“Take my yoke upon you…and you will find rest for your souls.”
“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
St. Augustine “Confessions”
On the Sunday before Lent some Christians celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. You know the story well. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain where they experience Jesus together with Moses and Elijah transfigured before their eyes. They are overwhelmed by the presence of God. But the vision soon passes and they go with Jesus down the mountain to begin their journey to Jerusalem and the cross. Some would call their mountain top experience mystical, an experience in which the disciples are caught up in the Spirit just as Moses was on Mountain Sinai or Elijah on Mount Carmel. These were overwhelming experiences of God as Moses led the freed slaves on their journey to their land of promise, and before God sent Elijah back into the political maelstrom to speak truth to power. So, too, Jesus and the disciples are overwhelmed by God’s presence as they begin their journey to the cross.
I begin this promised Lenten series on the “Christian Mystics” on the Mount of Transfiguration in order to make it plain that Christian mysticism is not a way of escape from the world, but a profound sense of the presence of God that enables us to live life fully in the world. It is not a religious experience that separates us from our fellows and our responsibilities, but an experience of God that enables us to live more compassionately, responsibly and justly. Of course, mysticism means different things to different people and different traditions, but for Christians it is all about being overwhelmed by God in the midst of daily life, even though it may begin on a mountain top. It is like falling in love. It begins in ecstasy when we are overwhelmed by beauty, but being and remaining in love takes place in the daily, ordinary course of life with its hum-drum chores and inevitable suffering. But that does not mean who have falled out of love, for it is that experience that sustains you over the long haul. This is the testimony of St. Augustine, the first of the “Christian mystics” whose journey into the mystery of the love of God we will reflect on this first week in Lent.
Augustine was born in 354 in present day Algeria. His father was a pagan and his mother, Monica, a devout Christian who ensured that he had a Christian education. But soon after he went to university in Carthage , turned his back on Christianity and took a mistress to whom he was faithful for fifteen years. Augustine was particularly interested in philosophy and became a member of the Manichaean religious sect. But after nine years of seeking the truth he abandoned the sect and opened a school of philosophy in Rome. Soon after he went north to Milan where he came under the influence of the bishop, St. Ambrose. But it took a while before he himself was converted as he struggled with his intellectual doubts and his carefree way of life. He was a restless soul searching for true love and peace. Eventually, while reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, he made his decision and on Easter Day 387 he was baptized. He returned to North Africa and while visiting the city of Hippo (Annaba) he was suddenly seized by the people who presented him to the bishop for ordination! Not too long after he himself became the bishop. And thus began a remarkable career during which he wrote several books that have profoundly influenced the development of Christianity. Augustine died in 430 as the Vandals from the North were attacking Hippo, having already destroyed Rome.
As a bishop struggling to deal with powerful heresies that were dividing the church, and living in a time of tumultuous political change, Augustine was deeply engaged in the life of the world. But his involvement was profoundly shaped by his deep mystical spirituality which he describes in the pages of his Confessions, one of the most significant books ever written in the history of Christianity. It is a very personal book in which he tells us the story of his search for truth over the thirty years before he finally decided to become a Christian. But looking back over his life he discerns how it was the God in whom we “live and move and have our being” who was actually always seeking him! “I should not have sought you unless you had already found me!” Augustine cries out. He also comes to the realization that God’s truth is not to be found in the proudly wise, but in the humble of heart. And, he confesses, his search for truth only came to fulfillment when his restless heart found rest in God. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” he says in his most often quoted words, “and our hearts are restless until they finds their rest in you.”
Several times in his Confessions Augustine relates his experience to the words of Jesus: “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” This is precisely what Augustine discovered. In taking up Jesus’ yoke, or the discipline of discipleship that we are reminded about each Lent, Augustine found that it fitted him perfectly, and in following Jesus he discovered that his restless heart was finally at peace, finally happy and filled with joy. Such joy is not just the starting point of Christian mysticism, it characterizes it all the way on the journey ahead. For it is all about falling in love with the one who first loves us, and loves us with the passion of Calvary. We can’t explain it in carefully constructed words, only in poetry and praise; we cannot say precisely what has happened to us, because such love defies analysis. But the first thing to learn about Christian mysticism is that it is about falling in love with the source and fount of love. Here is how Augustine describes it:
Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 1 March 2017. First week in Lent: