I managed to get through the entirety of the day yesterday without remembering that it was the memorial of St. Monica. Today, we celebrate the memorial of her son, St. Augustine, bishop and doctor of the Church. Or, in the words of one commentator, the “sinner turned saint.”
I’ve shared before how important Augustine’s Confessions was to me at the time of my conversion from Buddhism back to Christianity. Indeed, I’ve often thought that it would have been a great help for me if someone has suggested that I read that work when I was 17 and engaged in the struggle that resulted in my abandonment of Catholicism for over twenty years. Augustine’s humanness and his brokenness are evident in that work, as was 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, the book was a great help to me.
I deeply relate to Augustine’s words to God,
You were with me, but I was not with you. Things held me far from you- things which, if they were not in you, were not at all. You called, and shouted, and burst my deafness. You flashed and shone, and scattered my blindness. You breathed odors and I drew in breath – and I pant for you. I tasted, and I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
After writing his Confressions (and I’ve shared this before), 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.” There is something incredibly powerful about our own articulation of our sins and our hearing the words of absolution.