“As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be; world without end.  Amen.”

“God granted that the life of this holy man should be a long one, for the benefit and happiness of holy Church, and he lived seventy-six years, nearly forty of them as priest or bishop.  In the course of them he often told us that the reception of baptism did not absolve Christians, and especially priests, however estimable, from the duty of doing fitting and adequate penance before departing from this life.  He acted on this himself in his last and fatal illness.  For he ordered those Psalms of David which are specially penitential to be copied out and, when he was very weak, used to lie in bed facing the wall where the sheets of paper were put up, gazing at them and reading them, and copiously and continuously weeping as he read.”

Thus Possidius of Calama describes the last days of his friend Augustine of Hippo.  In that August of A.D. 430, Hippo Regius was practically the last Roman municipality of any size in Africa still being defended against the Vandals, Goths, and Alans.  For 14 months, the city was under siege, deprived of its coast, and in the year after Augustine died, it was abandoned and burned to the ground by those “subverters of Romanity,” as Possidius calls them.

The completion of the life’s work of Saint Augustine was one of the high points of Latin Christian culture.  In terms of intellectual and moral influence, it was arguably the high point, for every serious Western Christian thinker since has claimed him for himself: Boethius, Isidore, Anselm, Aquinas, Bellarmine, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley, Wesley, and Newman.  There is simply no Christianity in the Western world, whether Catholic or Protestant, that is not Augustinian.  So much is this the case that some of our Eastern Orthodox critics give negative confirmation of the fact, finding in Augustine’s thought the source of all of our errors, a sort of noetic “original sin” that explains everything from the filioque, the papacy, and the Crusades to easy annulments, rationalist illuminism, and historicism, and this in spite of the fifth ecumenical council’s ranking him with Saints Chrysostom and Basil.

As devoted as we Western Christians are to our spiritus rector, and as often as we invoke his authority for speculation or spirituality, we rarely pose ourselves the question “What did Augustine do all day?” or “How did he spend his time?”  Of no one more than the saints can it be said that they died as they lived.  Augustine was, in his own estimation, first and foremost a monastic.  The greatest single occupation of his day was David’s Psalter.  His (or perhaps his friend Alypius’) Ordo Monasterii gives the division for day and night, in summer and winter, for the round of psalmody in the chapel of the bishop’s house by the basilica pacis.

Of course, in his devotion to the Psalms, Augustine was no innovator.  The Apostolic Church had taken over the hymnal of Temple and synagogue, beginning from the night of the Last Supper and first Eucharist, when Christ intoned Psalm 118 (or 117, as Augustine would have numbered it) with his disciples.  Early synods assumed that the memorization of the Psalter was a necessary quality for any priest or bishop.  Even so, Augustine was an unparalleled enthusiast for the popular singing of the Psalms, and he provided his people and everyone since with a complete commentary on all 150 of them.  The singing of the Psalms, in fact, motivated his conversion.  In the ninth book of his Confessions we read:

What cries I sent up to You, my God as I read the Psalms of David . . . Yes, I was on fire to sing them, were it possible, in all the world against the pride of mankind, though in fact they were already being sung in all the world . . . How abundantly did I weep to hear those hymns and canticles of yours, touched to the quick by the sweet song of your Church . . . my tears overflowed and I was happy in them.

So great was the influence of Augustine’s preaching and use of the Psalter on the clergy and people of Western Christendom that, at a distance of 700 years in the 12th-century Life of St. Norbert, we find a girl, possessed by a devil who makes her recite in Latin, German, and French Solomon’s Song of Songs, even though “when she was well, she only knew the Psalter.”  At a distance of more than a millennium, we find Elizabeth Tudor, according to Protestant accounts, devoutly perusing her Psalter when she is informed of her accession in November 1558.  Across the globe 40 years later, hanging from their crosses, neophyte Japanese martyrs sing Vulgate Psalms 30 and 112, taught them in catechism by the Jesuits whom the same Gloriana had so zealously persecuted.

