Yesterday I found myself bringing St Augustine’s Feast Day to a close by reciting passages from his writings with a small gathering of friends; we raised a glass to the Doctor and Saint, and celebrated this man who was so dearly human. The passage I recited had been had been reverberating in my mind since that morning:
“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.” St.Augustine, Confessions
I had read the quote in the morning when a friend shared it on on facebook – and as I read I remembered the haunting song whose lyrics are one and the same: Late Have I Loved You, by Gungor. (I invite you to play this song with your eyes closed and really soak it in!) The song, the quote, St Augustine – it all struck a chord that Providence had been priming within me these past few weeks. Augustine captures our limited human existence with such simple honesty, such unaffected emotion. He writes in earnest of that paradox of daily human life wherein we discover our own stubbornness, limitedness, and ignorance just as we fall into the freedom and limitlessness of God’s unbounded love. (Shout out to Pope Francis – God’s love is unbounded: it has no limits! @Pontifex on Twitter).
Why is it such a struggle to live a holy life?
I had just been talking with a friend a few days ago over java milkshakes about that very facet of life. We were talking about why God lets us struggle down here – why does our nature sometimes compels us to look for God where we will not find Him? Why do we chase outside of ourselves with such a hunger that can only be satisfied by diving into the interior life where He already lives? Why didn’t God just make our bodies and souls to be in perfect harmony already? We do we have to struggle through blindness and searching, tempted by unruly drives and the sway of the ego?
Augustine knew this struggle well. And he also found the answer – humility. St Augustine said: “Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.” In order to hear God, to attentively be with Him as He is with us, we must first yield to Him, which means to descend, to bow before the Will of Another – to wake up to the fact that we are blind and deaf, to wake up the truth that we have been searching for Him outside of ourselves, instead of opening our inner life to find Him where He waits for us.
Or to put it another way – “God wants to educate us to humility,” Fr J Kentenich teaches, “God left us with our inordinate drives in order to free us from our drives through our drives. “For those who love God, all things work together unto good” (Rom 8:28). God has ordained all things with infinite wisdom. If the soul which is sick because of original sin wants to become healthy, it needs humility like a fish needs water and a birds needs the air. It is therefore a great law in the kingdom of God that only the humble can experience the full grace of redemption.” Fr. Kentenich continues saying,
“St Augustine takes this thought even farther, expressing it in his picturesque way: Before original sin man did not want to do what he was able, after it he can no longer do what he wants. This is a profound statement. Before original sin Adam and Eve could have mastered their drives. We want to, but no longer can. Don’t we experience on a daily basis how many drives disquiet our soul? Maybe they are blustery storms. Here a passion, there a stirring. When will they fall silent!…Why must this be? God wants to make us humble. We can no longer do what we want…Why? The deepest root of every sin is pride. God must therefore make the soul, that he loves, humble. How are we made humble? By having to experience day after day for our whole lives the constant stirrings of the life of the drives. All knowledge that we are dependent on God isn’t nearly as effective as the constant struggle with our drives…It is true: serious sin can be one of the greatest of God’s gifts of grace.” *
Augustine knew this reality too – how the great sins in his life were transformed by God into abundant grace! And he supplies the positive compliment to Kentenich’s statement that the deepest root of every sin is pride when Augustine says: “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues.” If pride leads to all sin, humility leads to all virtue, and thus is the transformative answer to pride.
Fr Kentenich continues with a second reasons that God lets us struggle on the path towards holiness, the path towards a harmonious relationship between the natural and supernatural:
“The second reason is that God wants to educate us to trust.” He then brings up St. Paul, another saint who knew this struggle well, and one who has instrumental in Augustine’s own conversion. “St Paul may have felt this dichotomy more strongly than anyone else. He knows as well as we how to cry out, ‘Who will deliver us from this mortal body? The grace of God through Christ Jesus the Lord!’ (Rom 7:24). If we could just make this thought our own! God wants to make us small so that we break the shackles of self and give ourselves to another bond called God. To the abyss of humility must come an equal abyss of trust. Pay attention to how quickly you grow in knowledge of self and God’s boundless omnipotence in such struggles. Look at your spiritual life from God’s perspective!”*
To break the shackles of self and give ourselves to another bond called God! God invites us to trust Him, to bond with Him, to choose to give our love to Him. We certainly can’t do this alone, and we aren’t meant to do it alone.
