An Augustinian Prayer for the Overthinking

This prayer comes at the end of Augustine’s famous de Trinitate (XV.51). As someone whose thoughts don’t ever seem to quit, I hope this encourages you as it did me:

“Deliver me, my God, from much speaking which I suffer inwardly in my soul, which is so wretched in your sight and flies to your mercy for refuge. My thoughts are not silent even when my voice is. And of course, if I thought nothing but what is pleasing to you, I would not ask you to deliver me from this much speaking. But many of my thoughts are of the kind of which you know the thoughts of men that they are vain (Ps 94:11). Grant me not to consent to them, and if ever they delight me grant that I may reject them and not linger over them in a kind of doze. Let them not so prevail over me that any action of mine proceeds from them, but let my judgement at least be preserved from them, and my conscience, with you to preserve me. A wise man was speaking of you in his book which is now called Sirach as its proper name, and he said, We say many things and do not attain, and the sum of our words is, he is all things (Sir 43:27). So when we do attain to you, there will be an end to these many things which we say and do not attain, and you will remain one, yet all in all, and we shall say one thing praising you in unison, even ourselves being also made one in you.

Oh Lord the one God, God the Trinity, whatsoever I have said in these books is of you, may those that are yours acknowledge, whatsoever of myself alone, do you and yours forgive.

Amen.”

On Loving Rightly

Invariably in friendships are imbalances of give-and-take. Perhaps a practical outworking of “laying your life down for your friends” is not allowing this calculus to dictate how we love our friends but to give out of charity, to love as we have been loved. In other words, to love rightly is to love in reference to something greater than ourselves or our own finite lovers.

St. Augustine in his On Christian Teaching differentiates between loving for the sake of enjoyment and for the sake of use. What he means is that our loves towards things are either towards their own ends or for the sake of a greater end, respectively. We should not think of “use” here as a negative thing unless we so “use” ourselves or others for something less than the ultimate enjoyment and ultimate Good.

The proper end of our love is the Triune God who is unchangeable and eternal, and directing our loves towards this ultimate end should be the reference point of all our loves—whether that be the love of ourselves or the love of our friends or spouses. When we make ourselves or another finite thing the final end of our loves, we settle for something ‘changeable’ instead of the ‘unchangeable good.’ Our loves need something more than a temporary end, and perhaps this is no greater misery than committing one’s life to an improper end of love—however right that may feel in the moment. This is not to say we are to see others or ourselves as less than good but rather that in delighting in ourselves and others we must keep sight of the Good behind that good. Or as Augustine says: “any other object of love that enters the mind should be swept towards the same destination as that to which the whole flood of our love is directed.”

To love ourselves and our friends rightly is in one respect to love them in light of God. Jesus told us that the greatest commandment in the law is “to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and the second greatest is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:37-39). He also told us that, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Each love has its own place, but to love rightly is to keep our loves in order: neither should we place our love of friends over God or place our love of self over our friends. There is a new calculus to gospel love, and Jesus demonstrates this by calling us his friends, laying his life down for us, all so that we might enjoy the Triune God forever. And he invites us into this new pattern of love.

Lent, Finitude, and the Ebb of Life

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Slowing down is not easy for me. There is always something I want to do or something that seems to be looming over me to get done. We live in one of the busiest societies ever despite all our technological progress to help us be more efficient. It is a strange irony that given the tools to do our tasks more quickly, we have found ourselves with even less time than we did before.

Somewhere along the way we’ve convinced ourselves that greater efficiency would give us space to slow down, but instead, all it has given us is the time to be more efficient with other things. The problem is not that we don’t have enough time. The problem is that we are finite creatures operating as though we are not.

Whether it’s my third cup of coffee to keep me going or the generous pour of whiskey to force me to stop, our lives have been robbed of a natural ebb & flow. A characteristic mark of a mortal creature is one of up’s and down’s. Times of real joy and real sorrow. Moments of deep rest and painful labor. Feelings of love and loneliness. Satisfaction and disappointment. Give and take. Life and death.

Life can feel like a constant, breathless flow. We work incessantly. We are constantly connected. We listen to the radio to keep our moods up. And we numb out with whatever we can so that we can finally go to bed. We live like creatures that will never die, but hurry is foreign to what’s eternal.

Lent season has forced me to ebb and exhale. It starts with Ash Wednesday’s existential reminder that “we are dust and to dust shall we return” and involves the conscious deprivation of something that will leave a noticeable hole in our day-to-day lives. As someone new to these past seasons of Lent, it feels like a disruption to my own delusions of independence and infinite limits.

It has punctured holes in my routines and forced me to meet with God in the gaps and exposed to me my own deeper longings. Where I would normally distract myself, I am forced to engage with myself. I am forced to pray in these areas of lack. St. Augustine once wrote that “the continuance of your longings is the continuance of your prayer” and that’s probably why prayer is often hard for me.[1] I’d rather fill the gaps of my life than have to sit in my own emptiness and experience my own longings. In other words, it’s too hard for me to pray when I’m too busy to desire anything.

Desire is another mark of a finite creature. We eat, we get full, we get hungry, repeat. We see friends, we need solitude, we feel lonely, repeat. All of us have routines of longings which ebb & flow. The delusional creature is always full and always connected: we overdesire and do what we can to prevent the ebb. But the consciously finite creature can stick out his or her hands in desirous prayer to makes space to receive what she knows she needs.

It is with empty hands that we come to see the love and grace perennially extended to us. As my friend Wes recently wrote, “Unclench your fists. Breathe deeply. Let your heart rate decrease. Know that you’re already bathed in the Father’s love, and ask simply for what you need, in the assurance that the One to whom you’re speaking is already cupping His ear in your direction.”[2] Like the prodigal son with his empty pockets stumbling on home only to be met by a full embrace and a full feast, it’s in the ebb of our lives that we come to see the great provisional grace of Another’s flow towards us.

 

[1] St. Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms, Psalm 37:13.

[2] Wesley Hill, The Lord’s Prayer, 3. You can buy his book here.