Monday, December 20, 2010

A Eulogy for Elmer Smith

My 97-year old grandfather died this week, and I’m currently down in Southern Oregon to attend his memorial service and to help clean up his house.  This is what I read at his memorial service.

Elmer Smith came from the humblest of beginnings, but by the time he graduated from high school, his teachers were telling him he needed to apply to MIT. That was the sort of mind my grandfather had been given: intense, analytical, searingly precise. But my grandfather had other goals besides academic achievement. He wanted a wife, and he wanted a family. That was the sort of heart my grandfather possessed: generous, disciplined, searingly loyal. So he turned from MIT to Montana: he exchanged the dreams of a brilliant engineering career for a pair of lips that he first kissed on a quiet Kalispell street in 1933. And my famously skinflint grandfather would have called the price cheap.

Although I came into the picture much later, I have no experience of life without him. In my earliest memories, he is a constant figure: often present, always desired. He was not just strong: to my young mind, he was strength itself, and intelligence, and character. For many years, even as he entered his eighth and ninth decades, it seemed impossible that he should ever depart this earth. He was the earth, and the salt thereof. He was my hero, everything I ever wanted to be, the very special gift of a God who knows how much little kids need Grandpas. God gave many gifts to our family, but none more valuable or valued than a patriarch who loved his wife, who loved his family, and who loved me.

It wasn’t until about fifteen years ago, when my grandfather lost his eyesight, that we began to realize that the Lord would eventually take back those many gifts he had given. Five years ago, my grandfather broke his ankle, and began using a cane. Three years ago, he lost his beloved wife of 72 years to cancer. Two years ago, he broke his hip. Last year, he had to leave the property he had nurtured for 60 years. The brilliant and brash young man who had conquered his wife’s heart as easily as he conquered the Salmon River was now lonely, crippled and blind. God had given my grandfather in his youth great strength, amazing health, a warm home, and a loving wife; and as my grandfather aged, God slowly and inexorably withdrew each of those gifts. In the end, God recalled even His gift of rational thought. The time came, during his last weeks, when my grandfather’s reason rambled but loosely through his conversations.

But it was during this time, when almost everything God had provided him was removed, that we could see most clearly who my grandfather was at his core, and who he had always been. From his bed, unable to walk or see, he talked a great deal about fixing things, even if those things existed only in his imagination or memory. He talked continuously about family, even if the loved ones with whom he was conversing had departed years ago. And he talked ardently about his Lord. He felt God’s presence a great deal in his final days. When we gathered with him to pray or to sing hymns, tears would stream down his face, and his scattered wits would slowly recollect themselves. He prayed constantly for his family, and made each of us assure him that we would, in our turn, meet him in heaven.

Rest did not come easily to my grandfather, nor to a heart that had beat steadily for 97 years. But he is at rest now, at peace in the presence of the Savior he served faithfully, and reunited with the wife he loved passionately.

During these last weeks, I’ve thought a great deal about death, how it comes to us all, even the strongest and best. One day, I know, I will follow in my grandfather’s footsteps. One day, God will require from me an account of all the many gifts that I have received. I hope, when that day comes, that I will face it with the same fortitude and good humor my grandfather showed in his final years. I pray that I will have lived a life of enough faith and love that, like my grandfather, my own children and grandchildren and great grandchildren will be gathered around me. One day, I will follow my grandfather down the long valley of the shadow of death; and one day, I pray to meet him again when the world is made new.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Confessions – Book 9

This is my final series of notes on Augustine’s Confessions.  Although there are 13 books in the Confessions, we’re only covering books 1-9 in our Bible study, so at least for the moment, this will be my final set of notes.

Opening Meditation (9.1)

As always, Augustine is mystified by the nature of human will. Now that he was a Christian, he says, “Now I did not will to do what I willed, [but] began to will to do what thou didst will.” Paradoxically, his own will was not formerly free when he simply willed to do what he wanted: rather, his will became free the moment God gave him the grace to will what God wanted.

