‘St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is a figure larger than life in the Church history. His teachings about the original sin, God’s love and grace and trinity is very crucial in the foundation of the Christian faith. In his early years, he was living a sinful life.
His conversion started when he heard Bishop Ambrose in Milan and later was baptized by him. His autobiography, Confessions, mentions the struggles of his life and his conversion process. It also illustrates his conversation with God in the form of prayers. This way he sets an example of the spiritual formation for Christians.
He sets the stage of a Christian’s life as a pilgrimage. Life is a spiritual journey where a person is seeking long term goal for the pursuit of God. No matter ones life is going through a rough road or a smooth one, it never stops but is continually moving forward. This road leads to spiritual maturity in God with desire being the driving force. Every step forward either leaves us astray or either near to God. This is how St. Augustine explains in Confessions about his journey as a pilgrimage. Before his conversion he was wide of the mark delved deep into sinful life and running away from God.
Then he confessed his sins and gave himself for the love of Jesus Christ, our Savior. St. Augustine is of the view that Christian life is like wandering with a definite aim. He calls it, ‘the eternal Jerusalem, after which Thy pilgrim people sigh from their going forth unto their return’ (9.13.
37). He refers to the eternal Jerusalem as our heavenly home that is divine and there is eternal rest there. We are pilgrims who have been taken out from the home but we strive for the place where we are heading on our journey and that place is Jerusalem. The life that we live on earth is like living in ‘exile’. This is proved in ‘the Church progresses on her pilgrimage amidst this world’s persecutions and God’s consolations’.
Hence, we are in exile and on a pilgrimage away from the Lord but look forward for the coming of Jesus Christ when he will be united in glory.A Christian’s ultimate spiritual life is a pilgrimage. The narratives and images used for it are images of traveling through wilderness to the promised land. Also, the images include of exile, wayfaring and alienation. The Scripture from the very beginning gives the imagery in the book of Genesis, with the exile of Adam and Eve from Eden and ends with the imagery in the Book of Revelation mentioning the vision of New Jerusalem. Hence, pilgrimage is our existence, from God’s creation to coming of Jesus Christ at the last judgement.
The plan of God for man’s redemption is also represented in the imagery of pilgrimage. God sent His only Son on the earth to fulfill Father’s will. He had to remain in wilderness and suffer and finally gave his life for man’s salvation on the cross. The cross signifies the victory that leads to the glorious eternal land.
The spirituality of pilgrimage is the spirituality of Augustine. His images of repatriation, paradise and wilderness is most familiar in ‘Odyssey of Soul’ That explains his liberation story from a barren waste (2.10) to a glorious life in the paradise with God. Thus his work starts off as an autobiography and turns into a food for the soul and ends with a creation narrative in Genesis. His depiction of his own life is a microcosm for all human beings. His work, Confessions begins with a prayer of the goodness of God.
He believes that a sinful man who is far from God can never be happy. He says that the soul longs for peace, but can only find peace by resting in God (1.1).
Augustine explaining his own childhood makes a point that if infants/children are left to function on their own, they would end up causing harm to themselves and others. This moral disorder could eventually lead to original sin. In Book 2, he refers to ordered love (caritas) and disordered love (cupiditas). His disordered love or lust pushed him further sinking in sin.
Even when he steals pears from the orchard, he is not guilty but rather takes pride in being above God that leads him to the path of becoming a wasteland (2.10). Further in Book 3, Augustine’s life takes the first step towards change when he is given a copy of Cicero’s Hortensius which is an urging towards a philosophical way of life. He is definitely moved by the work but still lacks humility to start reading the scripture. The second conversion was when the teachings of Manichaeanism are revealed to him.
It offered him a new way of looking at evil that was caused by darkness (devil). It also explained that a person can become a slave to sin. In this early age, he also believes that he commits a sin because of the alignment of the stars (astrology) but soon he realizes that it is just a deception. In all this time, his mother being a devout Catholic tries to pursue him and bring him back to the right path. After his friend dies, he is devastated and his disordered love leaves him in misery. If he would have loved his friend through God and known that we are mortal beings, it wouldn’t have been hard on him.
In Book 5, he starts reflecting on the real motive behind confession. His life is completely changed when he comes to Milan where Christian Neo Platonism is widely spreading. He meets Bishop Ambrose who acts as a guide for him to think differently.
The objections that Augustine had regarding Catholicism are soon eliminated and he begin to accept that Catholicism is a much better approach than manicheanism and any other philosophy. In Book 6, he draws an analogy between a poor drunken beggar and himself. He describes that both have disordered love and lust. The beggar has it for booze and Augustine has it for glory and fame. They both are the slaves of their disordered lust and eventually have no happiness. Finally, he reaches to a conclusion that all the evil relies on the free will of human beings. Further in Book 7, Augustine has an encounter with the books of Platonists which is a third step towards his conversion. These books allow him to think clearly about the soul, God and the cause of evil.
The examples mentioned in Book 8 of Simplicianus, Victorinus and Ponticianus helps to break Augustine’ pride. He realizes the power of happiness within his soul. At this point he surrenders himself and experiences the ultimate conversion. Book 9 begins with Augustine giving up his career as a rhetoric teacher for his new revelation of faith. At this time, he has overcome his sexual longing and disordered love and started practicing celibacy while in the Church. In Book 10, Augustine has accepted God’s mercy and has given himself in every possible way in the hands of God. Hence, ‘those who look for the Lord will cry out in praise of him’.
The Catechism also confirms, ‘the desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God;and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for’ (CCC 27). Hence, it is God’ grace that sets us on the right path. Augustine’ emphasis is that the Christian life is composed of faith.
We need to face our guilt, secrets, sins and the disordered love in order to recognize the need of God’s grace in our lives. Augustine gives us the ground on which our inner drive is based upon. He clearly states that a believer does not eliminate his desires but direct his desires towards God only.
When the desire is in right direction, it automatically provides energy for our spiritual growth. Spiritual formation starts with desire. Augustine experienced this desire for lust and fame that made him a slave of sin. This offers not to destroy desire but to transform it.
We are all created in God’s image which makes us to possess desire. This desire should be for the pursuit of God, so that one can have a firm commitment to Christ. Augustine offers us not to keep our faith stagnant but rather move on with the pilgrimage because the ultimate destiny is the heavenly home.