To you all,
I succumbed. This week I ordered hair clippers online and yesterday they arrived. My lockdown beard may never be launched on the wider world. Clippers charging, I sat down to think about this reflection and, flicking through Augustine’s City of God, I came across this passage:
There are some things, too, which have such a place in the body, that they obviously serve no useful purpose, but are solely for beauty, for example the nipples on a man’s breast, or the beard on his face.Augustine, City of God, XXII, 24
You can leave my nipples out of this; but the beard? The clippers will stay on charge for the time being, and the beard can stay on my chin – a thing of beauty.
The reason I’d turned to Augustine in the first place was not actually to find an excuse for not shaving, it was to think about his rich, profound and practical meditations on the Sabbath.
Because, yes, we’ve arrived at another Sunday.
And I thought, rather than sharing a sermon of mine, I’d offer something much more nourishing: an extract from one of Augustine’s. Don’t be alarmed: Augustine’s sermons contain some of his most engaging and accessible writing. Somehow packed into this one man, this one life, are several Augustines – philosopher, exegete, controversialist – but primary among them, I think, is pastor. Before all things, he was a man who cared deeply about the Christian community he was called to lead and to love.
As Bishop of Hippo in the Roman province of Numidia, he saw himself as the head of a family: the Christian community of his town. And he often refers to them affectionately as the familia Dei or the familia Christi. By all accounts, Augustine had enormous power as a preacher, not speaking to his congregation or at them, but from them, in the midst of them. Augustine made a point of standing amongst the congregation. Despite his brilliance as a preacher, he felt the function of a sermon was not to stir up his listeners, but to offer them food:
I am the servant, the bringer of food, not the master of the house. I lay out before you that from which I draw my life.Augustine, Fragment, 2,4
That’s all rather a long introduction to Augustine’s sermon on the Third Commandment: Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath-day. It’s a sermon that speaks to us particularly powerfully at the moment, I think. It could almost be a sermon for lockdown. Perhaps, when we look back at our lives at this time, part of what we’ll be able to see is: Sabbath.
The third commandment enjoins quietness of heart, tranquillity of mind. This is holiness. Because here is the Spirit of God. This is what a true holiday means, quietness and rest. Unquiet people recoil from the Holy Spirit. They love quarrelling. They love argument. In their restlessness they do not allow the silence of the Lord’s Sabbath to enter their lives. Against such restlessness we are offered a kind of Sabbath in the heart. As if God were saying ‘Stop being so restless, quieten the uproar in your minds. Let go of the idle fantasies that fly around in your head.’ God is saying, ‘Be still and see that I am God.’ (Psalm 46:10) But you refuse to be still. You are like the Egyptians tormented by gnats. These tiniest of flies, always restless, flying about aimlessly, swarm at your eyes, giving no rest. They are back as soon as you drive them off. Just like the futile fantasies that swarm in our minds. Keep the commandment. Beware of this plague.
Augustine, Sermon 8, on the Third Commandment
We are unquiet people. Even in this break from our social lives, our working lives, our school lives we find the gnats pursue us. Restlessness, quarrelling, futile fantasies, and argument. We could add: the twenty-four hour news cycle, social media, along with legitimate and profound anxieties. But for Augustine, when we are at rest, quiet and still, then we can begin to recognise God, to hear God within.
Prayer is a settling, like motes of dust in a sunbeam.
Augustine often thinks of prayer as invocation, calling God to us, into our hearts. But he’s adamant also that we are not calling God into a place where He is not. God is already inside, waiting for us, in the stillness and the rest, at the mysterious centre of ourselves. Augustine addresses God in this way throughout the Confessions:
You are more inward than my inmost part and higher than my upmost.Augustine, Confessions, 3.6.11
To swat away the plague of gnats, to find the stillness, the peace and the presence of God in our hearts is not easy. We are habituated to being busy, restless and always on the move. Breaking habits is hard.
I fall back into my usual ways under my miserable burdens. I am reabsorbed by my habitual practices. I am held in their grip. I weep profusely, but I am still held. Such is the strength of the burden of habit.Augustine, Confessions, 10.11.65
But it is a burden we can put down, through prayer. Today, this Sabbath, we can swat away the gnats. Let’s – all of us – keep the commandment, and be still, even for just a moment:
For God alone my soul waits in silence,Psalm 62:5
for my hope is from Him.
Stay quietly today. And may God bless you all, and all for whom you pray
What wealth of song is there to captivate the ear! How many musical instruments and strains of harmony have been devised!
Augustine, City of God XXII, 24
Music as prayer: Schubert’s Impromptu No. 3 in G Flat Major:
we are an unquiet people;
this Sabbath grant us a true holiday:
quietness of heart, tranquillity of mind,
and stillness in the midst of our busy lives.
By waiting in silence
may we find You in our deepest selves
and ourselves in your endless love,
through Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord.