During freshman year of college, my history professor began a seminar on St. Augustine’s Confessions with a bold statement: “If you haven’t read this book, you can’t consider yourself an educated person,” he told us. I brushed him off at the time. More preoccupied with navigating my social life than academics, I neglected much of my reading that year, including St. Augustine’s most famous work. Little did I know how precious that book would become to me later.
Scruples have been a constant struggle in my adult life. During college, they finally forced me to a breaking point. After a particularly difficult day, fed up with the constant anxiety and feeling abandoned by God and hopeless, I swore off Confession and stopped praying. I gave in to despair and turned my back on God. He just seemed too hard to please.
The summer after graduating, I hiked the Camino with some friends. Aside from a guidebook, the only reading material we had was my friend’s copy of the Confessions. She and I shared the book, and it was the first time I’d sat down and read the entire thing. In St. Augustine, I instantly recognized a kindred spirit. His acute awareness of his own sinfulness, his wild, deep emotions, the gorgeous way he wrote about everything from beauty to the loss of his mother—all of it grabbed and held my attention. I was captivated by this brilliant, passionate man, although not so much by the God that he had fallen in love with. At the time, I appreciated the work for its literary qualities, not so much for what it had to say about Christ.
After five or so years of living an outwardly pleasant post-grad life, heartbreak struck in the form of a very hard breakup. Up to that point, I’d been coasting along, able to easily ignore what I knew deep down—that my soul was in a very bad place. Now, I watched as the future I’d planned out so nicely for myself shriveled into a pile of dust. The false confidence that I’d been carrying around for so long—the conviction that I didn’t need God, that I could make it on my own without Him—crumpled. I was frightened, sad, face-to-face with my own ugliness.
I started spending many an evening after work in Adoration. I sought out the guidance of a priest. But still, after years away from the Sacrament and with a boatload of sins, I was very scared to go to Confession. I felt myself in an agony similar to the one Augustine felt when he sat in the garden right before his conversion—feeling like I wanted to do the right thing, but at the same time feeling that it was impossible.
I’m not sure when it occurred to me that I might bring my woes to Augustine himself and ask for a helping hand. But at some point, I realized that this saint who I’d felt such an affinity toward knew what I was feeling. He’d been there too—he’d sinned a whole lot and struggled to make the leap into God’s arms. He knew that conversion of heart wasn’t easy. He was the one, after all, who had written these words, words that struck me to the core:
“But when others read of those past sins of mine, or hear about them, their hearts are stirred so that they no longer lie listless in despair crying ‘I cannot.’ Instead, their hearts are roused by the love of your mercy and the joy of your grace, by which each one of us, weak though he be, is made strong, since by it he is made conscious of his own weakness.”
And so, I turned to Augustine for help. I began asking him constantly to intercede for me that I might have the strength to return to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
And then, one cold January evening, as I sat in Adoration, I knew the moment had come. With a calmness that I could hardly believe, I walked into that confessional and received God’s mercy. I had turned my back on Him, but He had never turned His back on me. Such a surge of gratitude towards St. Augustine welled up in my heart. We have been friends ever since, and I read the Confessions every year. It never gets old.
– Maria Bonvissuto
The above is an honorable mention winner in the California Catholic Daily writing contest, Late have I loved Thee.
The remaining winners will be published Tues. – Fri. this week.