Augustine and a Life of Holy Longing

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A professor of mine once wrote that, “We once assumed that a great man was one who controlled his desires. Today we assume that a great man is one who indulges his desires.”[1] We live in a world which consistently hounds us to find an end to our hungers and longings as quickly, efficiently, and authentically as possible in our pursuit of final happiness. Of course, like Don Draper in the show Mad Men said, “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” Whether by sex, food, purchase, or endless entertainment, we always find ourselves longing for something to satiate us once more.

St. Augustine in his sixth homily in his Homilies on 1 John makes the point that one distinctive quality of Christian living is that we learn to live into our longing. As he says, “The whole life of the good Christian is a holy longing. What you long for, as yet you do not see; but longing makes in you room that shall be filled, when that which you are to see shall come.”

Contrary to popular opinion, a life lived with open hands is not a life wasted.

Augustine continues: “When you would fill a purse, knowing how large a present it is to hold, you stretch wide its cloth or leather: knowing how much you are to put in it, and seeing that the purse is small, you extend it to make more room. So by withholding the vision God extends the longing, through longing he makes the soul extend, by extending it he makes room in it.”

According to Augustine, in this time of waiting and hope, God is expanding the soul of the Christian. The withholding of the beatific vision unto his people is in some way whetting our appetites for it. In this time of waiting for the consummation of all things, Augustine reminds us that, like in the Beatitudes, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are the ones who shall be filled (Matt 5:6). Like the purse analogy, this time of eager expectation is a time that often feels like stretching.

Fundamentally, to long for something is to feel its lack. It is one thing to feel hunger and know that you can walk to your pantry to eat; it is wholly another to have to hold out your hands in utter dependence and with no immediate solution—no money, no pantry, no backup plan. It is no easy thing to live a life of longing, but it is one that we are called to as Christians.

Augustine remarks on Paul’s words from Philippians 3:13: “He speaks of himself as stretching out, and following according to his purpose: he felt himself too small to take in that which eye hath not seen nor ear heard, nor hath come up into the heart of man. That is our life, to be trained by longing; and our training through the holy longing advances in the measure that our longings are severed from the love of this world.”

We are to be trained by longing, but not by the sort of arbitrary longing for this or that, here or there, but by a holy longing: a longing for “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:14). Yet, Augustine admonishes us and reminds us that these lesser longings can rob us of the training and stretching our souls need. How will our souls be stretched if we are constantly filling them with things we look to as ends in themselves rather than God himself?

“Empty out that vessel that is to be filled; you are to be filled with good, pour away the evil. God would fill you, shall we say, with honey: where can you put it if you are full of vinegar? What your vessel held must be poured away…”

All of us, in one way or another, seek to alleviate the apparent emptiness of our souls with something other than God. And of course, this isn’t to say food, romance, success, or entertainment are bad things. God has given these things to us as a gift to enjoy, yet these things were given so that we may know the Giver through them. They were never intended to wholly fulfill us, nor were they given so that we could forget the Giver. Perhaps this is why the gospel is often more easily accepted by those who feel their need (for food, for friendship, for forgiveness, etc.) all the more keenly. Like the sinful woman at the house of Simon the Pharisee, she knew that it was better to empty what she had so that she might be filled with the love of Christ. It is easier to pour out what you have when you are convinced that it will no longer satisfy you.

When we attempt to use our own goodness, wealth, relationships, or possessions to fill the purse of our souls, we rob God of what he desires to pour into us, and we rob ourselves of the only thing that can truly fill us. And what is that thing?

“Speak as we may of that which cannot be spoken, call it what we will, its proper name is—God. Even in this word, ‘God,’ what have we said? Is that single syllable the whole of that for which we wait? Nothing that we have power to name is high enough. Let us stretch ourselves toward him, that when he comes he may fill us full. For ‘we shall be like him; because we shall see him as he is.’”