Lent: Week 1

Burt Donald.jpg

Facing the Reality of Life:
Both the Good and Bad of the Journey

What is our present state and how should we deal with it?
By Donald X. Burt, OSA

Originally presented on Wednesday – March 12, 2003


Spirituality is one of those impressive words that is sufficiently vague as to mean anything you want. In its most broad sense it can encompass how one sees the world and deals with it a sensible human fashion. In this usage it begins with knowledge of the self and the real world beyond the self. It then moves to the development of rules of action for making wise and prudent decisions about living in such a world.

The term “Spiritual Exercises” has always been off-putting for me. It brings to my mind those morning meditations I went through which were based on thoughts someone else created, conveniently organized into three or four points. In the early days of my religious life, this exercise was done at 5:30 in the morning, an auspicious time giving sleep to weak and an excuse for the strong to avoid further “spiritual thinking” in the midst of their busy day.

In our present worldly world, a discussion of Spirituality can be sleep-inducing in lecture form and conversation-inhibiting in small groups. The sentence “Let me now talk about my spiritual life” invites scoffing by the unkind and tempts normally patient friends to walk quickly away.

It is unfortunate that this is so because a developed spiritual life is a strong support for us as we make our wandering way through the sometimes pandemonium of daily life. Most of us can identify with the trials of that poor mythological fellow, Sisyphus, day after day rolling a huge boulder up a steep mountain, only to have it roll back down to the bottom to be pushed up again. We seem to be doing something similar day in and day out: rising, off to our chores, four hours of labor, lunch, more labor, finish our tasks, dinner, sleep and then begin another day with the same old rock to be rolled up the same boring hill.

On most days we go through the process in an unthinking way, but then suddenly we may stop in the midst of our routine and ask: “Why?” “Is that all there is?” “Is this blindly mechanical existence the total meaning of my life?” Such questions that seem to drag us beyond the daily pedestrian “grind” of our lives, are the beginning of a movement into the spiritual realm. It is in this realm of “the spirit”, a vision of human life that goes beyond the humdrum of everyday life and material needs, that we begin our efforts to make sense of our ordinary day by day existence.


One thing seems certain, a sensible spirituality must be based on reality … the facts of life as they really are not as we sometimes pretend them to be. We must accept the truth about life before we can handle it sensibly. Dealing with life demands that we first know what it is, that we recognize both what we are and what the world is like.

As Augustine remarked: my knowledge captures the truth of my situation only when my judgments, my insights about the reality of my world correspond with the facts. (On True Religion, 36.66). Certainly that most perfect form of knowledge, wisdom, cannot rest on an erroneous idea about what the world is truly like, what I am truly like. If I claim to know that I am all-perfect, that indeed I am God, I cannot be called wise. Indeed, I am insane. Like those poor souls who laugh at a world their terrible fever has created, I am not in a happy state, a state which (if we recognized its true character) would cause horror, not ecstasy. The fact of the matter is that (again as Augustine observed):

Such is the overwhelming power of unconquerable truth, that one would rather keep one’s wits and cry than lose one’s wits and laugh.

Sermon 150, 10; cf. Sermon 175, 2.

It is in this realistic spirit that I offer the following facts about ourselves and the world. They are not exotic truths. Most of us have come to recognize the truth of most of them through our own personal experience. I would suggest that these basic truths about ourselves and the world are (unless I am crazy too) the foundation for a healthy spiritual life.


In response to his prayer “Let me know myself!” Augustine heard deep inside himself the answer:

” You are a beast.”
“You are a beast with dreams.”
“You are a bit cracked”

These were the first truths that Augustine came to know about himself. They also are truths about you and me and every human being. We too are beasts. We too have our dreams. And we too are a little bit cracked.

a. We are “beasts.”

As I stand here hungering for my lunch, I freely admit: I AM A BEAST! I am an animal. I am not a pure spirit and (to quote Seinfeld from another context) “there is nothing wrong with that!” Indeed, Augustine tells me that I am crazy if I try to pretend that my body is not part of being “me”. (On the Soul and its Origin, 4.2.13) I must not be ashamed of being an animal. I am an animal because that is how God made me to be. Sometimes I try to ignore the fact but that is because of my pride. Sometimes when I am pretending to be God, I try to deny that like other animals I have physical needs and drives and passions, that like other animals I am gradually falling apart, that like other animals I will someday die.

