This morning, I’m going to tell you the true story of a friend of mine, a person whom I respect, who was once addicted to sensual sins. As he tells the story, when he was 32 years old, he found himself in an intense spiritual struggle; my friend found himself willing, and yet unwilling, to change his life for Christ.
When he would turn and honestly look at himself, at the things he was doing and the way he was living, what he saw was ugly, sordid, and ulcerous. He desired life with Christ. He knew that holiness should mean more to him than all bodily pleasures, but he could not seem to detach himself from his sins. He hesitated to die to death and to live to life. Old enticements tugged at him and softly whispered: “Are you going to part with us?” Doubts kept nagging him, “Do you really think you can live without these pleasures, forever?”
But together with these temptations, other thoughts beckoned to him. He could envision a smiling multitude of saintly men and women of every age, who had lived both chastely and happily. A voice seemed to say to him, ‘You can also do what these men and women did, but none of them did it by themselves. The Lord their God gave it to them. Why do you try to stand by your own strength, only to fall over and over again? Cast yourself on Christ; don’t be afraid. He will not flinch and you will not fall. Cast yourself on him without fear, for he will accept and heal you.’
My friend was both willing and unwilling, attracted to both and repulsed by both. There were times when he would even pray, Lord, give me chastity, but not yet.” One day, these struggles came to a head for him, as he happened to be sitting in a garden outside of his house. Like Adam and Jesus in their gardens, he had come to a crucial moment of agonizing decision. With tears, he cried, ‘Why do I keep delaying to until tomorrow? Why not now? Why not end my uncleanness this very hour?’ Yet he could not find the strength to do it.
As he was saying these things, he heard the voice of child coming from the house next door, chanting over and again, “Pick it up and read it; pick it up and read it.” Thinking this a rather strange thing for a child to say at play, he took it a divine command to open his Bible and to read the first thing his eyes should fall upon. I took his Bible, opened it, and read these words in silence, words from today’s second reading: “Let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”
That moment changed my friend’s life for as instantly as he finished reading those words he says that his heart was infused with something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away. By this God-given grace, his life began to change, and he went on to become a saint. Actually, you know my friend too, because he’s a friend of yours as well. We call him Saint Augustine of Hippo, and he tells us his own story in Western history’s first autobiography, The Confessions by St. Augustine. [see Book 8, Chapter 11]
All of us here are recovering sinners, and we all struggle with personal addictions to sins large or small. Maybe we find ourselves committing and confessing the same sins over and over again. Maybe we are tempted to doubt that we can really change our lives for Christ. If we try to exert ever-greater efforts of personal will power, and find ourselves failing and falling again, perhaps a new approach is needed.
Instead of making promises and firmly resolving, that this time, somehow, I will amend my life and sin no more, try praying in this way: “Lord Jesus, I want to sin no more, but I have proven again and again, to myself and to You, that I can’t do it. I can’t do it, but You can. Please, give me the gift of your grace. Show me your power working in me. Jesus, live your life through me. I can’t do it, but You can.” Humble yourself and accept the gift of grace. Rely on Christ, for apart from Him we can do nothing. Pray everyday and confess your poverty, and Christ will provide what you need. If we neglect to pray or to humble ourselves, we are showing the pride of a branch that thinks it can produce fruit without the vine. If we do that, we should know that our next fall is near.
This season of Advent is for us to prepare for the Christmas coming of Christ. This year, He is asking us for only one thing; the gift of ourselves. Let us ask for the gift of His grace, so that we may present ourselves to Him, holy, pure, and whole.
[A similiar homily about St. Augustine’s mother, St. Monica.]