Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Moment of Decision

St. Augustine of Hippo 

What is it that makes us such creeping Christians?  Where is the courage to step out boldly in complete surrender?  In reflecting on his struggle to surrender to the grace of God, Augustine says, “”But I was pitiable then, . . . at youth’s outset, when I used to pray for chastity, saying, “Give me chastity and self-control, but not just yet.”  I was afraid you would hear me too soon, heal me too soon, from my sick urges which I wanted intensified rather than terminated.”[i]

It is easy to be mildly amused at Augustine’s youthful prayer, but see what lies behind it.  As he approaches the moment of surrender he says, “But where I was going no ship or carriage or walking could take me, though where I was going was not even as far as I had come from the house.  Not only going but arriving there was simply a matter of willing it—but willing it with a strong and unified will, not a partial and wounded will, one jerking and lunging, part sinking.”[ii]  The problem that he was facing was half-hearted surrender, and until he made a whole-hearted of surrender of his  will there was no stepping forward.  Yet the surrender of the will is in itself is an impossibility apart from grace.

What holds us back from stepping out in faith if not the very things to which we have long been accustomed? He says, “The triflingest of things, the very hollowest things of the hollow-headed, had stalled me . . . they no longer flaunted themselves before me on my way, but were tittering behind me, as if furtively picking at me while I pulled away from them, trying to make me look back.  And held back in some measure I was, not willing to break off, to reject them finally, to cast myself forward to what was calling me.”[iii]

We are sown among thorns.  In our culture the cares of the world and the delight in riches choke the word and it becomes unfruitful.  The inimitable Archie Bunker, as he so often does, nails American culture, “There’s about three great moments in a man’s life: when he buys a house, a car, and a new color TV.  That’s what America is all about.”  Do we really believe that people are more important than things, or even that God himself is more important than these trifling things, these hollow things?  It is often a matter of the re-adjustment of priorities.  Augustine confesses to God, “For no one loves you well who loves anything else except because of you.  You, my love, who burn forever without consuming, set me on fire, for the charity of God.  You impose self-discipline, require anything, granting what you require.”[iv] You know that saying in a more popular form, “Give what You command, command what You will.”

This surrender of the will is not a surrender once for all time.  There are always fresh surrenders.  The Dominican preacher Henry Suso tells us “no matter how much one abandons oneself, one repeatedly finds more of oneself to abandon.”[v] It is only those who have discovered by vivid experience that they cannot surrender by the force of their own unaided will who are in the place to receive that grace to make their surrenders complete.

Each of today’s surrenders is built upon all of our past surrenders.  While it is true that if our past surrenders have only been half-hearted, we may have much work to do; on the other hand the probability is that each of us has made significant surrenders in the past, and surrender is not new to us.  Often these surrenders have come in such fashion that our essential helplessness, apart from grace, has become abundantly clear.  Those moments may not have been comfortable, but they are no bad thing.  They are in fact a gift.  Augustine, in exploring the relationship between grace and free will, tells us, “We can, however, ourselves do nothing to effect good works of piety without Him either working that we may will, or co-working when we will.[vi]  There are two sides to this.  It is only the discovery of our need that releases His grace in our lives, but at the very moment of that discovery grace is offered; and not only so, but His  grace co-works with our will when we will do the thing that needs to be done.

Not all surrenders are earth shaking surrenders, but rather the small surrenders in everyday living, in the care for others, and even in the necessary care for ourselves in matters of diet and exercise; not just chocolate bars and jogging, but our spiritual and intellectual diets and our willingness to think through the sometimes difficult and challenging things that are necessary to spiritual growth. 

There are three kinds of grace, initiatory grace, infused grace, and acquired grace.  Initiatory grace is that first sweet touch of grace that comes unbidden to many at the beginning of their walk with Christ.  Infused grace is the grace that often comes as a gift not consciously sought, perhaps even unexpected, in prayer and worship.  Acquired grace, while purely gratuitous, is that grace that comes in answer to the exercise of our will in spiritual discipline.  An old hymn testifies to this gift of acquired grace, “I sought the Lord and afterword I knew, that it was He who sought me seeking Him.”[vii]

Diadochus of Photiki tells us of this initiatory and acquired grace saying, “If we fervently desire holiness, the Holy Spirit at the outset gives the soul a full conscious taste of God’s sweetness, so that the intellect will know exactly of what the final reward of spiritual life consists.  But later he often conceals this precious and life-creating gift.  He does this so that, even if we acquire other virtues, we should still regard ourselves as nothing because we have not acquired divine love in a lasting form . . . It is therefore necessary to work upon the soul forcefully for a while, so that we may come to taste divine love fully and consciously . . . Those who have advanced to perfection are able to taste this love continually, but no one can experience it completely until ‘what is mortal in us is swallowed up by life.’ (2 Cor. 2:4)’”[viii]

This is not new to us in our Anglican context, and many of the Collects in the Book of Common Prayer confess at once our responsibility to will to do the things that God calls us to do, and at the same time our continual need of His grace in both the willing and the doing.

Proper 23

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.[ix]

[i] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Garry Wills, (New York: Penguin, 2006), Book 8, IV, 17
[ii] Ibid. Book 8, V, 19
[iii] Ibid. Book 8, V, 26
[iv] Ibid. Book 10, IV, 40
[v] Henry Suso, The Exemplar, Classics of Western Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), p. 372
[vi] Augustine, On Grace and Free Will  Kindle Highlight Loc. 527-28 
[vii] I may have paraphrased the hymn, but you get the idea.
[viii] A Reflection on St. Diadochus of Photiki- Philokalia, Vol. 1, pg. 289
[ix] The Book of Common Prayer, p. 234