It is a relentless saga when trying to find the truth but a quick renewal when truth itself finds you
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was once asked what book he would want to have with him if ever he found himself stranded on a desert island. Along with the Bible he chose St Augustine’s Confessions. Some might have found the choice surprising but I think I agree. Having just gone through the book again for the fourth or fifth time I found myself even more engrossed in it than ever before. The first half of the book which recounts his conversion story is especially engaging.
Like The Story of a Soul by St Thérèse this book feels at once more familiar after several readings and yet somehow more filled with new lights. What St Augustine does is to instruct us in how to pursue something which is fundamental to spiritual growth, namely, the attainment of self-knowledge. He traces the thread of the working of God’s grace, as well as his own sinfulness, from his earliest memories right through to the time of his conversion and beyond. He even goes back further than his own memories can take him and writes of what he was told of his babyhood by others. The little detail about him being prone to laughter during his sleep as a baby is particularly endearing.
After this fourth or fifth reading, I have been left pondering something which I would like to share with you in this short article. It has to do with the influence of his youthful friendships. Parents cannot be vigilant enough when it comes to the question of their children’s friends. So many of us have been drawn away from whatever little virtue we had in our youth by the example and enticement of our wayward companions. Augustine was no different. Life in the fourth century sounds surprisingly similar to life in our own day.
Augustine’s famous story of the stealing of the pears illustrates the point. He probes his memory for the motivation behind the decision to rob an orchard, even though he had better pears at home and wasn’thungry. Most of the pears ended up being thrown to the hogs. He knew full well at the time that what he was doing was an act of gratuitous injustice. Did he do evil then purely for the sake of doing evil? Yet, this is not the way that our heart is generally disposed. Sin in us is normally the perversion of some good. In this case, it was done out of a kind of rambunctious camaraderie and the mocking delight of a group of friends at the thought of the outrage of the owners of the orchard.
It was friendship gone awry that was its motive. Augustine would never have done such a thing alone, but only because he was spurred on by his peers. He was desperate to impress them and to have his share in their act of mindless mischief. Friendship is one of God’s greatest gifts, but friendship warped by sin can have ruinous effects. The eloquent lament of the saint unmasks its danger, “O friendship all unfriendly! You strange seducer of the soul, who hungers for mischief from impulses of mirth and wantonness, who craves another’s loss without any desire for one’s own profit or revenge—so that, when they say, “Let’s go, let’s do it,” we are ashamed not to be shameless.” (Confessions. Book II, 9).
There is a similar pattern in relation to the sin which would become fatal poison for Augustine’s soul and which could have led to his eternal perdition. The sin of lust also took hold of his heart as he journeyed with his friends ever further out upon what he calls the “stormy fellowship” of human life. In the company he kept during his teenage years it became the custom to want to outdo one another in lasciviousness. They would boast of their exploits and even exaggerate the real scale of their immorality to impress one another. The only thing that they were by now ashamed of was innocence and chastity. His holy mother had warned him sternly in his sixteenth year to avoid fornication and to stay away from other men’s wives. He would later write to the Lord about his arrogant dismissal of her admonitions, “These appeared to me but womanish counsels, which I would have blushed to obey. Yet they were from Thee, and I knew it not.” (Confessions.Book II, 3) What began with one or two sins of the flesh became a habit before long, and sadly for Augustine, this evil habit would later begin to feel like a necessity. What started as a boast to his friends finally enchained his will and took on a life of its own within him. The demon of lust had found its doorway into the throne room of his soul through a vain longing to impress.
After reading Cicero at age nineteen, the saving grace of his intellectual quest to discover wisdom was sparked off. This passionate search would lead him through the study of different schools of philosophy, gnosticism, and a prolonged pondering of the problem of evil. All the while, this journey ran parallel to the sexual immorality which had engulfed his life. His mind was groping upwards for light, but his will was still mired in the mud of sin. The climactic point of this journey, when both tendencies within him would at last clash violently, came at around the age of thirty-two. It was then that the struggle which would determine his eternal fate—and whether or not he would become a light for all subsequent generations of Christians or simply disappear into darkness—broke into a raging interior inferno.
After listening to the sermons of the great Saint Ambrose and after reading the letters of Saint Paul, there could be no more doubt in his mind that in the Catholic Church alone would he find the truth he had always sought. It was clear to him now that Jesus Christ was his heart’s true desire and yet he was powerless to break the chains of lust which had shut that same heart up in a prison of vice. He was too sincere in the face of truth to think that he could ever come to life in Christ without a willingness to die to grave sin.
The final battle which would decide the war for his soul followed upon a discussion with his friends about some illustrious Romans who had left everything behind to follow Christ. (Now the presence of good friends was beginning to right the wrongs of youth.) Seized with a holy desire to follow the example of the saints, and yet unable to do so because of his attachment to lust, an emotional Augustine stormed out of the house into the garden. Seeking out a place of solitude, he allowed the tears of regret and inner frustration to finally flow freely. They were to prove cleansing tears.
