Today is the feast day of St. Augustine of Hippo, a brilliant but humble philosopher and theologian. Yet, he was not always such a man...
He lived a life full of pleasures and self-seeking endeavors. He was a devout pagan. In spite of having a Christian mother whom he loved and respected, he had little-to-no respect for her faith. A very arrogant and stubborn young man. Though his mother, now known as St. Monica, never let his lack of interest in or pronounced doubts about the Christian faith inhibit her devotion to her Lord nor her faithful prayers for her beloved son.
Over the course of his life, he realized he couldn't find satiation for his passions and hungers where he sought them. Augustine, because of his father's nobility, was highly educated and exceedingly scholarly. This warranted him the opportunity to become quite well-known, an extremely skilled orator (orator = a philosopher and attorney). He enjoyed traveling to various cities for business and leisure, having innumerable women at his disposal, and also men who were so hungry for the success such as he possessed, they would do whatever he asked. He participated, with other powerful men, in political ventures which often involved heinous oppression and injustices carried out toward innocent people whenever it suited their personal vendettas. Then there was also the intense usage of booze for a salve to combat lingering pangs of conscience in hopes of washing away any unpleasant memory haunts of his regrettable actions. And somewhere in the middle of all of that he entered a relationship with a woman which over time became long-term. Though, he never married her she did bear him a son.
Through all of his vast travels, sensual experiences and renound knowledge, he was continually searching...increasingly...restless.
You could say he had already had it all; yet, he was still so very empty.
It took him a long time to come to the realization that there truly is no consolation for us in this world, nothing save for temporary fixes which often leave us more empty than when we started.
True consolation comes from someone who is outside of this world, the Creator of this world, and except by entering the arms of our Father, through the promise of redemption given by Jesus' sacrifice for us, and then by receiving the gift of His Holy Spirit through Baptism, we will never attain the consolation that our hearts so desperately desire.
"The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." Borrowing from the words of Jesus, in Matthew 26:41. Augustine knew much of this truth by a later time in life, which is why he is quoted with having prayed, (maybe on more than one occasion):
"Lord, help me be good, please make me chaste and pure, but just not yet."
(It’s that whole, “I know it with my head but I can't get my actions to follow just yet.”
Ya know, the phrase “Actions speak louder than words."? It’s that. It’s submitting what’s in our heart to our mind and then uniting it to our will. It’s then that we will start to see a shift.)
How many of us can attest to the frame of mind or heart of Augustine? We always want what we want, of course we have emotional, mental and physical urges, but we also want to do what's right, generally speaking.
Does that surprise you?Maybe some of you don't care about what’s right but the majority of people do actually care about doing what is right, they care about justice and injustice, truth and lies, fraud and authenticity...and the reason for the this is because the moral law is written in our hearts.
Seriously. We were made in the image and likeness of a wonderfully, masterful and genuinely loving Creator. He has made like Himself, and with a fully formed conscience.
A fully formed conscience tells us what is right and what is wrong, what is truth and what is a lie. Now, we can have poorly formed consciences because of our upbringing or influences outside our control, or we can also be traumatized and/or choose, God-forbid, to damage our consciences by repetitively participating in evil works that violate our soul and deaden those pangs of conscience; (Not irreparably, thankfully, but more in-depth on that in another blogpost for the future.)
In the CCC (Catechism of The Catholic Church) it states: "The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for." (Part 1, The Profession of Faith, Section One, I Believe, Chapter One, Man's Capacity For God, I. The Desire for God, 27)
Now some of you might read this and blow me off completely, but for those of you who are still here reading, hopefully it's because you've related to at least something I have written.
I know a lot of people who don't like to be talked to about God, especially if they've had it crammed in their face their whole life or maybe even just one time that was really, really uncomfortable. They think all religious are the same.