Leaving the World (9.2-6)

Augustine and his friends decided to leave their secular employments and devote themselves full-time to God’s service. Augustine did not quit his job immediately, however, but waited for several weeks, until the start of the harvest vacation (from late August through mid-October). He seems a little worried that people might think he took this time because he wasn’t completely committed, but says that he actually took this course due to the opposite fear: that if he were to leave in the middle of the term, it would look ostentatious and proud.

Some of thy servants, my brethren, may say that I sinned in this, since having once fully and from my heart enlisted in thy service, I permitted myself to sit a single hour in the chair of falsehood. I will not dispute it. But hast thou not, O most merciful Lord, pardoned and forgiven this sin in the holy water, along with all the others, horrible and deadly as they were?

Augustine’s friends took his conversion in various ways. Verecundus, his landlord, was rather dismayed to find Augustine following this path; although he was interested in becoming a Christian, he only wished to do so if he could become as “complete” a Christian as Augustine, i.e., a chaste, unmarried one. Since he was married, and divorce was considered an even worse state than marriage, this was obviously not possible. It was only when he fell ill and was on his deathbed that he allowed himself to be baptized. In contrast, Nebridius was excited, and quickly abandoned the last remnants of his docetic heresy, in submitting himself as a candidate for baptism.

Cassiciacum (9.7-13)

During the harvest vacation, Augustine left to a country villa in Cassiciacum, a small village north of Milan, within sight of the Alps. He was accompanied by his son Adeodatus, his mother Monica, Alypius, and half a dozen others. While at Cassiciacum, he wrote several important treatises, including a dialog with his son called The Teacher, The Happy Life, Soliloquies, and several others.

What Augustine treasures most about this time, however, was not the writings which he finished, but the hours spent in prayer and meditation on the Psalms. Paragraphs 8-11 are basically a meditation on the Old Latin text of Psalm 4, which of course, being a translation of a translation of a translation, differs in some important ways from what we read in the NIV. To take just a couple examples:


Old Latin




Know that the Lord has magnified his Holy One.

Know that the LORD has set apart his faithful servant for himself.

The Old Latin “magnified” and “Holy One” seem to be clearer references to Christ than “set apart” and “faithful servant”.


Be angry and do not sin.

Tremble and do not sin.

Augustine interprets “be angry” as “Be angry at yourself for your sins so that you will not sin” (a different interpretation than Paul gives it in Eph. 4:26). The NIV translation seems to be saying, “Tremble at God, so that you will not sin.” The object of the initial verb is different, though the thought is similar.


Many are saying, who will show us the good? O Lord, the light of your face shines bright upon us.

Many, LORD, are asking, “Who will bring us prosperity?” Let the light of your face shine on us.

Augustine interprets the verse to mean, “Only when God’s face shines upon us can we know the true good” (in both a philosophical and moral sense). In contrast, the NIV seems to mean, “Only when God’s face shines upon us can we be prosperous” (in both a pecuniary and moral sense).

Augustine also apparently experienced a (relatively minor) instance of divine healing. He was suffering from a toothache, which was probably a dramatically more troublesome experience in the centuries before modern dentistry and analgesics than it is now. It was troubling him horribly, however, and he asked for prayer; and as soon as his friends knelt to pray for him, the pain disappeared.

Baptism (9.14-16)

Augustine mentions only briefly the death of his son (which took place about a year after this point). He was clearly a proud father, and if the dialog reproduced in The Teacher is any indication, a justly proud one. It’s very interesting, though, and perhaps just a little disturbing, that he seems to feel no grief about the premature death of such a talented and promising son, “our companion, as if he were the same age in grace with ourselves”.

