Augustine and “the lowliest station”

Augustine’s The First Catechetical Instruction has always been meaningful for me as a parent, a minister, and a friend of people with profound cognitive disabilities. What I love about this little instruction manual is a particular section called “The Treatment of Certain Candidates (8-9).”

Augustine was rigorous in his catechesis of soon-to-be Christians, but also aware that not everyone who wanted to become a Christian could bend their minds to the will of God in the way he could. I often wonder if this conviction came out of his years prior the bishopric when he was a local church pastor. There he likely saw all kinds of people longing to know God: the very old, the very young, the disabled, the unlearned.

So in TFCI Augustine provides a series of instructions: “How to deal with students from the schools of grammar and rhetoric”; “How to deal with the educated.” And a section called “Various causes make the catecheis feel antipathy for his task. The problem of adapting the discourse to the capacities and limitations of the audience.”

You can tell Augustine doesn’t love being “obliged to spend time uttering one slow syllable after another which is on a far lower plane.” But he is aware of how theologically important it is that among us are learners who are unable to train as scholastics. These of “the lowliest station” remind us of the great chasm of intellect between us and God. And this, in turn, points us to the true end of all our learning – love. God stooped down to us by becoming a child. He then writes,

For is it a pleasure to murmur into the ear broken and mutilated words unless love invites us? And yet men wish to have babes for whom they may do this, and sweeter is it for a mother to chew morsels small and put them into her tiny son’s mouth, than to chew and consume large morsels herself. Therefore, let not the thought of the hen leave your mind, who with her dropping feathers covers her tender brood, and with tired cry calls her peeping church to her side; while those that run away from her coaxing wings, in their pride, become the prey of hawks.” (Chapter 10:15)

It is this mothering love of God that allows us to take pleasure in both the intellect but also in its absence, because “love, the more graciously it descends to the lowliest station, the more irresistibly finds its way to the inmost recesses of the heart.” Even more wonderfully this love desires nothing from the one loved except to share that love forever.

We are in the process of recruiting Sunday school teachers for the new year. I’m aware of how hard it can be for adults to commit to this ministry. There are a number of reasons, but I wonder if one way we can transform the way we think about this ministry is to see it as an act of love that participates in God’s tender brooding over the flock. We can take great joy in learning the difficult things of adulthood, but what a joy, also, to be with those whom God reaches directly through the heart.



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