Though, I've been raised as a Christian, my entire life, I've believed a lot of very different things, encountered many different kinds of people at many different places of worship. I'm talking like Westboro to Buddha. Learned a whole lot of truths and some very not truths. And I never liked the people who were so sure they knew “everything”. Or who were so ingrained with what they were taught, how they were raised, strains of spoon-fed theological truths that too often evolved into heresy because they were constrained by an echo chamber of safety and only consult those within their echo chamber for their truth; and sometimes do go to the Bible but even still their interpretation lens for the Bible is solely based on what’s been taught within their echo chamber, wherefor the errors have become cyclical. Believing it was impossible that they had picked up any error in faith along the way, or that those within their echo chamber surely can’t know less than what’s available to be learned, there must not be anything left to learn other than how we’ve been raised, right?!?
I can say this, because I used to be one of them: the people who are most likely to believe error, are those who have always, since the time of birth or childhood believed the same thing; complacently living their lives operating in the same cycles and habits that they've always operated in. A true sign of following Christ is our willingness to lay it all down, face our fallible nature, and chase Truth with all of our being. Have we ever put all of our beliefs on the table, searched for God, read for Truth, am willing to ask the questions (not just of people we have always gotten our answers from) and commited our hearts and minds on the forefront to be willing to accept what we find?
And it’s changed my life.
Just like St. Ambrose debated, taught, encouraged, and answered Augustine’s questions. Until one day he was so certain of his faith, he spent the rest of his days as a changed man. One who wrote and spoke and believed that one day he would get to meet this man who died for him. Who died for us. And who never has and never will stop loving each and every one of us.
Up until about 2 years ago, I was too oblivious to go on a journey of faith. I didn’t even know the scripture 2 Peter 3:15, “But in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with compassion (or gentleness) and respect.” You see, if you call yourself a Christian, you have an obligation to be educated in the faith that you follow. Otherwise, how can you be a good example of that faith? It’s not a matter of whether we have time. It’s an obligation to seek out Truth, possess it, then share it with those whom we meet. More on that later. So where was I, ah yes, then 6 months later, I was too scared. I began to allow various paths of the truth I may find roll around in my mind and I became paralyzed by the thought that exploring my faith may cause me to face truth that would lead me away from the church that we have loved and to see so much less the friends that we had made and the families we lived life with for the last decade. What if they didn’t understand why we needed to change what we believed? Nope. That’s too scary. And then 3 months later, I experienced a hunger that outweighed my fear. A longing for Truth. A disgust with lies that exist in our culture and an exhaustion of the politics that were spewing vitriol walk around me. All I wanted anymore was blunt truth. Then 1 month later, I experienced a life-altering heartbreak that thrust me full-force into the face of my own insignificance, my own flaws and failures, our brokenness as people. The pain from that realization caused me not to care anymore about the what-ifs, but that what mattered would always be found in the arms of my Abba. My Jesus was everyone’s Jesus but I had needed to find Him for myself. This was the catalyst to my search for Him with my whole heart and I’ve not looked back. For the last 14 months, I have experienced knowledge and revelations that at times felt like they would make my head spin right off my shoulders. But, using the most minimal and succinct explanation, for now, I found answers to my questions.
Here are some of my questions (not in any order because that is not how my ADHD brain works), that I've wondered or that came about by asking a question that led to another one but I had never taken the time to ask before now. (maybe reading some of my questions will help you write out a list of your own. In another post, I’ll share some of the answers I’ve found and resources for looking them up, if you are all interested to read about them):
1. Is there proof that Jesus actually died and was resurrected?
2. What did He actually say about how we should live? (He gets quoted a lot, but all of what he said is in just 4 small books, the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John.)
3. How is what he taught relevant to my life? Is it even relevant anymore?
4. Why does life suck so much for me and for so many people? How are real people who are trying to live the faith supposed to reconcile when the sucky outweighs the non-sucky in our lives? What does God or Jesus have to say about seemingly pointless suffering and evil?
5. Does the Bible talk about a formula for how to live or how to know we are going to get to go to heaven?
6. What does God or Jesus actually tell us about heaven and/or hell? Do I believe there is an actual heaven and an actual hell?