Fr Kentenich continues:
“The third reason is that God wants us to make sacrifices. ‘Who will deliver us from this mortal body!’ The modern answer is sports and athletics. Sports may help us in some ways to master our drives if they have remained healthy. According to St. Augustine, sports can only have their full effect on the religious athlete. His reasoning is that the mind can only rule when it serves. It must serve God in order to rule the body…St Paul knows how to argue this so beautifully. In the Old Testament there were many sacrifices, sin offerings, holocausts, etc. In the New Testament it is our bodies that God wants as a living sacrifice. I think we ought to meditate on these supernatural trains of thought more often. Let us do penance! I sacrifice my body by asking it to do its duty and more! I certainly don’t need to tell it, ‘It would be better to take it easy…*”
Sounds like a lot of work…
If we’re honest with ourselves a lot of this seems rather dreary and difficult – like a lot of hard work – like maybe we’d rather tell ourselves ‘It would be better to take it easy…’ I’d like to end with a few words of encouragement. First, that this IS work – because it is LOVE! All of what St Augustine and Fr Kentenich are saying here means really an education towards love – learning to love God, ourselves and others. And as Dr M Scott Peck says, “Love is work, [and] the essence of nonlove is laziness.”** If we want to truly LOVE, we must WORK at it.
Dr Peck continues, saying:
“The act of love -extending oneself – as I have said, requires a moving out against the inertia of laziness (work) or the resistance engendered by fear (courage). Let us turn now from the work of love to the courage of love. When we extend ourselves, our self enters a new and unfamiliar territory, so to speak. Our self becomes a new and different self. We do things we are not accustomed to do. We change. The experience of change, of unaccustomed activity, of being on unfamiliar ground, of doing things differently is frightening. It always was and always will be. People handle that fear of change in different ways, but the fear is inescapable if they are in fact to change. Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the making of action in spite of fear, the moving out against the resistance engendered by fear into the unknown and into the future. On some level spiritual growth, and therefore love, always requires courage and involves risk.“**
Let’s recap all that: Why does God leave us to struggle towards harmony and holiness? To educate us to humility, to trust, and to invite us to make sacrifices, ie, to work for it – because real love means real work – a giving of ourselves. And, to be able to do this uncomfortable new thing of love, self-discipline and extending oneself, to be able to handle the fear of newness and the dreariness that can bring us down in the day-to-day, we need courage, courage which comes from a deep abiding trust that God’s in charge of the whole process. See how organically cyclical this is?
The more we choose to “descend” as St Augustine says, the more trust God will grow in us, the more courage we’ll have to keep doing the hard work of loving – and thus the more our hearts, minds, bodies and souls will be transformed into Love Himself.
Here’s my second word of encouragement: don’t forget the end the excerpt of Augustine’s from Confessions! “You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.” God doesn’t leave us unsatisfied! He is waiting attentively for our first small “yes” of yielding to fill us with Himself, to breath His fragrance on us – and once that begins to happen, once you have “tasted” the everlasting food that is God Himself – this experience of the sweetness and reality of His grace will give you the courage and spiritual energy to last longer than any of the storms, dreariness or fear that you face. In closing, take courage dear readers!
Wait for the Lord;
Be strong and let your heart take courage;
Yes, wait for the Lord (Ps 27:14).
- Fr J Kentenich (2008) .The Gift of Purity. (p 86-91).
** Dr. M Scott Peck, M.D. (1978). The Road Less Traveled.