Monday, February 15, 2010

St. Augustine and the veneration of things

St. Augustine differs from the average Protestant in affirming that there may well indeed be a place for proper veneration of things.

Now he is in bondage to a sign who uses, or pays homage to, any significant object without knowing what it signifies: he, on the other hand, who either uses or honors [sic; see below – RdP] a useful sign divinely appointed, whose force and significance he understands, does not honor the sign which is seen and temporal, but that to which all such signs refer. Now such a man is spiritual and free even at the time of his bondage, when it is not yet expedient to reveal to carnal minds those signs by subjection to which their carnality is to be overcome. To this class of spiritual persons belonged the patriarchs and the prophets, and all those among the people of Israel through whose instrumentality the Holy Spirit ministered unto us the aids and consolations of the Scriptures. But at the present time, after that the proof of our liberty has shone forth so clearly in the resurrection of our Lord, we are not oppressed with the heavy burden of attending even to those signs which we now understand, but our Lord Himself, and apostolic practice, have handed down to us a few rites in place of many, and these at once very easy to perform, most majestic in their significance, and most sacred in the observance; such, for example, as the sacrament of baptism, and the celebration of the body and blood of the Lord. And as soon as any one looks upon these observances he knows to what they refer, and so reveres them not in carnal bondage, but in spiritual freedom. Now, as to follow the letter, and to take signs for the things that are signified by them, is a mark of weakness and bondage; so to interpret signs wrongly is the result of being misled by error. He, however, who does not understand what a sign signifies, but yet knows that it is a sign, is not in bondage. And it is better even to be in bondage to unknown but useful signs than, by interpreting them wrongly, to draw the neck from under the yoke of bondage only to insert it in the coils of error. [On Christian Doctrine, III.ix.13; emphasis added]

Disclaimer: I do not read Latin. The difference in word choice between the two translations at my disposal (the NPNF translation linked above, and Robertson in the Library of Liberal Arts) was sufficiently striking in one respect as to inspire a little digging. The NPNF version says, in the second half of the first sentence, “he, on the other hand, who either uses or honors a useful sign…” But Robertson has this: “But he who uses or venerates a useful sign…”! So I thought I’d do a little digging and see if it might be obvious, lexically, whether one was a more likely rendering than the other. It appears that Robertson might be the more accurate one here.

In comparing a few Latin dictionaries I’ve got on hand, it seems pretty clear that the general semantic domain of the Latin veneratur is more towards the sense of reverence, veneration, and very great respect rather than towards the more generic, lesser sense of mere “honor.” Obviously in certain respects there is not a whole lot of difference between the two words, so it is certainly possible (based upon the little that I am able to do) that St. Augustine meant the lesser sense…but given that a fairly modern translation has used “venerates,” it seems reasonably more likely—given the word’s apparent usual semantic range—that “venerates” is more accurate.

Now, setting that foray into linguistics aside, the important thing I want to point out in this post is that St. Augustine here affirms that there may indeed be a proper veneration accorded to things. Here, he suggests that this respect is given to the thing as a way of indirectly venerating that which the thing signifies, and this is exactly the sort of thing that the Catholic means by his veneration of things, including the sacraments and holy relics. And that the latter is certainly included (though unspoken) in what Augustine says here seems to me to be strongly suggested by his attitude toward the veneration of the relics of certain martyrs in his own day, as we have seen previously.

Things in themselves are not what the Catholic venerates, but rather God himself, his grace, and his mighty works for our salvation—it is these that we honor when we kiss the cross or venerate relics. And it seems pretty clear that St. Augustine affirmed doing so. And the very fact that he did so shows that he was a Catholic, and not a Protestant.

Nevertheless, it probably ought to be said that showing respect to objects for the sake of that which they signify is a universally human experience. Even Protestants show respect for their Bibles, for example: I certainly can’t imagine any Christian (to say nothing of only Protestants) spitting on God’s Word, for example. People usually honor the flag of their country. They show respect for the remains of departed family: it isn’t just a carcass (can you imagine anyone referring to a dead parent’s body that way?); those aren’t just ashes. Americans show respect to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Generally speaking such respect for these things has nothing to do with worshiping the things themselves, but rather with showing proper respect, reverence, and honor for what they signify.

Now if we show respect and honor for objects that signify earthly things, how much more ought we to show respect for things that signify in some way God, his works for us, our salvation, and so forth? And to do so is not to “worship” those objects any more than it is “worship” to show respect for the dead body of a departed loved one.

We certainly ought to venerate these things, including the saints. But it ought to be obvious, then, that no actual worship (in the sense of that which ought to be offered to God alone) should ever nor could ever be seriously offered by a Catholic to these things. Because what is important is not the thing in itself, but that which it signifies; and the saints, however much we respect them, signify something beyond themselves: our communion with God in eternity (among other things).

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