Archdiocese of Washington: Year of Faith series
Written by:Dominican Brothers of the Province of St. Joseph
As frustrating and humiliating as our own bad decisions in life can be, watching a loved one make a drastic mistake is often much worse. How are we supposed to help someone to see how wrong the choice he is making is when he utterly refuses to listen to us and see the error of his ways? This problem is the one St. Monica faced with her son, Augustine. Though she tried to instill the Christian faith in her son, it did not take root. She fell back to the only resource she had left: fervent prayer.
For his part, Augustine felt he had given Christianity a fair shake but found it lacking. He was very intellectual, and so he sought the truth in many philosophies and religions, but none of them satisfied him. His restless heart eventually led him back to the Catholic Church. Augustine became one of the foremost defenders and preachers of the Catholic faith. How did Augustine become a staunch Catholic after being a critical despiser of the faith?
The virtue of faith, that confidence to trust in God and cleave to the truths he has revealed (cf. CCC 154), is a gift. It’s not irrational to trust and believe in God, but we cannot simply convince ourselves to do so without His grace. We see this quite clearly in Augustine’s conversion. Initially, he found Christianity’s arguments unconvincing, and he felt the Bible was simplistic and unsophisticated. It took a good preacher – St. Ambrose – to open Augustine’s mind to understand the spirit and meaning of the Scriptures. Augustine began to love the Scriptures, not in spite of, but because of the lowliness and humility of the truths they presented. After years of thoughtful searching he overcame his critical objections to the Christian faith, but he still could not truly believe it. Our merely human efforts are not enough to bring about true faith. We can only do so if our will is “moved by God through grace.” (CCC 155). Augustine’s conversion shows the power of God’s action in a truly remarkable way.
Some friends brought Augustine the story of the first monks of Egypt who left everything to follow Jesus Christ. He considered his own weakness and was distraught. Why did he keep delaying? Why not commit now? As he became more upset and more distraught, he withdrew into the garden. Then he heard a child’s voice call out “take up and read.” Taking it to be a command from God, he picked up a nearby book of the letters of Paul. One verse pierced through his heart. In that moment of profound grace He says, “[a]ll the shadows of doubt were dispelled.”
St. Augustine’s is a profound case that sheds light on the truth that faith is a gift. Who does Augustine have to thanks for his faith? There is himself, in part, for his honest searching, St. Ambrose, for his preaching and teaching, and his mother for her consistent prayer, to name only a few. Of course, first and foremost, he has God to thank, as is made clear in his final conversion, for the grace necessary to assent freely to the truth, as well as for the countless graces offered in preparing him to accept that gift. When considering friends or family that seem far from God, we should not despair of our efforts to lead them to Jesus Christ, most especially through our prayers, for it is only His grace that will lead them to believe.