The Vicar has been off in London overnight, for the annual post-Camp post-mortem, leaving us in the tender care of various parishioners, all of whom look after us much better than she does. She seemed a bit stressed before she went (something about a four-hour meeting and a twenty-hour agenda), but hopefully she’ll be revived by the sight of the 436 bus zooming into Paddington from Camberwell.
Meanwhile, it’s up to us to keep the home fires burning and the ginger toms off our turf. It’s a tiring job, and we’re glad that we have never been afflicted by that strange condition that you humans call insomnia. The Vicar has always been in awe of our ability to fall asleep with total abandon, rather than staying awake worrying about this, that and the other.
As it happens, we cats have long been used in Christian art as symbols of contemplative prayer, in which the soul rests completely in the love and wonder of God. No words are needed, no thoughts and no awareness – it’s a communication at the deepest level between the heart of the person and the heart of God.
Cats are clearly much better at this than people. Very few human beings know what it means to rest completely in God, although lots of you know how it feels to want to (and that desire, as the saints and spiritual writers are forever saying, is a very good thing in itself).
If ever there was someone who was restless, searching for something he couldn’t quite define, it is tomorrow’s Saint, Augustine of Hippo.
Augustine was born in around 354 in Tagaste, North Africa (modern day Souk Ahras, in Algeria), of a Christian mother and a pagan father. He had a wild youth, drinking heavily, frequenting the circuses and games, and sowing a fair amount of wild oats (we guess all this is the 4th Century equivalent of sex, drugs and rock n roll). He was definitely searching for something, and dabbled in a number of religious sects and beliefs. All the while, his mother, Saint Monica, whose Feast Day it is today, was shedding tears over her son’s wild lifestyle and praying that he would be converted to the Catholic faith.
Eventually, Augustine had something of a breakdown, and went to recouperate at a friend’s house. There, thanks to the care of his mother and the teaching of Saint Ambrose, he came to accept the Christian faith. He was Baptised by Ambrose at the Easter Vigil in Milan in 387.
After the death of his mother, he returned to Africa, where he sold all his property and gave the money to the poor, following Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 19. Augustine later said:
What do you possess if you don’t possess God?
God has no need of your money, but the poor have. You give it to the poor, and God receives it.
On a visit to Hippo (that’s the place, not the animal – Hippo Regius is modern Annaba, a coastal town about 60 miles from Tagaste), Augustine found himself virtually forced into Ordination by the people. He wept as he was ordained Deacon and Priest, tears of deeply felt inadequacy, because he knew that they wanted him to serve as their Bishop. Eventually he gave in to the call of the Church, and was consecrated Bishop of Hippo in 396.
Augustine was a wise mediator in disputes, and a fearless defender of Christianity, using his formidable intellect and learning to refute the claims of many heretical and non-Christian sects (including some to which he had once belonged), but his people knew him best as a gifted and inspirational preacher.
Many of his sermons still exist, and can be read online (albeit in rather dated translation).
You can almost imagine yourself back in the Basilica in Hippo, listening and responding to his words (interesting how often the congregation chipped in – sometimes he has to tell them to dampen down their Alleluias so he can be heard!).
But, as great a Bishop, theologian and philosopher as Augustine was, it’s probably the story of his early life which holds most interest and appeal for us today. Here is a Saint who was an ordinary young man, restless and searching for meaning in life, grappling with the tension between his moral ideals and his human desires:
God grant me chastity and self-control –
but please, not yet!
Luckily for us, Augustine wrote the whole story down in a work called the Confessions. The Vicar always thought this would be a very dull book until she actually read it, at which point she realised that the Saint had a good turn of phrase, a wry sense of humour and a very colourful past, making his autobiography a bit of a page-turner.
There are plenty of versions online and in the bookshops, though the Vicar favours a modern translation by Maria Boulding, probably because of the translator’s helpful sub-headings such as “Student Life: Sex and Shows.” The Vicar reckons that reading the Confessions was a big milestone in her pre-ordination formation, though possibly this is just because she impressed the Vice-Principal of her seminary by writing that Augustine “couldn’t keep the pin in his toga.”
Anyway, we are pleased to report that Augustine’s restless heart did find much peace in the contemplation of God, both during his time on this earth (when he had a rather fine cope), and now in the Urbs Beata with the Saints and Angels. He wrote many beautiful prayers and meditations, always seeking a closer union with God.
We pray that you, gentle reader, may follow the example of Saints and cats, and find your heart’s peace in the love of God.
I was slow to love you, Lord; your age-old beauty is still as new to me: I was so slow to love you! You were within me, yet I stayed outside, seeking you there; in my ugliness, I grabbed at the beautiful things of your creation. Already you were with me, but I was still far from you. The things of this world kept me away: I did not know then that if they had not existed through you, they would not have existed at all. Then you called me, and your cry overcame my deafness; you shone out, and your light overcame my blindness; you surrounded me with your fragrance and I breathed it in, so that now I yearn for more of you; I tasted you, and now I am hungry and thirsty for you; you touched me, and now I burn with longing for your peace.