Art Explained: Augustinian Zeal

You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.
– Augustine, Confessions, c. 400 A.D.

In my sermon this week I took some time to reflect on the role of zeal in the Christian life. The early church father, Augustine (354-430), is a helpful picture of the role of emotions in the Christian life. The famous painting of St. Augustine posted below by Philippe de Champaigne (c. 1650) is a moving depiction of how Augustine–and any Christian, for that matter–can have hearts zealous for the Lord.

In the top left, just above the Bible, the divine light of Truth (“Veritas”) shines upon Augustine. His eyes are turned towards the light as he pivots from the book he is currently writing, perhaps a work criticizing heretics (whose books, notably Pelagius’, lie crumpled beneath his feet). The beam of light passes through Augustine’s eyes and illuminates his mind. But, significantly, the path of light passes through Augustine’s mind to his heart, held in his left hand. If Augustine’s mind radiates the light of Truth, his heart appears to explode with it; the flames shooting from his heart dwarf the others. But, notice how the flames curve towards his mind, and thus towards the source of Light. The passions of his heart are subservient to the revelation of Truth that comes through his mind, but the purpose of the mind is to enflame the heart with passion. 

What does this tell us?

  1. When you see rightly, you feel rightly. If you struggle to feel zealous for the Lord, it may be that you are not looking to Him as He is revealed in His Word. What fills your eyes most? What do you savor and meditate upon?
  2. We cannot expect to have Christ-honoring passion devoid of mental reflection and meditation upon Truth as it pours out from the Bible. If we just want a warm heart, but are looking for that outside of reflecting on God’s Truth, we are going about it wrongly, and may be deceived.
  3. The purpose of a mind meditating upon Truth is to stoke the fire of passion. To see Christ clearly in His Word is to savor Him as beautiful, as the excerpt from Augustine’s confessions above does. If our intellectual life doesn’t result in affection for God, we are going about it wrongly, and may be deceived.
  4. Any critical, “negative” zealousness against those who blaspheme God, be they Goliath or Pelagius or whoever, must first come from a heart and mind fixated upon Truth.

On the necessity for our affections in our Christianity, Maurice Roberts writes: “Ecstasy and delight are essential to the believer’s soul and they promote sanctification. We were not meant to live without spiritual exhilaration.” Read the full paragraph here.

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