“Belatedly I loved Thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new.. For see, Thou wast within and I was without, and I sought Thee out there. Unlovely, I rushed heedlessly among the lovely things Thou hast made. Thou wast with me, but I was not with Thee.. Thou didst call and cry aloud, and didst force open my deafness. Thou didst gleam and shine, and didst chase away my blindness.. I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst. Thou didst touch me, and I burned for Thy peace.”
– St Augustine of Hippo, ‘Confessions’
The life of Saint Augustine of Hippo is a testament to the power of divine grace in bringing about conversion of the heart and will. In the case of St Augustine, that grace-filled conversion was wrought through the tearful prayers of his mother – I wrote about her yesterday in The Lamp of St Monica.
For Augustine, there came a time when he realised his need of conversion, for he saw that he was living something of an unholy life. He famously prayed – “O Lord, grant me continence and chastity – but not yet”. The Lord heard and answered his prayer, too. It seems that at that particular moment, Augustine was not ready for his interior conversion – it would only come later, once the foundations had been properly laid; Augustine had work to do for the Lord, but the Lord had to make him ready for this and that would take a little more time. Eventually, however, that day arrived – Augustine converted, changed his life and went on to become a great Saint, finally being declared a Doctor of the Church because of his astonishing writings on various aspects of the Faith.
When we think of the conversion of St Augustine, our first thought tends to be about our own need for interior conversion, and that is a good and holy thing. But there is, I think, another lesson for us to learn, and it has to do with being mindful of the interior conversion of others.
We can be very quick to judge those who we consider not to be ‘good Catholics’ in whatever way and for whatever reason. Often, our protestations about their perceived faults are loud and sometimes very public, giving no thought to the damage we might be doing to their reputation or character. Those protestations tend to be coloured by our thoughts on how well we ourselves are doing in comparison, such that they are often accompanied by a sense of spiritual pride. And in doing this, we fall into precisely the trap the Lord warned the Scribes and Pharisees about, who so clearly saw the speck in the eye of their neighbour, but without seeing the log in their own. How often we do the same!
This sense of judgement brings with it one other problem. In castigating and berrating another person we allow no room for the grace of God to work according to the timescales of the Lord. He fixes the time, not us. People need to be at the point where they are ready to respond to the grace of God – and when we vocally (and often viciously) criticise others for what we see to be their faults and failings, we run the risk of creating within them a sense of obstinacy, so that they never respond to that divine grace and this moment of conversion never comes. This is a great sin and one we will be called to account for at our Judgement.
Instead, perhaps when we feel the desire to criticise others and to point out their faults, we might silence ourselves, stop for a moment and simply pray for that soul, asking in all humility that the grace of God might achieve what the Lord intends.
In this way, we follow the example of Saint Monica – and our prayers might help in the spiritual formation of a new Saint Augustine.