“Great are you, O Lord, and worthy to be praised”; “great is your strength and your wisdom cannot be measured.” And man—some portion of your creation—wants to praise you, and yet man is surrounded by his mortality, surrounded by the testimony of his sin and the testimony that “you resist the proud”; and nevertheless man—some portion of your creation—wants to praise you. You excite him, in order that he delights to praise you, because you made us for yourself and our heart is restless, until it rests in you.
~ St. Augustine, Confessions 1.1.1
Today, August 28, was St. Augustine’s day. Thus, though the character of his writings can be significantly different and often more overtly philosophical than the desert fathers, I felt like I ought to give such a master of spiritual reflection his due today. He was himself, after all, inspired by the desert fathers, especially St. Antony. Despite the difference of style, however, I think—at least with regards to this passage—there is a unity of focus.
First of all, St. Augustine, ever immersed in Holy Scripture, and especially the Psalms, begins by quoting Psalm 144:3 (145:3) and 146:5 (147:5). Both praise God for his greatness and, particularly, for the fact that he “upholds all who fall” (144:14 [145:14]), “heals the brokenhearted,” and “lifts up the humble” (146:3, 6 [147:3, 6]). Certainly, for anyone who knows the story of Confessions, for St. Augustine these, indeed, where wonderful reasons to praise the Lord. For him (in many ways), Adam’s fall was his fall; left to his own devices his heart was broken and restless; yet in the end, once he finally humbled himself (or was humbled, as he might prefer it) he found true peace by being lifted up by the grace of God. The first resonance, then, is a focus on humility. Indeed, he even continues on to quote 1 Peter 5:5 (alluding to Proverbs 3:34), that “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
Accordingly, in contrast to God’s greatness, he ponders the paradoxical existence of humanity: though “some portion of [God’s] creation” and “surrounded by his mortality” and “the testimony of his sin” and its consequences (“you resist the proud”), human beings wish to offer praise to God. But what can we give? Not only are we a “portion” of his creation (and thus own nothing of ourselves, even our own souls), but we have messed it all up, plunging it toward dissolution and death through our sin. What audacity to speak even a word to God, much less to presume to offer anything to him worthy of his greatness! How utterly irrational!
What could be the cause of this folly? “You excite him,” Augustine prays. Such a desire, such a delight, is God-given. If this is the case, then it is not so irrational after all. If it is a natural response to God arousing us from our slumber, raising us up though we’ve fallen, then it is proper and right.
But what evidence is there that God excites us in this way? “[Y]ou made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” The restless heart, never satisfied with the things of the world, always seeking for them to be more than they can possibly be, never finding true peace until it turns its gaze elsewhere and looks beyond the creation to the greatness of the Creator—this is all the evidence that he needs. True, it is intangible evidence, but evidence just the same. The world is not enough for us. We want God; we want to praise him; and we cannot be satisfied apart from him.
To the desert, O heart!
When we spiritually withdraw from the world—not to condemn it, per se, but so that we might not be condemned by living for it alone—then our heart finds its salvation, peace, and rest. And, indeed, then the world once again manifests its beauty to our transfigured eyes, and we find ourselves irresistibly wishing to praise the Lord.