This article was originally published as part of Ad Cenam Agni, a 2023 virtual Lenten Retreat hosted by the Abbot's Circle.
St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430), whose conversion to Christianity is arguably second in importance only to St. Paul’s, writes in his spiritual autobiography that “My whole hope is only in Thy exceeding great mercy.”
Augustine had lived the first part of his adult life seeking his fame and fortune as a teacher of rhetoric, while keeping a mistress or two on the side, eventually fathering a child out of wedlock. He knew firsthand the struggle to be both humble and pure, and even described his difficult turning from a life of sin as a warfare, as a mighty storm raging in his breast. So when he arrives at God’s mercy as his only hope, he speaks not from the vantage point of a theoretician, but of a rescued man. A drowning man pulled out of a tempestuous sea and set on the firm deck of a rescue boat would speak in exactly the same way. Trembling and terrified, but relieved, he would know without doubt where his “salvation” came from.
Augustine learned not only to believe in the idea of a Savior, but to cleave to him with his entire being. Experience taught him not to trust in self or in the world, but in the unchanging Lord: "My evil sorrows contend with my good joys; and on which side the victory may be I know not. Woe is me! Lord, have pity on me. Woe is me! Lo, I hide not my wounds; Thou art the Physician, I the sick; Thou merciful, I miserable. Is not the life of man upon earth a temptation?"
When we ask ourselves what holds us back in our spiritual lives, we should carefully avoid isolating one thing and setting it up as everything: my problem, my sin, my issue, the obstacle I trip over all the time. It’s true, when we examine our conscience there’s usually one thing that looms large: It’s this bad habit that I’ve been struggling with for years. I can’t get the tiger by the tail. And I can’t move forward until it’s gone.
The Gospel tells us a different story about ourselves, different from the one we often narrate to ourselves. We see Jesus fully prepared to get involved with people in their sinfulness, whether in the heat of struggle or in the shame of defeat. But he doesn’t enter our lives to fix our problems and then move on. Jesus is not a repair man! He is the Redeemer. Redemption means more than buying each of us back from a bad life; it means restoration. And what needs to be restored most in every human soul without exception is trust in God. "And those who know thy name put their trust in thee, for thou, O Lord, hast not forsaken those who seek thee." (Ps 9:10)
What often drives people to seek the Lord, sometimes as a last resort, is that one unshakable difficulty without which we think all would be well. When the struggle makes us feel forsaken and alone, it is in receiving the Lord’s help that trust is restored. Our lack of trust has deep roots. Adam and Eve fell because of pride, but the devil couched his temptation in the language of distrust. Did God tell them they couldn’t eat of any tree in the garden? No, just one, and under pain of death. But the serpent claims to have the inside scoop: He claims that God can’t be trusted. And we, the poor, banished children of our first parents, have inherited the original distrust that makes us want to save ourselves.
To overcome personal weakness, we need first ask God to restore our trust in Him and wait, as Augustine did, on God’s exceeding great Mercy.