Only One Thing is Necessary: Cleaving to Jesus Christ

How are we to find God, whom we cannot see? The answer is by turning to Christ, God incarnate, whom we can see.

Peter Paul Rubens [1577-1640], “St. Augustine of Hippo with Christ and the Virgin Mary”
Peter Paul Rubens [1577-1640], “St. Augustine of Hippo with Christ and the Virgin Mary”

It is one of those drop-everything books that will never go out of print. Nor should it. Despite 1,600 years having elapsed since Augustine first sat down to write it, the Confessions will always remain, indisputably, among the world’s greatest works of literature. What is it about? It is the story of a conversion, captivatingly set down in a series of revelations that lay bare the heart of a man intent on learning the truth about himself and finding God in the bargain. Who, it turns out, is nearer to Augustine than he is to himself. 

“Whoever knows you,” Augustine tells us, “knows himself.” Indeed, on the very first page, we are memorably reminded of that fact. That in thinking of God the soul awakens to an awareness of self wholly unavailable to the self-centered self. “The thought of you stirs us so deeply,” declares Augustine, “that we cannot be content unless we praise you, because (and here follows the arresting formulation) you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.” 

But how are we to find this God whom we seek? Especially if his nature, as sheer Absolute Spirit, cannot be seen? The answer is by turning to Christ, whom we can see — indeed, we run constantly into him in the form of the Bride wedded with such intimacy to him that nothing, not even her sins, can come between them. “I to my Beloved, my Beloved unto me.” Christ, then, will take us to God, carrying us across that sea of absolute being which marks the distance between ourselves and God. “You were walking in your own way,” says Augustine, “a vagabond straying through wooded places, through rugged places, torn in all your limbs. You were seeking a home and you did not find it. There came to you the way itself and you were set therein. Walk by him, the man, and you come to God.” 

This is why, from the first moment of his conversion, Augustine sought to anchor all that he knew and all that he was to the person of Jesus Christ. It was not enough, in other words, that he merely give intellectual assent to Christ, endeavoring at every turn to implement this or that teaching of Christ as mediated through the Church of which he would shortly become a member. Mere adhesion of mind was never enough. Nor would a life spent in moral imitation satisfy, either, as if the whole aim of membership were to rise and fall repeatedly, pursuant to some ever elusive ideal of human behavior, whose exercise remained so distant and lofty that only Christ himself could manage perfectly to exemplify it.

Augustine was only a man, you see, and would never think to spend his own coin to get into the Kingdom. Nor had he any appetite for a despairing moralism, in which life becomes little more than a vain shuttlecock batted between desire and duty. That is not how one becomes a saint and thus it held no attraction for him. More likely, it probably never even occurred to him to think that way. Because, right from the start, and knowing the treacherous nature of his own heart, he realized that no man can possibly be saved by imitating what Christ did. Only by cleaving to who Christ is can we be saved. It was never Christ’s example that saves, never mind the perfect purity of his actions, but only his person, which was that of the very Logos itself. Being must always be given primacy over against doing. Grace first, then works.

Here was the distinction poor Pelagius could never accept. “Here,” argued Augustine in the last great controversy of his life, “is the secret poison” which undermined the entire system he packaged. “You claim that the gift of Christ consists in his example, while the gift is in his very person.” Without grace inserting us into God’s own life, no amount of moralism is equal to the task of imitating his example. Christianity is not a self-help enterprise and we are not to understand it in terms of some distant, impossibly heroic ideal, towards which we nevertheless have been exhorted to move. It is instead a state of redeemed actuality, in whose depths we already find ourselves living and moving from the first moment of our baptism. “The final mutation,” so Pope Benedict has expressively described it, “in the evolution of the human species.” It is the event plunging us, as it were, straight into the heart of God, from whose glowing center our lives are meant to radiate out into every crevice of the world.

It is the only way to imagine the life of faith. It is how Augustine imagined it. “I did not ask for more certain proof of you,” he tells us at the beginning of Book VIII, which brings us to the climactic moment of his conversion, “but only to be made more steadfast in you.” And thus, with arms outstretched, he cries out to God, begging him to stir into life the embers which so long to burn with the love of God. “Call us back to yourself,” he begs. “Kindle your fire in us and carry us away. Let us scent your fragrance and taste your sweetness. Let us love you and hasten to your side.”

This is not moralism. This is not religion as a Do-It-Yourself kit. This is the finite man pleading with the infinite God to shower his roots with such rain that they may bloom in the garden of God. It is the cry of the Hebrew psalmist, “To seek his face evermore.” Only now it is Jesus whom we see, the Son who became one of us, bestowing the smile that makes men glad.