When you hear the name St. Augustine, what do you think of? Probably something about the Confessions, arguably his most famous work. Or perhaps you remember that he is one of the first doctors of the Church. But do you know about his spiritual journey from youthful hedonism to prominent theologian?
St. Augustine was born in the mid 300s in North Africa to a Christian mother and a pagan father. Initially educated in rhetoric, as a teenager, Augustine embraced a life of comfortable vices, which he outlines in his autobiographical and philosophical work the Confessions. Eventually, his intellectual pursuits lead him to Europe, into and out of Manicheism (a dualist religion based on pure reason), and back toward the religion of his childhood. Through the evangelizing work of St. Ambrose, Augustine was finally baptized into the Christian faith in his early 30s. He went on to become one of the early Church’s most important philosophers.
For cradle Catholics like me, our faith journeys are nowhere near as dramatic as St. Augustine’s conversion from corrupt youth to doctor of the Church. Nevertheless, there are always opportunities for daily conversion! The teenage Augustine would pray, “Give me chastity and continency, only not yet.” How often do we catch ourselves praying in a similar vein? “Give me temperance—but not until I’ve eaten three packages of Oreos”; “Give me a stronger desire for prayer—but maybe not until next week, after I’m done binge-watching this TV show.” Like Augustine, we often find ourselves wrestling with our human weaknesses and our desire to do things on our own timeline rather than God’s.
But even as we struggle to overcome our personal vices, God draws us closer to Himself, taking our fractured pasts to create a beautiful whole. St. Augustine’s theological and philosophical treatises would perhaps have not been so fervent or persuasive had he not previously so fully embraced bad philosophy before his conversion. His secular education and his training in rhetoric and Platonic philosophy prepared him for his work defending true Christian theology and refining its philosophy—so much so that he is recognized as one of the original doctors of the Church. Long before Augustine had come to fully accept the Christian faith, God was already preparing him for his future role as bishop and philosopher. Likewise, our past does not restrict our future. Choices that ended up leading us seemingly nowhere, periods of doubt or conflict—God can take these moments of human weakness and use them to bring us closer to Him. Like St. Augustine, even a previous decade of promiscuity could remind us of how empty is a life not lived for Christ.
St. Augustine is living proof that no one—no matter how seemingly corrupt, how spiritually lost, or how morally confused—is beyond the power of God’s grace. On St. Augustine’s feast day, let us consider where we are on our faith journeys. Where is there room for daily conversion? How can we learn from our past failures to more fully embrace a future lived with Christ?
Question for Reflection: What failure can I use from my past to build up my relationship with Christ?
Today we celebrate the feast of St. Augustine, a Doctor of the Church and one of the most important theological writers of the 4th and 5th century. Many of us have either studied Augustine or at least heard some of his more famous quotes. One in particular is quite striking: “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.” These words are taken from one of Augustine’s most well known writings, the Confessions, in which Augustine discusses his long journey towards Christ and his conversion to Christianity.
“Our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
These are powerful words. They direct us toward Christ in a simple way that speaks to everyone, for everyone has a restless heart. Pope Francis tells us that Augustine is speaking of three types of restlessness: “the restlessness of spiritual seeking, the restlessness of the encounter with God, the restlessness of love.” This restlessness, whether we recognize it or not, is a desire to know God and to have a deeper relationship with Him. None of this is easy, but God is always there for us. He is waiting with open arms, just as he waited for Augustine in his conversion to Christianity, so that we might rest in Him.
Of course, the natural question to ask is how we can rest in the Lord. Augustine gives us a clear answer in his Confessions. He says:
“No one knows what he himself is made of, except his own spirit within him, yet there is still some part of him which remains hidden even from his own spirit; but you, Lord, know everything about a human being because you have made him… Let me, then, confess what I know about myself, and confess too what I do not know, because what I know of myself I know only because you shed light on me, and what I do not know I shall remain ignorant about until my darkness becomes like bright noon before your face.”
Augustine is giving us an important model of faith to follow, one of deep personal reflection, one that teaches us how to reflect and why we should reflect. Why? Because in reflection, we find God, in reflection, we find rest.
But Augustine is very clear about how reflection works. He says, “What I know of myself I know only because you shed light on me.” Reflection is not solitary; we have to reflect with God. It is a prayer.
We have all been told time and time again that prayer is an integral aspect of our everyday lives, but prayer does not have to be formulaic, it does not always have to be recited from the back of a card. These types of prayers are amazing and so helpful in directing our lives, but some of the most beautiful prayer is when we reflect with God, when we open up ourselves to Him and just talk to Him and listen to Him in our hearts. Who better to show us the importance of reflection than our Mother? Luke 2:19 tells us “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Mary, the Mother of God, born without sin, who through her body brought Jesus into this world, still took the time to reflect with the Lord.
Augustine and Mary are both powerful examples to us. They were holy people, but they were human. They faced struggles in their lives and in their faith. Their hearts were restless in their journeys toward the Lord. But through their example, through their lives, through personal reflection with the Lord, they show us how to find rest in Him.
Nicholas Shields is a current District Deputy for the Washington, D.C. Knights of Columbus and a recent graduate of The Catholic University of America.