St. Augustine in the 4th Century basically lamented in his “Confessions” that everything he did was infected by self-advancement. He would, he confessed, express his selfless love for God or those close to him, but secretly, in his deeper self-examination, he saw his desire for selfish gain. Every act of giving was suspect. Perhaps it was his pride or his desire for recognition as a holy man, or the idea that he could impress God with his purity of purpose. He was, he confessed, trapped within his own ego. So am I. So are you.
To be “insane” is to be seriously out of touch with reality. The insane person has fixed upon a state of private reality so intransigent that change is impossible. After all, why would one fight against reality? To an insane person, it is you, not he or she who fails to understand the world as it is.
Augustine was not insane however for the very reason that he was aware of his spiritual illness and need for healing grace. He could self-observe, and in a sense, conduct a form of ancient rational cognitive therapy. He looked at the evidence with objectivity to challenge his subjective convictions. He then shifted to a mental framework that more closely aligned with the evidence.
That evidence was that he had no sufficient power of himself to be restored to right thinking. By grace, he began to question his private assessments of the state of his soul in the light of Scripture. What did God say about Augustine, and how attentively was Augustine listening?
Augustine, by God’s grace, was able to look into the twisted state of his own soul. He wrote of the problem: “The punishment of every disordered mind is its own disorder.” And he wrote of the solution: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
Just when I think I am being especially holy, a tinge of my pride or a sweet sense of superiority almost instantly infiltrates my awareness. Most of the time, I’m oblivious to this ego-contamination, but sometimes, I privately savor the feeling of my achieved holiness but do not challenge it as evil. Much more rarely, as just this morning, I am fully conscious that my “holy” thoughts are sick with this incurable ego virus. My reaction is one of frustration, hopelessness, and sadness that I am in this savage spiritual state. Is there any way out?
The way out is the Way of God. The way of holiness is to move past the fascination with the creation [ourselves included] into the splendor of the Creator. The way out is to seek fervently not only the beauty of truth but the Source of All Truth. The way out is to be attentive to the presence of God in all His manifestations. The wonderful nature of God is that He loves us, and draws us to Himself. This drawing near process is a conversion from illusion towards awareness and healing. Time is short and precious. We need to take God’s invitation to sanity seriously and act upon it now.
Holiness and conversion are not instantaneous. We live in a process of being converted and being made holy. Each day is a step to be taken towards the outstretched arms of Christ. But what is critical is to be in a daily relationship. To be connected is to take life from the Source of Life. To be disconnected is to die a spiritual death. “I am the vine; you are the branches.” To connect with the invisible God who speaks without words is such a challenge, but the experience of intimacy is real, convincing, and transforming. This way of Jesus to “turn things upside down” whether tables in the temple or theological concepts is why he has my attention. Like the people of his physical time on earth, I’m led to say: “He’s different. He teaches with authority, not like our religious leaders.” He is continuously moving us out of the false safety of our rules and into the adventure of real connection with Abba-God. “They were amazed at His teaching.”
This connection is called prayer, and it takes several forms, depending on the mental and emotional posture assumed, whether one primarily of praise and worship, or supplication, or quiet receptivity. In one sense, it is not a conversation at all, though it may often be. One important aspect of prayer is being present mindfully with God in everything. It is at some level of consciousness to be aware that God is to be encountered in every person, place, and event, even those most trivial and ordinary. It is to be aware that the presence of God renders all things sacred, and that whenever evil enters a relationship or event, the sacred has been defiled by the sacrilegious. It is to take pleasure in God and sorrow in sin.
Pope John Paul II said this of prayer in his book “The Way to Christ:”
- “We have to learn to pray: as it were learning this art ever anew from the lips of the Divine Master himself, like the first disciples: ‘Lord, teach us to pray!’ (Lk 11:1).”
This model is the “Lord’s Prayer,” from the Gospel of Matthew, 6:5-15:
5“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9“This, then, is how you should pray:
“ ‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11Give us today our daily bread.
12And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
but deliver us from the evil one.b ’
14For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
This is not a mechanical prayer to be repeated mindlessly word for word. It is offered as a guideline for how our prayers are to conform to the principles that rule heaven and earth. The model reminds us that we must humble ourselves before our Creator, and unburden ourselves of the grudges and ill-will that stand between us and God or between us and other imperfect humans. With this mindset, we are more likely to find intimacy with God, which is the whole purpose of prayer.
Prayer too is like the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Those steps could as rightly be called the 12 steps of Sinners Anonymous, for we addictively ingest sin like addicts ingest drugs. We are no different in our spirits or in our need for a “Higher Power.” Those steps, reduced to a few words, might be:
“I’m helpless to find peace and or a way out of this human misery. I need you, and I surrender to you, not even knowing who you are or why you care, but I’m desperate, and you’re my last hope. I can’t do this on my own. Restore me to sanity and life, and maybe, by your grace, I can be a messenger of hope one day for others.”
In closing, we return to the words of Augustine as he came to his senses, and over the course of his life, saw the grace of God leading him to recovery:
“The punishment of every disordered mind is its own disorder,” and “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”