This is the fourth in a series of articles by Bishop Weisenburger on the “Five Wounds of Secularization” to be published during this “Year of Faith.”
By Bishop Edward Weisenburger
"Truly you have made us for yourself O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee." — St. Augustine
This quotation is one of my favorites. It was spoken by one of our Church’s greatest saints. Living in the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth centuries, St. Augustine was something of a bright light at the dawn of the dark ages. His mother, St. Monica, was a devout Catholic, but Augustine grew up in a manner we would describe today as entirely secular.
Indeed, he seemed to have little interest at all in his mother’s faith or religion. He had been blessed with a superior education and had the makings of a lucrative career, numerous friends and plenty of political contacts to further himself in public life. He liked the finer things of life and, like many in his era, lived with a woman outside of marriage with whom he fathered a child.
And yet, despite all of his earthly blessings, there was a constant unhappiness just under the surface of life that some might describe as a lack of meaning, purpose or fulfillment. Unlike many of us today, Augustine’s conversion was almost spontaneous. Moreover, it was only in his encounter with Jesus Christ that Augustine finally discovered the joy, fulfillment, purpose and meaning of life he desired.
But along with the joy of knowing Jesus, Augustine also discovered that he had no option but to bend his own will to align himself with the Risen Lord’s way of life, ethic and moral teachings. Augustine came to see that it was not his task to determine what was good and evil, true or false, affirming of holiness or detrimental to the spiritual life. No, all of that was determined by God — given to us. In essence, Augustine concluded that humanity is frustrated and unfulfilled until it embraces the Risen Christ and then strives to live by his Gospel of love.
As the rest of his life’s journey unfolded, Augustine would encounter numerous hardships and obstacles that we would find hard to imagine. And yet none of that could shake his faith or joy.
He became bishop of the ancient city of Hippo in Africa, where he faithfully guided and cared for multitudes. His writings have helped to convert untold millions. But at the heart of his conversion and his experience of God was this simple, enduring truth:
We were made for God.
There is no substitute.
And our hearts are restless until they rest in God.
I think Augustine’s story resonates with many of us. We see so many in our world rushing after the things that promise meaning only to find that they cannot satisfy. Moreover, our secular culture does one of two things with God. The first option is that it asserts that there is no god, telling us to come up with our own meaning, values and ethics. The second option is to make over the God of Jesus Christ into a benevolent friend to make us feel good and who approves of anything we want, only to find that it ultimately disappoints.
Both paths lead to meaninglessness and frustration. The truth is that God made us, redeemed us and has a plan for us. There is no enduring joy apart from a relationship with him, which begins by interior conversion and then striving to live by his Gospel.
St. Augustine’s struggle was a challenging one. But actually, there isn’t a follower of Jesus who hasn’t struggled with the very real conversion of life that this holiness entails. A challenging but redemptive example from my own life would be the realm of celibacy and simplicity of life. Before I go on, I feel I must stress that this article is not intended to be a blanket advertisement for celibacy and simplicity of life. I use this example because I believe that it might be helpful for one person to speak cor ad cor (heart to heart) to another about an experience of finding great meaning by choosing a Christian way of life over the secular way of life and ethic.
And so, at age 26 I made a vow of celibacy. In light of the limitations of salary and possessions that come with diocesan priesthood, I continued living a fairly simple lifestyle. At the time I knew that such a life would be challenging, but I also felt a desire to give as complete a gift to God as I possibly could. While I do not hold myself out as the perfect example, I would express how grateful I am to God for the gifts that celibacy and simplicity have become in my life.
Celibacy and simplicity of life are two of the areas where our priests stand out today in a prophetic way. Our culture doesn’t understand celibacy and ridicules those who embrace it. The same judgment is passed on those who voluntarily choose a simple lifestyle for love of Christ and his Church. Our secular world actually insists on the very opposite: meaning results only from sexual relationships and an abundance of money. To sacrifice the emotional, physical and financial benefits that marriage, family and a successful career can provide continues to be a bizarre option for most in our secular world.
In my case, I have found blessings and joy in following what I believe is God’s will. I would note, too, that St. Augustine had his mother, St. Monica, praying for him and encouraging him constantly. I have been blessed to have the encouragement and assistance of a great many saints throughout my life as well. Their witness has encouraged me and kept me focused on the path to Christ.
While my particular journey has included celibacy and simplicity, I believe others will find the same sense of redemption when they choose other but equally prophetic ways of life. For some it will be sacramental marriage. For others, it will be pouring themselves out in love for their family, or struggling to live a life of simplicity in the midst of a culture that demands endless consumption, or choosing life over the quick and strongly encouraged choice of abortion, or chastity instead of promiscuity, or life over the revenge of capital punishment, or so many other examples of how each human being must bend his or her personal will to the truth we find revealed in Jesus.
What is true of St. Augustine is true for all of us. When we encounter Jesus, we also discover that we have no option but to align our lives with his will for us, his way of life, his ethic and his moral teachings. We are the created, not the creator. It is not our task to determine what was good or evil, true or false, affirming of holiness or detrimental to the spiritual life.
No, all of that was determined by God — given to us. We can run away from this truth and try, as best we can, to create our own values, ethics and beliefs. But if we choose the secular path, then we run the same risk of frustration that we see in so much of our Western world.
For in the end, St. Augustine captured it well in his little phrase: “Truly you have made us for yourself O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”