Sermon: Making No Provision for the Flesh
In the city of Milan, in the year 386 A.D., a young man named Augustine stood on the precipice of a decision that could change his life and the whole course of Western history. Raised in the backwaters of the Roman empire in northern Africa, this improbable man had made it to the height of society as a speechwriter in the court of the Roman emperor, becoming one of the most influential people in the world.
But yet, despite being catapulted to fame and influence after his career as a teacher had spectacularly failed, Augustine was not happy. A year before, he passed a beggar on the street who was blissfully intoxicated. How could this man, who stank to high heavens and had the most miserable existence possible, be so frustratingly happy, while he, Augustine, the imperial rhetor, was so completely miserable?
Augustine had been a Manichean, a religious sect that teaches that reality can be divided into a good, non-physical principle, and an evil, physical principal. Around this time, though, he discovered the philosophy of Plato, another ancient Greek thinker, who taught that the ultimate grounding of reality was something non-physical and other-worldly. Through Plato, Augustine came back to the letters of St. Paul, held by the Manicheans to support their dualism, and found that Plato’s philosophy made the scriptural letters of St. Paul finally make sense.
But still Augustine hesitated. “Cras, cras,” he echoed the cry of the crow (“tomorrow, tomorrow!”). Raised by a devoutly Christian mother, but never baptized because of the objections of his pagan father, Augustine could not make up his mind to follow where his intellectual search was leading him, and did not want to give up the life of luxury of the imperial court. “Give me chastity, but not yet!” was his prayer.
Then one day he heard of two members of the secret police who had discovered a copy of Athanasius’s Life of St. Anthony – the first history of monasticism, the quest to follow Christ more closely in the religious life. Amazed by what they found in this book, they gave up their prestigious posts in the secret police and dedicated their lives as desert ascetics.
Augustine was left in turmoil. “Simple people are taking heaven by storm, while we clever people without a heart wallow in the materialist world of flesh and blood!” he exclaimed. Distraught, he sat down under a fig tree and began to weep over his indecision and inability to commit to what he knew was a better life. As he wept, he heard two children playing in the house next door, chanting “tolle lege, tolle lege” (take and read, take and read). It must have been, he thought, some children’s game unknown to him. But then he looked up, and saw his friend’s copy of St. Paul’s letters, and remembered how he had just heard that St. Anthony was converted by the fortuitous hearing of the Gospel passage about selling all of one’s possessions, and so he picked up St. Paul’s letters and opened them up:
“Not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh,” he read, just as we heard several minutes ago from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. “I had no wish to read more,” Augustine later wrote. “At once a light of serenity flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled. … Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient and ever new.”
The Augustine we’re talking about is St. Augustine of Hippo, who went on not only to be baptized but to embrace a life of total dedication to God in a religious community he founded that still exists today, to become a priest and later a bishop, and then to become the most influential theologian in the history of the Western Christianity, whose synthesis between Plato and St. Paul, between philosophy and Christianity, stands at the foundation of the Catholic harmony of faith and reason. Augustine’s story of his own conversion, The Confessions, was the first ever autobiography, and his penetrating psychological analysis remains unparalleled even today, and remains one of the most beautiful and influential books ever written.
In that moment, Augustine knew that St. Paul was absolutely correct: If he wanted to believe, if he wanted to set out upon the journey of faith before which he had hesitated for so long, he must make no provision at all for “the desires of the flesh.” After living with a concubine, fathering a son at a young age, taking up with another concubine for the express purpose of displeasing his mother, and otherwise making extensive “provision for the desires of the flesh,” he saw that, for him, it would have to be all or nothing. Either he gave complete control to the passions inside him or to the Beauty ever ancient and ever new that was now calling him.
One of the great fears many of us face is that if we follow the example of St. Augustine, we will be left empty without the things that now make us happy. But “Those who complain loudest of emptiness are those whose lives are overcrowded, filled with trivial details, plans, desires, ambitions, unsatisfied cravings for passing pleasures, doubts, anxieties and fears; and these sometimes overlaid with exhausting pleasures which are a futile attempt to forget how pointless such a life is. Those who complain of such an emptiness are usually afraid to allow space or silence or pause in their lives. They dread space, for they want material things crowded together, so that there will always be something to lean on for support. They dread silence, because they do not want to hear their own pulses beating out the second of their life, and to know that each beat is another knock on the door of death. Death seems to them to be only the final void, the darkest, loneliest emptiness. They have no sense of being related to any abiding beauty, to any indestructible life: They are afraid to be alone with their unrelated hearts” (Houselander, p. 22)
It was the new emptiness from the things of the world that Augustine found that enabled him to penetrate the mysteries of the human heart and even of the divine. “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! … You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”
Ironically, our hearts were actually made to be empty, because they were made to long and yearn for beauty greater than this world can offer. It is only the heart that discovers and can live with emptiness that can be filled with grace. And that is why we have this time of Advent – to learn to be okay with being empty.
Every one of us, even if we have not encountered the Lord in a manner quite as dramatic as St. Augustine, must also reckon with the radicality of the call placed before us. “In what manner am I making provision for the desires of the flesh? What are the ways in which I am still compromising with the Enemy of my ultimate happiness? What is the part of my life I have yet to wholly surrender to God? Where am I still holding back? What is the thing that contemplating its loss fills me with anxiety and hopelessness? What am I afraid to be without? Where am I being called to embrace emptiness?”
The answers to these questions will show us how God is taking the initiative in our lives. Just as God broke into the life of St. Augustine, shouting through his deafness with the voice of a child and the words of Sacred Scripture, so too He calls us to leave behind our own hesitations and provisions for the flesh that we have made. For Augustine, his fear was the loneliness that would follow a lack of promiscuous companionship, and God replaced that emptiness with the even greater companionship of his brothers in the monastic life, and then the people he had the joy to serve as a priest and bishop. In finding the ways that God calls us to “make no provision for the flesh,” embracing the emptiness that is ultimately openness, He has an even greater happiness in store for you as well.
In the logic of the Cross and the Resurrection, which the Lord came to Earth to establish, it is in confronting our fears and hesitations that the inbreaking of grace makes clear that it is God’s initiative even more than our own that will set us upon the path of encountering Him. Find the place where He is calling you to embrace emptiness, and you will find the place where “salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
I Sunday of Advent, A.D. MMXXII