The moment had at last come when he was ready to let go. He consented to release his grip on sin for good. No sooner had this holy spiritual desire overcome his inordinate desire for physical pleasure than he heard a child’s voice singing repeatedly, “Take and read.” He interpreted this as a command from Almighty God placed upon the lips of babes. Rushing back to the house to take up the book of Saint Paul’s letters which he had left on the table, he told himself that he would accept whatever words his eyes first fell upon as an expression of the will of God for his life. This was what he read, “Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Romans 13:13-14)
Along with these words of Sacred Scripture, supernatural light was infused into his soul. Only moments after truly desiring to be delivered for the first time ever, deliverance was now his. The chains which had fettered his will for so long, subjecting it to the tempestuous rule of the passions, had been smashed to pieces by the grace of Christ the Liberator. His tormented soul was permitted to enter instantly into joy, peace, and the freedom of the children of God. In that momentous hour for the whole Church, the man once enslaved to lust through the unfortunate company kept as a youth had died and one of the most influential saints of all time had suddenly come to life.
Looking back years later, it was hard for the saint to believe that he could have ever allowed such paltry trifles to hold him back from the Lord and the ecstatic joys that would be given him in Christ. He had been like one clinging desperately to worthless trinkets while priceless treasure was held out to him. The Protestant scholar R.C. Sproul sums up the consensus of all Christians about the monumental importance of what happened on that day, “If there is any giant that stands out in the history of the Church as the man upon whose shoulders the whole history of theology stands, it is a man by the name of Aurelius Augustine, Saint Augustine.”
Father Sean Davidson is parish priest of St Joseph’s Parish and Eucharistic Shrine in Stockport, Greater Manchester, UK.
Saying “Yes” to God is the best decision you can ever make! “Please help,” pleaded the church lady making the announcements after Mass, “we desperately need teachers for the junior high religious education program.” I pretended not to hear. We had just moved back to Arizona from Illinois, and the oldest of our five children was entering high school. Each Sunday, the same simple entreaty. God must have been working on me week after week. I knew I was adding five kids to the roster; after all, maybe I should help. My resolve faded, and I signed up. I’ve always said that I wasn’t born with a “no” gene, and organizations can see me coming a mile away. This newest yes is a point in case. “I’m a cradle Catholic; how hard could teaching kids be?” Over the next couple of years, youth ministers popped in and out. After the most recent departure, our Pastor approached me and stated that my fellow volunteer teachers had recommended me to take over as youth minister. Me? Are you willing to try? Again, that missing no-gene failed to save me. God works in mysterious ways, and within a few weeks, I was the new junior high church lady. I previously assumed that only Priests and Nuns could work for the Catholic Church. I remember thinking how awesome it would be to work in such a holy environment with like-minded co-workers in the Lord’s Vineyard. It did not take long for that fantasy to be eradicated. Shortly into my new gig, I had the distressing realization that someone who worked for the Church must be someone who had answers to tough questions and possessed theological smarts. That thought terrified me. I had no background or education in anything churchy. The reality that I was dumb as dirt when it came to faith invaded me every waking moment. Over forty years of being a Catholic and I knew squat. I was unaware of the often quoted line in which God equips those he calls. It was that very fear; however, that propelled me into action. Attending college was not an option. This meant I needed to get creative. I came across a cassette from Sister Gloria when one son was in her kindergarten class. For eight years, I never made the time to listen to it. Something compelled me to do so now. It was called “The Conversion Story of Dr. Scott Hahn.” I had no idea who Dr. Hahn was, but in a quiet moment, I pushed play. This Presbyterian minister’s journey for truth was fascinating, which brought him into the Catholic Church. I craved more. About that time, we were made aware of a Catholic family conference in California happening that summer. I had never heard of most speakers, but Dr. Hahn would be there. My husband was intrigued as well, and we brought the whole family. Speakers such as Tim Staples, Jesse Romero, Steve Ray, and so many other converts inspired us, fanning the embers of our hearts. We bought books and cassettes on many topics, including apologetics and the art of defending the faith. The kids were excited, and so were we. A passion was starting to burn in us that we simply did not have before. Year after year, we would invite other families to join us at the family conference, and they too would be set aflame. I needed to be certified as a youth minister. Once again, God provided, and I attended the St. John Bosco summer conference at Franciscan University. This was all a new adventure to me. I had never experienced God through prayer, worship, adoration, catechesis, and incredible speakers. I hungered for more with a voracity previously inexperienced. With every precious morsel I consumed, I desired more. How could I be this old and so ignorant of God and my faith? Contrary to what people imagine, expanding your knowledge and love of God isn’t boring. It was stimulating and inspiring. My relationship with God was finally being fed. The Mass came alive for us. The joy and increase in faith were evident to all I encountered. My enthusiastic passion invaded all aspects of my life, especially ministry work. God generously blessed my, yes, and the fruit was abounding. All along, God had been moving me closer to Him, laying the breadcrumbs that brought me closer step by step. Twenty-one years later, I still work for the Catholic Church but am now in Marriage Preparation. I still pursue many avenues of continuing to stoke that fire that was set ablaze so many years ago. My endless gratitude goes to those converts who, at all costs, pursued truth and were open to where God led them. They will never know how many lives God impacted by their yes, and by extension, mine. And those five little kids were married in the Church and are raising their children to know God and love their Catholic faith. My husband, too, has been a Deacon for ten years. All glory to you, oh Lord. You are so generous and good to us; you knew the best route to set my heart on fire. I cannot thank you enough. “Moreover, God can make every grace abundant for you, so that in all things, always having all you need, you may have an abundance for every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:8) Through suffering and prayer, everything you have given me has led me ever closer to you and all those whom you have placed on my path. Thank you Lord!
Sudden shifts and changes in life can be harrowing but take heart! You are not alone… Explaining the moment I became aware of my relationship with God is like asking me to remember when I started breathing; I can’t do it. I’ve always been conscious of God in my life. There is not a defining “Aha” moment that made me aware of God, but there are countless moments that remind me He is always present. Psalm 139 says it beautifully: “For You formed my inward parts, You knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-14). The Only Answer While God has always been a constant presence in my life, many times other things have not been as consistent. Friends, homes, health, faith and feelings, for example, can change with time and circumstances. Sometimes change feels new and exciting, but other times it is frightening and leaves me feeling weak and vulnerable. Things ebb and flow rapidly and I feel like my feet are planted on the edge of a windy, sandy beach where the tide constantly shifts my foundation and causes me to find my balance once again. How do we manage the daily changes that throw off our equilibrium? For me, there has been only one answer, and I suspect the same is true for you: Grace—God’s own life moving within us, God’s unmerited and undeserved gift which we can’t earn or buy, and which leads us through this life to eternal life. Relocation without Respite On average, I’ve moved approximately once every 5 or 6 years. Some moves were more local and temporary; others took me much farther away and for longer periods. But they were all moves and changes just the same. The first major change came when my father’s job required us to move across the country. Our family had deep roots in a state that was vastly different geographically and culturally from the new state. The excitement of something new temporarily eased my fear of the unknown. However, when we arrived at our new home, the reality that I’d left everything I ‘d known—my home, our relatives, friends, school, church and all that was familiar—engulfed me with a heavy sadness and emptiness. The relocation shifted our family dynamic. While everyone was adjusting to the changes, they became absorbed in their individual needs. We didn’t feel like the same family. Nothing felt safe or familiar. Loneliness began to settle in. Trickling Down During the weeks following our move we unpacked and sorted our belongings. While I was at school one day, my mother unpacked a crucifix that had previously hung on the wall above my bed since I was born. She unwrapped it and hung it in my new bedroom. It was a little thing, but it made a big difference. The cross was something familiar and beloved. It reminded me of how much I loved God and how I’d often talked with him in my former home. He’d been my friend since I was a little girl, but somehow, I thought I’d left Him behind. I took the crucifix from the wall, held it tightly in my hands and wept. Something began to change in me. My best friend was with me, and I could talk with Him once again. I told Him how strange this new place felt and how I longed to go back home. For hours I told Him how lonely I’d become, the fears that gripped my heart, and I asked for His help. Little by little, the tears that ran down my cheek washed away the bits of darkness that had gripped my heart. Peace, I hadn’t felt in a long time, settled in my heart. The tears gradually dried, hope entered my heart and, knowing God was with me, I was happy again. God’s presence in my room that day changed my disposition, my heart, and my outlook. I could not have done that on my own. It was God’s gift to me…His grace. The Only Constant in Life In scripture God tells us not to fear because He is always with us. One of my favorite verses helps me deal with my fear of change: “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:8) I’ve moved and changed many times since I was that little girl, but I’ve come to realize that I am the one who moves and changes, not God. He never changes. He’s always there with me no matter where I go and what is shifting in my life. God has restored my balance after every move, every change, and every shift in the sand. He has been part of my life ever since I can remember. Sometimes I forget Him, but He never forgets me. How could He? He knows me so intimately that “even the hairs of (my) head are numbered” (Matthew 10:30-31). That too is grace. The day I took that cross off my bedroom wall and held it tightly symbolized the relationship I would have with Him for the rest of my life. I need His constant presence to lift the darkness, to give me hope, and to show me the way. He is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6), so I hold onto Him as tightly as I can through prayer, reading scripture, attending Mass, receiving the Sacraments, and sharing with others the graces He gives me. I need my friend to be with me always as He promised. I need all His amazing graces and I ask for them daily. I am sure I don’t deserve such gifts, but He gives them to me anyway because He is Love and wants to save a ‘wretch like me.’
