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Sinners among us

Like a lot of Catholics, every October growing up I was assigned a project related to the saints in preparation for All Saints’ Day. I listened to friends speak with excitement about the saint they’d chosen to study, often referring to their “patron saint” – one they felt a sacred bond with.

While I went through the motions every year, I don’t ever remember feeling such a connection. As a kid I didn’t really relate to the saints; they seemed like spiritual superheroes who were more like cartoon characters than human beings. As an adult, I simply found them too holy for the likes of me. After all, I struggle daily to live out the Gospel and to follow God’s Will for me, and these were people who struck me as living their lives as the faithful big-guns of moral and theological virtue.

But then I met St. Augustine. Talk about hitting the reset button.

This central figure in Christianity was a giant in loose living. Stealing, drunkenness, having a child out of wedlock, participating in a heretical sect, and engaging with mistresses are some of the things that mark Augustine’s journey into sainthood.

A few years ago someone suggested I read his Confessions, Augustine’s autobiographical work. In it, he candidly details his struggle with sin and regret. He writes that during his sinful period he prayed to God, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”

But not yet.

 And there it was. This saint from the 4th Century and I were connected in just three words.

How many times had I too prayed for God to change me, later on. In those three words I saw myself: My fractional faithfulness. My partial trust.

I bonded with St. Augustine in this common struggle: our unreadiness to change. Our fear to surrender.

Augustine’s struggle was aided by a moment of Grace. It came under a Fig tree. “Tolle Lege,” he heard a nearby child sing, meaning “take and read.” He opened a book of St. Paul’s letters at random and came to Romans 13:13-14:

“Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

It was this moment of Grace that prompted Augustine’s conversion, resulting in his Baptism. He later became a priest and bishop, founded a religious order, and was a giant in defending the faith. An active preacher and writer, his letters circulated throughout the world to address the problems of his day.

In coming to know St. Augustine, I discovered that I hadn’t connected with a saint before because I thought sainthood was just about holiness. But that’s not it at all. Sainthood is about cooperating with God’s Grace in spite of my sinfulness so that I can follow God’s call to holiness.

Today, St. Augustine is my model for this. When I struggle, I look to his courage and willingness and it gives me hope. I ask him to intercede for me.

And it’s his own words that offer me the most practical assurance: “There is no saint without a past. There is no sinner without a future.”

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