Saturday, August 3, 2013
Reacquainting Oneself With the Latin Fathers
Naturally, I would expect, the realm of Eastern Christianity mentions the Latin Fathers very little, if at all. To some extent, this is to be expected - in the West, one hardly ever hears about the greatest of the Greek Fathers; though St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom are brought up a fair amount, St. Basil is rarely mentioned, St. Gregory the Theologian even less so. However, in Eastern Orthodoxy, unless I am amiss in my observations, the Latin Fathers are almost non-existent.
In Eastern Orthodoxy, St. Augustine of Hippo, the most influential and arguably greatest of the Church Fathers is considered at best an Origen-like figure, and at worst, a flat-out heretic responsible for every Western "error" since his life ended. St. Jerome seems to be simply depicted as a translator and little else; Pope St. Gregory the Great is no longer depicted as one of the greatest Popes of all time, but merely as the "Dialogist"; only St. Ambrose of Milan ever seems to get a passing mention. St. Hilary of Poitiers, the great "Hammer of the Arians" is virtually non-existent. This may not be true in fact, but in any Eastern Orthodox writings I have read or come across, it's impossible to deny. I suppose, then, that it's easy to see why I have somewhat accidentally estranged myself from the great Latin Fathers in my forays.
And so I return to reacquaint myself with the greats of the Latin Church, because a part of me has found myself starving for the Western spirituality that I was for so long familiar with. Not that I find a major departure between East and West, at least prior to the schism between East and West - instead, I find a complimentarity.
Obviously St. Augustine of Hippo is the most famous of the Latin Fathers. None has had the influence on the Christian world that St. Augustine has, none has held such a place of high esteem in the West, none was as prolific. Until St. Thomas Aquinas came along, St. Augustine was the pre-eminent theological authority in the West. With the exception of the Eastern Orthodox (until, it seems, Fr. Seraphim Rose's more kindly writing on him entitled The Place of Blessed Augustine), both Catholics and some Protestants alike have gone to St. Augustine as students to a master. And let us be honest here - few works, if any, have the same heart-rending effect on the soul as St. Augustine's beautiful Confessions. But his towering presence seems to have overshadowed all the other Latin Fathers in a way, and despite St. Augustine's brilliance, I have desperately wanted to know the other Latins for who they were and what they wrote.
St. Ambrose of Milan is the only one of the Latin Fathers whom I have ever consistently seen quoted in both the East and the West. The famed saint who baptized St. Augustine himself, St. Ambrose was not so much known as an original thinker, but as one who espoused the truth in a most beautiful manner. His work On the Mysteries is one of the most important documents of the early Church on the Eucharist - indeed, it is inexplicable how one could ever deny the reality of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist after having read it.
In terms of being a model Pope, one need not go further than Pope St. Gregory the Great. A monastic before becoming the Vicar of Christ, he was a reformer, a staunchly orthodox pillar of truth in his teaching, and one of the most worthy successors of the apostle St. Peter that ever was. It is sad to see that in the Eastern Orthodox churches, Pope St. Gregory the Great is merely referred to as the "Dialogist", which seems to limit his influence and importance in the Christian world, as if he were merely the author of some mystical writings on St. Benedict of Nursia and little else. Regardless, the demythologized world of modernist theology has not been kind to St. Gregory; and to be honest, nothing could make me admire him more.
Though not numbered amongst the four great Latin Doctors of the Catholic Church as such, St. Cyprian of Carthage and St. Hilary of Poitiers are especially worthy of mention. One can hardly bare to ignore St. Cyprian's famed defense of the Catholic Church entitled The Unity of the Catholic Church, nor can one neglect the famed work On the Trinity by St. Hilary, who was known as the "Athanasius of the West". And let us not forget the famous Tertullian, the Western Origen in a sense, who may not be technically a Church Father in the exact sense, but whose influence is incalculable, especially in the West.
This said, the Latin Father I have found to love the most is St. Jerome. In St. Jerome, I find a kinship and a friendship that I have not found in anyone else except in St. Augustine, whose Confessions struck my heart with such force that I began to feel that he was writing about my own life in parts of it. But in St. Jerome, I find some solace in knowing that such a fearsome and fiery figure became such a great and wonderful saint.
St. Jerome was at once a brilliant theologian and an ascetic of the first caliber. He writes of his four years in the deserts of Syria that "For as long as I dwelt in the desert, in that vast solitude, burnt with the heat of the sun, which provides a fearsome abode for the monks, I thought that I was in the midst of the delights of Rome. My twisted members shuddered in their sackcloth, my squalid skin was as black as an Ethiop's. Daily I wept, daily I groaned; and when sleep finally beat me down, my bare bones were bruised on the hard ground."1
The accounts of his sufferings and penances in the desert are awe-inspiring to me - in the famous works of art depicting him in the desert, he is shown beating his breast with a rock and gazing upon the crucified Christ. This to me speaks of his profound realization not only of the love of Christ shown in the ultimate sacrifice on the Cross, but also to his awareness of his own sinfulness. The sound of his beating his breast with the rock echoed the words of the prophet Isaiah: "All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away." (Isaiah 64:6) The closer St. Jerome got to Christ, the more he felt himself undone, the more his own fallen nature became apparent to him. But the love of Christ, of course, overcomes this.
In St. Jerome also, we not only see the ascetical and the penitential, but also a wisdom unparalleled in his time. St. Augustine spoke of his vast knowledge of every subject under the sun - indeed, part of this was St. Jerome's trouble, in that he studied the works of Cicero and Virgil as much as he did the Scriptures. But after a terrifying dream wherein Christ declared him to be not a follower of Him but a Ciceronian, St. Jerome did an about face, turning his razor-edged mind unto the Scriptures wholeheartedly, while wisely still making use of the learning of his past in the endeavor.
Needless to say, to ignore the Latin Fathers is to ignore half of the Church's glorious patrimony. Unlike the greatest of the Greek Fathers, I find the Latin Fathers more varied in their writings, each one entirely unique in their approach. Though I suppose it is a bit humorous that, aside from his Confessions, St. Augustine is not so much my favorite as is St. Jerome. As Pope St. Gregory once quipped, the fact that Jerome became St. Jerome gives us all hope. I take this great Holy Father's words for what they are, and take them to heart.
1 - qtd. in Bl. Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend