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+