The Greatness of Little Things: A Reflection on a Quote From St. Augustine

I have found that one of my favorite quotes from St. Augustine is not all that well known. Here it is in Latin, followed by my own translation:

Quod minimum, minimum est,
Sed in minimo fidelem esse,
magnum est.

What is a little thing, is (just) a little thing.
But to be faithful in a little thing
is a great thing.

(from St. Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, IV, 35)

I first saw this quote on the frontispiece of a book by Adrian Fortescue. Fortescue applied it to the intricate details of celebrating the Old Latin Mass. That form of the Mass has an enormous amount of detail to learn: how exactly to hold the hands, when and how to bow, what tone of voice to use, what fingers should be used to pick up the host, and on and on. Some might see these details as picky and overwhelming. But as the quote above states and Fortescue apparently wanted us to think, love is often shown through reverence for the little things. (See the second video below.)

It’s so easy to become lazy, even about sacred things like saying Mass. I often have to remind myself about little things like the condition of my shoes. Are my vestments clean? How about the altar linens, are they properly cared for? Do I bow and pause at Mass when I should? How is my tone of voice? Do I walk reverently in the sanctuary? Am I careful to pronounce the sacred words of the liturgy with care and a prayerful spirit? Some may find such questions tedious or even too scrupulous. But when you love, little things are often important.

Married couples may also struggle to remember the little things that show love: a kind remark, a simple thank you, flowers brought home for no particular reason, a simple look, the gift of listening attentively, cleaning up after yourself in the kitchen, a simple reassurance like “I’m glad I married you” or “You’re a great father to our children,” a quick phone call saying, “I love you and was thinking about you.”

They’re just little things. But to be faithful in little things is a great thing. A gospel passage comes to mind:

Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness! (Matt 25:21)

Another passage says,

Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much (Luke 16:10).

Little things—who cares? God does. Little things are great things to those who love.

This song says, “You must be faithful over a few things to be ruler over many things. Be thou faithful unto death and God will give you a crown of life.” It ends in a rousing chorus: “Well done good and faithful servant, well done!”

And since I mentioned the details of the traditional Latin Mass, here is a video that illustrates how little things can mean a lot. Some unaccustomed to this form may find such details stuffy, but to those who appreciate them, these “little things” are small signs of love for God and are a way of suppressing a kind of careless informality.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Greatness of Little Things: A Reflection on a Quote From St. Augustine

St. Augustine on Suffering as a Medicine

The feast of St. Augustine this Tuesday provides us yet another opportunity to learn from him. We can ponder his teaching on suffering and its role in preserving us from something far worse.

When asked, most people identify their most serious problems as those related to their physical health or their finances; family and career are also often mentioned.

Frankly, our biggest problem is pride and all the sins that flow from it. Nothing is more serious than our sins, which can destroy us forever. Worldly problems are temporary. They can make life unpleasant or at worst kill us, but then we get to go home and meet God if we are faithful.

Therefore, to God, our most serious problem is our sin. This is well-illustrated in the Gospels, when a paralyzed man was presented to Jesus: Jesus looked at him and said, “Your sins are forgiven.” Yes, Jesus looked at a paralyzed man and saw his sin as his most serious problem and the one to be dealt with first.

We don’t think like this even when taught that we should.

Because pride and the sins that flow from it are so serious, we do well to ponder how God permits suffering in our life so as to keep us from becoming too prideful. To God, it is better that we suffer some here, learn humility, and be saved, than to remain prideful and go to Hell.

I have received gifts and blessings, but if it weren’t for some suffering and humiliation in my life, I’d be so proud I’d go right to Hell. There’s just something about suffering that can keep us humble and continually calling on God.

St. Augustine reflects on this in what is considered his greatest work, The City of God. It was occasioned by the decline of the Roman Empire and the sacking of the city of Rome by the Barbarians under Alaric in 410 A.D. Augustine wrote the work to ponder how a once-mighty empire had fallen into such decay.

There were of course many sufferings inflicted on the citizens of Rome by the Barbarians. “Sackings” are not pleasant. Some people were killed, many women were raped, grave damage was inflicted on the city, and much personal property was damaged and/or taken.

In chapter 28 of Book 1 of the City of God, Augustine ponders why God would have allowed such suffering, especially to the Christians of that city, and in particular to the Christian women of virtue who were raped.

At times, his reflections seem almost unsympathetic, but in effect St. Augustine points to humiliation and suffering as a strong but necessary medicine for pride, which is far worse than any of the ills suffered to remedy it.