As the religious revolution continued, from Scotland to Savoy, from Amsterdam to Transylvania, the most resolutely reformed of Christians, who had jettisoned practically every other ancient liturgical observance, zealously maintained that most monastic of rituals, the choral singing of the Psalms.  In the meantime, the Spanish and Portuguese empires compensated the loss to Catholicity of much of Europe by dotting the Americas and the Philippines with collegiate churches and friaries in which indigenous choirs sang the Latin Psalter, a practice which still endures each day in the Metropolitana of Mexico City.  Clergy and laywomen, canons and missionaries, Protestant and Roman Christians of different races in all parts of the earth had a common form whereby they fulfilled the highest duty of any society, the worship of the Creator: the Psalms of David, which, in the fourth century, were already being “sung in all the world.”

What concrete common possession kept Western Europe and its empires still, in some sense, a united Christendom, even after the religious disasters of the 16th century?  There was no agreement as to civil or ecclesiastical polity, there were conflicting economies, and even, to the eternal shame of Lutherans and Frenchmen, different approaches to the Turkish menace.  Yet there was a universal norm accepted by all: God is to be worshiped by the recitation of the Psalms.  Christendom could still praise her origin and end, using the very words by which, as Augustine pointed out, “God praised Himself, so as to enable us to praise Him rightly.”  The Latin West, no longer united by an orthodoxy of a doctrinal and moral sort, as was the East, still maintained a kind of orthodoxy insofar as it held to an ideal of the “right praise,” which the word implies and the Psalms guarantee.

Even in 1999, at the ceremonies marking the end of British rule in Hong Kong, the retiring colonial authorities sang the familiar Anglican hymn for Evensong that had expressed the sounder—and poignantly prophetic—sentiments of a still expanding Christendom of a century before, a vision of a Christian world united by the uninterrupted singing of the Psalms.  This vision was brought to England 15 centuries before by that other Psalm-singing Augustine, sent by that most Augustinian of popes, St. Gregory the Great.

The day thou gavest, Lord is ended,

The darkness falls at thy behest;

To thee our morning hymns ascended,

Thy praise shall sanctify our rest.


The sun that bids us rest is waking

Our brethren ’neath the western sky,

And hour by hour fresh lips are making

Thy wondrous doings heard on high.


So be it, Lord, thy throne shall never,

Like earth’s proud empires, pass away:

Thy kingdom stands, and grows forever,

Till all thy creatures own thy sway.

The eversores Romaniae of which Possidius wrote in the fifth century have finally succeeded in our day in doing what the Arian Vandals and Goths would never have even wished to do: There is scarcely a Christian who could sing a whole psalm by heart, nor do our churches ring with the laus perennis beyond the occasional responsory or anthem.  Augustine bequeathed  the works and witness without which Western Christendom would not have existed, as he prayed the Psalms in a doomed city.  Could we not as families and churches return to the praying of the Psalms, hoping that, by following his example, we may ensure the future flourishing of our own culture, of which he is the father, if anyone is?  There are the Great or the Little Offices for the Catholic, the Scottish or Geneva or Prayer Book Psalter for the Protestant, and—let us not forget them—the Kathismata for the Orthodox.  Here we could find a common ground, not based on ecumenical theorizing or joint paraliturgies, but on faithfulness in fulfilling a common duty of right worship.  Even the pagan Stoic teaches us religio vera est fundatio status.  If every Christian child possessed a memory sanctified by whole texts of the Psalms, this alone could preserve our kind, while our land is being destroyed by the uncomprehending.

The remaining citizens of Christendom have every reason to fear at present, but they will only be able to preserve their patrimony if they have sure hopes for the future.  Augustine contrasts the dire warnings against the world found in the Gospels with the confident desiring of the Psalter.  In his commentary on Psalm 147, he tells us that, “Although the psalms might speak to us and sing of that life to come, the Gospels will frighten us about the present life.  A psalm makes us love the future . . . ”   It was this loving hope that accompanied Augustine at the end and that, in a certain sense, is the source of our culture and of its survival.  Now let us hear (and perhaps sing!) the psalm which Augustine calls in his commentary one of the amatoria cantica of the future, lasting city of which our Christendom is the passing sign:

Praise is due to thee, O God, in Zion;

and to thee shall vows be performed . . .

When our transgressions prevail over us,

thou dost forgive them . . .

We shall be satisfied with the goodness of thy house . . .

By dread deeds thou dost answer us with deliverance,

O God of our salvation,

who art the hope of all the ends of the earth . . .