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

Rocket01

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.

 

On the Journey: Spring Cleaning and Attachment to Sin

Augustine’s Confessions Book II, Chapters 4-5

“But our ambition to obtain all these things must not lead us astray from You, O Lord, nor must we depart from what Your law allows.” Confessions II.5

Pears

By Keith Weller – USDA, Image Number K5299-1., Public Domain

Moving has a way of forcing a person to evaluate his or her priorities. As I packed my belongings at the seminary in preparation for my language immersion trip to Mexico and my Pastoral Internship during the next academic year, I realized that I had a lot of stuff to weed out. Some of it were things that I no longer used, or old clothes, or items that I didn’t really need in the first place. Packing gave me a chance to focus on what should be my priority, namely, my formation and preparation for the priesthood, and so I was able to divest myself of quite a few belongings. Many items I kept too, such as those relating to what I consider “central” hobbies or interests in my life: theology, astronomy, or writing (and, of course, Star Trek and Star Wars). All in all, it was a very freeing experience, being able to take stock of everything and discern whether or not it was truly necessary in my life.

All of that said, I must say this: attachment to material things is no small obstacle to overcome!

In this week’s selection, Saint Augustine shows us the danger of attachment to material things. He relates what I consider to be one of the most jarring stories in Book II of the Confessions: when he and several friends stole an enormous amount of pears from a local orchard. This tale may not seem like much, but when one takes into account Augustine’s motivations, the reader can see just how dangerous material covetousness can be. He uses this moment to show how we can be attached to the material world for its own sake, and even more diabolically, how we can even be attached to sin for the mere feeling that it provides. Augustine even admits that he “had no wish to enjoy the things I [he] coveted by stealing, but only to enjoy the theft itself and the sin” (II.4).

We must remember, however, that material objects in and of themselves are not sinful. One does not sin by owning the best computer or the fanciest boat. Sin enters the picture when these items are loved for their own sake, rather than for the end of true joy in glorifying God and building up oneself and others in a positive way. After all, as Augustine notes, “The life we live on Earth has its own attractions as well, because it has a certain beauty of its own in harmony with the world’s beauty” (II.5). The beauty of God and creation as seen through material things cannot be denied! But what happens when we move into excess? Is the fanciest boat or best computer really that necessary?

The danger comes when we attach too much importance to material items, and again, Augustine leads the way in this thinking: “They are of the lower order of good, and if we are too much tempted by them we abandon those higher and better things, Your truth, Your law, and You Yourself, O Lord our God” (II.5). In other words, when we attach an importance to an item, a feeling, or even a person, that is outside of this proper order of things, then we lose our focus and we fall back in on ourselves, leading eventually to sin; we follow Augustine’s footsteps directly into the pear orchard.

camel_needle_gifThe pear orchard, however, is not an endless trap! We must work to reexamine our lives, and place everything where it belongs. We do not sin by possessing material items, but I do believe that it adds a greater burden on our lives, for after all, Jesus Christ tells us that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19.24). So let’s take a moment to examine our lives, our attachments, and discern where we can use a bit of spring cleaning.

Just don’t take away my books. Anything but the books!

Questions for reflection:

  1. Do I place inordinate attachment to anything in my life, outside of its proper order, whether that be a person, an object, or even an idea or emotion?
  2. How can I better re-order the priorities in my life so that my material possessions can help me become a better person, in terms of how I treat myself, how I interact with others, and how I relate to and worship God?

Up next time: Confessions II.6-10

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.

On the Journey: Cast Off Your Old Self

Augustine’s Confessions Book II, Chapters 2-3

I strayed still farther from you and you did not restrain me…For your almighty power is not far from us, even when we are far from you.Confessions II.2

To be Christian is to be in conversion, but that also means that we must recognize our past and God’s presence even in our darkest moments. Here in these two chapters, we find a stark picture of Augustine prior to his conversion to Christianity, seen now through the eyes of Augustine the believer. He recognizes the depths of his depravity and his continued descent into sin and lust, and at the same time recognizes that even though it seemed that God was not present, He was, in fact, always there: “How presumptuous it was for me to say that you were silent, my God, when I drifted farther and farther away from you!” (II.3). Even in the depths of sin, lust, and fornication, Augustine recognizes that God was still present, all at once never impinging on Augustine’s free will, but always waiting for the future bishop to return to His loving embrace.

800px-Hans_Speckaert_-_Conversion_of_St_Paul_on_the_Road_to_Damascus_-_WGA21655

Hans Speckaert (circa 1540–circa 1577) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Before I was baptized, I lived a life typical of many young people bound up in the world. I was also in school part time, but didn’t really apply myself. My existence consisted of living day-to-day, not really caring about those outside of my immediate reality, and sometimes even less.

