In December, I embarked upon a project to read a book from five different theologians across the history of the Church. The third book that I read was The Confessions by Saint Augustine. As I entered into the world of Augustine, I knew that I was going to have to struggle with the language that Augustine used. I knew that I was entering a world that would challenge me to enter into a different kind of relationship with the text; it was a relationship that demanded my attention – although it may only be a chapter at a time.
Unlike the other books that I read during my holiday break, I did not find myself devouring the words that Augustine wrote like I did with some other authors. Instead of wanting to hurry to the end of the chapter in order to get to the next, I had to force myself to sit with Augustine each day as I trudged through each chapter of the book. Though the only thing that kept me reading on some days was the fact that each page turn took me that much closer to the end of the book, I knew that I needed to finish reading the book in order to make any sense of what Augustine wrote and in order to come to a point that invited me to find life within Augustine’s words.
While I finished reading the book some weeks ago, it has taken me until now to find the words to express how I found life by reading The Confessions. Sure, I could have stopped with the end of the book, checked the box that said I read it, and moved on to the next book without any reflection, but what would have been the point in reading it if only to add it to the list of books that I have read? Surely I was not reading Augustine’s words for the pure satisfaction of being able to bring it up in conversation at particular points in an effort to claim some level of superiority. Indeed, the point in reading The Confessions was precisely the opposite of that. The point in reading the confession of a man who is held up as one of the ‘holy’ men of the Church was to see how going through the act of confession reminds us that we have no claim to that superiority. Instead, the life I found in reading The Confessions was the reminder that I, like every other person in this world, is far from being perfect. The reminder is an important one for all of us. The life that I found was the pure fact that all of us have qualities that are admirable while also having qualities that are less admirable.
So what does this mean as a point of formation in the Christian life? Is it simply to recognize that all of us are sinners that should reflect on our lives to pin point the moments in time in which we have knowingly sinned? Is it to remind us that we are not worthy of the love that God offers to the world, or is it something more than that? While it may be true that each of us has sinned (and continues to fall short of the life that God calls us towards through the faithfulness of Christ), the inspiration to faith that I discovered in reading The Confessions was not the fact that I am a sinner. Instead, the point at which I found life is through the words of love that Augustine has for God as he writes his confession. The book is an open sharing of the self with God in a way that is particularly human – through the naming of that which falls short of the life that God calls humanity into. As Augustine writes in several instances throughout the book, it is not necessary that we tell God any of these things due to the fact that God already know them; however, by entering into relationship with God in such a way that we take the time to reflect upon our weaknesses, we engage in a very human relationship with the divine. We give names to the things that we see as our shortcomings, and we invite God into our daily lives in a new way. The profundity of sharing our lives with God by naming that which we do not like in ourselves is a difficult journey to make with God, but it is also a journey that initiates new life in the self. In naming that which we dislike about the self, we empower ourselves to discover ways to change our habits and to find new, healthier habits that invite us deeper into relationship with God. Instead of beating ourselves up because we are sinners, God reminds us that we can commit to a new life through new habits of prayer that allow us to see the world in a different perspective.
The invitation to a new perspective on life is not an invitation that is going to result in a different perspective immediately. We are to be patient with ourselves as we enter into the process of creating new habits that lead to new life. The new habits will take time to become something that we do every day as we move through life. The invitation is an invitation to start a journey that will last a lifetime, and the habits that we form along the way will encourage us to keep trudging along – even if the only inspiration for doing so is the hope of reaching the end.