Saint Augustine and Me


Saint Augustine and Me
Brian Zahnd

It was June 4, 2000. A beautiful Sunday afternoon in early summer. I was sitting on my front step reading Saint Augustine’s Confessions. At that time I hadn’t yet begun to explore the Church Fathers, that would come four years later. But I was reading classic literature. I had given up on the trite tomes of pop Christianity. I already knew what they said. In a desire to read something of worth I had returned to the treasures of classic literature that I had first learned to love in Mrs. Zaft’s high school literature class. I had read a fair number of the classics, but I had never read Confessions — the first, and perhaps greatest, spiritual autobiography in history. I had decided to read Augustine’s Confessions for basically the same reason that I read Milton’s Paradise Lost or Melville’s Moby Dick — because it was an established classic in the canon of Western literature. And it is a remarkable book. The whole autobiography is a 350-page prayer. The book begins with this prayer:

You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised: Great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable. Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being bearing his mortality with him, carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you resist the proud. Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.

“Our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Those words resonated with me. Sure, I was a Christian. But I was also a man with a restless heart. A year earlier I had turned forty while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. Now I was beginning to think about the second half of life…and I was restless. I had plenty of success, but I was restless. I was still searching and the clock was ticking. I feared I was running out of time. As I read Confessions Augustine told me his story.

He was born November 13, 354, the oldest son of a pagan father and a Christian mother, and raised among the aristocracy of the late Roman Empire in North Africa. He told unflinchingly of his somewhat profligate youth. He told of teaching rhetoric in Milan and writing speeches for the emperor. His genius was evident. He told in detail of his quest for truth in the dualistic religion of Manichaeism and his eventual disenchantment with it. He told of hearing the sermons of Ambrose that pointed him in a new direction. He told beautifully of his dramatic conversion on the day he heard a child’s voice singing in the garden, “take and read,” and how when he turned at random in the New Testament he read Paul’s words, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” He told of how he and three other friends chose to enter a monastic life. He told of becoming the bishop of Hippo. All along the way there were the profound musings of a philosopher on the nature of time and memory, and more importantly, the prayers of a Christian seeker exploring the mysteries of God.

As I read Confessions on that Sunday afternoon I was deeply moved. I closed the book, set it down beside me, and prayed this prayer: O God, I want to dedicate the rest of my life to knowing you as you are revealed in Christ. As much as I can mean anything in a single moment, I mean this prayer. Help me to know you. Amen.

As I finished my brief, but deeply sincere prayer, something strange happened. I felt something in my chest. Words. I felt words, not in my mind, but in my chest. Words I wanted to speak. I felt I had to say these words to someone: Come with me. Come with me and you won’t get cheated. Come with me. It was a mystical experience — a mystical experience I couldn’t deny or ignore. The next weekend I preached a sermon entitled “Come With Me.” Here’s a quote from my sermon notes:

Many Christians start out with Jesus but end up cheated. Instead of the endless adventure of searching out the mystery of Christ, they settle for something else. They get cheated. Come with me. I promise you won’t get cheated. We’re going to explore the fullness of Christ. Come with me.

That’s what I was saying way back in 2000. I would return to my come with me theme over and over. The only problem was that I didn’t have the resources to search much beyond the limited confines of Charismatic Christian circles. I wanted to explore the mysteries of Christ, but most of what I knew came from the watered-down world of consumer Christianity. I was saying “come with me” and sincerely trying to go somewhere, but I hadn’t yet found the door to the wider world of richer Christianity. It would be four more years before Dallas Willard would kick open that door with his Divine Conspiracy. It wasn’t until I learned to travel in the company of wise guides like Irenaeus, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, St. Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George MacDonald, Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, John Howard Yoder, René Girard, Frederick Buechner, Eugene Peterson, Walter Brueggemann, Wendell Berry, Kalistos Ware, Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Rohr, N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Miroslav Volf, David Bentley Hart, and so many others, that I learned to find my way well enough that “come with me” made any real sense. But once I found the way, I hit the road and didn’t look back.

What surprised me was that so many didn’t join us in the journey. No doubt I was naïve. I suppose I should have known better, but it really did surprise me. And it hurt deeply. I honestly thought more would come with me than did. In time many new people did join us in the quest for a more authentic expression of the kingdom of Jesus, but so many who had been with us for years, people who were close friends, decided it was just too much change. It scared them. At a time when the culture wars were becoming more strident and divisive, a move toward greater ecumenism and a more generous attitude toward others was viewed with suspicion. So they left for places where they could cling to familiar themes. In retrospect I understand. I did what I had to do and they did what they had to do. Time heals all wounds, but the process can be very painful. The lesson I learned is that within a culture of static certitude it’s almost impossible for a pastor to make any significant changes without paying a steep price for it.

I also learned that it’s worth it to pay that price.

So on the 1,660th anniversary of his birthday I salute one of my earliest spiritual guides, Augustine of Hippo.