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?
This weekend is the feast of St. Patrick—one of the most popular saints in the Archdiocese of Washington where I grew up and arguably in the entire United States. But two days later on March 19, coming much more quietly and with far less fanfare in American culture, slips in the Solemnity of St. Joseph.
It is easy to lose the Solemnity of St. Joseph in the rigors of Lenten observances or because it comes on the heels of the day-long party that seems to happen every year on St. Patrick’s Day. Perhaps we often overlook this feast because we know so little about who St. Joseph was and what his life was like. Nevertheless, St. Joseph remains an incredibly important figure, especially for parents.
Joseph is mentioned only a few times in the New Testament. We know from the Gospels that Joseph was a law-abiding and righteous man, and that he obeyed God’s will—especially when it was revealed to him directly by an angel. After these few mentions in the infancy narratives of Jesus, St. Joseph gently fades into the background and then disappears altogether from the Gospels. But the Church in her wisdom has made St. Joseph’s importance clear for those who are paying attention: he is mentioned in all four Eucharistic Prayers at Mass, as well as in the Divine Praises during Benediction at the end of Eucharistic adoration.
But what makes St. Joseph so special? From what we can glean from the Gospels, St. Joseph was an ordinary man of deep faith who was called to become the foster-father of Christ. He became the earthly guardian of the Messiah, responsible for his upbringing and tasked with protecting him in his early life. St. Joseph’s commitment to his vocation as the husband of Mary and the foster father of Christ was so strong that upon being warned about the murderous intentions of King Herod, he fled immediately—in the middle of the night!—to Egypt. He did whatever it took, even leaving his entire life behind him, in order to keep his family safe. The little we see of him in the New Testament shows us a devout man who always trusted in God and took care of his family.
St. Joseph, as the third member of the Holy Family, is the member who is the most like us—especially those of us who are parents. He was not born sinless, nor was he divine. He was a carpenter, a man of humble station who probably felt as though he had a monumentally important task thrust upon him. I think St. Joseph’s role in Christ’s life beautifully displays the role of a Christian parent in their child’s life. Parents are ordinary people who are tasked with the care and raising of new life. Like Joseph, we do not own our children or have sole claim over them; they are their own people, entrusted to our care and guidance until they grow old enough to do God’s will without our assistance. It is a difficult task, and at times overwhelming to ponder. And yet there is St. Joseph, who was tasked with raising the very Son of God. Joseph shows us that we do not need to be perfect in our roles, only willing to be guided by God as we place our trust in Him.
Just as I strive to be like Mary in my vocation as a wife and mother, I pray that my husband will be like Joseph. St. Joseph is the ultimate husband and father, a faithful man of quiet strength, protector of Mary’s virginity, and guide of Christ’s earthly childhood. Above all, St. Joseph shows us the beauty of a life lived in obedience to God’s will.
Questions for Reflection: How can you grow closer to St. Joseph throughout this Lenten season? What can you learn from St. Joseph’s example of obedience and trust?
Changing diapers. Making dinner menus for the week. Vacuuming raisins out of the deepest crevices of the car’s backseat. Often, the daily tasks of running a household and raising a toddler feel more to me like mindless drudgery than fruitful and productive labor. My inner monologue ends up sounding like this: My husband works eight hours a day at a meaningful job that he enjoys, and his income puts a roof over our heads, food on the table, and clothes on our backs. And what do I do? Sweep floors that are just going to instantly get dirty again and scrub toothpaste off the bathroom mirror—which is my own fault because I left the toddler alone while he brushed his teeth this morning.
Lately I had found myself searching for examples of saints whose primary vocation was parenthood and family life. And I began to read The Journey of Our Love, a collection of letters written by St. Gianna Beretta Molla and her husband, Pietro.
Prior to reading the letters, all I had known about St. Gianna was that one of her pregnancies was extremely difficult and that she ultimately sacrificed her life for her child. I thought this was the only reason that she was canonized in 2004. But as I read the letters St. Gianna and her husband wrote to each other, I gradually realized that Gianna’s self-sacrifice was only the final heroic act of a life filled with profound joy and holiness.
On the surface, the Mollas’ married life looks quite typical for the contemporary western world: St. Gianna was a pediatrician who split her time between her clinic and her duties at home, while Pietro traveled frequently for his job as an upper-level administrator for a manufacturing company. Their older children suffered from persistent, but not life-threatening, health issues like severe reflux and hip misalignment. Where the Mollas differ from most modern parents is in their deep devotion to God and in the trust, love, and joy that flowed from placing Christ at the center of their lives.
