Augustine and the Fat Lady

There were no operatic productions in the time of Saint Augustine of Hippo.That inspired mix of music and drama and dance had not yet been invented. But the sainted North African bishop would certainly have understood and, who knows, perhaps have even approved, the buxom lady with horned helmet, spear and sword, whose aria at the close of Wagner’s famous Ring Cycle gave rise to the oft-quoted, “It ain’t over ‘till the fat lady sings.”

The reference, of course, is to the fierce Valkyrie Brunnhilde, whose stirring peroration foretells The Twilight of the Gods (Gotterdammerung), which brings crashingly to a close the world as we know it.

So why would Augustine sign on for something so, well, Wagnerian? Because, using the clearest moral lens around, he recognized that the journey home to heaven will not end until the end, until the very last ballot is cast, and the choice for or against God crystallizes round the soul for all eternity. In short, when the fat lady gets up and, belting out her final burst of song, the face of finality reveals itself once and for all.

It may take some getting used to, but in the case of Augustine, destined to become the foremost teacher in the West on the mysteries of grace and free will, there was always this persistent, fugitive sense of fear, of salutary doubt, whispering to him that, at the end of the day, he might not make it.

That at the hour of death he would find himself left behind, lost forever despite every holy desire that he be gathered into the arms of Almighty God.

Indeed, even the lightest of sins, he tells us, when counting up their cost, caused him to “tremble.” Notwithstanding, in other words, every conviction of faith he possessed that it was God to whom he was going, and that Christ was the only way to get there, he remained very much afraid that he might fall short of reaching the goal, that the entire shooting match could be lost in a shot.

Earliest known portrait of Augustine, 6th-century fresco [Lateran, Rome]
Earliest known portrait of Augustine, 6th-century fresco [Lateran, Rome]

He was, we are told in the Confessions, “a man-made deeply afraid by the weight of my sins.” And so we must never, he argued, presume on a gift the offer of which none of us has the least entitlement to in the first place.

This was especially true for all the souls he had to make special provision for, since he was their bishop. What else are shepherds good for if they will not first have a care for their flocks? Not to assist them along the way would amount to a dereliction of duty that would surely forfeit the bishop’s own salvation.

Given the episcopal exigencies of Augustine’s life, therefore, the road was never better than the inn. And whoever thought otherwise (was it Cervantes?) was a fool. What’s the point of a road if it does not take you to the inn? So, yes, there has got to be a road and, for the baptized certainly, it is marked at every turn by the Sign of the Cross.

But it’s only a good and useful road if, in following along its many byways, we reach the promised inn at the end. We go to the House of the Father, as Pope Saint John Paul II repeatedly said in the last hours of his life, and there amid the precincts of an unending felicity we shall find all that we were looking for when, stumbling about in a land of shadows, we sought out the unseen sun. But we must not imagine that our admission will be automatic.

Professor Peter Brown, in his superb biography of Augustine, which I happily rediscovered the other day after first reading it almost thirty years ago, tells us that Augustine would often remind his flock that they must think of themselves as invalids, perpetually on the brink of losing everything:

Like the wounded man found near death by the wayside in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, his life had been saved by the rite of Baptism; but he must be content to endure, for the rest of his life, a prolonged and precarious convalescence in the Inn of the Church.

What a lovely image that is. Yes, we are all wounded – by the Devil with the lesion of concupiscence, and by the gracious wound of God’s love – and the knowledge that this is so remains both true and consoling.

It is true because, moving between the shores of being and nothingness, we could at any moment interrupt the trajectory and by the shortest route possible take ourselves straight to hell. Or, under the impulse of grace, we could actually set our minds and wills on reaching heaven. After all, says Augustine, “Love is my gravitation,” and where it goes I too shall go. Why not, then, choose to love one whose very being is love?

How wonderfully consoling it is, too, that for all the backsliding we do (and for some of us the practice of recidivism has been perfected almost to the point of scientific precision), we need not despair because, in his unfathomable mercy, God has given us a remedy that is never far away. Which is to say, the ministry of the sacraments, of the medicine box wherein the flow of forgiveness never runs dry.

“O felix culpa!” Shouldn’t this be Augustine’s last word? Which he spoke with such an astonishment of gratitude that maybe even the fat lady will get up and, who knows, seeing the promised Redeemer walk onto the stage, sing a very different song altogether.

Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Author of a half-dozen books, including, most recently, Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He lives in Wintersville, Ohio with his wife and ten children.