The 6th Sunday of Easter
First Reading: Acts of the Apostles 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 98:1-4
Second Reading: 1st Letter of St. John 4:7-10
Gospel: According to St. John 15:19-17
Early in the 5th Century St. Augustine, Bishop of the North African Diocese of Hippo, produced one of the greatest works in the history of Christian philosophy: De Civitate Dei, The City of God. It was his response to the pagan Roman writers who blamed the Church for having a weakening influence on the Empire, and bringing about the sack of Rome at the hands of the Visigoths in A.D. 410.
A millennium and a half later the Spanish philosopher George Santayana wrote a statement that has become among the most well-known aphorisms in Western culture: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Despite his respect for the Catholic culture of his Iberian youth this brilliant atheist most probably was thinking of neither Augustine’s master-work nor the words of Jesus from the Last Supper that are in this weekend’s Gospel reading.
Thoughtful people of the 21st Century would do well to recognize and respond to the link between the statement of Christ – “If you keep My commandments, you will remain in My love” – and the words of both Santayana and Augustine.
In De Civitate Dei, Augustine portrays the geography of history – and of the human soul – as a division between two cities: the City of Man and the City of God. Governments large and small fall essentially in one camp or the other, as do all human souls. Those who follow the commandments of Christ, particularly by acting out of concern for others, are connected to the City of God. When societies and souls adhere to the opposite view of life – what Augustine calls libido dominandi, or “lust to dominate,” then they inhabit the City of Man.
With varying success, the European culture that rose from the ashes of the Roman Empire was built on the premises that St. Augustine proposed in Part II of The City of God. What became known as Christendom was initially the work of St. Benedict and the monasteries that sprang up throughout the continent, putting into practice the Benedictine ideal of stabilitas in a world in desperate need of order and peace in the aftermath of the barbarian assaults on the once formidable Roman-influenced European culture.
At its height, this “City of God” experiment produced some of the greatest minds, saints, universities and cathedrals ever known to humankind. It held on for a thousand years, until various revolutions – social, political, religious – ushered in the Enlightenment and the subsequent Modern and Post-Modern worlds. With the decline of Christendom came the re-establishment of the City of Man throughout the West.
Santayana, had he been so inclined, could have used his most famous one-liner to warn the inhabitants of this brave new world that they need to be careful not to repeat the mistakes of the previous City of Man, the Roman Empire. He also, had he been so inclined, could have quoted our Lord, and advised that the following of His commandments would not only help people to remain the friends of Jesus, but would be the only way to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
The establishment of the City of God may never again be attempted by humankind, for the desire to dominate seems to have proven to be too powerful and intoxicating. But as St. Augustine demonstrated in his own conversion from libertine to saint, we can, in any time and place, live as if in the City of God. Anyone can follow Augustine’s example and thus be a friend of Jesus by living out His greatest commandment: to love God above all things and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.