St. Augustine: Good things, empty hands

God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.

Attr. St. Augustine

It didn’t take me long to discover that this quotation (if such it be) was popularized by Dr. Gerald May, who wrote in Addiction and Grace: “St. Augustine once said that God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them” (p. 17 of the 2007 edition on Amazon). As far as I can tell (I don’t own the book), he didn’t give a source.

I found places that say it’s from City of God, but nothing more precise. The Penguin Classics edition of City of God runs to a nifty 1,184 pages, weighing 1.8 pounds–in other words, it’s massive, so a citation needs more than the name of the work to be useful. I looked at several public domain translations, and the quotation is not in any of them, nor did I find anything which might have been the foundation for a paraphrase.

I tried going to a site that has the complete works of St. Augustine in Latin. (Searching an Italian site for words in Latin is good nerdy fun.) Unfortunately, the possible quotation in question has no very unique words in it when I try a translation back into Latin. I ended up searching for manus (hand/hands) and then searching within the 634 results for nobis  (to us). No dice.

I think I’ve mentioned before that it would be a brave man indeed who would claim to know for certain that St. Augustine didn’t write something, given the extent of his works, but I’m dubious on this one.

St. Augustine: Take Care of Your Body

Take care of your body as if you were going to live forever; and take care of your soul as if you were going to die tomorrow. — Attr. St. Augustine

  1. It doesn’t sound like him. It sounds like something created by someone of the “healthiness is next to godliness” mindset.
  2. A Google search turns up a smaller-than-usual collection of the usual suspect sites, none giving citations. The “smaller than usual” part is significant because …
  3. Google Books doesn’t return anything for it before 2009 and …
  4. The alleged quotation doesn’t even appear in the disputed portion of the St. Augustine page on Wikiquote, nor is it on the discussion page.
  5. I tried searching for references to “corpus tuum” in the works of Augustine. My eyes started to glaze over, but I didn’t find anything that could be this quotation.

Points 2-4 make me think it’s a fairly recent invention. Nothing makes me think it’s authentic. But if you know where it is in his works, let me know.

St. Augustine: The Truth is Like a Lion

(I really thought this one was already on the blog, but I did the research on FB almost 2.5 years ago!)

The truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose and it will defend itself.

–Attr. St. Augustine

This drew my attention because it doesn’t sound like St. Augustine, who was not much given to the use of similes. (Those of us who pray the Liturgy of the Hours are exposed to massive amounts of St. Augustine, who provides far more of the patristic readings for the Office of Readings than anyone else, far, far more.)

At any rate:

  1. I searched his works at CCEL for the word lion. This quotation was not among the results, nor anything resembling it.
  2. Wikiquote doesn’t have it at all, even on the discussion page list of uncited quotations.
  3. A search of Google Books for truth lion defend itself augustine turned up no references to this quotation before 2014. None, which is very telling since I first spotted it on FB in 2013. Taken with the previous point, this very strongly suggests that the attribution to St. Augustine happened very recently, in late 2012 or early 2013.
  4. All of St. Augustine’s works are available in Latin online. I searched for leo* (all forms of the word for lion) and verita* (all forms of the word for truth). They occur in the same document 125 times, but never close enough even to be the inspiration for this quotation.

So it’s almost certainly not St. Augustine. (Only a very brave person or a very foolish one would claim to be certain that something is not in St. Augustine’s voluminous works!)

The other source I see it attributed to is Charles Spurgeon, a widely-known 19th Century British Particular Baptist preacher. Here’s an excerpt from a speech he gave at a meeting of the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1875:

There seems to me to have been twice as much done in some ages in defending the Bible as in expounding it, but if the whole of our strength shall henceforth go to the exposition and spreading of it, we may leave it pretty much to defend itself. I do not know whether you see that lion—it is very distinctly before my eyes; a number of persons advance to attack him, while a host of us would defend the grand old monarch, the British Lion, with all our strength. Many suggestions are made and much advice is offered. This weapon is recommended, and the other. Pardon me if I offer a quiet suggestion. Open the door and let the lion out; he will take care of himself. Why, they are gone! He no sooner goes forth in his strength than his assailants flee. The way to meet infidelity is to spread the Bible. The answer to every objection against the Bible is the Bible.

