Two Loves, One Heart: A Reflection for the Feast of St. Augustine


“I have preached on countless occasions that we do not have one heart to love God with and another with which to love men. This poor heart of ours, made of flesh, loves with an affection which is human and which, if it is united to Christ’s love, is also supernatural. This, and no other, is the charity we have to cultivate in our souls, a charity which will lead us to discover in others the image of Our Lord.”

St. Josemaria Escriva
Friends of God, no. 229

“One love and two precepts; … it is not one charity which loves the neighbor and another which loves God. Hence, there is not another charity: we love God with that same charity with which we love our neighbor. In spite of the fact that God as one object of love and the neighbor as another are loved with one love, those who are loved do not constitute only one object of love. The love of God, therefore, must be granted the first place in our esteem; the love of neighbor, the second place. Yet, we must begin with the second love in order to arrive at the first, ‘for if you do not love your brother whom you see, how can you love God whom you do not see?’”

St. Augustine of Hippo
Sermon no. 265

I don’t know if St Josemaria took his inspiration from St Augustine on the numerous occasions when he preached this message. But whether or not the Founder of Opus Dei was inspired by the great Doctor of the Church, the echo is undeniable. Each Saint puts his finger on the tension within every Christian heart between human and divine love. But what each Saint also shows us, as much by their lives as by their preaching, is that the very conflict which threatens to divide the believer’s heart can become the means of a deeper integration if the rift is healed by the grace of Christ.

St Josemaria’s reflection on the right ordering of our ‘two loves’ within a single heart comes from “The Strength of Love,” a homily based on the classic Gospel text in which the Lord Himself makes the distinction between the one love and two precepts: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Matt 22:37-40).

Precisely because our Lord partitions our powers of love between heart, soul, and mind do we need His grace to make them all co-operate, for “Charity is not something we ourselves build up. It invades us along with God’s grace…” (Friends of God 229). The fact is, fallen people like ourselves are often tempted to compartmentalize areas of life that we find difficult to put together—most especially loving God and neighbor. Since “we must begin with the second love in order to arrive at the first,” special attention must be paid to how well we love our neighbors as ourselves.

St Augustine of Hippo (354-430), with an insight born from personal experience, attests that it is by one’s personal struggle to be pure in heart and chaste in body that this integration of love takes place both within a man and in his relationships with God and neighbor.

“Truly it is by continence that we are made as one and regain that unity of self which we lost by falling apart in the search for a variety of pleasures. For a man loves You so much the less if, besides You, he also loves something else which he does not love for Your sake” (Confessions X, 29).

Chastity is true love of self, which cannot help but overflow into a more selfless love of neighbor. But St Augustine does not simply promote the discipline of virtue, he also witnesses to the only power that makes chastity possible. The grace of our Savior is the lone power than can reunite diverging loves in the heart of a redeemed sinner.

“There can be no hope for me except in your great mercy. Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will! You command us to control our bodily desires. And, as we are told, when I knew that no man can be master of himself, except of God’s bounty, I was wise enough already to know whence the gift came” (X, 29).

In many ways St Augustine is the icon of the restored man, of the heights to which the grace of Christ can bring fallen man. Although an exceptionally brilliant rhetorician and philosopher, Augustine was held bound for most of his young adult life by the chains of lust, which he graphically described as an “itching sore” (IX, 1). Over time, he kept several mistresses and even fathered a child out of wedlock. Augustine was searching and falling apart in his search.

Interestingly, he describes his search in terms of the very disordered love that Jesus would heal in him:

“I searched for you outside myself and, disfigured as I was, I fell upon the lovely things of your creation. You were with me, but I was not with you. The beautiful things of this world kept me far from you and yet, if they had not been in you, they would have had no being at all” (X, 27).

Isn’t this exactly the division that grace needs to heal in all of us? God puts man into a world furnished with an hierarchical order of beautiful creatures, all of which were intended to speak ceaselessly to man about the perfections of God, all of which should lead man’s heart to desire God. After the original sin, however, man became blinded to the inherently divine orientation of creation, so that the world now has the awful power to keep us far from God.

St Josemaria would preach frequently and vigorously not only that this unnatural separation must end but that the Incarnation itself has already put a stop to it. Christians need to receive this fact with open arms and let it transform their lives, as it so profoundly changed the lives of the first generations of disciples. His famous homily Passionately Loving the World is perhaps where these themes are distilled most forcefully:

“There is just one life, made of flesh and spirit. And it is this life which has to become, in both soul and body, holy and filled with God. We discover the invisible God in the most visible and material things. There is no other way. Either we learn to find our Lord in ordinary, everyday life, or else we shall never find Him. That is why I can tell you that our age needs to give back to matter and to the most trivial occurrences and situations their noble and original meaning. It needs to restore them to the service of the Kingdom of God, to spiritualize them, turning them into a means and an occasion for a continuous meeting with Jesus Christ” (114).

St Josemaria does not deny the challenge we face in working against our fallen nature. But both he and Augustine would propose grace as the lens through which Christians must begin to view themselves and the world around them. Grace reveals to human eyes what sin had previously obscured. St Josemaria calls it “discovering that divine something which is hidden in small details,” when we “love God and [our] fellow men by putting love in the little things of everyday life.”

Grace heals our tendency to want to be satisfied with external appearances and passing feelings and challenges us to go deeper into people and situations where the God of love is waiting to be found.

God has so fashioned our hearts that they cannot be entirely satisfied with anything found on this earth: “For You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You” (Confessions 1, 1). This deep-seated tension within “this poor heart of ours, made of flesh,” is God’s doing, as is the grace that heals it.

St Augustine responded so wholeheartedly to the graces of conversion, that traditional Christian iconography has always depicted him with an unusual feature: holding aloft a flaming heart—unusual because it his own heart, and not that of the Savior. Next to images of the Sacred Heart, it is most extraordinary for any saint to be so portrayed, so closely imaging the Savior’s own Heart, invoked in the Litany as the “burning furnace of charity.”

Augustine’s love for God assumed such a fiery tone because his own heart had been healed by the touch of the divine Physician, to whose care he repeatedly submits himself throughout the pages of his Confessions. Augustine very often speaks of his experience of God as a kind of hearth, within which fires are enkindled and cries of love go up like sparks. To take only a few examples:

“Come, O Lord, and stir our hearts. Call us back to yourself. Kindle your fire in us and carry us away. Let us scent your fragrance and taste your sweetness. Let us love you and hasten to your side” (VIII, 4).

“The message of your Holy Scriptures has set my heart throbbing, O Lord, and with the meager powers that are mine in this life I struggle hard to understand it” (XII, 1).

“You called me; you cried aloud to me; you broke my barrier of deafness…. I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am inflamed with love of your peace” (X, 27).

“O Love ever burning, never quenched! O Charity, my God, set me on fire with your love!” (X, 29).

After his conversion, we find the same ardor which had kept him entangled in carnal pleasures zealously redirected toward the love of God. Only a heart that has fully surrendered to Christ’s touch, to His searching and probing, can regain the power to love rightly. 

The content is published by the St Josemaria Institute for the free use of readers and may not be copied or reproduced without permission from its author © Fr. John Henry Hanson, 2013.

Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem. Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem.

Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community's seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms , Home Again: A Prayerful Rediscovery of Your Catholic Faith and Scatter My Darkness: Turning Night to Day with the Gospel. Father's latest book is Coached by Josemaría Escrivá (Scepter Publishers 2023). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.

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