St. Augustine

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Augustine. It is hard to pick one thing to say about Augustine, who was such an important person in the development of Western Christianity. Pope Benedict has this to say about Augustine:

“There is hardly a saint who has remained so close to us, so understandable, despite the lapse of centuries, as Saint Augustine, for in his writings we encounter all the heights and depths of the human spirit, all the questioning, and seeking and searching that are still ours today.”

Augustine was a prolific writer, but the work of his that was most important to me during the time of my conversion back to Christianity from Buddhism was his Confessions. His humanness and his brokenness are evident, as is his intense sorrow for his sins and his equally intense longing for God. At a time when I was having great difficulty finding my way, I found it very helpful, comforting even.

Interestingly, after writing his Confressions, Augustine asked himself whether it was good that he had done so. He wondered: If I’ve come to regret my sinful past and if I believe God has forgiven me, why not simply put my past behind me. Why bother putting all this bad stuff from my past down on paper? His answer to that question was that it was the recognition of his own sinfulness that had led him to recognize the love of God. It was only when he realized the depth and extent of the presence of sin in his life that he was able to see who God is and how God worked in his life. Thus, for Augustine, recalling his sinfulness was a necessary part of his praise of God.

That seems to me to be a useful perspective for all of us to keep in mind. But it may be especially useful for those people who have difficulty with the idea of Reconciliation and the idea of confessing their sins. What Augustine understood, in the words of theologian Michael Himes, was that confession “is not about how wicked I have been but rather about how good God is. Like all sacraments, reconciliation is not primarily about my action, whether good or bad, but about God’s action.”