The more I read of St. Gianna and Pietro’s letters, the more I was struck by my own inability to see the greatness that is possible within the most mundane, repetitive, and irritating aspects of domestic life. St. Gianna and her husband did not found any religious orders, nor were they publicly martyred for their faith, nor were they brilliant theologians. Rather, they were ordinary people whose love for Christ permeated every aspect of their lives.
One of my favorite examples of St. Gianna’s quiet holiness is when one of Pietro’s overseas business trips, already over a month long, was extended by several weeks. Gianna initially reacted as many wives would do and “had a good cry” (page 209). But then, rather than wallowing in her loneliness or in the difficulties of parenting alone, she writes that she “offered this sacrifice to the Lord for you [Pietro] so that he might protect you during your continual flights, and for the baby we are expecting, so it will be born beautiful and healthy.”
Pietro, too, often writes that while he suffers from the long separations from his wife and children, he offers those sufferings so that he and his family will continue to be blessed. Neither St. Gianna nor her husband ever express a sense of doubt about the apparent banality of their lives—they accept their ordinary trials with grace and humility, and are quick to turn their frustrations or sadness back into thankfulness for the good God has granted them in their lives.
Reading the Mollas’ letters helped me see that, like St. Gianna and her husband, I am called to be holy in every aspect of my ordinary and seemingly unremarkable life— whether it be caring for a toddler with a persistent cold or doing my fifth load of laundry in two days. For most of us, we are called to be saints not through grand gestures of faith, but in the love with which we embrace the ordinary burdens of our everyday lives.
Question for Reflection: What are some ordinary tasks in your everyday life that can help you become an everyday saint?
Today, August 8th, is the feast day of St. Dominic de Guzman, founder of the Order of Preachers—the Dominicans.
St. Dominic was born around the year 1170, and he came from a noble and devout family. After studying at the University of Palencia for ten years and becoming a priest, Dominic eventually went to southern France to fight the Albigensian heresy. While there, he determined that a return to the preaching style of the Apostles in the time of Christ—to engage with individuals, to go where the Spirit led them, and to live simply—would most effectively preach the Gospel message and bring heretics and converts back to the faith.
After spending several years evangelizing and preaching, Dominic had acquired a small band of followers. With them, he founded a religious order, basing it on the Rule of St. Augustine and giving it the mission of “preaching and the salvation of souls,” with an emphasis on the importance of spiritual and intellectual formation. The Order of Preachers was officially recognized by Pope Honorius III in late 1216.
In a time when opposing sides often resorted to violence, St. Dominic chose to combat the Albigensian heresy through open dialogue rather than bloodshed. By having a deep understanding of Scripture, tradition, and philosophy, and by engaging with individuals on an intellectual and moral level, he was able to bring back into the faith many of those who had fallen into error. The Order of Preachers that he founded continues to embrace these principles by preparing preachers who are “intellectually informed and pastorally competent.”
St. Dominic chose to settle the first members of his order in university cities so that they could gain the intellectual training they would need to become engaging and morally compelling preachers of God’s word. The Order of Preachers, to this day, still heavily emphasizes the importance of spiritual and intellectual formation in preparation for their pastoral work. The Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. continues in the Dominican tradition of establishing communities of Dominicans near universities. Dominicans residing at the House of Studies teach at nearby at The Catholic University of America, assist with Masses at parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington, and produce a journal.
Reading about the origins of the Dominicans and their continued success reminds me of the important place that religious study ought to hold in even the layman’s spiritual life. While we cannot all get degrees in theology, feeding the intellectual curiosity about our faith can lead us deeper into our relationship with God and to a better understanding of his truth.
Reading more about our faith, or about the lives of the saints we wish to emulate, can also better equip us to evangelize when the opportunity arises. While we may not be reading the Summa Theologica or the Catechism cover to cover, there is a plethora of material—from papal encyclicals and the core documents of Vatican II, to letters and diaries of the saints—available for us to deepen our own understanding of the faith and to be able to share it with others.
I myself have been inspired by reading about the life of St. Dominic de Guzman and the work of the Order of Preachers. As a result, I have decided to further engage my faith through more rigorous spiritual reading. I think a good place to start is with a course of study on one’s vocation—for me, that means marriage and parenthood, and thus my “to read” list includes Three to Get Married by Fulton Sheen and the papal encyclicals Castii Conubii and Humanae Vitae.
What will you read to engage more deeply with your faith?
Question for Reflection: How can the life of St. Dominic and his emphasis on intellectual formation help you deepen your spiritual life?