A periodical I regularly read has been asking fairly famous religious people to comment on a book they read in their younger years that were so formative. They call this piece “Take and Read.” Maybe it is because I am getting older, but I have found this fascinating for a couple reasons. I am fascinated by the people the periodical has asked to share their story. And of course, I am interested in the book the person chooses. In a recent issue I was pleased to see the name of Gregory Baum and that his book of choice was Augustine’s Confessions.
I have never met Gregory Baum, but I have known about him since the 1970s. I knew he was Canadian and taught in some universities in Toronto. He has written extensively on the church in the world. He has paid particular attention to social issues. He has been involved in the ecumenical movement to which I was introduced in the late 60s. I was a little surprised to see his name, since I assumed he probably had died. Clearly, he lived a long and productive life.
I was pleased to see that his book choice was the Confessions by the late fourth and early fifth century churchman and theologian. Augustine became a saint, but to me he was just an extraordinarily gifted person of God. He was a sinner like all of us. He became an ardent searcher after truth. And his spiritual autobiography, which is how I characterize the Confessions, he became a model for people who are led to keep spiritual journals.
What I want to lift out of the comments from Baum’s reflection that the most important learning he took from Augustine is the saint’s teaching that all good things come as a result of divine initiative. Without trying to develop a critique around this theological notion, I prefer to quote some of Baum’s words to see where it took him. We can learn by going with him. Baum’s starting point is his own interests in a theology that is “socially concerned and action-oriented.”
He then begins his comments. “Social engagement is not deprived of the mystical dimension that is part of the Christian life.” By saying this Baum is using his starting point---social engagement---and linking that to Augustine’s core idea---the mystical dimension of life with God. He takes it further. “According to the ancient teaching, especially of St. Augustine, the good we do is God’s free gift to us. In this Christian perspective, action equals passion.”
This is the piece that intrigues me. I am not sure most Christians think the good we do is God’s free gift to us. Normal people probably think they generate their own goodness. And perhaps too many of us don’t reflect on the fact that God gives us free gifts. I have often felt like my God was too stingy! What I needed to do was learn more about who God really is. And when I have met the real God, I then needed better images to reflect the reality of God as a generous Giver. Augustine helped me do it, too.
I appreciated the direction Baum was going. He acknowledged, “While we see, we are being enlightened; while we act, we are being carried forward; while we love, we are being saved from selfishness; and while we embrace all people in solidarity, we are being freed inwardly to cross one boundary after another.” This is a major, bold statement of God’s free gift impacting my doing good things in the world. I suggest we take note of each of the subsections in that quotation. While we see, we are being enlightened. The others sections follow suit: while we act; while we love; while we embrace. All of these cause something in us, which free us and enable us to become amazing people. That is exactly what happened to Saint Augustine and to Gregory Baum.
And now we listen to Baum finish his thoughts. He recognizes, “Every step towards greater humanization is due to the expansion of a new and gratuitous life in us. We are alive by a power that transcends us.” What an amazing idea it is that a new and gratuitous life expands in us. I quickly think about my heart growing bigger and bigger! I think about spiritual people as folks with big hearts---big hearts capable of deep love and compassion.
Finally, Baum shouts that we are alive with a power. We live, move and have our being in a power bigger than we are. This power transcends us. It enlivens, encourages and sends us in the world to heal, bring justice and imitate the life and actions of Jesus. This is none other than God.
Empowered by God we are compelled to act and to act with passion that won’t say no and won’t let go.