Augustine mentions how moving he now found the hymns and psalms sung in the church – which were apparently a new innovation. Presumably shortly before his conversion, during the height of the Arian controversy, the empress Justina attempted to enforce Arian doctrine in Milan, going so far as to attempt to remove the orthodox Ambrose by force. When the soldiers arrived, they found the people of the church barricaded inside. Ambrose refused to give up the church, though he equally refused to use force to keep the soldiers out. To keep the people’s spirits up during this time of heightened confrontation, Ambrose borrowed a tradition from the Eastern Church, that of communal (and antiphonal) singing. This was an early version of what later became Gregorian chant, and it’s the first recorded communal singing in church (apart from various NT references to “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”). Seven of the hymns that Ambrose wrote are still a part of the Roman Catholic liturgy.

Monica’s Life and Death (9.17-33)

Some of the customs Augustine describes seem quite strange to us, and even perverse, such as the rule instituted by Monica’s nurse that children should only drink water at mealtimes:

“You drink water now only because you don’t control the wine; but when you are married and mistresses of pantry and cellar, you may not care for water, but the habit of drinking will be fixed.”

This reminds me of Aristotle’s recommendation that infants should be exposed to the cold as much as possible, so that they would grow up used to it.

Similarly, Augustine accepts with a certain equanimity the fact that bad-tempered husbands beat their wives (this is at best mildly problematic for him), and that masters beat their servants (he seems to think this is a good thing).

On the flip side, some of what Augustine commends his mother for seems downright farsighted: such as the role she played as peacemaker in various quarrels:

She would disclose nothing about the one to the other except what might serve toward their reconciliation. This might seem a small good to me if I did not know to my sorrow countless persons who, through the horrid and far-spreading infection of sin, not only repeat to enemies mutually enraged things said in passion against each other, but also add some things that were never said at all.

Towards the end of this section, Augustine describes a vision which he and his mother together experienced.  It is similar in many ways to the “Plotinian ecstasy” which he experienced and describes in 7.23, but is much more specifically Biblical (not necessarily Christian) in its content.

And when our conversation had brought us to the point where the very highest of physical sense and the most intense illumination of physical light seemed, in comparison with the sweetness of that life to come, not worthy of comparison, nor even of mention, we lifted ourselves with a more ardent love toward the Selfsame, and we gradually passed through all the levels of bodily objects, and even through the heaven itself, where the sun and moon and stars shine on the earth. Indeed, we soared higher yet by an inner musing, speaking and marveling at thy works.

Augustine’s reaction to his mother’s death is almost – almost – the opposite of his reaction to the death of his friend in book 4. He never says anything like, “I knew that I would see my mother again.” His consolation appears to be somewhat deeper than that – though he clearly experiences grief as well, though in a much more subdued form than he had experienced as an adolescent, despite its surface similarity:

I was then left destitute of a great comfort in her, and my soul was stricken; and that life was torn apart, as it were, which had been made but one out of hers and mine together.

Despite his determined, near-pagan stoicism, God eventually graced Augustine with an unwanted gift of grief:

It was a solace for me to weep in thy sight, for her and for myself, about her and about myself. Thus I set free the tears which before I repressed, that they might flow at will, spreading them out as a pillow beneath my heart. And it rested on them, for thy ears were near me.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Confessions – Book 8

This is a continuation of my notes on Augustine’s Confessions.

Augustine’s Final Objections (8.1-2)

By this time, Augustine was convinced intellectually of the truth of Christianity. The old Manichaean doctrines – that God was material, and in time – held no more attraction for him. But Augustine himself was still material (and hence subject to lust) and still in time (and hence unstable). And he was possessed of a subtle pride that perhaps he did not recognize even when he was writing the Confessions: he didn’t feel like he could be just an ordinary Christian. Lots of other folks were Christians and were married, but Augustine wasn’t content with that sort of ordinary Christian life. If Augustine were to become a Christian, he disdained the example of even his own mother: the hermit life of Anthony, or the monastic life of Ponticianus’ friends, was much more suited to Augustine’s subtle pride. On top of that, Augustine was apparently convinced that even sex within marriage was lawful only if it were for the explicit purpose of procreation: and if he were to be baptized, and married, it would be difficult for him to obey that stricture. (This ascetic ideal, it should be noted, was not just a feature of 4th-century Christianity, but also of contemporary philosophical paganism, Manichaeism, and Judaism. It’s an example of how Christianity can be swayed in unfortunate directions by societal trends. Our own century has many unfortunate examples of Christianity being swayed in the opposite direction by opposite trends.)