Despite my continued spiritual quest through the New Age movement, God was essentially not part of my life, but he was certainly still present. I searched for fulfillment in all the wrong places, and like Augustine, “I should have awaited your [God’s] embrace with all the greater joy” (II.2). I found that while He was not a part of my life, I was certainly a part of His; in other words, He was always present, a fact that I can see so clearly now that I can hardly believe that I didn’t see it before.

I never saw him working through my parents. Through my mom’s and dad’s encouragement, or my sister’s willingness to be with her little brother (even when he was annoying). I didn’t see Him in the presence of my grandparents, who did so much to support my sister and myself, particularly my grandmothers, who constantly showered love on both of us and prayed for us every day. I never saw his presence in that of my teachers, who tried to push me beyond my own self-imposed procrastination-laden limits. In short, I was blind to His love present in the actions of others, and I wouldn’t begin to discover it until I was nearly 20 years old.

When we are mired in selfishness and sin, we are blind to God, our neighbors, and ourselves. Sin and vice cut us off from the divine life, and leave us empty, thrown askew into the world, to the point to where sin itself becomes the goal, in order to meet the expectations of the world, rather than seeking the goal that is heaven:

Nothing deserves to be despised more than vice; yet I gave in more and more to vice simply in order not to be despised. If I had not sinned enough to rival other sinners, I used to pretend that I had done things I had not done at all, because I was afraid that innocence would be taken for cowardice and chastity for weakness. (II.3)

But of course, we have hope, so much hope! Following Jesus Christ, we find that God is in fact always present in our lives, no matter what the mistake, misstep, or sin. We may find it difficult to approach His love, especially amidst a world that has, in many cases, confused sin for virtue, vice for love.

Like Augustine, let us begin to move toward God and heed the words of Saint Paul:

Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4.22-24)

Questions for reflection:

  1. Where has sin and vice made me blind to God’s presence in my life?
  2. How has God worked through other people in my life in order to draw me closer to Him?

Up next time: Confessions II.4-5

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.

+JMJ+

On the Journey: The Importance of Reflection

Augustine’s Confessions Book II, Chapter 1

For love of your love I shall retrieve myself from the havoc of disruption which tore me to pieces when I turned away from you, whom alone I should have sought, and lost myself instead on many a different quest.Confessions II.1

Mirror

By Cgs (GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Self-reflection is, I think, largely a lost art in today’s world. So often we hear about people going about their daily lives, merely allowing the unrelenting pull of existence to carry them where it will, living without intentionality. We often fail to look at where we have been, and so miss where we might go, where the Lord is leading us, where the Spirit speaks to the still quiet recesses of our hearts. Our lives are filled with noise, and so we fail to hear not only the Lord, but our own inner voices as well, and simply allow ourselves to be swept away.

When I fist entered seminary, I received a it of advice from my mom: from the beginning, keep a journal. She recognized the importance of self-reflection, and encouraged me to develop this skill which, I eventually found, became indispensable in my daily life. The journal has ebbed and waned over the years: sometimes there are consecutive daily entries, and sometimes I may go several weeks without writing anything down. I have tried, however, to keep my mom’s advice, advice that has helped to shape not only my experience in seminary, but to shape so many other aspects of my life as well. Self-reflection, if we hope to grow closer to God and embrace our humanity to its fullest potential, is indispensable.

In his first chapter of book II, Augustine endeavors to show just how indispensable reflection can be. He realized that in order to move forward in his spiritual journey, he needed to look back as well: “I must now carry my thoughts back to the abominable things I did in those days, the sins of the flesh which defiled my soul. I do this, my God, not because I love those sins, but so that I may love you. For love of your love I shall retrace my wicked ways” (Confessions II.1) Here we see two main points regarding self-reflection which must not be forgotten:

  1. While we do indeed turn inward, at its core, reflection isn’t merely something to look back and see how good or bad we are, but it should in fact help us to turn outward toward God, giving Him thanks and asking for His grace and mercy.
  2. Sometimes self-reflection is not a pleasant process; in order to grow, we must accept both the good in our lives as well as those areas in which we have fallen in order to gain a true self-understanding of where we stand before God.

In the end, Saint Augustine did not take on this task because he loved his sinful past, or even to put on a show to display how great a sinner he was, and so how holy he had become after his conversion, but rather he took on the task of self-reflection to grow closer to God. He knew that in order to more fully unite himself to the Holy Trinity, he needed to reflect on the “different quests” of his life, seeing in those moments where God had been the entire time. So, too, can we look at those different quests in our lives, discovering the presence of the Lord in both the smallest moments and biggest breakthroughs, in times of failure, and in times of triumph.

