Saint Augustine and the Scenic Route to Sainthood
“To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him the greatest human achievement.” ~ St Augustine of Hippo
The eloquent quote chosen to kick off today’s reflection devoted to the Memorial of Saint Augustine didn’t always accurately reflect this renowned Bishop and Doctor of our Church’s true spiritual sentiments. He was also known to have said “Lord make me chaste and celibate....but not yet!” Even prior to that, he lived the life of a carousing pagan, associating with young men who boasted of their sexual exploits on a regular basis. He would go on to have a child of his own out of wedlock at the age of 18.
For Augustine, sin and the proclivity towards sin was second nature. His first insight into the essence of sin occurred when he and a number of friends stole some fruit from a neighborhood garden. He tells this story in his autobiography, The Confessions. He remembers that he did not steal the fruit because he was hungry, but because it was not permitted. In that respect, we can all relate to Augustine. The word is concupiscence, and we are all prone to it.
Concupiscence is simply our human inclination towards sin and evil due in large part to our fallen nature. Like rebellious children who want to go their own way, we’ve all turned away from God countless times in our lives. Even as we do, God keeps right on loving us and keeping his promises nonetheless. He knows no other way.
Among the many lessons we learn from Saint Augustine is the pure, unadulterated joy of repentance. Repentance boils down to self-awareness, the heartfelt realization that one is a sinner. Only through repentance can one achieve actual freedom. Taking responsibility leads to maturity, opening the door to becoming fully human. Facing reality and accepting freedom brings joy into our lives. Repentance naturally requires humility, or as St Augustine’s used to say “Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. Do you plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”
Eastern Orthodoxy teaches that the soul is closest to God not when receiving consolations or experiencing some great miracle or wonder, but when mercy is sought for one’s sins. At that point, the soul takes a great leap towards God and is then the closest to his love. I leave you with perhaps Saint Augustine’s most famous work, “Late Have I Loved Thee,” the first collection of his many writings on human and divine love, chosen to mournfully reflect his lifelong preoccupation with virtually everything but the love of a God. A love he would ultimately devote his life to.
. . . Saint Augustine, pray for us.
“Late have I loved you, beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! Lo, you were within, but I outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made, I rushed headlong – I, misshapen. You were with me, but I was not with you. They held me back far from you, those things which would have no being, were they not in you. You called, shouted, broke through my deafness; you flared, blazed, banished my blindness; you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you; I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burned for your peace.” ~ St Augustine of Hippo / Confessions