Keep digging through this article to discover a new bypass for your prayer life Some years ago, my sister’s house had a major plumbing problem. There was an undetected water leak somewhere on the property which caused her water bill to increase from $70 a month to $400 a month. They tried to discover the source of the leak, with her son doing a lot of digging and excavating, but to no avail. After days of fruitless search, a friend came up with a solution. His idea: forget about trying to find the leak. Instead, go to the head of the water pipe, attach new piping, and bypass the area that they knew was problematic due to pooling water. Lay the new pipe along a new path and abandon the old pipeline altogether. So that’s what they did. Following a day of hard work and lots of digging, they accomplished that plan and, Voila! The problem was fixed, and my sister’swater bill went back to normal. As I reflected on this, my thoughts turned to unanswered prayers. Sometimes we are praying for people or for situations and those prayers don’t seem to make any difference. The pipeline to God’s ear seems “leaky.”Maybe we pray and pray and pray for someone to have a conversion, to come back to church. Or we pray for someone to find a job who has been unemployed for a while. Or we pray for healing for someone battling serious health issues. Whatever the situation is, we don’t see any progress and our prayers feel like they are wasted or useless. I remember praying for a very difficult personnel conflict in the missionary organization I work with. This was a situation that was very stressful and draining on my emotional and physical energy. Nothing I tried on a natural level seemed to resolve it, and my prayers for a solution seemed to have no effect. In my prayer one day, I cried out yet again to God in desperation and heard a still, quiet voice in my heart, “Surrender it to Me. I will take care of it.” I realized that I needed a shift in my approach, a “plumbing bypass” so to speak. My attitude up until this point was trying to solve the situation by my efforts: mediate, talk through, try various compromises, placate the parties involved. But since nothing had worked and things only got worse, I knew that I needed to let God take over. So I gave Him my assent. “Lord, I surrender it all to you. Do whatever You need to do, and I will cooperate.” Within 48 hours of that prayer, the situation was completely resolved! With speed that took my breath away, one of the parties made a decision which totally changed everything, and the stress and conflict was eliminated just like that. I was in awe and could not believe what had just happened. What did I learn? If I am praying in a certain way for something or someone and have been stuck and am seeing no breakthroughs, maybe I need to change the way I am praying. To stop and ask the Holy Spirit, “Is there another way I should be praying for this person? Is there something else I should be asking for, a specific grace they need right now?” Maybe we need to try a “plumbing bypass.” Instead of trying to find the leak or the source of the resistance, we can pray that God bypass it. God is very creative (the source of creativity, the original Creator) and if we keep cooperating with Him, He will come up with other ways to resolve issues and bring grace that we haven’t even thought of. Let God be God and give Him room to move and act. In my case, I needed to step out of the way, acknowledge in humility that what I had been doing wasn’t working, and surrender more deeply to the Lord so that He could act. But each situation is different, so ask God what He wants you to do and listen for His instructions. Follow those to the best of your ability and leave the results in His hands. And remember what Jesus said: “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” Luke 18:27
At the age of 20, Anthony lost his parents and was left with a large inheritance and the responsibility of caring for his sister. About the same time, Anthony happened to hear a reading from the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus tells a rich young man, "If you want to be perfect, go and sell everything you have and give the money to the poor." Anthony believed he was that rich young man. Shortly after, he gave away most of his property, sold almost everything else, and kept only what he needed to care for himself and his sister. But that’s not exactly what the Lord had commanded! Not long afterward, Anthony was at Mass once again and heard the Gospel passage, “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself” (Matthew 6:34). Again, he knew Jesus was speaking directly to him, so he gave away even the little he had saved, entrusted his sister to the care of some holy women, and entered the desert to live a life of poverty, solitude, prayer, and mortification. In that harsh desert landscape, the devil attacked him in countless ways saying “Think about all the good you could have done with that money you gave away!” Firm in prayer and mortification, Anthony fought off the devil and his manifestations. Many were attracted to his wisdom, and these he encouraged to seek self-denial and the hermetic life. No wonder after his death he became Saint Anthony the Great or Saint Anthony of the Desert, the father of Christian Monasticism. Once a brother renounced the world and gave his goods to the poor, but he kept back a little for his personal expenses. He went to see Abba Antony. When he told him this, the old man said to him, "If you want to be a monk, go into the village, buy some meat, cover your naked body with it and come here like that." The brother did so, and the dogs and birds tore at his flesh. When he came back the old man asked him whether he had followed his advice. He showed him his wounded body, and Saint Antony said, "Those who renounce the world but want to keep something for themselves are torn in this way by the demons who make war on them."
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