Your Time Is Now

Yesterday afternoon I decided to attend daily mass a few blocks from my house, and then pick up some things for dinner at a nearby deli, where I used to shop as an undergraduate at Georgetown University.  Monday happened to be the first day of classes, since the students all moved in this past weekend, and the relative quiet of the neighborhood around campus in summer is now broken once again.  There were young people everywhere, some carrying bags full of shopping, others bumping into one another and asking, “How was your summer?”, others heading back from class, internships, or athletic practice.

As I walked about, I experienced this rather vivid sense of time travel which is a bit hard to describe.  Perhaps the feeling was originally triggered by seeing a classmate of mine (whom I only knew slightly) on C-Span that morning, speaking on a panel discussion about the Republican National Convention, and remembering what she was like when she was about 19 years old.  It wasn’t that I actually ran into someone I knew after mass, for although I still know a professor or two at Georgetown, almost everyone who would remember me there is long gone.

Rather, it was something like putting myself back into that time when I was a new Hoya.  I still remember walking this particular route, on a Monday in August many years ago, as I made my way from campus down into the village for the first time.  It isn’t as though I had never walked this route since: as a matter of fact I probably take it at least a couple of times a month, if I am going to patronize certain commercial establishments, or attend a lecture on campus, etc.

Instead, it was a certain combination of golden, late afternoon light,  walking among these groups of students, that was a sort of journey beyond just that of heading home after church with some groceries.  It was not just that click or flash, where you are suddenly reminded of something and then it fade, but rather quite a lengthy visitation or reverie, putting me in mind of people I had known and had not thought of in many years, whose names I have forgotten but who at one time if I saw them on the other side of Prospect Street I would have acknowledged, even if not necessarily stopped to talk to.  Although I did not know the students around me, and they did not know me, there was a very strange sense that I could almost detail their lives…

And then of course, I realized that this is all rubbish.

Living in the past does no one any good – e.g., Miss Havisham.  We all know people who fit the old stereotypes of people who cannot left go of the past.  There are high school or college athletes for example, who got stuck in their own golden, afternoon light with the wet lawn beneath their feat, when they were young, handsome, and had a full head of hair.  Decades later they are unhappy, and seem to resent life and themselves in equal measure.  And this is simply one example among many.

Today the Church remembers the great St. Augustine, who spent the first part of his life having rather a good time carousing about.  By his mid-30’s however, that attempt to simultaneously hold on to youthful excess underneath a veneer of adult respectability became impossible for him to maintain.  He abandoned what he thought his life was supposed to be as a successful academic, and went down a completely different path.  How fortunate for all of us that he took that later call he received in life, and ran with it, rather than remaining trapped in a kind of hedonistic time which would have become increasingly ridiculous and sad as he grew older.

We are all living in the age in which we were meant to born, which is a rather sobering thought.  The question becomes what each of us will do with that inescapable fact, in the time we have each been given.  There is nothing wrong with periodically looking back with some sense of nostalgia, nor looking to the future with longing.  Yet if you spend most of your life doing these things, then you miss out on the opportunities you have before you today, here and now.

It was certainly an interesting experience I had yesterday afternoon, feeling as though I had returned to the past for several minutes, with my whole future in front of me just waiting to be defined.  In the end, however, I was very glad to find that the feeling passed, with no real sense of regret or loss.  There are too many things that need doing, for me to sit about and live in the past, and after all: if St. Augustine only started to figure out where his talents were really needed in his 30’s, then I am in most excellent company.

Aerial view of Georgetown on a summer late afternoon


Embracing Your Difficult Friendships

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Ambrose (337-397 A.D.), Doctor of the Church, Bishop of Milan, confessor to St. Augustine, and friend to St. Augustine’s mother, St. Monica. For many of us in the present day, St. Augustine is someone whose life story often resonates because, as most Christians know, he led a rather hedonistic lifestyle before his conversion to Christianity at the age of 32. Yet we ought not to forget the example of St. Ambrose, who patiently waited for his friend to come around to the right way of living, when many others might have given up long before. St. Ambrose’s life reminds us that we should never refrain from calling a spade a spade, when we see our friend doing something wrong, but at the same time we should be patient, and keep in mind that a change for the better is not only always possible, but also that we never know what good our friend might achieve if and when they do get on the right path.

