“Late have I loved Thee!” – the Feast of the Conversion of Our Holy Father Augustine

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St Augustine washing the feet of Christ. Bernardo Strozzi, 1629

Today is the feast of the Conversion of Our Holy Father Augustine. Being the Octave of Easter, it is not commemorated this year by Holy Mass and the Divine Office, though the feast was recalled in the Martyrology.

Our Holy Father is fondly remembered by Holy Mother Church as a convert. In a sense, we are all converts; at some point, we have decided to turn towards the Face of Christ. Or perhaps some readers are still in the process of that conversion, or have yet to make it. Either way, whenever we do turn towards Him – that is, convert – it is something that we shall continue to do for the rest of our lives. Every day is an opportunity for a deeper conversion of life. Perhaps, even, the closer our minds and hearts are to God, the more we realise our defects and inadequacies. Our conversion will end only with our deaths.

His was not a Pauline conversion, like that last and well-travelled Apostle who was cast off his horse and changed his life overnight – much like Our Holy Father Norbert. In most people’s experience, conversion is something more gradual.

Throughout his life, Augustine was slowly moving towards Christ. Although he was not baptised, he had, from his childhood, been exposed to Christianity by his holy mother, St Monica, herself a Catholic, who would have taught the boy about the Faith, and, of course, supported him with her remarkably efficacious prayers and penances.

Through the study of philosophy, he was able to discern the existence of reason, in particular, the creative reason itself, the Divine Logos, but was unable to come close to it, as his eyes were shrouded from the gift of faith. In this endevour, he had determined that the best way to live as a human person on this journey was in community; indeed, he also studied the history of Christian community life, and was particularly taken with the life of St Anthony. With this in mind, when, after one day of study and debate, he heard a voice calling “tolle lege, tolle lege” – take and read, take and read – and he picked up the writings of that earlier convert St Paul, and was transfixed by the passage which exhorts Christians to abandon the flesh and be clothed with Christ. He knew that God, through Paul, was addressing him directly.

Augustine thought,

“only a God who made himself “tangible”, one of us, was finally a God to whom he could pray, for whom and with whom he could live. This is the way to take with courage and at the same time with humility, open to a permanent purification which each of us always needs.” (Pope Benedict XVI)

And so he sought baptism at the hands of St Ambrose, bishop of Milan, in 387. His mother and his son died soon after.

Back home in Africa, he lived a happy life in a monastery, and dedicated himself to prayer and study in the context of a Christian community of consecrated persons. But Mother Church called him to service as a priest, indeed, a bishop, and so he was ordained; this was difficult for Augustine, who much preferred to live his own life, but he realised that God wanted his talents to be placed at the service of His Bride, His holy people. As a bishop, he continued to live in community – and so was the founder of our Norbertine way of life, the life of the canon regular, or clergy living monastically – and he was a prolific preacher and writer, but one who was able to penetrate the hearts and minds of ordinary people. In this way, he realised, he could grow ever closer to Christ, in ministerial service of His Mystical Body.

Finally, in this last phase of his life, he realised that his initial enthusiasm of conversion was not quite up to the mark. Conversion is not something that happens on the day of our baptism and then we live perfectly as Christians until our death. Far from it! Only Christ himself accomplishes such perfection. Our conversion is something that happens every day; every day we must allow Christ the Lord to wash our feet and so be renewed by Him:

Until the end we need this humility that recognizes that we are sinners journeying along, until the Lord gives us his hand definitively and introduces us into eternal life. It was in this final attitude of humility, lived day after day, that Augustine died.” (Pope Benedict XVI)

St Augustine is a profoundly normal person. A great saint, who had a tremendous intellect, certainly, but he had a keen insight into human nature, and the study of his works and his rule for Religious which we follow as Norbertines reveals his great gifts as a pastor, and as a human person (as he said, “for you I am a bishop, with you, I am a Christian”), and what he can teach us is just as relevant – perhaps more so – today than it was in fourth and fifth century Africa.

We’ll end with two paragraphs from the pen of Our Holy Father himself:

“The whole life of a good Christian is an holy desire. Now what you long for, you do not yet see: howbeit by longing, you are made capable, so that when that has come which you may see, you shall be filled. For just as, if you would fill a bag, and know how great the thing is that shall be given, you stretch the opening of the sack or the skin, or whatever else it be; you know how much you would put in, and see that the bag is narrow; by stretching you make it capable of holding more: so God, by deferring our hope, stretches our desire; by the desiring, stretches the mind; by stretching, makes it more capacious. Let us desire therefore, my brethren, for we shall be filled…

“We have already said, “Empty out that which is to be filled.” With good you are to be filled: pour out the bad. Suppose that God would fill you with honey: if you are full of vinegar, where will you put the honey? That which the vessel bore in it must be poured out: the vessel itself must be cleansed; must be cleansed, albeit with labor, albeit with hard rubbing, that it may become fit for that thing, whatever it be. Let us say honey, say gold, say wine; whatever we say it is, being that which cannot be said, whatever we would fain say, It is called: God. And when we say “God,” what have we said? Is that one syllable the whole of that we look for? So then, whatever we have had power to say is beneath Him: let us stretch ourselves unto Him, that when He shall come, He may fill us. For “we shall be like Him; because we shall see Him as He is.”” (1 Ioan., 4.6)

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