Latin Lessons from Augustine

Today I invite you to learn some lessons in evangelization by reflecting with me on three Latin verbs: docere, ducere, and trahere.

I love Latin – its elegance, its symmetry, its adaptability, its precision, and its breathtaking capacity to say so many things with so few words. Above all else, what I love about Latin is how it opens a window into the hearts of so many amazing men and women – whether ancient poets like Virgil or Horace, or brilliant philosophers and theologians like Augustine or Boethius. You cannot truly learn a language without beginning to think and feel like the people who thought and spoke and wrote in that language. Latin may be a dead language that was uttered by women and men who long ago left this veil of tears, but to me some of them feel like old friends, brave companions, and wise mentors. I am grateful to have known them, and to have gained a glimpse into their souls.

Regarding the current Latin lesson, please don’t take it as a definitive discourse on the actual meaning of Latin verbs – it’s not. Rather, it’s a brief tour into the heart of Augustine of Hippo (a heart with huge desire). It’s an invitation to each of us to be open to what was so transformative for him.

I recently felt transported into “Augustine Land” while participating in a pastoral ministry workshop. The presenter drew a distinction between docere and ducere (if you are reading out loud, you can pronounce those as dough-CHAIR-eh and DOO-chair-eh, and call it close enough).

Docere means “to teach” and ducere “to lead.” The workshop invited us to examine ourselves and the methods we have used in ministering to others.  Have we have tried to operate from a posture of docere (teaching) without actually leading others? Have we given eager advice, or “talked at” the person we are ministering to, seeing ourselves as having right answers and readymade “shoulds”? Have we measured success or failure on whether or not we convince the other person?

Any outstanding teacher knows that this method of teaching will not work – except for a few who follow out of fear. Fear may be the beginning of wisdom; it may motivate us to start a journey. But it never keeps us going when the going gets rough. Only desire can do that – the desire that leads to Love. Perfect Love casts out all fear.

Teaching without leading is the way of the scribes and Pharisees – for whom Jesus saved up his strongest and sternest warnings. There is little vulnerability in that way of cultivating disciples, and therefore little Love and little joy.

I appreciated the presenter’s point, and then found myself suddenly back with my old companion Augustine, with whom I spent hundreds of hours with during my doctoral research in Rome. He offers us a third Latin verb to consider: trahere [TRAH-her-eh]. Over the centuries, it can mean many things: to draw, to drag, to pull. But for Augustine it has much more the sense of attracting or enticing or alluring. God the Father wants us to want him; he stirs us through our holy desire in a way that allows us to grow into his fullness.

Augustine is answering the objections of the Pelagians, who like the scribes and Pharisees overemphasized human responsibility and discipline – to the point of concluding quite wrongly that we humans take the first step in our salvation, that God helps those who help themselves. Augustine quite strongly condemns the notion, insisting with Paul the Apostle that we radically depend upon Jesus as our savior. From the very first moment of the gift to its tender growth and development to its final flourishing and persevering, all is God’s gift; all credit goes to him.

But – the Pelagians object – how does that leave space for real human freedom? Do we not become mere puppets of God?  That is where Augustine quotes Jesus to offer a profound answer to the Pelagians.  “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).

God the Father draws us, attracts us, entices us, allures us – in a way that leaves us totally free to respond (or not). He sows the seeds of desire in our hearts and aids our growth – if we are willing. We are invited to become receptive soil, weeded of the obstacles the hinder us, capable of receiving and growing and bearing fruit; to be branches abiding on the vine; to be living members of his Body.

Augustine uses the verb trahere to describe God’s agency in this process – not at all “dragging” or “pulling” like a stubborn pet, but in the sense of attracting, motivating, and enticing. Just as “teaching” (docere) can become self-righteous or condescending, “leading” (ducere) can become manipulative or controlling. Augustine rejects any sense of ducere that violates the dignity and freedom of the subjects.  God does not coerce; he does not make us do things! He is a loving Father who places holy desires in our hearts and deeply desires us to become fully ourselves. He honors our dignity and freedom – even when we choose to dishonor him.

I wrote last month about religiosity as a counterfeit version of religion. Instead of freely inviting others into relationships, into joyful communion in Christ, too many of us (myself included) have resorted to pressuring, shaming, fear-mongering, or manipulating to try to convince others to follow the right path. God the Father does not operate in that way.

Each of us can consider what this means for evangelization – for inviting others to follow Jesus as disciples. If we look at him in the Gospels, we see an example of the best meaning of all three verbs: docere, ducere, and trahere. Because Jesus is truly connected to God his Father, abiding vulnerably in love, he teaches as one with authority, and not as the scribes and Pharisees. He leads without coercing or manipulating. He allows his followers to stumble, to make mistakes, to misunderstand – yes, even to betray him. He speaks deeply into the deep desires of the human heart – noticing our needs, listening attentively, attuning, and affirming. He encourages and comforts, awakens and allures. Many follow him, discovering within themselves a profound hunger and thirst they had not realized was there – a longing that God himself had placed there. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”

Teaching, leading, and attracting in this way can be unsettling! We feel quite powerless and vulnerable when we do it – we honor the freedom of the listener and open ourselves to the possibility of rejection. We open our minds and hearts to notice what God is doing – willing to be surprised if he takes us in a new and unfamiliar direction; respecting the God-given uniqueness of the person in front of us and that his or her path might be quite different from our own.

Augustine learned these lessons precisely because of his profound conversion. He finally and deeply allowed God to captivate his heart, to go into his places of shame, and to transform him.  He learned that desire is so much more powerful than fear or control. He came to experience the love of God the Father, and was magnetically effective in attracting others to it.

What about you and me? Will we allow our own hearts to surrender vulnerably to God the Father’s way of attracting human beings to the heart of his Son? Will we allow our churches to become places in which God easily attracts his sons and daughters, and they feel safe and confident coming alive in our presence? God, good Father that he is, will not force us to change our behaviors– but the invitation is there!

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