Orthodox America


Born Again! - Blessed Augustine 


The thought of Thee stirs man so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises Thee; and our hearts find no peace until they come to rest in Thee  Blessed Augustine

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Ps. 50)

By the time this issue of "Orthodox America" reaches most of its readers, Great Lent will have begun. What more appropriate Church Father could fill the "Spiritual Life" page at this time than Blessed Augustine of Hippo--a Holy Father of Orthodox piety and compunction of heart, of simple but deep warm-heartedness, as his Confession, so abundantly reveal.

Blessed Augustine begins his unsparing self-revelation with praise for God's greatness and unsearchableness. Against this he contrasts his own meanness:

"Narrow is the mansion of my soul; enlarge Thou it, that Thou mayest enter in. It is ruinous; repair Thou it. It has that within which must offend Thine eyes; I confess and know it. But who shall cleanse it? or to whom should I cry, save Thee?...O that Thou wouldst come into my heart and so inebriate it that I would forget my own evils and embrace my one and only good which is Thee!.For without Thee what am I to myself except a guide to my own downfall?... So let the strong and the powerful laugh at us; but let us, weak and needy as we are, make our confession to Thee."

He speaks honestly of his youthful sins-his idleness at school, disobedience to his parents and teachers, his lies and childhood thievery, his quarrelsomeness, basic unfairness towards others, and his desire always to be better than everyone else, and then he asks: "Is this the innocence of boyhood?,' Like so many young people today, he fell under the influence of a worldly education and the pagan values of the world surrounding him: "Considering the kind of men who were set up as models for me to imitate, it is no wonder that I was swept away into Vanities and that I went out of Thy presence, my

God ....How one must condemn the river of human custom! Who can stand firm against it?

When will it ever dry up? How long Will it continue to sweep the sons of Eve into that huge and fearful ocean which can scarcely be passed even by those who have the mark of the Cross upon their sails?"

In his sixteenth year "the briars of unclean desires grew rank over my head, and there was no hand to root them out." He gave himself up to these desires 'and "wallowed in the mire thereof, as if in a bed of spices and precious ointments .... There sang all around me in my ears a cauldron of unholy loves .....

My soul was sickly and full of sores; it miserably cast itself forth, desiring to be scraped by the touch of objects of sense." And all of this only produced a bitter harvest of vices: jealousies, suspicions, fears and angers, arrogance and "shameless Shame." "I was still of the opinion that it is not we ourselves who sin, but some other nature which is in us; it gratified my pride to think that t was blameless....My sin was all the more incurable because I imagined that I was not a sinner."

He was without peace, and so "I resolved then to bend my mind to the holy Scriptures, that I might see what they were. But behold, what I saw was something that is not discovered by the proud and is not laid open to children; the way in is low and humble, but inside the vault is high and veiled in mysteries, and I lacked the qualities which would make me fit to enter in or stoop my neck to follow the pathway ....For my pride shrank from their modesty, and my sharp eye was not t penetrating enough to see into their depths.

Yet these Scriptures would grow up together with a little child; I, however, thought too

f highly of myself to become a little child; swollen with pride, I was, in my own eyes,

grown-up."

In young adulthood he kept a concubine and fathered a child. "I was becoming more miserable," he writes, but God was coming always nearer: "Thy right hand was continually ready to pluck me out of the mire, and to wash me thoroughly, and I knew it not; nor did anything call me back from a yet deeper gulf of carnal pleasures, but the fear of death, and of Thy judgment.to come; which amid all my changes, never departed from my breast."

 

Long before he renounced his sinful way of life and drew close to Christ's forgiveness in Holy Orthodoxy, Blessed Augustine knew what he had to do and tormented himself with his lack of purpose: "I was slow in turning to the Lord. My life in Thee I kept on putting off from one day to the next, but I did not put off the death that daily I was dying in myself. I was in love with the idea of the happy life, but I feared to find it in its true place, and I sought for it by running away from it. I thought that I should be unbearably unhappy if I were deprived of the embraces of a woman, and I never thought of Thy mercy as a medicine to cure that weakness, because I never tried it .... I sent up these sorrowful words: How long? How long? Why not now? Why not put an end to my uncleanness in this very hour?!" He continues:

"So I was speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart when, lo! I heard from a neighboring house a voice, as of boy or girl I know not, chanting and oft repeating, 'Take up and read; take up and read. ' Instantly, my countenance altered... so, stopping the torrent of my tears, I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book and read the first chapter I should find." A volume of the Epistles (called, among Orthodox, "The Apostle") lay near at hand: I seized, opened and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put Ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision fop the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I; for instantly, at the end of this sentence, a serene light was infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away ....         O Lord, I am Thy servant; I am Thy servant, and the son of Thy handmaid; Thou hast broken my bonds in sunder!"

 

The editors of "Orthodox America" highly recommend the entire Confessions of Blessed Augustine as spiritual reading this Lent.

 

Augustine's Confessions occupied a respected place among Orthodox spiritual books in Russia and, even had a decisive effect on the renunciation of the world by the great recluse of the early 19th century, George of Zadonsk. When the latter was in the military service in his youth and was leading an increasingly withdrawn life in preparation for entering a monastery, he was so attracted by a certain colonePs daughter that he had decided to ask her to marry him. Remembering then his cherished desire of abandoning the world, he came to a crisis of indecision and perplexity, which he resolved to end by appealing to the Patristic book he was then reading. As he himself describes this moment: "I was inspired to open the book which lay on the table, thinking to myself: I will follow whatever it opens to at once. I opened the Oonfessions of Augustine. I read: 'He who marries is concerned for a wife, how to please a wife; but he who does not marry is concerned for the Lord, how to please the Lord.' See the rightness or it{ What a difference! Reason soundly, choose the better way; do not tarry, decide, follow; nothing hinders you. I decided. My heart was filled with unutterable rejoicing. My soul was in joy. And it seems that my mind was entirely in a heavenly ecstasy.'

    This experience strongly reminds one of Blessed Augustine's own experience of conversion, when he was inspired to open the Epistles of St. Pauland follow the advice of the first passage on which his eyes fell.

(Bishop Nikodim, Russian Ascetics of the 18th and 19th Centuries, quoted in "Orthodox Word", #80)

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