7. Are the Bibles that we have today actually accurate interpretations of what the early Christians had access to and what they believed? When was the Bible actually created? Who had the authority to decide which books made up the Bible and which books didn't? Why are Catholic Bibles bigger than Protestant Bibles? How do we know if the books that they talk about in the media over the last 50 years were God-inspired or not? Should we believe mainstream media when they talk about Christianity and/or authenticity of the gospels or other books of the Bible? Who gets to decide that stuff? Who was given authority for protecting what we believe, keeping the faithful from believing error?
8. Did God ever intend for there to be one church (as in one belief system) that we should all be a part of? Did He actually intend for there to be 30,000+ denominations of people who call themselves Christian but are devastatingly divided on many issues theological to moral...even down to some very basic things that we should all be able to agree upon? How do I know I'm "attending" the "right" one? Does that even matter or are we actually “all the same”, ‘no right or wrong denomination as long as we believe in Jesus’? If "we" are the "church" then who has the power to keep the Bible in tact, or Christianity what it is? With all the divisiveness in the world and especially in our country, how do I know that God's word won't be changed and/or corrupted or that it's always been the "Christianity" that I believe it is right now?
9. What did the earliest Christians, who learned from Jesus and His disciples believe? When did they start calling themselves Christians? Who were the people that the apostles discipled and what did they believe? Do we have their writings? Who are the "church fathers"? Are they the apostles or the people the apostles taught? Can someone be an Apostle in this day and age?
10. Do the writings of the apostles/the writings of the people taught by the apostles back in the first century, give any testament to how they met and had church together? How they prayed or worshiped so that we can make sure we are doing it like them? Does it matter if we “do” church differently than they did?
I found out that every decade from the time of Jesus' resurrection, the church grew by about 40%! Christianity was illegal! What they were doing and how they were gathering to have church, and how they were teaching to follow Christ, was likely to get them all killed (and actually did get most of them martyred) yet they were converting in droves and refusing to stop. Gotta be something to finding out what they believed and how they ‘did’ church, right?!?
But the bottomline is this: I have never been more educated about my faith, I've never felt more alive in my passion for my relationship with my Father. Jesus is closer to me than He's ever been before and it's because of my fervor for truth, and my hunger for knowledge. I really didn't expect to learn as much as I have, or rather to be able to find so much out there that so many people don’t know exists. I just figured most of it was unknowable. I could slap myself, a thousand times, in hindsight, for being so lazy in my faith. Truly, I became so complacent that those without faith at all were able to make me look like an imbecile with simple arguments that there are good, really good, honest answers to the things that they pose. But I was never able to help them because I was lazy. You may never agree with my faith or my decision to be a Christian or to believe what I believe, but you will never be able to convince me that the Truth about our living God does not exist or that the evidence is not real. There is more than enough proof for all of what God has revealed to us through creation and through Jesus. And I can’t wait for you to find it!
I understand the “anti-religious” line which is also coincidentally the “complacent-Christian” line: “I don't need more God. That’s not my problem. My life is pretty good and it's because I made it that way. (Maybe the Christian gives a tad more credit to God but their hearts are in the same place.) I’m good. I’m sufficient. I’m set." Cool. You can only feel that way for so long, though, before the suffering of this life makes the bottom drop out of that belief system. Then you’re left feeling empty the way most of us have when we encounter such excruciating suffering that we are finally willing to cry out in the hope of a God who can give us some kind of comfort and some useful reason for our suffering. Sometimes, there is way more comfort than reasoning but that's enough for me.
But, I, also, understand the "maybe-not-so-anti-religious. They are the I-grew-up-with-some-whack-theology-therefore-I-shut-anything-I-do-not-like-about-religion-out-of-my-head-and-heart. You're what some might call the "cafeteria religious", you feel free to pick the parts you like about God and live by those standards. You prefer to believe that anything that's unpopular, misunderstood, or just too hard for you to live out in your own life to be untrue so you just push that out of your path, it's probably not important to know if it's important to know since it doesn't make sense to you. Ya know? I get it.
