August 28, 2020

Christ the Cornerstone

Our restless hearts rest in God, or not at all

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” (St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions)

The publication date for this column is Friday, Aug. 28, the Feast of St. Augustine. Most of us have at least a passing awareness of this great saint who was born in North Africa, studied and converted to Christianity in Italy, served as bishop of Hippo in North Africa, and was the author of classic spiritual works, including Confessions, City of God and more than 1,700 sermons, treatises, spiritual commentaries and theological reflections.

St. Augustine is a giant among Christians thinkers and pastors whose influence was (and still is) felt throughout all of Christendom from the fourth century to the present. However, most of us can relate to this great saint not because of his intelligence or his accomplishments, but because he was a man who struggled—with his own sinfulness and in his search for the true meaning of life.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is a student of St. Augustine. His doctoral dissertation and many of his writings are heavily influenced by Augustine’s theology and spirituality. In February 2008, Pope Benedict offered a series of Wednesday catecheses on the life and teaching of St. Augustine. These contain wonderful insights into the man, his teaching and his deep love for the Church in spite of the imperfections of its all too human leaders.

According to Pope Benedict, “Contrary to what many think, Augustine’s conversion was not sudden or fully accomplished at the beginning, but can be defined as a true and proper journey that remains a model for each of us.”

In his autobiographical work, Confessions (VIII, 12, 30), Augustine described his conversion to Jesus as “your converting me to yourself.” He knew that by his own efforts alone he would never have discovered the right path. It was the grace of God that allowed Augustine over the course of many years to surrender his mind, his heart and his soul to Jesus.

Pope Benedict goes on to say: “Precisely because Augustine lived this intellectual and spiritual journey in the first person, he could portray it in his works with such immediacy, depth and wisdom, recognizing in two other famous passages from the Confessions [IV, 4,9 and 14,22], that man is ‘a great enigma’ [magna question] and ‘a great abyss’ [grande profundum] that only Christ can save us from. This is important: a man who is distant from God is also distant from himself, alienated from himself, and can only find himself by encountering God. In this way, he will come back to himself, to his true self, to his true identity.”

If we are separated from God, Augustine knew from his own experience, we are separated from our true selves. God can bring us back to ourselves, but only if we first let God into our lives.

Most of us are familiar with what is surely St. Augustine’s most famous statement from the Confessions. Addressing God directly, Augustine says, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

With this simple, but extremely profound insight, we have a summary of all Christian spirituality. We have been created by our all-loving God to be united with him in this world and the next, and until our life’s purpose has been accomplished, we are fundamentally dissatisfied, incapable of being at peace until we are one with God.

Pope Benedict talks about St. Augustine’s understanding of the ultimate object of our human longing this way: “In a beautiful passage, St. Augustine defines prayer as the expression of desire and affirms that God responds by moving our hearts toward him. On our part, we must purify our desires and our hopes to welcome the sweetness of God.”

As Augustine knew from experience, God is the one who draws us to himself, but we have important work to do as well. We must be ready, willing and able “to welcome the sweetness of God” by clearing away all false or inappropriate desires that separate us from God and alienate us from ourselves and from each other.

Because we are sinners, we always get into trouble when we substitute other “gods”—people or things (such as money, possessions or social status) for God, the one true object of our heart’s desiring.

Let’s ask St. Augustine to help us make our prayer a deeply personal conversation with God. And let’s channel our restlessness into authentic, heartfelt desire for the Blessed Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) who is the One we long for and the true object of our spiritual longing. †

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