St. Augustine begins by disclaiming any ability to offer a complete explanation for suffering:

If you ask me why they [the Barbarians] were allowed the liberty of committing these sins, the answer is that the providence of the Creator and Ruler of the world transcends human reckoning, and that “incomprehensible are his judgments … unsearchable his ways.

Augustine then adds (somewhat boldly) to those in Rome who suffered,

Nevertheless, carefully scrutinize your own souls and see whether you were not unduly puffed up about your virtue.

He then ponders,

They [those who suffered] may possibly have in them some latent weakness which could have swollen to overwhelming pride had they escaped this humiliation…. So violence snatched something away from them lest prosperity should endanger them.

He goes on to conclude,

But they learned humility …. And were delivered from a pride that had already overtaken them … a pride that threatened them.

What of us who have suffered? We ought not to exclude the possibility, even the likelihood, that such suffering is permitted by God in order to humble us and keep us from the far worse of pride.

We must also conclude that when God allows suffering for this purpose He also gives grace to help us avoid extreme anger or despair. St. Augustine concludes his reflection in this way:

God would never have permitted these evils if they could destroy in his saints that purity of soul which he had bestowed on them and delights to see in them.

Reflections such as these do not generally please modern ears. We do not usually like the notion that God permits suffering for some greater good. Too easily we call Him unfair and harsh for doing such a thing. We prefer to think of Him as a doting grandfather rather than the disciplining Father described in Hebrews 12:4ff.

Our dismissal of suffering as a medicine is largely because we fail to see just how serious a sin pride is. We are dismissive of the tremendous toll that sin takes on us and the extreme danger that it causes in our hearts. Hence, we reject any medicine at all, let alone any strong one. However, God will not spare us merely to please us if in so doing He would lose us.

Suffering is complex and mysterious. That God permits it cannot be explained easily, but as St. Augustine makes clear, we ought not to overlook its salutary effect through the humility it engenders.

That, in and of itself, is a very good thing; for pride is our worst enemy.

This song, translated from the Latin, says,

Sadness and anxiety
have overtaken my inmost being.
My heart is made sorrowful in mourning,
my eyes are become dim.
Woe is me, for I have sinned.

But you, Lord,
who does not forsake
those who hope in you,
comfort and help me
for your holy name’s sake,
and have mercy on me.

Priests, Parents, and Leaders: Take Heart!

Today I would like to present excerpts from the stirring sermon “On Pastors,” delivered by St. Augustine to the priests and people of Hippo. Although it is directed to priests, I hope that parents and leaders in general might also take courage from it.

In times like these we must all be reminded of the need to preach the Word of God even if we are reviled and our very proclamation of love is labeled “hate speech.” This is not new; St. Augustine calls us to be resolute and to preach the Word of God in season and out of season. Augustine’s words are shown in bold, while my commentary is in plain text.

[The Lord says:] The straying sheep you have not recalled; the lost sheep you have not sought. In one way or another, we go on living between the hands of robbers and the teeth of raging wolves. … The sheep moreover are insolent. … And in light of these present dangers we ask your prayers [From a sermon on pastors by St. Augustine, Bishop (Sermon 46, 14-15: CCL 41, 541-542)].

Whatever the specifics of St. Augustine’s era, today’s clergy and parents have the difficult task of presiding over a flock or family that on one side is pursued by the raging wolf of hostile and scoffing secularism, and on the other is being robbed of strength and clarity by dissension from within, even up to the highest levels in the Church. While a hostile world is to be expected, internal dissension is most lamentable and even more painful. This is especially the case today.

In contentious times such as ours, as the poison of the world infects the flock, some of God’s own people begin to take up the voice and demeanor of the wolf. In certain times and places, someone who strives to disclose the errors of the world will often be resisted and scorned, referred to as intolerant or hateful. A priest may be called out-of-touch or be discounted as “too political.” Some may even walk out as he preaches about controversial issues that are referred to as political, but are in fact moral: abortion, euthanasia, same-sex “marriage,” and so forth. Others may write letters to the bishop criticizing him. While the scoffing of the world is expected, the insolence of the flock is very discouraging.

Thus St. Augustine says here, “We ask your prayers.” Some priests can fall prey to hostility in sinful ways. Some may give way to anger, which can infect evangelical joy. They will engage in mere argumentation and resort to indiscriminate sermonizing. They go from being the Church militant to the Church belligerent.