You can see it in a 19th Century book here at Google Books. (Thanks to Barbara Wood for giving me the reference to the speech.)

Spurgeon liked this metaphor; he used it in at least one other spot:

The Word of God can take care of itself, and will do so if we preach it, and cease defending it. See you that lion. They have caged him for his preservation; shut him up behind iron bars to secure him from his foes! See how a band of armed men have gathered together to protect the lion. What a clatter they make with their swords and spears! These mighty men are intent upon defending a lion. O fools, and slow of heart! Open that door! Let the lord of the forest come forth free. Who will dare to encounter him? What does he want with your guardian care? Let the pure gospel go forth in all its lion-like majesty, and it will soon clear its own way and ease itself of its adversaries.

The Lover of God’s Law Filled with Peace (January 1888), as found on Wikiquote.

Note that in both instances, Spurgeon was speaking about the Bible, not about truth in general, so I’m not 100% certain that this is the genesis of the quotation in question. But it’s the closest I’ve seen.

St. Augustine: Romance, Adventure, Achievement

To fall in love with God is the greatest of all romances; to seek Him, the greatest adventure; to find Him, the greatest human achievement. — Attr. St. Augustine

This one’s easy. It’s not St. Augustine; it’s Fr. Raphael Simon, O.C.S.O.,  who is credited with it as far back as a 1964 story in Newsweek. I can find something like it in Fr. Simon’s book Formation of the Priest, on p. 125:

Now to fall in love with Jesus requires faith. We have to know the story of Jesus, of His coming into the world, of His teaching and deeds and fellowship in this world, of His passing to the Father, of His coming back in life after death to talk with His disciples and continue His fellowship with them, of His going to the Father and sending into our hearts the Holy Spirit and His love. This is the greatest story in the world, the greatest romance, and we are called to the greatest adventure.

Obviously that’s missing the “human achievement” part, but it shows at the very least that Fr. Simon wrote something along the lines of the quotation, and I suspect he was quoting himself here, in modified form (or perhaps he later expanded on this thought).

I don’t know who attached it to St. Augustine; the earliest I can find it attached to his name is in 1984, in How to Live Life to the Fullest: A Handbook for Seasoned Citizens. 

St. Augustine and right/wrong

Wrong is wrong, even if everyone is doing it. Right is right, even if no one is doing it.

Attributed to St. Augustine (and also to William Penn, but not recently on Facebook that I’ve seen). It’s actually a modification of a quotation from G. K. Chesterton:

Right is right, even if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong even if everybody is wrong about it.

Illustrated London News, May 11, 1907, or Collected Works, 27:463.

It’s not impossible that St. Augustine and/or William Penn said it and GKC took it from one of them, but I can’t find any evidence for that.

St. Augustine’s name seems to have been attached to it only recently. The earliest Google Book reference I can find is 2002.


I did find one person who claims it’s a summary of Ennarations on the Psalms 145:7. Here’s what that passage says:

Right and wrong are contraries. Right is what is just. For not all that is called right, is right. What if a man lay down for you unjust right? Nor indeed is it to be called right, if it is unjust. That is true right, which is also just.

Try as I might, I can’t see that as saying what the alleged quotation says (though it does contain “right is right” as long as you don’t mind an intervening comma.)

I have also been told it’s in City of God. That’s a loooooong book, but I can say that the phrase “right is right” does not appear in the version on Project Gutenberg (and yes, I checked both volumes).

I’m standing by my verdict.

Augustine: He who sings prays twice

He who sings prays twice.

