And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received it not as the word of men, but as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.1 Thessalonians 2: 12-13
Today is the Feast of St. Augustine. In our time Augustine has a bit of a mixed reputation. While on the one hand he is without doubt among the greatest of the thinkers of the early Church, on the other, he at times falls prey to the dualism of his forsaken Manichaeism and his shame at what he came to perceive as his youthful sinful relationships. Nonetheless he is clearly a teacher, a servant of the word, who speaks with the authority of actual experience.
In today’s reading from Thessalonians, St. Paul speaks of the great gratitude he feels as he perceived that the word that he has shared with the Thessalonians has taken such deep root. “. . . in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received it not as the word of men, but as it truly is, the word of God which is now at work in you who believe.” Of course the word Paul offered was the word of a man. So, how is it that the words we offer may become for our hearers the word of God with the power to always be at work in them.
Recently, I have been gifted with some very affecting communications. These words have had the power to transform for me an experience that I had felt as deeply disturbing, dark, and lonely. I had begun to wonder if perhaps Nietzsche was right that every meeting of human beings is but a conflict of power with power. In the midst of this experience, however, came especially two communications that clearly had been deeply thought out and whose words had been carefully chosen. The depth and the care of the words opened me, despite my discouragement, so that I received them as a communication from one heart to another. As I read the words, I experienced myself “coming back” to myself, to a place in me that knew gratitude, love, and desire for connection. The words of these correspondences were, of course, the words of human persons, but they became, as they worked in me, the word of God as well.
St. Augustine says that we are not the light but, by the light of God, we become illumined so that we, who were once in darkness, now become light in God. He says that there is an “eternal reality” within each of us. When as human beings we speak or offer a word that touches that “eternal reality” in another, it has become the word of God at work in them. The life journey of Augustine, as that of all of us, is a seeking and a searching for our own true identity. Augustine discovers that identity is not to be found outside of his own depth. This is precisely why his Confessions ring so true to us. These are not philosophical or theological ideas, they are rather the description of what he knows in his own heart.
As a younger person, I was certain that by the time I would reach my current age, I would no longer be buffeted about by my changing moods and perspectives. As a very young person entering at the time what we called “the state of perfection,” I’m sure I anticipated having reached such a state before I’d finished seven decades of life. I’ve certainly learned, however, that what Freud called the “vicissitudes of the ego” remain throughout all of our lives. So, then, what is this “eternal reality” of which Augustine speaks that dwells within us, and why is it that we so readily become forgetful of it?
Yesterday as a friend and I were attempting to deepen our reflection for the sake of our upcoming work, we raised the perennial question of “What do I want?” We both agreed that if we posed the question to each other, we would have a very difficult time answering it. The difficulty we have is, perhaps, two-fold. First of all, moment to moment we live at a distance from our own hearts, and so our own life of desire. In this sense we live as alienated from ourselves. As we read Augustine’s famous biography, the relentlessness of his search is striking. Now, of course, the Confessions do not represent his ordinary and daily routine. For certain, Augustine, as ourselves, was not always thinking about his own call and destiny. And yet, it is his purity of heart that makes him who he is for us. While certainly living in forgetfulness a good bit of the time, he also seemed to separate himself much less than most of us from his heart, his place of desire. In perhaps the most famous section of the Confessions, that is Book X, he speaks of his incessant search for God, futile for so long because he searched outside rather than within. This is something we can all understand, because it is so difficult to name what we desire, not only because we are dissociated from our hearts but also because we have multiple desires. As Augustine, we seek “satisfaction” from multiple sources and experiences in life. We, as he, mistake gratification and complacence at the level of this multiplicity for fulfillment in the deepest sense.
It is the word of God, as uttered by human beings, that has the ability to pierce our forgetfulness and our vital and functional stupor. To return to my personal example, in light of my own disappointment and disillusionment, I had forgotten the “eternal reality” within. As so often in my life, I, like the disciples in Gethsemane, had fallen asleep while my Lord was praying within me. The love, care, and diligence of those who shared their words with me awakened in me my presence to the One, the only thing that really matters. And the marvel of the words that become the word of God is how much work they do in us. The word has the power to break through our encapsulation and then, in turn, to break out of us in love for the world.
Augustine says that once we are awakened to the Divine life within, we feel the sweetness of God and experience joy in our hearts. How do we recognize the words that have become the word of God? It is that they manifest in sweetness and in joy. As I’ve often noted, some forty years ago I was privileged to study with Father Adrian van Kaam. At that time he and his colleagues had developed a course of study (and of practice) which was called The Institute of Formative Spirituality. The experience was a very intense one which involved a large degree of introspection and self-reflection. As we all know, one of the dangers of introspection is that it can make us psychically claustrophobic, closed in our own own experiences and the feelings those experiences evoke. Parenthetically, this is why Father van Kaam sought to distinguish introspection from the kind of gentle or transcendent reflection which the Wisdom traditions foster. Yet, as a fairly young person brought up in our culture, I, especially initially, became very introspective as I read, listened, and pondered the complexity of my own life experience. In those years, Father van Kaam would teach one course each semester. Over time I became aware that during and after every one of his classes, despite the rather complex subject matter, I would experience a deep sense of peace and of joy. This despite the fact that not infrequently my mood before the class could be conflicted, confused, and, even at times, discouraged about my own life experience. Yet, something about both the expression and the content of van Kaam’s teaching brought me to a place where I sensed God’s sweetness and felt joy in my heart. His words and expression form communicated to the “eternal reality” in us, a place that transcended the vicissitudes of our egos.
When we “see” and experience our own and the world’s life from our own “eternal reality,” our life “with Christ in God,” as St. Paul says, we find ourselves in what St. Ignatius called consolation. When we are mired in some aspect of our life as a problem we are to solve, we feel desolation. The power and the wisdom of words become the word of God is their power to restore us to ourselves, in the deepest sense. To be human is to be consistently losing ourselves, becoming dispersed in the vicissitudes of the ego. As my own experience attests, however, we can trust that the word of God, through loving persons, as well as the very events and situations of our lives, is always coming to us to break us out of our illusion of separateness and to restore us to the life and work of the One who dwells within us.
For me, good things were no longer outside, no longer quested for by fleshly eyes in this world’s sunlight. Those who want to find their joy in externals all too easily grow empty themselves. They pour themselves out on things which, being seen, are but transient, and lick even the images of these things with their famished imagination. If only they would weary of their starvation and ask, Who will show us good things? Let us answer them, and let them hear the truth: The light of your countenance has set its seal upon us, O Lord. We are not ourselves that Light which illumines every human being, but by you we are illumined, so that we who were once darkness may become light in you. Ah, if only they could see the eternal reality within! I had tasted it, and was frantic at my inability to show it to them; if only they would bring to me those hearts of theirs which lived in their outward-gazing eyes, outside and away from you; if only they would say, Who will show us good things? There within, where I had grown angry with myself, there in the inner chamber where I was pierced with sorrow, where I had offered sacrifice, slaying my old nature and hoping in you as I began to give my mind to the new life, there you had begun to make me feel your sweetness and had given me joy in my heart.St. Augustine, Confessions, IX, 10, Trans. Maria Boulding, OSB