This is the key: in everything we do, we must set as our goal to grow closer to Him, whether it is self-reflection, or daily work, or taking on some new adventure. In this way, we begin to truly “seek the things that are above” (Col. 3.1).

Questions for reflection:

  1. Do I undertake a daily examen, or even journaling,  in order that I may more fully reflect on my life?
  2. How can I live to be more intentional, rather than letting the tides of the daily grind sweep me away?

Up next time: Confessions II.2-3

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.

+JMJ+

On the Journey: Childhood

Augustine’s Confessions I.7-12

“You are the one and only mold in which all things are cast and the perfect form which shapes all things and everything takes its place according to your law.” -Confessions I. 7

One of the most profound experiences that one can have, in my opinion, is holding a newborn child in their arms. The beauty and innocence in the eyes of an infant can reach a person to the very soul, putting him or her in touch with the God who created us all, who at one time formed us in the womb so that we might be held by our own fathers and mothers.

The parent of a toddler running around the house may not be so keen on seeing that innocence, and the parent of a teenager may outright deny it!

We are all born in this wonderful state, but then again, we are also human. We are not born perfect, and we will grow to make mistakes, fall, both proverbially and actually, and by God’s grace, we will get up again.

I remember when I was a young child, probably middle elementary school and I was out playing with some friends. I did not want to come home, only because I wanted to play longer, and ignored the calls of my mother. (And when I say calls, I mean verbally, from the front porch. Well, whistles actually. Cell phones weren’t so common then. Man, I feel old all of a sudden…)

This obviously didn’t end well.

From Wikimedia Commons - Unlimited License

From Wikimedia Commons – Unlimited License

She kept calling, and I kept ignoring, and finally it came time that I had to leave my friend’s house so he could eat dinner. I proceeded out his front door, said goodbye, and waited. And hid behind a rather large bush. And waited some more. I mean, I knew I was in for it, so why not, right? I saw my mom ride by on her bicycle, looking frantically for me. I’m not sure how long it had been; it seemed like hours, but it was probably only 15 or 20 minutes. Eventually, I knew I had to make my presence known, and so I stepped out so she could see me.

That was the first time I experienced what it was like to be grounded.

Lord knows it wouldn’t be the last, and that I have probably given my mother and father a fright or two or ten since then!

But my point is this: even at that young age, we struggle with the right thing to do, what choices we make, and this is where we find Augustine in this week’s reading. He recounts what he must have been like as an infant (whiny) and what he was like during his early school years (a brat who didn’t want to concentrate on school work):

“I was disobedient, not because  I had chosen something better than they [my parents] proposed to me, but simply from the love of games…My eyes shone more and more [with curiosity]…[and I] wanted to see the shows and sport which grown-ups enjoyed.” –Confessions I.10

The Carpenter's Shop, by Everett Millais [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Somehow, I don’t think our Lord ever got in trouble… Painting entitled “The Carpenter’s Shop”, by Everett Millais [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Augustine sought to follow his own desires, seeking what he considered the “wealth of this age” (I.9). But even at this point in life, even though he  had a lot of growing up to do, and many more mistakes to make, he still had an inclination of the presence of God, taught  to him by his mother Monica.  At one point, he even pleads with his mom, appealing to her own devotion, “Give me the baptism of Christ your son, who is my God and my master” (I.11).

I wish I was as eloquent as Augustine at that age!

There is a two fold lesson that we can learn from our own lives and from Augustine in all of this. First, we must grow up. Second, we must remain children. Scripture even supports this: in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ tells his followers, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (18.2-4). In one of the Apostle Paul’s letters, he speaks of “put[ting] away childish things” (1 Cor. 13.11).

Of course there is no contradiction here. In one sense, we must strive to return to the humility of childhood, seeing ourselves how God sees us, trying to better ourselves, get aways from the distractions of the “wealth of this world.” We must seek refuge in Him as the Father that He is, accepting the mercy of His Son, allowing the Spirit to penetrate our hearts. At the same time, this movement of child-like faith and humility will cause us to grow up, to see the world how it truly is, to see the emptiness of worldly wealth and to see how His truth and beauty permeates all things. We discover that we can either allow ourselves to be swept away by that beauty, or turn our backs on it as we would a cold wind.

The Father has cast us in His image; let’s rediscover the mold from which He made us as little children.

For reflection:

How can you become more like a child to grow closer to God?

What things do you need to put away in order to grow closer to God?

Up in two weeks: Confessions I.13-15. Normally I try to post weekly, but I am taking this short hiatus to focus on enjoying vacation and studying for finals. There will be other posts on the blog before then, I am sure, but the next one in this series will be on Dec. 9.

This is part of a continuing series, Companions on the Journey. You can take a look at previous posts in the series or read the introduction.