Simplicianus and Victorinus (Conversion Story #1) (8.3-5)

Seeking moral counsel from a trusted source, Augustine visited Simplicianus, a respected Christian who had baptized Ambrose and eventually succeeded him as bishop. Simplicianus told him the conversion story of Victorinus, a story which closely paralleled Augustine’s own journey, and which is the first of five conversion stories (and eight total conversions) which Augustine recounts in this book. It is worth noting that, like Augustine, Victorinus’ conversion was not intellectual (both had been convinced of the truth of Christianity for some time), but volitional.

One minor issue that gives scholars heartburn is that Augustine talks about having read Victorinus’ translations into Latin of the Neo-Platonists:

When I mentioned to him that I had read certain books of the Platonists which Victorinus--formerly professor of rhetoric at Rome, who died a Christian, as I had been told--had translated into Latin, Simplicianus congratulated me that I had not fallen upon the writings of other philosophers, which were full of fallacies and deceit, “after the beggarly elements of this world,” whereas in the Platonists, at every turn, the pathway led to belief in God and his Word.

The problem with this paragraph is that we have several pretty good records of all of Victorinus’ works (including one by Jerome, who was Victorinus’ student), and none of them mention any such translations. Either the lists we have are incomplete, or Augustine is remembering something incorrectly.

Celebrity Conversions (Conversion Story #2) (8.6-9)

Augustine spends some time thinking through an issue which is of some relevance to us today: is there any special value to celebrity conversions? His answer, perhaps surprisingly, is that yes, there is. His argument, however, doesn’t assume that the celebrities are any better than average Christians – on the contrary, it assumes that they are in greater danger. But precisely because they are in greater danger, greater is the rejoicing amongst those who have watched them fight their way free of it.

For the enemy is more overcome in one on whom he has a greater hold, and whom he has hold of more completely. But the proud he controls more readily through their concern about their rank and, through them, he controls more by means of their influence. The more, therefore, the world prized the heart of Victorinus (which the devil had held in an impregnable stronghold) and the tongue of Victorinus (that sharp, strong weapon with which the devil had slain so many), all the more exultingly should Thy sons rejoice because our King hath bound the strong man, and they saw his vessels taken from him and cleansed, and made fit for thy honor and “profitable to the Lord for every good work.”

Here Augustine also makes reference to a second conversion story: when Saul defeated the sorcerer Bar-Jesus, and led the proconsul Sergius Paulus to the Lord (Acts 13:4-12), accepting (Augustine believes) the proconsul’s name as a symbol of his victory. It’s worth noting that this is the only conversion story which actually turns on the subject becoming convinced of the truth of Christianity, and it is the briefest of the various stories told.

Augustine’s Final Objections Part 2 (8.10-12)

In these paragraphs, Augustine rehearses the hesitancy which kept him from baptism and a full commitment to Christ. He wanted to become a Christian, to submit his own will to Christ, but found that he was unable to make the final movement on his own. His will was enslaved to itself, as a punishment for its choices:

For out of the perverse will came lust, and the service of lust ended in habit, and habit, not resisted, became necessity…It was through me that habit had become an armed enemy against me, because I had willingly come to be what I unwillingly found myself to be. Who, then, can with any justice speak against it, when just punishment follows the sinner?

Ponticianus and His Friends (Conversion Story #3) (8.13-15)

Ponticianus, a highly-placed Roman court official, told the story of two friends of his who had joined a monastery. Again, the parallels with Augustine are notable: in the story, the two were not becoming convinced of the truth of Christianity (indeed, they were both apparently baptized Christians), but became convinced that they had a higher calling.