As most of my readers undoubtedly know, St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) lived during a time period when paganism was still very much around, and many people felt free to practice a hedonistic lifestyle. The worse among these persons saw no problem with treating other human beings as objects for their own pleasure or utility; the more moderate took the stance that, so long as they were not harming anyone else, their actions were morally good, or at least morally neutral. Sound familiar, gentle reader?

During his youth and early adulthood, St. Augustine had many experiences with prostitutes, including a particular mistress he kept for well over a decade, whom he never married and who bore him a son. On the urging of his mother, he left this mistress to enter into an arranged marriage with a girl considerably younger than he was. In the meantime he picked up another mistress to tide him over while he was waiting two years for his bride-to-be to come of age so that he could legally marry her. However, he subsequently ended both of these relationships as he underwent his conversion to Christianity. It would have seemed amazing to someone who knew St. Augustine prior to his conversion that he would have voluntarily left that lifestyle, given how much he clearly enjoyed it.

Although I am not a member of Opus Dei – I do not like to join things as a rule – one of the sayings of its founder, St. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, has always resonated with me, whenever I find myself despairing of a friend who seems to be headed in the wrong direction, with eternal implications to their behavior. In No. 675 of his highly influential book, “The Way”, St. Josemaria writes that we cannot assume that someone who is on the wrong path, living in sin, is always going to stay that way. “It’s true that he was a sinner,” he writes. “But don’t pass so final a judgment on him. Have pity in your heart, and don’t forget that he may yet be an Augustine, while you remain just another mediocrity.”

Of course, St. Ambrose was no slouch, as it turned out. He was a very active and successful bishop and theologian, who made a profound impact on the history of Christianity. As a result, he brought many people to the Faith, with St. Augustine being perhaps the most famous of them. St. Augustine writes the following in his famous spiritual autobiography, “Confessions”, about the first time he went to hear St. Ambrose give a sermon which started to change his mind about the Church. He had gone along only out of curiosity, because St. Ambrose had a reputation for being a great thinker and public speaker, but what happened at that mass would have a tremendous impact not just on St. Augustine himself, but on the history of the Western World:

Alongside his language, which I admired, the subject matter also, to which I had been indifferent, began to enter my mind. Indeed, I could not separate one from the other. And as I opened my heart and recognized how eloquently [Ambrose] was speaking, it occurred to me at the same time – though this realization came on gradually – how much truth he was speaking. First, I started to see that the points he made were defensible. I had thought that nothing could be said for the Catholic faith…but now it appeared to me that this faith could be upheld on the grounds of reason — especially when I had heard one or two passages in the Old Testament explained in their symbolism which, when I had taken them literally, had been like death to me.  I was pleased that the Old Testament of the Law and the Prophets was set before me in such a way that I could now read in a different spirit from how I had previously, when I used to criticize [God’s] holy ones for holding to various opinions which, clearly, they never held at all. And I was also happy when I heard Ambrose emphatically recommend this Scripture passage as a rule of thumb: ‘For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’.

From this point on, of course, after debating with St. Ambrose and others, St. Augustine is on the path. He goes on to write some of the most influential spiritual books in the history of Christianity, to become an influential bishop, and to inspire countless Christian souls down the centuries. While something of an over-simplification, if you do not have St. Augustine, then you do not have the end of classical paganism, the beginning of the Middle Ages, or later the writings of theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas and their influence in leading up to the Renaissance. And all of this, because St. Ambrose took the time to talk with St. Augustine and be his friend.

Perhaps, gentle reader, you may not be possessed of as towering an intellect as St. Ambrose of Milan was widely reported to have had – I for one am certainly not so gifted. Yet like St. Ambrose all of us are confronted with people in our lives whom we feel drawn to making our friends, but are simultaneously repulsed by because of some aspect of the way they behave. If as great a man as St. Ambrose did not shy away from trying to help his friend St. Augustine find the right path, then surely we should not turn our backs on our friends who need our example of love, friendship, and charity as well.

St. Ambrose Writing by Matthias Stomer (c. 1633-1639)
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes, France