I began a recent Easter Saturday in the depths. I was in a Washington DC hotel room late in the morning, wrestling a 240-pound bodybuilder -- voluntarily and knowing that beforehand of course. The results were predictable, and not undesired.
About a half-hour after it was over, I was sitting in the hotel's bar, sipping a soda, picking half-heartedly at the savory party-mix bowl the bartender had put out. I was sore all over, though not really hurt; and my face had some markings, though nothing major or permanent. And like St. Augustine under the fig tree, I was weeping bitterly (though silently, because I was in a public place).
I texted a buddy, to whom I've never come "out," that I was in a lot of pain, not specifying the kind. And telling him that I was "dead to the sin that has torn at me all my life" (as explicit as I wanted to be with him), and asked him point blank "tell me why I should go to the Easter Vigil."
He responded: "read St. Augustine's Confessions, book 8, chapter 12." I was pretty sure what passage that was -- I've read the whole of the book at least three times, including once as late-night bedside reading. But I was able, thanks to the miracle of smart phones and Internet access, to look it up and yeah ... it was St. Augustine recounting his conversion, weeping under the fig tree.
Here is St. Augustine, the whole chapter after the jump (this post does get back to me, but I want St. Augustine's whole chapter in front of everybody)
It was a perfect moment -- I even called my friend "Alypius" in my IM back, though on reflection that doesn't quite work. The great saint goes to Alypius later, after he's listened to the Lord's voice telling him to open and read ... but the alternative would be calling my buddy God or maybe St. Paul, which'd be way more absurd. The chapter that luckily moved St. Augustine and gave him a chastity he said never left him for life is Romans 13:13 (here's the NIV -- a little clearer to modern ears, avoiding the archaic King James terms "chambering" and "wantonness"). I've always wondered, in fact, whether my friend was recommending the Confessions as an account of conversion generally or of conversion from sexual misconduct.
28. Now when deep reflection had drawn up out of the secret depths of my soul all my misery and had heaped it up before the sight of my heart, there arose a mighty storm, accompanied by a mighty rain of tears. That I might give way fully to my tears and lamentations, I stole away from Alypius, for it seemed to me that solitude was more appropriate for the business of weeping. I went far enough away that I could feel that even his presence was no restraint upon me. This was the way I felt at the time, and he realized it. I suppose I had said something before I started up and he noticed that the sound of my voice was choked with weeping. And so he stayed alone, where we had been sitting together, greatly astonished. I flung myself down under a fig tree -- how I know not -- and gave free course to my tears. The streams of my eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to thee. And, not indeed in these words, but to this effect, I cried to thee: "And thou, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord? Wilt thou be angry forever? Oh, remember not against us our former iniquities." For I felt that I was still enthralled by them. I sent up these sorrowful cries: "How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?"
29. I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which -- coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, "Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it." Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: "Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me." By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.
So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle's book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof." I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.
30. Closing the book, then, and putting my finger or something else for a mark I began -- now with a tranquil countenance -- to tell it all to Alypius. And he in turn disclosed to me what had been going on in himself, of which I knew nothing. He asked to see what I had read. I showed him, and he looked on even further than I had read. I had not known what followed. But indeed it was this, "Him that is weak in the faith, receive." This he applied to himself, and told me so. By these words of warning he was strengthened, and by exercising his good resolution and purpose -- all very much in keeping with his character, in which, in these respects, he was always far different from and better than I -- he joined me in full commitment without any restless hesitation.
Then we went in to my mother, and told her what happened, to her great joy. We explained to her how it had occurred -- and she leaped for joy triumphant; and she blessed thee, who art "able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think." For she saw that thou hadst granted her far more than she had ever asked for in all her pitiful and doleful lamentations. For thou didst so convert me to thee that I sought neither a wife nor any other of this world's hopes, but set my feet on that rule of faith which so many years before thou hadst showed her in her dream about me. And so thou didst turn her grief into gladness more plentiful than she had ventured to desire, and dearer and purer than the desire she used to cherish of having grandchildren of my flesh.
It's very easy to associate with St. Augustine in that garden, even for those of us who have a formal affiliation with the Church, however weak or strong at a given moment, that the saint at that moment didn't have. To want God to lift our burdens is natural. To cite those unlightened burdens as reasons to reject Him or turn away from indifference or frustration is all-too-human. That's why St. Augustine and I were crying -- both torn between the soul and the flesh, doubting that we can live without sex. Or that if we can, that it'd only be temporary. But it's at those moments -- the previous chapters of the Confessions -- when outsiders can see things more clearly than we can, even if like Alypius and my friend, it's just to listen to our fretting until God can take command. And that's why isolation and self-isolation are bad. Chastity is not a fight that can be won alone (and I don't only mean that in the supernatural sense of "apart from God's grace").
I messaged my buddy:
Eyes dry now ... unfortunately too late to go to confession. But trail mix all scarfed, and fretting about [several sentences on our common sports-team rooting interest]. In other words, something resembling normal again.He responded:
Good to hear. Keep your head up, and think how blessed we are to know God.I went to the Easter Vigil that night. And contrary to what I said, I was able to find a priest to hear my Confession on the afternoon of Easter Saturday. I can't pretend things went as well for me after that as St. Augustine says they went for himself. I haven't lived a perfect life since then. Indeed, I had a fairly bad stumble less than a week ago, not the least of the reasons being the person with whom I did it. However again -- that's not the point. Alypius, children playing, an open Bible -- they can be anyone, anywhere, and they always are around if we have the eyes to see.
Indeed, this very blog post is one I started way back when, since that Easter Saturday, and has been sitting in my draft folder ever since. I went into my blog queue a little bit ago, just looking ... and saw this draft ...