Which one of you with a hundred sheep, if he lost one, would fail to leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the missing one til he found it? And when he found it, would he not joyfully take it on his shoulders and then, when he got home, call together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, I have found my sheep that was lost.” In the same way, I tell you, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner repenting than over ninety-nine upright people who have no need of repentance.
~ Luke 15:4-7
Or again, what woman with ten drachmas would not, if she lost one, light a lamp and sweep out the house and search thoroughly til she found it? And then, when she had found it, call together her friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, I have found the drachma I lost.” In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing among the angels of God over one repentant sinner.
~ Luke 15:8-10
There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, “Father, let me have the share of the estate that will come to me.” So the father divided the property between them. A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery.
When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch; so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs. And he would willingly have filled himself with the husks the pigs were eating but no one would let him have them.
Then he came to his senses and said “How many of my father’s hired men have all the food they want and more, and here am I dying of hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired men.”
So he left the place and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him.
Then his son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.”
But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we will celebrate by having a feast, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.” And they began to celebrate.
~ Luke 15:11-24
Lent is a time of atonement. A time for reflection on our lives and our routines. To examine how we live and attempt to bring that closer to God’s intentions for us. It is both a time for facing the hard truths of the mistakes we continue to make in our lives, and for receiving the beautiful gift of God’s loving forgiveness, as potent and cleansing now as it was two thousand years ago when it poured out from Jesus on the cross.
The season of Lent always brings someone special to mind: St. Augustine. I first encountered this holy man and his writings when I was applying to colleges. Here is where I admit that I was a transfer student at Notre Dame, I spent my freshman year at Villanova, which was a little closer to home, but didn’t wind up being a good fit for me. Now, while Notre Dame was founded by the Holy Cross priests, Villanova is an Augustinian university and that devotion is reflected all the way down to the application essay.
There I was, a high school senior, with my perfectly crafted essay that should make me a shoe-in at any college (how misguided we are at that age), filling out the Common Application online and clicking a bunch of checkboxes to submit it to a variety of schools I was hoping to attend. But one of the schools on my list wasn’t available there. Villanova had its own application with its own unique essay requirement. So I sat back down in front of a blank Word document to write a new, different essay for them, and discovered I didn’t know anything about the requested topic. While most college essays ask for a personal reflection or a defining moment in your life, this one wanted me to contextualize that reflection within the teachings of St. Augustine, a name I had never even heard.
It was time for some research and I headed downtown to the library to get a book or three. I learned a lot writing that essay, and more during my freshman year humanities class at Villanova, and despite deciding the Villanova wasn’t the right University for my undergraduate degree, I am so glad for that introduction to one of my favorite saints.
In Luke, Jesus tells the parables of the lost sheep, the lost drachma, and the prodigal son. St. Augustine embodied all of these stories in real life, and wrote about it, at length. St. Augustine may as well have coined the term “mea culpa”. If one were to take St. Augustine’s life as a whole, they might find him to be the least saintly saint in existence. Of course, God doesn’t do that.
St. Augustine is a great saint for college student because he was in a very similar mental place. He squandered, he misbehaved, he drank and partied and didn’t bother himself with pious things. He lived in the now, seeking instant gratification and oblivious to the consequences. He fell to theft and lust and many other sinful actions. Doesn’t sound like a saint, does it?
In his late twenties, St. Augustine experienced the death of a close friend in his absence and was destroyed by the loss. He found his lifestyle and belongings distasteful given his newly framed perspective on life and, within a few years, discovered Christianity under the tutelage of St. Ambrose.
Many consider a conversion to Christianity liberating, a freeing from sin in the loving kindness of God. Augustine did not. As he discovered the truth of God and Christ, and realized God’s unending forgiveness, he felt many times over every sin he had ever committed. The sheer power of God’s willingness to forgive drove him down under the weight of the sins he had to be forgiven.
Augustine wrote a book he aptly titled “Confessions”, in which he autobigraphically outlined everything he had done in his life, carefully considering the reasons behind his choices, analyzing the external factors in his life, but never blaming them for his behavior. This book was, effectively, a very long and very public Penance.
And, as St. Ambrose knew, as we know, and as St. Augustine came to know, God opened his arms and welcomed home his prodigal son with feasts and gold rings.
I often feel like St. Augustine. I see the mistakes I make and I feel not only the guilt of my errors, but also the power of God’s ability to cleanse that from me. During these weeks of Lent, I sift through my lifestyle, as Augustine did on paper, and bring my sins before my Lord for his amazing Love to wash me of all of my iniquities. And I pray for St. Augustine’s intercession, who better? He knows exactly where I’m coming from.