If someone ever asked me, as no one ever has, what the best part of my life was, what I held most dear to me, I would answer my Catholic faith. It is the most beautiful, most frustrating, most complex, most challenging, most dazzling thing I’ve ever encountered, and for all its intricacies and depth I adore it. But for a person who adores it, I speak of it little.
Partly because I worry about coming off as imposing, and partly because I do not feel like a holy enough person to manage speaking about it, I generally avoid speaking to anyone about anything spiritual, outside of family and friends so old they long ago achieved honorary sibling status, unless someone asks.
But I don’t think this is how it should be. I need to get over it. Because my faith largely dominates my mind; it is the palette from which my ideas are painted and the ocean in which my thoughts swim. This fear and hesitancy in sharing a major part of who I know myself to be has become a imprisoning habit that needs to be kicked, and what better season to work on removing such a habit than Lent.
For this Lent, I’m going to take one of my six favorite saints every week, pick out a few of their quotes, and ramble on a bit about their lives, their work, their philosophy, and then also relate how their lives of faith influence my own. What better saint to start with than the one I have been privileged enough to enjoy an entire class on this semester: one of the earliest doctors of the Church and a father to much philosophical thought, St. Augustine of Hippo.
So, basic background: St. Augustine was a Roman man born in Thagaste (town in North Africa) in 354 A.D.. Although he was raised by a Christian mother (see St. Monica), he really was not about the Catholic faith as he grew up. His young adult life featured him joining a heretic cult, taking a concubine along with other sexual trysts, and pursuing fame and renown by becoming a professor of rhetoric in Rome.
Eventually, after decades of searching for truth, Augustine converts to Catholicism and ends up becoming bishop of Hippo and writing tons of complex and beautiful works on the natural convergence of philosophy and theology.
As my knowledge on Augustine has progressed, I have determined he is my spirit saint. I identify on so many levels with the struggles his own soul underwent in his long conversion to Christianity, and most specifically his descriptions of the nature of the will. Augustine highlights beautifully how strange the human will is; he writes,
“The mind commands the body and is instantly obeyed. The mind commands itself and meets resistance.”
Literally, this boggles my mind.
This mystery that Augustine is pointing out is how we can desire something, and yet not desire it; conversely, we can not desire something, and yet desire this. An example of this can be explained through fast food: we all know ordering a large fries and Jamocha shake from Arby’s isn’t good for us. We desire to not want to eat it. Despite this knowledge and this desire to not want it, we still want it. (Well most people do. Congratulations if you are somehow a human being that doesn’t ever desire to eat Arby’s Jamocha shakes and curly fries.) We seem to be unable to have complete command over our desires, even though they are entirely our own. We possess complete control over our bodies; our limbs obey perfectly every whim of our mind, unless you have a medical problem your arm is never going to refuse to move if you tell it to reach out and grab a delicious curly fry. But our mind itself will not perfectly obey itself.
This is where Augustine struggles; here is where he pens his famous phrase, “Lord, grant me chastity and continence; But not yet!” During the process of his conversion, Augustine desires to desire good, and yet he still craves that which he knows to be evil; he wants to pursue virtue, yet he still finds himself drawn constantly to sin; he understands he would be filled with more joy if he but let go of his bad habits, yet he simultaneously is terrified of letting them go. He writes, “The law of sin is the strong force of habit, which drags the mind along and controls it even against its will,” (Confessions, VIII, Ch. 6). I love chapter eight of the confessions, where Augustine enters into the most detail with his interior struggle to wholly unite his will to one purpose, because I experience this struggle constantly. I want to leave behind so many negative habits that I know only chain me, yet I seem to lack the ability to abandon them. I desire to desire God, I desire to desire virtue, I desire to desire goodness, and yet, so often I do not. So often I just desire those very habits and worn ways of doing things that I know do nothing but hold me down.
Augustine terms this as not a matter of having two wills, but as a problem of having our will, a power which God gave us unto his image and likeness (Gen. 1.27), being “weighed down with habit so that it cannot rise up in its entirety, lifted aloft by truth. So the reason why there are two wills in us is because one of them is not entire,and one has what the other lacks,” (VIII, Ch. 9).
Augustine’s solution to this problematic sickness of the will? Grace. A whole separate post could be done on the nature of grace, its supernatural essence and the mystery in which it is given, but to put it as I once heard it, grace is a supernatural turbo boost. It bridges the gap that we alone cannot conquer. We need God. How does one become holy? Not by oneself alone; this is why Augustine writes so often that the way to God is through descent, not ascent. We find Him by realizing we cannot find Him ourselves.
And this is Augustine’s first Big Idea he gives to me (only a 3rd of the way through the class…): I need to stop pretending like I can do this completely on my own. I need to stop freaking out when I can’t get achieve a unified will and instead find myself falling over and over into that which I keep trying to leave behind. Mostly, I need to stop pretending like I don’t need prayer, because asking God for His help and allowing myself to rely on Him in prayer is actually pretty much the only thing I need.
#Lent2016 #PrayerFastingandCharity #JustDoIt