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Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae

versão On-line ISSN 2412-4265
versão impressa ISSN 1017-0499

Studia Hist. Ecc. vol.38 no.1 Pretoria Mai. 2012


Domesticating suffering in North Africa: Augustine and the preaching of the Psalms on the feast days of the martyrs



Chris de Wet

Department of New Testament and Early Christian Studies, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa




This article examines why Augustine cleansed his sermons on the Psalms on the feast days of the martyrs of graphic and vivid descriptions of suffering found in earlier martyr narratives, and looks at what replaced them. It is argued that Augustine "domesticates" suffering, and reconstructs the martyr narratives for a post-martyrdom Catholic Church, especially in response to dominant discourses active in the rival Donatist movement, which had effectively monopolised physical suffering. He does this via four discourses: a) The continuity of physical suffering from the early martyrs to the current Donatist martyrs present in the martyrologies assumes a claim on genealogy, which Augustine has to counter; b) There is a focus on the physical body of the martyr, with prurient and erotic detail in Donatist martyr stories, while Augustine proposes a new scopic economy, equally yet differently erotic, of "spiritual seeing"; c) The sacrifice of the martyr as atonement for sins stands out as a main point of difference between the Donatists and Augustine, and so Augustine develops one of the earliest psychotheologies of suicide; and d) Augustine provides a counter-discourse to a claim to mnemonic spatiality which provides the Donatists with healing and a sense of belonging and, most importantly, signifies a stance of purity over and against the Catholics. Finally, this article asks what the psychagogical effect of this domestication was on the everyday life of the Catholic Christians.



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1 This article is a revised and updated version of a paper presented by the author at the Pro-Psalms Seminar, 25-26 August 2011, hosted by the Faculty of Theology at the University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa.

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