More common, and usually deadlier, is when a priest reacts by withdrawing from the battlefield altogether, no longer preaching on any topic considered controversial. He does not seek to correct the straying sheep because it might make them angry; he is not willing to bear the emotional burden of this resistance or to brave the stormy waters of controversy to call to them.

Silent pulpits are all too common today. A priest who is silent from the pulpit may tell himself that he is protecting his people’s feelings by not upsetting anyone. In reality, though, he comes to resemble the false shepherds denounced by Jesus, the ones who do not really care for their sheep but rather run when the wolf approaches.

The effect on the flock (and the world) is devastating because Catholics, who are called to be light in the darkness, have come to resemble the darkness. Catholics have become indistinguishable from the general populace in terms of our views on the most critical moral issues of our times. Even Catholics who have not caved in to all aspects of the cultural revolution are often ill-prepared to make a defense for the hope and truth that is in them.

Augustine calls some of the sheep “insolent.” The Latin root of the word lends it the meaning of being unaccustomed to something. Thus one who is insolent scoffs at what he does not understand. The straying sheep are often insolent as a result of poor catechesis.

Ignorance of the faith in the pews, along with pressure from a culture that loudly and effectively proclaims its own views, presents an enormous challenge to pastors. Without persistence and fortitude, many of our clergy can become resigned to mediocrity and inaction.

Augustine continues on to set forth a model of a shepherd’s heart for his sheep (especially the straying ones) that all clergy should emulate.

The shepherd seeks out the straying sheep, but because they have wandered away and are lost they say that they are not ours. “Why do you want us? Why do you seek us?” they ask, as if their straying and being lost were not the very reason for our wanting them and seeking them out. “If I am straying,” he says, “if I am lost, why do you want me?” You are straying, that is why I wish to recall you. You have been lost, I wish to find you. “But I wish to stray,” he says, “I wish to be lost.”

If, with the help of others, a good priest seeks out the lost, the confused, and the broken, still many will say that they are not ours or that we should leave them alone. Others will say, “If you don’t approve of what I do and you think of me as lost and a sinner, why do you want me?” But it is precisely because they are lost that we seek them.

Our disapproval of sin (regardless of how others choose to interpret it) is no different than a doctor’s disapproval of toxic behavior that can lead to cancer; he will caution us to avoid such behavior and to come to him for healing if the cancer has already set in.

Sadly, many today base their fundamental identity on sinful behaviors; they interpret our searching for them as an offense rather than as an act of loving concern.

St. Augustine captures their attitude well: “But I wish to stray, I wish to be lost.” He then he presents an answer that summons us to perseverance:

So you wish to stray and be lost? How much better that I do not also wish this. Certainly, I dare say, I am unwelcome. But I listen to the Apostle who says, “Preach the word; insist upon it, welcome and unwelcome.” … I dare to say, “You wish to stray, you wish to be lost; but I do not want this.” For the one whom I fear does not wish this. And should I wish it, consider his words of reproach: “The straying sheep you have not recalled; the lost sheep you have not sought.” Shall I fear you rather than him? Remember, we must all present ourselves before the judgment seat of Christ.

This is a powerful reminder to every priest and every Christian. Do not lose your zeal for souls. Do not give up. Preach until the day you die, whether your words are welcomed or not.

Even if you should lose your zeal, never forget that the Lord has not lost His. We will all report to Him one day to render an account of our lives. Priests, above all, must be stirred to zeal. If our own love for God and for souls should flag, at least let a holy fear of the day of judgment move us!

Love is the better motive, but failing that, may we be moved by the fear of the Lord and of the day we shall be called to account for our ministry. Further, we must not fear the anger of men more than the indignation of God should we fail Him in the goal for which He ordained us.

Steeled and motivated by this, Augustine concludes with a stirring summons to resolve:

I shall recall the straying; I shall seek the lost. Whether they wish it or not, I shall do it. And should the brambles of the forests tear at me when I seek them, I shall force myself through all straits; I shall put down all hedges. So far as the God whom I fear grants me the strength, I shall search everywhere. I shall recall the straying; I shall seek after those on the verge of being lost.

Amen. Stir in us, O Lord, a zeal for souls. Give us your own love and strength. May we desire souls with your very desire for them. Priests, parents, and leaders: Take heart and be courageous lovers of souls!

When Honor Eclipses Truth

Every year at about this time we read St. Augustine’s sermon “On Pastors” in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours. As you know, priests are required to read the Divine Office daily; St. Augustine’s sermon extends over the better part of two weeks. It amounts to a stern warning for priests who too easily live off the sheep instead of shepherding them rightly.

