Saint Augustine and his mother, Saint Monica

Deep within each and every one of us there is a hunger and a thirst.  We all experience this yearning of the soul – a heart that burns with longing – but we don’t always recognize what it is for which we yearn.  We can spend years trying to satisfy this yearning, yet never be satisfied.

St. Augustine expresses this reality so beautifully, “Thou move us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.” [i]  He included this prayer at the beginning of his spiritual autobiography, Confessions. Its placement emphasizes the importance of this discovery by St. Augustine in his life after years of searching in all the wrong places.

St. Augustine was not always a saint. He spent a portion of his life, maybe like you and like me, in pursuit of what he incorrectly thought would satisfy his hunger and thirst. We all know the story of his mother, St. Monica, who spent many long years praying for her son… a son who refused to submit to God and the Catholic faith… a son who lived with a woman who bore him a son out of wedlock. Such is the love of a mother for her child.  In grief, compassion and concern for her son, St. Monica never failed to pray with urgency, persistence, faithfulness and hope for her son to come to faith.

St. Augustine gives us a glimpse into what was taking place in his life during those years:

“Late have I loved You, O Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! Late have I loved You! And behold, You were within me, yet I was outside, and there I searched for You; deformed, I plunged amid those fair forms which You had made. You were with me, but I was not with You. Those beautiful creations held me far from You, which, unless they were in You, were not at all.

“You called and cried out to me; overcoming my deafness. You shone upon me and set aside my blindness. You breathed fragrance upon me and I drew in breath and panted for You. I tasted, now I hunger and thirst for You. You touched me and I burned for Your peace.” [ii]

Here he speaks of the burning deep within his heart and recognizes that it was God he sought all along.  But in his deformity, he had sought instead those pleasures and beauties of creation instead of the Creator – and so his hunger was not then satisfied.

Reflect a moment on this. How many times have we made the same mistake? Have we sought to satisfy our hunger with material pleasures and riches, even good things, failing to see that our yearning is for God who alone can satisfy our deepest desire? And very likely, just like St. Augustine, we have had a mother who prayed for us, beseeching the good God to open our hearts to Him.

In the end, the breaking open of the Scriptures by St. Ambrose of Milan and the good St. Monica’s prayers touched Augustine’s heart and opened the door for Christ to rush in.

God’s Call – Our Response

Each of us is called by God to a life of faith and holiness. Each of us will have to give an account to God for how we responded. In my diaconal ministry, I encounter many people who are in search of meaning for their lives; they are in search of the God who called them into existence. By the time I meet them, they may have acknowledged in some vague way that it is God they seek; but where will they look and how will they find Him? A few have the wisdom to ask in humility, “Why do I feel this way?”

One of the great truths about Man’s Search for God is that it is truly God who first searches for man.

The Catechism explains, “God calls man first. Man may forget his Creator or hide far from his face; he may run after idols or accuse the deity of having abandoned him; yet the living and true God tirelessly calls each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer. In prayer, the faithful God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response.” [iii]

St. John of the Cross explains this first movement of God towards us in Living Flame of Love.

In the first place, if a soul is seeking after God, the Beloved is seeking it much more; if it sends after Him its loving desires, which are sweet as a pillar of smoke of aromatical spices, of myrrh and frankincense, He, on His part, sends forth the odour of His ointments, which draw the soul and make it run after Him.”[iv]

This is so reassuring. We don’t have to travel far to find God. He is beside us always, calling us to Him by His grace.

A few years ago, I met a man while running the trails in a nearby park. I had paused beside a pond, deep in a valley, to pray my mid-afternoon prayers. I had just taken out my breviary when Sam approached. I noticed him standing a short distance away and assumed he was taking a break, so I returned to my prayer. When I had concluded and made the closing Sign of the Cross, Sam came and stood by me. Apologizing for disturbing me, he asked if I was a priest or something? I smiled and silently prayed a Hail Mary for help and said, “I am a Catholic deacon – Deacon Mike – can I help you?”

For the next hour, Sam and I sat beside the pond and talked, cried a little and prayed together. He was a life-long Catholic and a husband and father. He loved his family very much, but something was missing. As it turned out, Sam and his family had not truly welcomed God into their home and both he and his family were restless and he said he didn’t know why. His wife took the kids to Mass, but he didn’t go that often. But, he could not totally keep from thinking of his faith and his God.

I shared with Sam that our meeting was not an accident… nor was his restlessness. Any of us, at times, may choose to ignore God and go our own way – yet God never ignores us and He never ceases to call us to Himself.  These words made a positive impact on Sam, thanks be to God. When we parted, he was at peace and resolved to ask both God and his family to forgive him.

I am certain that God orchestrated the encounter that day. I was following the example of a good friend when I decided to take my breviary with me that day. Sam had no idea why he had decided to visit the park that day. It was the sight of me praying from that book that arrested Sam’s attention. We laughed as Sam recalled a memory of seeing a priest back home pray from a book “just like yours” while he walked in a park. Even my quick prayer to Mary was an actual grace prompted by God.

The Gift of Faith

Faith is God’s gift to us. When our thoughts turn to God it is because God placed that thought in our heart. As St. John of the Cross would say, it is not our doing at all – this thought we have of God – it is His work, His loving call to us. We were made by Love for Love. The invitation from God that first turns our mind and heart to Him and prepares us for conversion is a prevenient grace and is not conditioned upon our holiness or our works. It is a gift from the Father who created us and desires all good things for us.

But God’s invitation requires our response. We are free to say yes or no. One day, pray God, each of us will respond with our own fiat. We believe and are baptized; then we are infused with the three Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity that make us members of His family, the Church and enable us to live a life pleasing to the Father.

Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself. By faith ‘man freely commits his entire self to God.’ For this reason the believer seeks to know and do God’s will.”[v]

There are many different ways that we come to faith. For many of us, it was within the family that we were first introduced to the faith; where we first encountered the Risen Lord and came to believe. For others, it might be a friend or even a stranger who God placed in their life to be a witness to His love. In all cases, it is the grace of God that moves us to Him, if we will say yes.

So great a gift must be treasured and nurtured. We begin our life of faith as spiritual children.  But conversion does not end there. Through the practice of the virtues (particularly humility), prayer and participating in the sacramental life, each of us is called to a mature faith of prayer and holiness.

Lord Jesus, I believe in you, increase my faith.

Into the deep…

Footnotes & Acknowledgements

[i] St. Augustine; Confessions, Book X, Chapter XXVII; paraphrased by the author, based on public domain translation by Edward B. Pusey, D.D.
[ii] St. Augustine; Confessions, Book X, Chapter XXVII; paraphrased by the author, based on public domain translation by Edward B. Pusey, D.D.
[iii] Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2567, Second Edition
[iv] The Works of St. John of the Cross, April 1912 – public domain, translation by David Lewis; Living Flame of Love, Stanza III
[v] Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1814, Second Edition

This article was first published in the Spring 2012 edition of Spirit of Carmel Magazine and appears here with the permission of the author.

Deacon Bickerstaff is available to speak at your parish or event. Be sure to check out his Speaker Page to learn more. Into the Deep is a regular feature of the The Integrated Catholic Life™.

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