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Christian readers and ‘the path of charity’

By Zachary Guiliano

As someone who writes and speaks publicly with some regularity, I am often aware of the weakness of language, as well as my faults as a communicator or teacher. It’s often hard to get your point across, due to personal frailty. You cannot guarantee that your hearers or readers will understand you. It’s possible to write or speak in the wrong tone or style or at an inopportune time. It can be dispiriting. It’s always tempting to quit.

The problems of communication are more acute when you find your thoughts on a topic are developing — in via, as it were. And yet you may lack the luxury of silence. You are compelled: The topic is urgent. You’ve been commissioned to speak or write. Or perhaps you cannot sort out your thoughts without essaying forth to receive feedback, conversation, or challenge.

With such thoughts in mind, I recently came across an edifying passage in St. Augustine’s De Trinitate 1.3.[1]. Before Augustine finished this text, some of his friends published the first 12 books of the work without his final edits. It’s hard to know whether the comments in this section reflect that event, but if not, they were prophetic. For Augustine speaks of the problem of communicating and reception. As he prepares to address the dizzying heights of Trinitarian theology, he says

Let everyone who reads these pages proceed further with me, where he is as equally certain as I am; let him make inquiries with me where he is as equally hesitant as I am; wherever he recognizes the error as his, let him return to me; wherever it is mine, let him call me back. Thus let us enter together on the path of charity in search of Him of whom it is said: “Seek his face evermore” (Ps. 104:4). This is the sacred and safe compact into which I, in the presence of the Lord our God, shall enter with those who read what I am writing, in all my writings, and especially in the present one where we are investigating the unity of the Trinity, of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. For nowhere else is the error more dangerous, the search more laborious, and the results more rewarding.

Augustine presumes something important: both writer and reader (or speaker and hearer) are together in via, on the path or pilgrimage of knowledge whose end is God. We must be bound together in love for this pilgrimage to work out well, whether we are readers of Augustine or one another. We must always put the best meaning on each other’s words; we must work out how to comprehend one another. There is no room for hate in communication; the very act speaks of love.

This must be the implicit agreement or “the sacred and safe compact” we enter together, whatever side we are on in the exchange of loving communication, which is done moreover “in the presence of the Lord our God.” Not only is contemplation of the glorious and undivided Trinity our end, but our pilgrimage toward him is with him. There are more than two in this holy exchange; reader and writer are never alone. Communication characterized by love, whose end is love, is guided and overseen by love himself.

(Many of these themes appear in great harmony with what Elisabeth Kincaid highlighted recently about Ignatius of Loyola and his Spiritual Exercises.)

This grounding in the divine presence and in mutual faith then explains much of the next section.

Whoever exclaims in the course of his reading, This is not expressed well because I do not understand it, finds fault with my language but not with my faith. And perhaps it could indeed be expressed more clearly, but no one has spoken in such a way as to be understood by everybody in everything. If, therefore, anything in my treatise displeases him, let him see whether he understands others who are skilled in such matters and questions, when he does not understand me. And if he does so, let him lay down my book or, if it pleases him, let him cast it aside and devote his efforts and time rather to those whom he does understand.

But let him not imagine, therefore, that I should remain silent because I could not express myself as fluently and as clearly as those whom he understands. For not all the things which all have written come into the hands of all. And it may possibly happen that some who are also capable of understanding our writings may not find those that are clearer, and at least may come across ours. And, therefore, it is useful if many, differing in style but not in faith, write many books even on the same topics, in order that the subject itself may reach as many people as possible.

Augustine, the great stylist, here considers in advance that he may not be understood due to his weaknesses as a writer. What humility! (And true foresight.) And yet he argues that, even if he should phrase something here or there in a less than optimal fashion, he must continue to communicate. For how else will the whole world learn? Many must write “even on the same topics” in order to reach all. And something about the differing styles of teaching is what helps the faith be communicated to all: “to some in one way, to others in a different way.”

There is always the possibility of error, however, in the articulation of the faith commonly held between Christian brethren, and in this cause even great teachers and saints rely on correction. Augustine invites the criticism of his writing, whether communicated to him directly or simply to those the critic may reach.

As for myself I meditate on the law of God, if not day and night, at least during the few moments of time that I can. And lest my meditations escape from me through forgetfulness I hold onto them by my pen. I am confident that God in His mercy will make me remain steadfast in all the truths which I regard as certain. But if I am minded otherwise in any point, He Himself will make it known to me, either by His own secret inspirations, or through His own lucid words, or through discussions with my brethren. For this do I pray, and I place this trust and my own desires in His hands, who is wholly capable of guarding what He has given and of fulfilling what He has promised.

This section reminds me of baptismal promises, which are made in faith — not faith in our strength, but in faith that God will bring our promises to completion by his grace, working in the baptized both “to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Writing is an analogous act of faith. We do not presume that we are always right in every point and in every writing, whether published or unpublished. But we are confident that God himself both preserves and corrects the products of our pen. Sometimes, no doubt for our humility and to teach us to rely on one another, his correction is mediated to us by others. And, perhaps without our writing, neither we nor others shall be corrected.

And so we are brought full circle to the image with which Augustine began: the path of charity, the mutual progress of writer and reader, guided and sheltered by God’s grace, walking together the path whose end is God.


[1] All quotes here from Stephen McKenna, Saint Augustine: The Trinity, The Fathers of the Church 45 (Catholic University of America Press, 1963), with some minor adjustments in punctuation and formatting.


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