There are tender moments in the sermon as well. At one point, commenting on a passage from Ezekiel rebuking bad shepherds (You have consumed the milk of the sheep and clothed yourself in their wool (Ez 34:3)), Augustine turns to the lay people present and says,

Clothing can well be taken to mean honor, since it covers nakedness. For every man without exception is weak. And who is any man placed over you except someone just like yourself? Your pastor is in the flesh; he eats, sleeps, and awakens; he was born and is going to die. In himself he is, when you think of it, simply a man. But it is true that you make him something more by giving him honor; it is as if you were covering what is weak.

Consider the nature of clothing that the Apostle Paul received from God’s good people. He said, “You have received me like an angel of God ….” Indeed, great honor was shown to him.

St. Augustine then turns back to the priests with an admonition.

But did [Paul] then spare sinners because of that honor, perhaps out of fear that it would be refused and that he would receive less praise when he gave blame? Had he done so, he would be among those shepherds who feed themselves and not the sheep. He would then say to himself: “What has this to do with me? Let everyone do what he will; my sustenance is safe, and my honor too. I have enough milk and wool, so let each one do as he likes.” … In recalling how they treated him, the Apostle does not want to appear forgetful of the honor they did him. Therefore, he gives testimony that they received him like an angel of God … Yet he still comes to the sheep that is ill, to the one that is diseased, to cut the wound and not to spare the diseased part. He says: “Have I then become your enemy by preaching the truth?” He took from the milk of the sheep, as I mentioned a short time ago, and he was clothed with their wool, but he did not neglect his sheep. He did not seek what was his but what was Christ’s.

Pray for priests. We live in times when many priests have been trained or led to think that the goal of our ministry is to affirm people and make them feel welcome. There is a place for affirmation and welcoming, but the goal of our ministry is the salvation of souls. At times, this requires that we say and do difficult things, things that anger people and cause us to be ridiculed and denounced by many in the surrounding culture. As St. Augustine says, though, the treatment of wounds requires not just the oil that soothes, but also the wine that stings as it debrides and decontaminates.

What would one think of a doctor who spent most of his time making sure that his waiting room was pleasant and the examination rooms cheerful, but expended little effort studying disease and doing what was necessary to bring his patients back to good health? Proper medical care often requires strong medicines and painful surgeries. Further, doctors must often share difficult information with patients and/or give strong admonitions that lifestyle changes must be made. Pleasant examination rooms and a good bedside manner are all well and good, but providing medical care is the primary objective. A doctor who does not speak the truth to his patients because he wants to keep them happy is guilty of malpractice; he has maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum.

It is no less the case with priests who avoid conflict or difficulty in order to preserve their honor. They have allowed a lesser thing to eclipse a greater thing. Pleasantries and affirmation too easily overshadow the truth, which is what sets us free even if it is sometimes strong medicine.

As St. Augustine mercifully reminds, priests are human. No one likes conflict; all other things being equal, avoiding unnecessary conflict is a good thing. Avoiding conflict at the expense of the truth, though, is a false peace, a temporary peace. The darkness, baseness, and ferocity of our times testifies against the idea of “going along to get along.” A false peace cannot endure. Our silence and the false tolerance of relativism is, in the end, tyranny.

The concern about silent pulpits on the key moral issues of our day is too widespread to be discredited as a minority view. Despite our human weakness, we who are priests must summon the courage to speak and teach more clearly and consistently than is currently evident. True shepherds can do no less.

I am reminded of a text by St. Basil, which I believe serves as a fitting postscript to my own poorer reflections on this topic:

Men in authority are afraid to speak, for those who have reached power by human interest are the slaves of those to whom they owe their advancement. And now the very vindication of orthodoxy is looked upon in some quarters as an opportunity for mutual attack; and men conceal their private ill-will and pretend that their hostility is all for the sake of the truth. All the while unbelievers laugh; men of weak faith are shaken; faith is uncertain; souls are drenched in ignorance, because adulterators of the Word imitate the truth.

The better ones of the laity shun the churches as schools of impiety and lift their hands in the deserts with sighs and tears to their Lord in heaven. The faith of the Fathers we have received; that faith we know is stamped with the marks of the Apostles; to that faith we assent, as well as to all that in the past was canonically and lawfully promulgated (Saint Basil in Ep. 92, 2).