This topic started kicking around my head as I prayed the office of readings before Mass today. It’s been kicking around all day, and I realized that it is one that has really been in me for years.
To people who know me well (or, for that matter, to people who have read my blog through), it will come as little surprise that I spent several years of my life living in what could be safely described as a life of dissipation. For my college years – well, better stated, for nearly a decade after high school – I lived for nothing and no one but myself. All the time I lived that life, it was empty, but it was “fun.” I knew it was empty; I knew I was missing something. The problem was that I knew that the path that would take me out of that life of dissipation was the one I am now on. I was still far too afraid to follow this path, so I stayed on the comfortable and familiar path I was on.
When I decided to follow Jesus in my life again, I spent a while planning to become a Benedictine. One of the features of joining Benedict’s order is that one takes a new name when he makes his vows. I thought long and hard about the name I wanted to take, and I came up with two. The rules set forth at the community I was considering were that the man suggests three names, and the abbot picks one for him. The two names I came up with were Jonah and Dismas. There was really only one reason for both of them: it was a reminder to both me and others that it is never (as long as we are alive) too late to turn around and follow Christ.
In case either name is unfamiliar to my reader(s), Jonah was a prophet in the Old Testament (the Book of Jonah) who was sent to preach to the town of Ninevah. Instead of going where he was told, he got on a boat sailing in exactly the opposite direction. The boat was caught in a storm, and it came to light that the storm was God getting Jonah on the right path. He was cast overboard and eaten by a great fish which spit him out on the shore of Ninevah. I took some liberties and shortened there, but that’s basically the story.
Dismas is the name traditionally given to the repentant thief who was crucified alongside Jesus. That one moment has been a great proof to me that God is always ready to have us turn back to him. The thief confessed to Jesus as he hung to die, and Jesus made a promise to him that I can only hope to hear in my life as I “work out [my] own salvation with fear and trembling.” Jesus said to him, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” How awesome is that!? Mere moments from his death, the man was able to be saved and promised paradise.
Now, luckily, God was gracious to grant me the grace of repentance with, so far, a few years to spare rather than minutes or hours from my death. However, that reminder has remained important to me. In fact, those who have heard me speak at events or retreats (I’ve spent the last several years running youth retreats and speaking for various groups aside from my day job), have nearly all heard that message. Each retreat, the session to prepare for confession – especially for youth retreats – is always one that I endeavor to present. There is no greater gift that God gives to us than His mercy – that mercy that enables our salvation. My reader(s) may have already figured that out by the fact that I have written about the topic several times here already.
Today, as I read the readings as part of the Office of Readings (for those who don’t know, that is one of the “hours” that is prayed each day by priests, seminarians, and religious), I realized that I had skipped a name that should have been the third name I suggested. In fact, this one probably mirrored who I am in even more ways: Augustine. Like me, Augustine lived a life of dissipation in his youth. Like me, Augustine experienced a conversion and a vocation to the priesthood. While I used to say I wanted to, I’m not sure I want to follow in his footsteps to the episcopate, anymore. I’ve started seeing the kind of stress involved in that job, and I don’t know if it’s something for which God has designed me; however, if it is His will, I will follow and trust Him to give me the grace and strength to pull it off.
The second reading in the Office of Readings for today was from the Confessions of St. Augustine. There were some thoughts from while I read that I felt like sharing here.
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and was there that I searched for you.
You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.
I can understand what Augustine is saying here. It sometimes feels like I’m coming late to the party when I look around me. “Late have I loved” God – at least in any meaningful way. As I look back on my life, I’m often torn. I think to myself, “What if I had followed my call and gone to seminary when I was younger? What if I had gone straight from high school?” Obviously I would have (God-willing) been ordained for several years by now. Assuming I went through formation in the common timeframe, I would have been ordained at 27 years old – 6 years ago. At the same time, I have to ask myself what I would have brought to my ministry if that had been the case? I know that I would have grown in the formation program, and I know that God is truly the one who moves in ministry, but we bring ourselves to the ministry, also. If I had gone straight to the seminary when I finished high school, would I have had the experiences, trials, and heartbreaks in my life that have lead me to look so much to God’s forgiveness in my life and to preach that and share that message with all I encounter? I also would have never met many people I have met since who have had such an impact on my life over the last decade and even in the last year or two in which I firmly believe that God has been preparing me to take this step and giving me the people I would need for the journey.
The second half of the quote that I shared here also speaks to me because it is a better stating of something I have said to my kids for years while talking to them about God’s love for them and His forgiveness and the great gift available to them in the sacrament of Reconciliation. I used a quote for years from the movie What Dreams May Come. In that, Robin Williams’ character asks (while he is dead and getting his bearings in heaven – or at least that movie’s portrayal of the afterlife), “Where is God in all this?” He is given the answer, “He’s out there. Somewhere. Shouting down at us that he loves us… And wondering why we can’t hear him.” That’s much the same of what Augustine is saying to us. God is constantly shouting to us, calling to us, and at work to break through our deafness and blindness.
When we finally hear Him and see Him, it is an experience that I can describe only as finally finding peace and knowing Love. It is at that moment that another quote from Augustine’s Confessions finally takes meaning, “You made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless, until it rests in you.”