We often would rather turn and run as far as we can away from religion, away from our past, away from things or people who may have hurt us in the past or are still trying to, presently. I want to say that the crazy guilt trips, the twisting of the words in scripture, the physical or verbal, mental or even emotional abuse you might have sustained in your life from someone who proclaimed to be a Christian, that abuse was not from God. He did not orchestrate it. It's not in Him to will harm upon us. That's not who He is. That's not even close to what He's about. And I’m so very sorry for what you’ve experienced.
But the truth remains that we have an innate need for something that our human selves cannot provide or produce for that need. And you may spend your whole life looking for it until you realize what WILL satisfy it. Don't you ever get tired of the struggle?
Trust Augustine for having figured it out. It took time, but eventually he realized that we can never find what we crave on our own. We will never have enough, find enough, consume enough, or become enough to be at peace in this world. It's just not possible. Those who are real with themselves can attest to this truth.
Life sucks hard, and we were never meant to endure the pain or the joy of it alone. That’s why it was St. Augustine who wrote, "Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; because Thou hast formed us for thyself, our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee."
The reason we can never be fully satisfied with anything we find in this world on our own, why we will always search for more meaning and for the importance of our existence here is because we were created for something we can't even imagine. We don't know what it is but we feel it beckoning us. We can't fathom it. When we try to think about what it is, we have no frame of reference, other than the experiences that life has provided. The times when we have felt the MOST alive we've ever been; our brains try to focus on what that is and it then it goes all skreebalegolothnithpshhh...
But that doesn't make it untrue. The inability to fathom something doesn't make something non-existent. It just means that we as humans are very limited in our ability to understand what we don't understand. See what I did there. That is the precise difference between being man, and being God. Our culture is so arrogant to believe that if there was a God, we would be able to fathom Him and think like Him...what??! That’s more absurd than believing that there is a real God.
He has revealed so much to us through Creation that the brilliant minds alive today and throughout history do agree that there has to be something more than just what we currently know about our universe contributing to its existence. When we shut out the distractions, media, the loudness of our life, we hear Him speak to us. And here's the thing: we want to find Him. We have an innate desire to search out a God who loves us. A faith worth believing in. We try to figure out what it is and often we call it something only to realize whatever we call it, doesn't fully reveal what it is. It still calls to us. We long for it all the more. It can't be found here because what IT is, is the desire to be with someone...who is outside of this world. Outside of our time and space. We were made for Him. And once we realize it, our peace, our satisfaction, our hope, it grows and it propels us out of our shame and our self-doubts, our anxieties and our loneliness into a place of joy, security and an inner stillness that possesses a knowledge that nothing can separate us from Him.
When our hope dwindles here, when our peace is squashed and our joy seems stolen away, we have to go back to that place of stillness. That place of knowing: We are not made for this hate. We are not made for this degradation of the human spirit, mind, body or soul. We were made for more. We might not be there yet, but we have a firm promise and hope. Not like a political promise, where we trade my word for your word all for mutually beneficial reasons. Not like a best friend or a spouse promise, where we try our hardest but we fail you because we are human and we forget. We have a covenant promise. Where blood was shed and there's no renegotiating this promise. You know, I know y'all don't read terms and conditions of anything you sign up for these days. But you don't have to read the terms and conditions of this promise, it won't come back to bite you. They were written in Jesus's blood. And it was for your benefit not your demise. It stands. So you can fall. He will always be there to catch you.
The measure of charity may be taken from the want of desires. As desires diminish in a soul, charity increases in it; and when it no longer feels any desire, then it possesses perfect charity." --St. Augustine
Father, make me ever more aware of the blessings of my life. Create in me a heart for sharing them with others. Crowd out any feeling of desire with intense gratitude for your great gifts. May I always be ready to be charitable, sharing your love and your hope, always your truth with the world around me. Amen.