Widely attributed to St. Augustine, even in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which even gives a citation. I remember it as a poster on the wall of the choir rehearsal room in the church where I grew up. Unfortunately, as Fr. John Zuhlsdorf documents in this blog post, the saying doesn’t appear in Augustine where the CCC says it does. (I have seen Fr. Z cited as saying that St. Augustine said, “I can still say with the oft quoted citation: ‘He who sings well prays twice’, so long as it is from love.” This is Fr. Z’s own phrase, waxing poetic. St. Augustine didn’t say it, and Fr. Z didn’t claim he did.) Wikiquote gives the same citation as the CCC.

The complete works of Augustine are searchable online. I searched for qui canit bis orat, and, for good measure, qui bene cantat bis orat. It’s not there under either phrasing. So I’m about as confident as can be that it’s not from St. Augustine. (I am not going to get into edit wars on Wikiquote.)

Which raises the question … where did it come from and how did it get attached to St. Augustine? I tried Google Books with custom date ranges. I can’t find it at all before 1940, when it shows up The Downside Review, Vol. XLIII. Unfortunately that publication is available in snippet view only and the viewable snippet doesn’t show it. The search page showed this as an excerpt:

St Gregory’s response to the ‘power of darkness’ was pre-eminently the answer of prayer. This is also the answer of our recent … Is it not St Augustine who tells us that he ‘prays twice who sings his prayer’ ? St Gregory provided the classic form …

It shows up again in 1949 in Musart, Vols. 1-5, again sadly available only in snippet view that doesn’t show the quotation. The excerpt from the search page:

St. Augustine somewhere wrote that he who sings his prayer prays twice. But before this praising of God in song can be truly prayerful, the spirit of praise must run high in the soul. The song of the lips must first have been a song in the soul.

Both references speak of it in ways that sound as if it is already well-known quotation, but these are the earliest print references I could find, so I’m not sure what the original source is. I am confident that the original source is not St. Augustine.

Augustine: The world is a book?

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”–attributed to St. Augustine.

Wikiquote takes care of this one handily:

Attributed to Augustine in “Select Proverbs of All Nations” (1824) by “Thomas Fielding” (John Wade), p. 216, and later in the form “The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page”, as quoted in 20,000 Quips & Quotes (1995) by Evan Esar, p. 822; this has not been located in Augustine’s writings, and may be a variant translation of an expression found in Le Cosmopolite (1753) by Fougeret de Monbron: “The universe is a sort of book, whose first page one has read when one has seen only one’s own country.”

I found it suspect for two reasons (other than that I am congenitally suspicious):

  1. St. Augustine was not terribly well-travelled himself.
  2. It doesn’t sound like him. He didn’t use metaphors much.

Edit in September 2016

I saw this fauxtation used in an airport while I was on vacation, and in trying to locate the exact wording, I found a post that points a finger a little farther back, to John Feltham and his English Enchiridion, which says, “St. Augustine, when he speaks of the great advantages of travelling, says, that the world is a great book, and none study this book so much as a traveler. They that never stir from their home read only one page of this book.”

According to that post, St. Augustine does mention the “book of the world” several times:

Letter 43: Maior liber noster orbis terrarum est; in eo lego completum, quod in libro dei lego promissum: Our great book is the entire world; What I read as promised in the book of God I read fulfilled in it [the world].
= The world is our greater book; what was promised in the book of God, I read in the world as fulfilled.

Enarrationes in Psalmos (Psalm 45):
Liber tibi sit pagina diuina, ut haec audias; liber tibi sit orbis terrarum, ut haec uideas. in istis codicibus non ea legunt, nisi qui litteras nouerunt; in toto mundo legat et idiotaLet the sacred page be a book for you so that you may hear these things; let the world be a book for you so that you may seem them. In the codexes [books] no one can read them except those who have learned their letters, but even an idiot [unlettered person; I don’t think St. Augustine meant this in a modern pejorative sense] reads them in the whole world.