The feast of St. Augustine follows the feast of his mother, St. Monica – so beautifully and appropriately. She who was so devout prayed for years that he return to the Faith she had taught him as a child.
Augustine’s father was apparently more interested in his studies than his faith and Augustine soon became enamored of worldly things. However, he never stopped searching for the truth. While living in Milan, out of curiosity, he went to hear the sermons of St. Ambrose and eventually became convinced of the truth of Christianity.
This did not result in an automatic conversion for him, however, because he did not find it easy to give up the things of the world that were not good for his soul. And perhaps it is for this that he is best remembered and most loved. Who among us cannot relate to this struggle?
While his Confessions are now considered a classic, at the time they were written they were virtually scandalous in that his admission of struggle and weakness was uncommon among those who embracing the relatively new Faith known as Christianity.
Last night, as I listened to a recording of an excerpt from his Confessions, I was moved to tears. This morning, I wanted to read the words in my own voice. I share my recording with you here – but suggest that you too may find yourself wanting to read the words aloud, so as to enter “into the inmost depth” of your soul along with Augustine.
From the Confessions of Saint Augustine
Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your guidance into the inmost depth of my soul. I was able to do so because you were my helper. On entering into myself I saw, as it were with the eye of the soul, what was beyond the eye of the soul, beyond my spirit: your immutable light. It was not the ordinary light perceptible to all flesh, nor was it merely something of greater magnitude but still essentially akin, shining more clearly and diffusing itself everywhere by its intensity. No, it was something entirely distinct, something altogether different from all these things; and it did not rest above my mind as oil on the surface of water, nor was it above me as heaven is above the earth. This light was above me because it had made me; I was below it because I was created by it. He who has come to know the truth knows this light.
O Eternal truth, true love and beloved eternity. You are my God. To you do I sigh day and night. When I first came to know you, you drew me to yourself so that I might see that there were things for me to see, but that I myself was not yet ready to see them. Meanwhile you overcame the weakness of my vision, sending forth most strongly the beams of your light, and I trembled at once with love and dread. I learned that I was in a region unlike yours and far distant from you, and I thought I heard your voice from on high: “I am the food of grown men; grow then, and you will feed on me. Nor will you change me into yourself like bodily food, but you will be changed into me.”
I sought a way to gain the strength which I needed to enjoy you.
But I did not find it until I embraced the mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who is above all, God blessed for ever. He was calling me and saying: I am the way of truth, I am the life. He was offering the food which I lacked the strength to take, the food he had mingled with our flesh. For the Word became flesh, that your wisdom, by which you created all things, might provide milk for us children.
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.
Thank you, Mary. Such an inspiring book. Such a powerful passage. I shall re-listen and then read aloud myself so as to make it as real and immediate as possible.
P. S. I am including something below which may sound overwrought, or pedantic. Not intended that way. It’s the kind of thing I often think about: multiple meanings make for a richer reading. Anyway, here it is –
Regarding what is perhaps the most often quoted passage from Augustine (“Late have I loved you. . .), The Latin word that Augustine leads that sentence off with, SERO, is usually translated into English as “too late.” This of course could mean “very late,” but it could also emphasize Augustine’s other often-referred-to (perhaps erroneously, or by exaggeration) sense of sin and guilt. I like a third possibility ; namely, his overwhelming feeling for God. He wasn’t just a philosopher, nor just a theologian and preacher. His experience of God was fully human, and so his emotions are speaking when he says, “too late did I come to love you” – – not meaning it literally, but instead expressing great sadness at what he had missed those earlier years.
Thanks for this comment, Al. It is for this reason that I enabled comments on this blog – you have added some depth to our reflection here.
Augustine accomplished a great deal for the early Church. Yet, I think, no matter how much any of us do, it can never feel like enough in response to the total outpouring of love that we have received in Christ. Hence, in a sense, it is always “late” that I have loved Him. Any moment of sin or reluctance, distraction of turning away, makes my love feel “late”.
I don’t tend to think of this as guilt or regret. Perhaps not even sadness (though maybe just a bit, with the joy being so much greater). All of those negative emotions involve a focus on me. When we see what He has done for us, the focus is on Him and we can only feel awe at His great love.
Very powerful yet humbling read. I’m a true admirer.
After reading this beatiful message, I felt prompt to post one of my favorite Psalms –
O God, you are my God,
early will I seek you.
My flesh longs for you,
my soul thirsts for you,
in a barren and dry land where there is no water
I believe that this is a message the world desperately needs to hear today. It is one of heartfelt dedication to Christ as Master, Teacher and Savior, which cultivates and nourishes change; it is one of sincere commitment to love in freedom and obedience; it is one of abandonment in trust and ardent devotion to the Other: the source and origin of our being and life. Further, as a thirst for truth develops in which God’s revelation is sought after as if it is as important as life itself, the soul is led to the truth and unity of the Catholic Church. There, we rest in the knowledge of certainty, removed from those contradictions which otherwise so often plague us, and find our peace in the Word of God who speaks through his Church. Thus St. Augustine became an ardent defender of the truth and beauty of the Catholic Church: “The Church is spread throughout the whole world: all nations have the Church. Let no one deceive you; it is true, it is the Catholic Church. Christ we have not seen, but we have her; let us believe as regards Him. The Apostles, on the contrary, saw Him, but they believed as regards her”
Thank you for your commenting, Angela.
Lest anyone become confused by words (and I am not saying that you are), allow me to clarify that St. Augustine, as a Father of the early Church, used the term “Catholic” in its true meaning. Although the Church when it was “young” was beset with many trials and heresies, it was defended ardently by its early Fathers (and Mothers, I imagine, though less publicly), of which Augustine was one. Hence, it was the universal and one Church of Christ, carrying the Truth of Christ through the storms of this world.
In the terminology of today’s world, the word “Catholic” has come to mean the western Church that seeks to live this Truth under the guidance of the Pope. St. Augustine, living prior to Schism (and the Reformation and the many other splinterings of the Church after that) could not have known this meaning. As noted in the “about” section of the blog, though a Roman Catholic myself, I live and write with deep respect for the Orthodox and all true believers, God Himself knowing who they are.
The Church, the Spouse of Christ, is One. The churches, the human manifestations as we know them today, have much sorting out to do to find our way to living out this oneness in its perfection. It is not my goal to sort that out here but to simply respect all who seek Christ with a sincere heart.
Thank you for that reply. I too, am on a similar journey.