Sunday, August 28, 2011

Feast of St Augustine - 28th August

“You have seduced me, Lord, and I have let myself be seduced;
you have overpowered me: you were the stronger.”
(Jer 20:7)

These words from the prophet Jeremiah which we heard this morning at Mass prompted me to reflect on St Augustine whose feast day is to-day but was not celebrated.

Both Jeremiah and Augustine wrote what are known as their ‘confessions’ – accounts which describe their inner struggles and suffering, their loneliness and yearning for God. Their anger, complaints and disappointments betray the heart of a lover. Here I will focus on Augustine.

In his Confessions Augustine gives us a very moving account of his search for God or perhaps more correctly God’s search for him! - which reaches a climax when he exclaims “too late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new, too late have I loved you.” (10:27)

From his earliest years Augustine had a very sensitive heart, with a great capacity for love but yet was prevented from recognising and accepting God as his true and ultimate joy because as he explains - although “he loved the happy life” and sought after truth he “feared to find it in God’s abode and so fled from it even as he sought it.” (cf 6:11). As Francis Thompson puts it “he feared lest having Him he must have naught beside.” (The Hound of Heaven).

God is a jealous lover and He is not satisfied till we surrender our inmost heart to Him. He is also a patient lover who knows how to wait while at the same time being a persistent lover who does not give up on us! Augustine describes the many ways in which God was secretly at work trying to detach his heart from earthly attractions. He says “Little by little I was drawing closer to you although I did not know it”. During this time Augustine experienced God’s action as a “piercing of the very nerve within the wound of his soul, so that he might leave all things and be converted to God” (cf 6:6).

The turning point came when as he tells us “he entered into his inmost being with God as his helper.” (7:10). We have the key to Augustine’s spirituality when he says “I sought for a way of gaining strength sufficient for me to have joy in You but did not find it until I embraced the Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus.” (7:18). God’s search for humankind finds its ultimate expression in the humble self-emptying love of Jesus through whom we find our way back to the Father. Our love is but a response to God’s infinite love for us. Once we truly experience His love in the self-emptying of Jesus we are freed to let go of our attachments to sin and creatures and surrender ourselves in humility and obedience to Him who first loved us.

However although the “way of the Saviour had become pleasing” to Augustine he “was still bound by his love of women”. He wanted so much to surrender, yet he feared to let go. (cf 8: 11) until Continence says to him “Why do you stand on yourself and thus stand not at all? Cast yourself on Him. Have no fear. He will not draw back and let you fall. Cast yourself trustfully on him and He will receive you and He will heal you.” Thus he describes his conversion in terms of humility, letting go of his dependence on self and his attachments to creatures and surrendering himself totally to God’s mercy “bending his neck to the mild yoke and his shoulders to the light burden” of Jesus Christ (cf 9:1) and in that moment he exclaims “How sweet did it suddenly become ….things I once feared to lose it was now a joy to put away ….in their stead You entered in sweeter than any pleasure.”

We could imagine that all Augustine’s struggles ended here but in the next chapter he describes his continuing struggles with sin and selfishness - but his hope in the Saviour never wavers. In the face of his “many and great infirmities he will not despair because the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (10:43). He is content to be “but a little one but his Father lives forever and his Protector is sufficient for him.” (10:14). Here we have a picture of Augustine as humble and little in the hands of God his Father – secure in His love, detached from creatures and trusting utterly in the Father’s providence. Yet he is not aloof from his brothers and sisters, his fellow citizens and pilgrims; rather in God’s providence he wishes to be of service to them and share with them the love and mercy he has experienced in his own life (10:4).

Augustine could well identify with Jeremiah:
“You have seduced me, Lord, and I have let myself be seduced;
you have overpowered me: you were the stronger.”
(Jer 20:7)

May he intercede on our behalf that we may be truly converted to the Lord and server our sisters and brothers.

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