A few years ago a reading group to which I belong took on the task of reading The City of God by St. Augustine. Every Friday we would meet to discuss the twenty pages we had set for ourselves that week; the next week, we would move on to the next twenty pages. By the time the academic year was winding down, so, too, was The City of God. The sheer bulk of the massive tome was intimidating, so it was nice to see it dwindle week after week, but far more intimidating was wrestling with the monumental intellectual achievement. St. Augustine’s theological chops, whether one follows him in every particular, are peerless. After finishing The City of God, I was surprised to find out how influential Augustine’s readings on resurrection, apocalyptic thought, and the Christian understanding of the gods, amongst numerous other things, had become in my classroom. Without being conscious of it, Augustine’s readings of various biblical texts quickly had become my readings.
And St. Augustine was a great reader of the Bible because he was a great lover of God. The one who loves God strives for holiness. In the first reading for the Memorial of St. Augustine, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, Paul’s instructions to the Thessalonians focus on holiness. This was a task to which Augustine warmed up slowly, but once he was on the path to holiness, he never let up. Augustine is a great example for us in so many ways, but the path to holiness is one to which we should relate both because Augustine stumbled so badly before he arrived to it and was dogged in following it once he was on it.
Paul’s instructions to the Thessalonians acknowledge that they are on the path to holiness, but he encourages and exhorts them to "conduct yourselves to please God–and as you are conducting yourselves– you do so even more." This is holiness: "you do so even more." The example that Paul gives for growth in holiness is in the area of sexual morality, an area in which the Thessalonians are doing quite well, and in which Augustine struggled for years. As readers of Confessions know, it was God’s grace which freed Augustine from his sexual habit, and it was his willingness to "do so even more" that allowed him to remain free. No matter what area of life in which we struggle and stumble, the path to holiness remains open to us, and with God’s grace and a stubborn pursuit of what is good we can walk the walk, just as Augustine did. His struggles and stumbles are an open book, and it was he who opened it, but so too are his great writings a map to holiness, in which he details what exactly a human in love with God can accomplish.