Sunday, October 21, 2012

John of St Augustine, Opera Omnia

Excluding juvenilia, that notable last flower of scholasticism, John of St Augustine, O. Dorm., is chiefly remembered for his great works (published in an omnibus English translation by Chapman in 1923). Minor and incomplete treatises aside (remembering that many, alas, of his letters have perished), his major books number six.  There has been much interest in the spirituality (not to say sentiment) of these Catholic, traditional and yet somehow freshly novel productions, particularly among a certain coterie of admirers, for well over a century now; and up-to-date editions (not to mention popular adaptations for lesser minds) are legion. Behold the spirituality and scholarship of his Order! Its charism is indeed a sweet savour of Christ spreading everywhere for the health and healing of souls (II Cor. ii, 14ff) – certainly within the Church.

First, both rationally, and, as critical scholarship suggests, chronologically, among his writings must be listed that philosophical work on being, Being and the classes of potential beings which could be created ex nihilo – famously excluding logical impossibilities – entituled (in its eventual English garb), Ens and Ensibility. This star among the Canons Regular of the Dormition (an Order particularly devoted to the most abstruse philosophical and theological investigations, as an aid to their peculiar charism) excelled himself in this tract, although curiously it proved quite lucid when rendered into our mother tongue.

It must be remarked upon that his was indeed a late flowering, since, following the scholastic tradition as a bloom out of season, a rose in the winter of nominalism and its bitter fruits of heresy, he wrote from the vantage point of a most retiring Order (like Denys the Carthusian, who preceded John by not too many decades), and did in fact live to endure the cruel times Providence permitted at the outbreak of the Reformation; this explains what might otherwise appear too prescient a work, his polemical denunciation of rebellious would-be reformers, Pride and Private Judgement.  The power of this work still seizes the hearts of such as take it up to-day, despite the apparent outdatedness of the topic (and within the tome lie some amusingly candid portraits none too flattering of the secular clergy, that institution all too often a provoker of heresy and schism).

Having fulsomely confuted nascent Protestantism, John turned to wholesomely and attractively present the doctrine once delivered to the Saints, that deposit of Faith preserved whole and entire in Holy Church and in her alone, as not merely a preservative against folly but a rallying call to all to believe and so live in the light of grace: thus he penned its sister work, called simply Propaganda in Latin; although, since that word has unfortunate connotations in English, Chapman's edition gives it instead under the less offensive name Persuasion. Having fallen away from her first love, the Christian soul of Europe must strive to win back "him whom her soul loves" (Cant. iii, 1-4) – thus the pious Canon illustrates the tragedy and drama of that hour, so dark for Christendom, but issuing (after his death) in a glorious and triumphant Counter-Reformation, which in his farsightedness he predicts and imagines, portraying it after the mode of a mystical marriage between the Lord and his spotless Bride.  (Bridal mysticism is a recurrent theme in this writer's œuvre.)

Eager students of liturgical minutiæ, however, will instead be far the more interested (though perhaps they, too, ought examine themselves according to that work on private judgement earlier mentioned, lest in picking out motes they forget any beams afflicting their own arch eyes) in his curious, otherwise rare, and most insightful work, Northern Hanging Aumbries, in which our Dormitionist scholar reveals a prodigious learning about the most recherché aspects of Teutonic and other Northern European arrangements for the safekeeping the Eucharistic species (and also the holy oils) in Gothic chancels and Dark Age fanes long past. 

Those who long for heaven (yet walk toward it backward), sighing for Eden's joys forever closed by the Fall, locked behind that fiery sword which turneth every way (Gen iii, 24), yet unmindful of that most wicked Serpent who ever tempts those who think to serve the Lord and advance to meet him, ought carefully read, mark, learn and consider the doctrine so aptly and marvellous contrived to fit within the deceptively slim covers of his meditation on human life, sin, and redemption, Man's Feared Past, product of his last years' contemplation (and delivered to the world by the labours of his brothers in holy religion after his death). But perhaps his other posthumously issued work, a three-volume treatise on the Virgin, simply titled Mary, is best to turn to first. It certainly illustrates the character, estate and life of that Lady with great freedom and originality: a good (if overlong) read.

It is entirely risible, not to say disrespectful, even sinful, to list to those who insinuate his works ever included occult knowledge among their topics: hence, references to any of his books as delating upon vampires, zombies, sea monsters and worse must be regarded as mere mockery unfitting the memory of so great a writer, and belonging to the realm of trashy popular fiction only. For the same reason, the rash speculations of moderns concerning alleged gender issues associated with his memory (alluding to baseless misrepresentations of some aspects of his biography, which to be honest is scarcely well-known owing to the paucity of surviving documentation) are beneath contempt, and shall be passed over in that silence recommended by the Apostle in Ephesians v, 3. 

Instead, those curious may benefit from the various documentaries available about his life and works: what a blessing the media are.

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