Three Times the Charm

A Painting of St. Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne

“Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!  Behold, you were within and I was without; and there I sought you, plunging unformed as I was into the fair things that you have formed and made.  You were with me, and I was not with you.  I was kept far from you by the things that would not have been, were they not in you.  You called and cried aloud, and shattered my deafness; you flashed and blazed like lightning, and routed my blindness.  You cast your fragrance, and I drew breath, yet pant for you; I tasted, yet hunger and this; you touched me; and I was on fire for your peace.”

The Confessions X.27.38 by St. Augustine

I first had to read St. Augustine’s own spiritual memoir back in 2002 in a college class on Western Civilization. I did not appreciate it then. I even read it a few years later, around 2010. I thought it was good but it didn’t impress me as other books at the time had. Flash forward to 2016 when I had to read it again for an intense Augustine of Hippo class at Princeton.

And everything was different this third time. I had experienced more of life. More of disappointment. More of struggle and beauty. I had recently climbed mountains, had my own mystical experience of God, and had become stale to academic theology but absolutely enthralled with the 2000 years of classics of Christian spirituality.

Each week we had to read another chapter, and color highlight themes that we found in The Confessions. I chose to look for passages that had to do with:

  • Connection/Proximity in Blue
  • Self-Examination in Green
  • Return/Homecoming in Yellow
  • Contradiction (Paradox) in Pink
  • Friendship in Orange

When I got the the quote above, my jaw dropped at the poetry of it all, highlighted it with all five colors, and reread it over and over again. Eventually, I closed my hardbound copy of it, walked out of the library and did not return to any schoolwork for the rest of the day.

All I could do was mull over, meditate, contemplate, resonate with the paragraph. It put to words many of my own internal experiences, and left me feeling so incredibly understood.

Theology is fine, and even good, but the “theo-poetic” nature of some of the best of church history takes the cake for me. St. Augustine, just like many who came after him, found a way of keeping Christian spirituality as spirituality rather than sterilizing it away from raw, honest experience.

This is important because we have a tendency to want to know rather than to experience. This is in part because to experience Spirit is inherently dangerous, revealing, emotional, piercing. Spirituality is a holy assault on the entirety of how we live, and move, and find our way of living in the world. All this goes to say, it is absolutely possible to know how a Christian thinks yet never have allowed oneself to be pierced by the Christ.

I would like to encourage you, then, to engage the whole of Christian tradition, and not just the words or sentiments of the early, medieval, enlightenment, and modern (and post-modern) church. There is a rich tapestry of influences, a whole menu of options to choose from. If you have engaged the Christian tradition, and yet did not resonate with it, perhaps you just need to keep exploring until you come across a paragraph that truly pierces you… Just like Augustine did.

It might take you three times to read something before it sinks in, but hey, three times the charm.

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