Augustine on spiritual development

In Book II, Chapter 7 of his On Christian Teaching, St. Augustine of Hippo provides a short but insightful description of the process of spiritual development from its earliest stages to its most advanced. In his description, he begins with the statement of Psalm 111:10 that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (KJV). He then draws out of this statement a seven step process from the fear of God to wisdom, which he describes as “the seventh and last step” in which the Christian “enjoys … peace and tranquility.”

The first step in this process, according to Augustine, is the fear of God, which consists of the awareness of one’s impending death. From this fear comes piety, the second step, which is the desire to avoid sin and to do good. “Fear,” says Augustine, “leads him [the Christian] to think of the judgment of God, and … piety … gives him no option but to believe in and submit to the authority of Scripture.” The coupling of the two, in turn, “compel[s] him to bewail his condition.” This is the third step, knowledge, which is a knowledge of the condition of fallen humanity in separation from God.

It is at this point that the Christian must make what Søren Kierkegaard called the leap of faith. This knowledge of the desperate situation of man can cause one to become “overwhelmed in despair.” If the Christian is willing to make this leap of faith, however, they move on to the fourth step of Augustine’s process, strength and resolution, “in which he hungers and thirsts after righteousness.” In this thirst, he turns away from earthly things and focuses on God only, seeking with renewed vigor to follow God’s commands.

From this, he reaches the fifth step, which Augustine describes as “the counsel of compassion.” Having recognized the seemingly hopeless situation of man (in step 3) and used this recognition as impetus to a reinvigorated dedication to piety (in step 4), the Christian now combines these elements and from this combination emerges with an authentic love for his neighbors. He sees that the human condition is universal and believes that God’s love is also, and so comes to love others as himself.

It is at this point that the Christian “mounts to the sixth step, in which he purifies the eye itself which can see God.” Through loving others as himself, the Christian is able to “die to this world,” eliminating selfish desires and focusing with unitary purpose on God. This, finally, leads the Christian to wisdom, which Augustine, following earlier Christian tradition, identifies with Christ himself.

In tracing out these steps, Augustine provides a framework for the Christian to understand and measure his progress in the spiritual life. He also cogently demonstrates the dynamic nature of conversion and of the Christian life. Rather than viewing conversion as a single point of change or the Christian life as a stagnant maintenance of the status quo, Augustine envisions the Christian undergoing a long process of conversion in which the Christian moves over a lifetime and beyond to a full vision of and complete relationship with God.

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