa Pudenziana.

My own personal mid-Lent boost came this week from the remarkable apse mosaics in the week’s station churches. I’ve always found mosaics mesmerizing, the fragments that make up a greater whole, the way the light glistens off each piece. The mosaics in Rome’s station churches are particularly precious because they are so old. Santa Pudenziana’s dates from the 5th century, Ss. Cosma e Damiano’s from the 6th.

Continue reading “Beating the mid-Lent blues”