Progressing in Virtue and Holiness

This post reflects on a letter Augustine wrote to Julian of Eclanum in defense of the argument against Pelagianism, a heretical movement of the 5th century that denied original sin and divine grace.

In his letter to Julian of Eclanum, Augustine argues fully initiated Christians live under sanctifying grace “in the hope of a new birth to a perfect life when our mortal bodies are clothed with immortality” (Reply to Julian, II.VIII.22). Yet, before that sublime promise becomes a reality, we fight against the capital sins in this life, and for this reason, it is necessary to remain on guard; continually imploring our Father in heaven not to “lead us into temptation,” because we are weak and temptations never cease. Thus, “while we live in this corruptible body, the grace of God comes to the aid of those who fight and does not abandon those who implore his mercy.” (Reply to Julian, II.VIII.22)

According to Saint Cyprian: “Our fight is against avarice, lust, anger, ambition. We must fight without dismay against the passions of the flesh and the spells of the world. Besieged in our mind and surrounded by the snares of the devil, the Christian can scarcely resist and combat vices one by one. If one wins against avarice, concupiscence revolts; if one triumphs over lust, ambition rises up; if one can check against ambition, anger flares up. At any moment arrogance inflates, vice tempts, envy disturbs one’s peace, and jealousy threatens one’s friendships” (Reply to Julian, II.VIII.25).

Given that there are so many snares before us and our human nature is prone to weakness, it seems as if we are not owners of our heart, “nor of the thoughts, which come suddenly to darken and disturb the spirit and the mind, and take us where we do not want. That is why the psalmist declares: “Incline my heart according to your precepts and not to covetousness (Psalm 118:36)” (Reply to Julian, II.VIII.23).

How many times have we decided to pray, or determined to live peacefully with a family or community member, when intrusive thoughts like the one Saint Cyprian mentions come out of nowhere? Such thoughts “propel us towards the temporal, sow in us worldly worries, and chain our desires; and when we begin to lift our hearts to the things of heaven, these vain thoughts want to trip us down on earth.” (Reply to Julian, II.VIII.25)

Even when reconciled with God, the just are not exempt from sin, therefore our hope is found always in the mercy of God rather than in our own strength. That is why the psalmist says, blessed is the one who puts his strength in the Lord and mediates in the ways of the Lord (Psalm 83:6).

So, let us ask the Lord for courage for this earthly struggle to be able to exclaim like him in a psalm: “I will not fear what my flesh can do to me” (Psalm 55:5), and “Blessed is the one to whom the Lord does not impute his sin and no guile is found on his lips” (Psalm 31:2). 

As Augustine says, the saints are a testimony “of true humility and humble truth. The more the saints boast of God’s mercy, the less they trust their own strength, which is deceitful. And the more they strive to fight, with the grace of God, the same grace overcomes sin in them. May this grace, win you over and make you its own!” (Reply to Julian, II.VIII.29)

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