Friday, August 28, 2009

Squeezing Through the Narrow Door

Arca di San'Agostino
San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro,
Pavia (above)

Earliest picture of
St. Augustine
St. John's Lateran,
Rome (right)

Some 25 or more years ago now I received a flyer in the parish mail, an invitation -- a sincere one, and I'm not trying to poke fun -- to a luncheon at which someone was to share a "testimony". What caught my eye was the sentence: "This will be a time to bring an un-saved guest for Lunch!!" Throughout the Church's history there have been instances of this kind of unfair, inappropriate, judgmental and dangerous attitude, presuming to tag certain people as "unsaved", or conversely, as "Christian" or "spiritual". Whatever our sincere motivation or good intentions might be, we must be very careful, I think, never to arrogate to ourselves the Holy God's authority and right to judge another as to their moral or spiritual status before God.

Luke 13:22-30 is such a warning. Perhaps the questioner asked, "Lord, will those who are saved be few?" from a sincere concern over many who appeared to set God outside their daily lives. But it's also highly possible, given humankind's religious history, that the question was asked from the smug assumption that the questioner was among the "saved", the "few". Notice that Jesus doesn't answer the question directly, but rather challenges the questioner: "Struggle to enter by the narrow door." Many, he says, will try to enter but not be strong enough. Merely striving to enter isn't enough.

Jesus goes on to tell the story of a banquet already in progress. The hearer is placed among those outside, banging on the door: a challenge to the questioner's assumption, if that were the case, that he/she is one of the "saved". The householder replies to those outside, "I don't know where you come from", i.e. where you belong. Hard words for Jewish people, chosen people, living in the Promised Land: "church" people, "saved" people. Such folks not only seem to know where they're from, where they belong, but take great pride in it!

Jesus says further that the reign of God will be full of surprises. The religiously smug will find themselves outside looking in; even worse: these chosen people, now outsiders, will see others, even Gentiles, the "unsaved", coming from all over and sitting at the Lord's table. The protocol of God's reign reverses priorities based on heritage, pride, and self-righteousness. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord', will enter into God's reign."

Which brings us finally to St. Augustine. Augustine was a small town boy from an average family. His father spoiled him rotten. Augustine had the run of the house and was free to come and go as he pleased. His mother tried to advise and control him, but to no avail.

Augustine was, to all appearances, a normal boy who liked to play ball rather than study, which he hated. He resented being forced to study, though he later admitted that he'd have learned nothing unless he'd been forced. He also later admitted that he'd lied, cheated, stolen from his parents, and given himself over to every lust. It's not surprising that, at 16, he dropped out of school!

He fell in with a street gang and was looked up to as a leader. He and his "homes" roamed around, bored and idle. They'd been involved in some petty thefts and vandalism, mostly on a neighbor's property, just for "kicks", as Augustine was to muse later, just "to enjoy the actual theft".

When Augustine was 17, his doting father, at some sacrifice, sent him off to a large metropolitan city to school, mainly to get him off the streets. Augustine took a year of "college" there and majored in what could be called "liberal arts". Soon, however, he became intrigued with Eastern philosophy.

In his spare time Augustine quickly learned where the "action" was. He had lots of friends who, morally speaking, were jaded, corrupt, selfish, and self-absorbed: people with an unhealthy dose of "attitude". Neither Augustine or they had much interest in or respect for matters Christian, much less for religious practice. Although...Augustine was brazen enough to "hit on" a young lady and arrange an affair right during the celebration of the sacred mysteries. Eventually, he dumped the few religious convictions which he had.

Still barely out of adolescence, Augustine met a young woman, whom he never identified, with whom he lived together for the next 14 years. During that time he fathered a son with her. Later he left her and sent her back to her home, even though she was crushed and maintained that she'd never have eyes for any other man. Part of this was motivated by the fact that his mother, Monica, was trying to arrange another marriage for him. He became engaged, but since the wedding was delayed for two years because of his age, he took up living with another woman!

To make things worse, his father, Patricius, died, and Monica was left alone, increasingly disgusted with what Augustine was doing with his life, yet wanting so much to help him.

Augustine, too, was becoming more and more frustrated and dissatisfied with his life's meaninglessness. By this time he'd become a professor in Milan. After much nagging by Monica, Augustine went to talk with Bishop Ambrose, no slouch as a leader or intellectual himself. He actually enjoyed their discussions together on philosophy and theology. Though he remained unconvinced of much of what Ambrose shared, there was this deep unrest gnawing away inside him.

To make a long story short, after two or three years of agonizing and soul-searching and struggling within himself, a perplexed Augustine, had an odd spiritual experience in his backyard. He heard a child's voice in the distance sing-songing over and over, "Tolle, lege; tolle lege -- Take and read, take and read". Hurrying into the house and went to a book of Paul's Epistles. He happened on a random passage in Romans 13:13-14: “Let us walk becomingly as befits the day; no drunken orgies, no sexual debauchery or excesses, not in strife or jealousy! But put on the Lord Jesus Christ; give your flesh no opportunity for its lusts.” Bam! the lights went on, and Augustine was ready to make the jump and be received into the Church.

A year later he, a friend, Alipius, and his illegitimate son, Adeodatus, by now a teenager of 14 himself, were baptized by Bishop Ambrose at the Easter Vigil. As a side-note, imagine the cheekiness of Augustine (or was it a quirk of divine Providence?!) naming his son "Adeodatus = "gift from God"! Sadly, the young boy died not long after his Baptism. Yeah, I think I'll vote for "divine Providence" over "cheekiness"!

Augustine turned out to be one of the most pivotal figures in history. His homiletic and literary output was absolutely phenomenal. The Confessions is one of the greatest testimonies of Christian faith and humility, in which he reflects on his life, especially his familial and personal relationships, but most of all on his relationship with God: "...strange in His deed...alien in His work."

God, termed by Francis Thompson the "Hound of Heaven", pursued Augustine for some twenty years. I wonder how many of us, in our self-righteousness and smugness, would have written this young man off as "unsaved" or "unChristian", had we met him on a university campus or in the public park or at a party. Yet Augustine was the one who wrote the Confessions, as he himself says, for "...a people curious to know the lives of others, but careless to amend their own..."

Once Augustine the outsider had squeezed through the "narrow door", once he'd come to know Jesus the Christ and to realize what he'd almost lost, he could exclaim:

Too late have I loved You,
O Beauty so ancient and so new!
Too late have I loved You.
And lo, You were inside me and I outside,
and I sought for You there,
and in all my unsightliness I flung myself
on those beautiful things
which You have made.
You were with me, and I was not with You...
You touched me and I am aflame for Your peace...

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