On the Journey: Prayer, Work, and Cookies

Augustine’s Confessions Book II, Chapters 6-10

“I long instead for innocence and justice, graceful and splendid in eyes whose sight is undefiled. My longing fills me and yet it cannot cloy. With them is certain peace and life that cannot be disturbed. The man who enters their domain goes to share the joy of the Lord. He shall know no fear and shall lack no good. In him that is goodness itself he shall find his own best way of life. But I deserted you, my God. In my youth I wandered away, too far from your sustaining hand, and created of myself a barren waste.” –Confessions II.10

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CC BY-SA 3.0 by TimmyTruck via WikiCommons

What is the first time you remember you felt guilt from knowing you did something wrong? If you are anything like me, it was probably pretty early on in life. At my great-grandmother’s house up in the mountains, she used to have this wonderful cookie jar sitting on the counter. She always kept it filled with fresh cookies, and if for some reason it was empty, you could be sure that a fresh batch was soon to be ready, the sweet smell of chocolate chips wafting through the house. After all, what’s Grandma’s house without cookies?!

When I was 5 or 6, I remember thinking that I could get to that cookie jar. I had asked earlier if I could have one, but for some reason (probably due to an upcoming meal), I was told no. So, as many a small child will do, I took matters into my own hands. When no one was in the kitchen, I quickly pulled a chair over to the counter. If you know me, you know how short I am; well, I was short for my age then as well, so you can imagine the sight!

In any case, there I was with the chair at the counter, my objective in view. I climbed up, and reached as far as I could, just barely grasping the jar. I pulled it over, and opened the lid, seeing the forbidden objects of my desire: those precious chocolate chip cookies. I quickly took one out, replaced the lid, climbed down, put the chair back, and took the first bite into that delicious morsel.

It was probably the worst cookie I’ve had in my life.

Don’t get me wrong, the taste was absolutely wonderful! But I knew that I had done something wrong. As I finished the cookie, I realized that I had taken the cookie without asking, betraying my grandmother’s trust. Even though no one ever found out (or at least no one ever told me they found out), I felt absolutely horrible. In the words of Saint Augustine, “it brought me no happiness, for what harvest did I reap from acts that make me now blush?” (II.8)

And so it is with sin in our life. In these last chapters of Book II in Augustine’s Confessions, we find him reflecting on the mistakes of his youth, something which I think is common to almost every person. One of the constants of human existence in our fallen life is that of sin: we fall constantly, “for the soul defiles itself with unchaste love when it turns away from you and looks elsewhere for things which it cannot find pure and unsullied except by returning to you” (II.6). Often in life we seek fulfillment and pleasure in things that are not of God. Pick any of the seven deadly sins, and you find that they are all about replacing God for something of this world. Sometimes, this longing can even twist good things into bad, whether it is a good hobby, work in the Church, or love for another person. When we take our focus from God, everything starts to fall apart.

So what is the answer? To turn back to Him of course! We can do this through the sacraments, most especially through Confession and the Eucharist. We find through the Sacraments that “no caress is sweeter than your charity and no love is more rewarding than the love of your truth, which shines in beauty above all else” (II.6). In His love, beauty, and truth, we find true fulfillment, rather than in those things of the world, no matter how good they may seem. We must realize that everything we do, no matter how mundane, needs to be directed back toward God.

Mt._Angel_Abbey_(Marion_County,_Oregon_scenic_images)_(marDA0213)

Mount Angel Abbey Church, by Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives

I find this especially present in the maxim of Saint Benedict, “Ora et Labora,” or Prayer and Work. Everything we do can be turned toward God and sanctified. In the Benedictine sense, this takes the form of the daily prayers as “ora” and each monastery’s particular work, such as teaching in the case of my seminary, as “labora.” But from what I have seen in the various monks I’ve met over the years, it also means making the work itself a prayer. Why not offer up your daily trials and triumphs to the Lord, sanctifying every moment of every day? Of course we must set aside some time specifically dedicated to prayer, but all those other times can be directed to the Lord as well.

As we strive to direct our lives towards God, we begin to realize the limitless grace and mercy that is the Lord’s. Despite our past mistakes and current failings, we see that He is boundless, and so can repeat the words of Saint Augustine, “I avow that you have forgiven me all.” For God’s mercy is infinite; all we need to do is to turn back to Him.

These past few chapters have focused on the adolescence of Saint Augustine and the mistakes he made in his life. Next we head into Book III, where he will take us through his time of learning rhetoric and the beginning of his quest for truth, even if at first he was not looking in the right places…

UPDATE: 31 July 2016, 2215

Having just read Pope Francis’ final homily from World Youth Day, I think these words are especially appropriate:

That is our real “stature”, our spiritual identity: we are God’s beloved children, always. So you can see that not to accept ourselves, to live glumly, to be negative, means not to recognize our deepest identity. It is like walking away when God wants to look at me, trying to spoil his dream for me. God loves us the way we are, and no sin, fault or mistake of ours makes him change his mind. As far as Jesus is concerned – as the Gospel shows – no one is unworthy of, or far from, his thoughts. No one is insignificant. He loves all of us with a special love; for him all of us are important: you are important! God counts on you for what you are, not for what you possess. In his eyes the clothes you wear or the kind of cell phone you use are of absolutely no concern. He doesn’t care whether you are stylish or not; he cares about you!  In his eyes, you are precious, and your value is inestimable.

At times in our lives, we aim lower rather than higher. At those times, it is good to realize that God remains faithful, even obstinate, in his love for us. The fact is, he loves us even more than we love ourselves. He believes in us even more than we believe in ourselves. He is always “cheering us on”; he is our biggest fan. He is there for us, waiting with patience and hope, even when we turn in on ourselves and brood over our troubles and past injuries. But such brooding is unworthy of our spiritual stature! It is a kind of virus infecting and blocking everything; it closes doors and prevents us from getting up and starting over.  God, on the other hand, is hopelessly hopeful!  He believes that we can always get up, and he hates to see us glum and gloomy. Because we are always his beloved sons and daughters. Let us be mindful of this at the dawn of each new day.  It will do us good to pray every morning: “Lord, I thank you for loving me; help me to be in love with my own life!” Not with my faults, that need to be corrected, but with life itself, which is a great gift, for it is a time to love and to be loved.

You can read the rest here.


Up next time: the beginning of Book III

This is part of a continuing series, Companions on the Journey, which travels along with a particular companion in the spiritual life, one of the great saints, in order discover how some of their writings might be applicable to our everyday lives. Currently, we are traveling with Augustine of Hippo through his work, Confessions. You can take a look at previous posts in the series or read the introduction.

 

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