Can our hopes in the court rise higher than to be ‘friends of the emperor’? But how frail, how beset with peril, is that pride! Through what dangers must we climb to a greater danger? And when shall we succeed? But if I chose to become a friend of God, see, I can become one now.

This story also introduces St. Anthony, a famous fourth-century monk, whose own conversion story will be told later.

Augustine’s Final Objections Part 3 (8.16-21)

As Augustine draws closer to the final crisis, he reflects on the goal he set himself as a young man, reading Cicero’s Hortensius, to pursue philosophy at all costs. He realizes now that philosophy is not enough to save him. Nothing that he can do can save him, for this is precisely the issue. His will is bound. Even his prayers are against him: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Augustine is amazed at the paradox he encounters: mind and body are separate things, but the mind can tell the body, “Do this,” and it does it, without hesitation. But the mind cannot tell itself, “Do this.” “My body more readily obeyed the slightest wish of the soul in moving its limbs at the order of my mind than my soul obeyed itself to accomplish in the will alone its great resolve.”

It’s worthwhile to note the Genesis imagery that appears during this account of his struggle: like Adam, and like Jesus, Augustine’s struggle against sin took place in a garden. Adam’s sin centered around a tree, and his attempt at redeeming himself involved a fig tree; Augustine’s temptation and conversion likewise took place under a fig tree. 

A Digression Against the Manichees (8:22-24)

Augustine’s conclusion that we may have more than one will leads him into a brief digression against the Manichaean version of this argument. The Manichees went further than saying that we had more than one will; they said that each will represented a separate nature, one good and one bad. Their evidence for this, apparently, was that we often found ourselves willing more than one thing. This is likely a straw-man argument, but Augustine is happy to knock it down. Willing good at the same time we are willing evil is no argument for multiple natures, however much it may be an argument for multiple wills. It’s no different, in Augustine’s book, than hesitating between going to the theater or to the circus (both bad), or between reading a Gospel or a Psalm (both good).

Augustine’s Final Objections Part 4 (8:25-27)

Again, Augustine rehearses the objections which prevented him from making his leap into Christianity. This time he introduces the image of the Lady Continence, opposing his “former mistresses”, who “tugged at my fleshly garments”. This hearkens back (at least) to the classic contrast in Proverbs between the personifications of Wisdom and Foolishness as two women who each seek to entice a man into their orbit.  The significance of the fig tree, in this instance, centers around the fact that Adam and Eve tried to cover their shame with fig leaves: this attempt was notoriously unsuccessful, because only God can rescue us.  Similarly, Augustine was trying to achieve celibacy and continence through his own efforts under the fig tree, and it was only when he threw himself fully on God’s mercy (and stopped adding the “but not yet” to his prayer) that he was able to achieve the continence and self-control that he wanted.

Anthony’s Conversion (Conversion Story #4) (8.28-29)

Augustine finally withdraws from even the closest human companionship and moves deeper into the garden, much like Jesus on the night of his arrest. The phrase he hears (Tolle, lege) could mean either “Take it, read it”, or “Pick it up, look at it” (the latter perhaps being a phrase chanted by agricultural workers during harvest time). Augustine finally tells the actual story of St. Anthony’s “conversion” (like the others in this chapter, not to Christianity, but to a deeper commitment to Christ). He’s been saving this one, partially because it was the most famous, but also because it resembled his own in having been achieved by the hearing of a specific passage of Scripture.

The Conversions of Augustine and Alypius (Conversion Story #5) (8:30)

Augustine’s own conversion was fully effected when he followed the injunction of the chant of the children he had heard, and picked up the book of Paul that Ponticianus had commented on. There he read: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” (Rom. 13:13). This immediately quieted his soul, and allowed him to express himself to Alypius. Alypius was so moved by Augustine’s decision that he himself was prompted to make the same choice. However, because Alypius had never had the same struggle with sexual desire that had marked Augustine, his choice was much easier: you get the impression that he had merely been waiting for his friend to make the first move.