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Asia Pacific Augistinian Conference

Brian Lowery OSA: St Augustine - his journey out and back

THE FIRST TALK 

INTRODUCTION

I would like to start out our weekend retreat on the Confessions of St. Augustine listening to what someone else said about the book. That comes from the great mystic, St Teresa of Avila who had a tremendous feeling for St Augustine and as a young girl was a student at a school of Augustinian nuns in Spain.

She says in her Autobiography:
At this time they gave me the Confessions of Saint Augustine. It seems the Lord ordained this, because I had not tried to procure a copy, nor had I ever seen one. I am very fond of Saint Augustine, because the convent where I stayed as a lay person belonged to his Order, and also because he had been a sinner. For I found great consolation in sinners whom, after having been sinners, the Lord brought back to himself. It seemed to me I could find help in them, and that since the Lord had pardoned them, He could pardon me. But there was one thing that left me inconsolable, and that was that the Lord called them only once, and they did not turn back and fall again; whereas in my case I had turned back so often that I was worn out from it. But by considering the love He bore me, I regained my courage, for I had never lost confidence in his mercy; in myself I lost it many times. (Autobiography 9,7).

The Confessions have been a personal inspiration to many other readers and listeners as well, for over 1600 years. The book  traces the route of the famous conversion of St Augustine as he himself wrote about it. Augustine saw his conversion as a kind of a road, a road of the heart. He said as much in one of the several times that he compared himself to the prodigal son: "It is not on our feet or by movement in space that we go from you or return to you" (I,18,28). That is, to turn your back on God and go off to a far place, like the prodigal son did, you don’t need chariots, ships or even feet, You just need to do it in your heart. To turn back to God, however, you don’t need chariots, ships or even feet, you just need to do it in your heart. That’s what the Confessions are all about.

Our plan is to stop at some of the key passages along the route of the Confessions in the short time we have and to read some of Augustine’s most pertinent thoughts about his conversion; and perhaps about our own conversions, too, that are going on at this very moment. Amid those pages we will read about what he would call his sinful past and how his freedom grew ever more diminished as his habits became stronger. We will also discover a mysterious and subtle presence of God, which Augustine recognized only years later after he had become a Christian, with which God little by little worked on his heart and led him back to him.

This mysterious presence, this active closeness of God in one’s life despite all appearances, is one of the main reasons for his writing the Confessions. He wanted us to know that God never leaves us, no matter how far we go from him. He is the Hound of Heaven. God is all the time working in all sorts of ways to bring us to himself. Augustine wanted to encourage his readers and listeners on their own roads, not by preaching a sermon to us or handing us a treatise on theology but by showing the effect of divine grace in the story of another human being like ourselves. Today the power of stories to help understand the Christian life is more recognized than ever before. Stories teach us “the heart of the matter”. For they effectively dramatize the fact that God is for us and  his grace can transform us. The Confessions are the "story of a soul", to use the words of another Teresa, Therese of Lisieux. They are also a story of God and how he is constantly at work seeking us.

I ask you to bring your book with you to our sessions. Underline it if you want. Write in it if something strikes you. For that is how the Confessions will become a friend, and you will be able to return to it easily and often in the future. By the way, it is good to read them slowly. For every word of Augustine is a foot deep and should not be glided over.

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