It is sad that sometimes I feel ashamed of being an animal. I am what I am because God wanted me so to be. My body is part of my being and in my body I glorify the God who made me. In taking care of my body I take care of a temple of God. God made me to glorify him and to be happy. And he wanted me to be happy not as some disembodied spirit but as a human being, a being of spirit and flesh and blood. In heaven even Jesus can do no more for me than to make me a glorified (but glorious) animal.

Indeed, Augustine goes so far as to say that we humans cannot be fully happy WITHOUT our bodies. That’s why the Christian heaven is so much better than the heaven of the pagans. Crossing the river Styx to the place of the dead was not a pleasant prospect for the ancients precisely because seats on Charon’s ferry were reserved for “nobodies”, shadowed souls without flesh and blood. Augustine rejoiced in the miracle of Christ’s resurrection because it showed that indeed the human body CAN survive the grave. It gave him the hope that one day he would be able to be in his eternal home with his flesh and blood. He for one knew that he could not be fully at peace until his body rejoined his soul and he thought those who believed otherwise to be quite insane. (Sermon 241, 7)

The fullness of heaven will not be in being cut in half but in being well-tied together. In heaven we will not be alienated from our bodies. As Augustine says:

We will be friends with our body. (Sermon 155, 14)

And, as a result:

Whatever our spirits decide will be accepted happily by our bodies and our spirits will be careful not to choose anything which would embarrass their good physical friend.

City of God, 22.30

God made me and you to be beasts and beasts we shall be forever and ever. But if and when we get to heaven we shall be very, very happy beasts. And that’s a fact.

b. We are beasts with dreams.

Luckily being beastly is not the only fact about ourselves that we must accept. For sure, I am a beast but I am a beast who dreams. I dream of being something more than I am. Because I am a being of body I must live in the present, but I also live in the past through memory and in the future through anticipation. I am a beast with spirit and sometimes my spirit seems to carry me to the very heavens. I am a SPIRITED being and to ignore this is just as silly as to ignore my beastliness.

To ignore the needs of my body is to die. To ignore the needs of my spirit is to die in a much more terrible way. It is because of my spirit that I dream of living forever. It is because of the awesome (but terrifying) powers of my spirit that I have the possibility of living forever unhappy. It is because of the wonderful, fantastic powers of my spirit that I can come to recognize the Infinite God and, with the help of his healing grace, to choose to live forever happy.

But eternal happiness or unhappiness is not part of my present. Just now I only dream and hope and love and believe. Indeed, I am a beast with spirit and woe to me if I forget it. I am a being who hungers and the hungers of my spirit are eternal and infinite. My happiness depends on their fulfillment.

c. We are dreaming beasts who want to be happy.

The further fact we discover about ourselves when we look deep inside our “self” is that day in and day out we are consumed by a thirst for happiness. As Augustine reminded his listeners one day:

You are seeking happiness. You want to be filled with joy. You want to be so stuffed with good things that you don’t experience any unfulfilled desire or lack anything.

Sermon 72, 10.

I want to be happy and that’s a fact! But I can’t be happy if I am hungry and my hungers are many. The prophet Jeremiah had me in mind when he cried out one day:

If I enter the city, look at those consumed by hunger!. Even the prophet and the priest forage in a land they know not.

Jeremiah, 14.18

What are these hungers? What indeed do I want? Each of us has his or her own personal list of “wants” but I believe that some of the things I “want” are wanted by every human being.

For example, I want to LIVE! and this means more than simply existing. I want to live and at the very PEAK of my powers. I don’t want to merely survive; I want to FLOURISH and indeed flourish forever and ever. I don’t merely want to MAKE a living … to have enough bread for my table. I want orchids on my table too. I want to be able to live and enjoy life at the highest level possible for a human being. And then I want to go beyond that possibility (because humans, you see, must die and I truly do not want to die). I want my life-force to be in me without end. Indeed, I hunger for LIFE ITSELF.

It is because of my hunger for life that I do my best to forget about death, avoid pain, and worry about future security. I want to LIVE! and for this reason I clutch at things that seem to promise secure and comfortable living in the future. I want to LIVE! and thus I avoid taking risks, rocking the boat, sticking my neck out. I avoid taking responsible positions because taking charge makes me vulnerable to the envy and hatred of those I must rule. It seems so much safer to be ignored in the anonymity of the crowd. And yet I don’t want to be simply an anonymous THING in this world. I want to be more than just a “cog” in someone else’s wheel. I want to be a SOMEBODY!

That’s my second great desire: I want my life to have some MEANING. After so many years as a little kid having people look down on me, now I am finally grown up. I have had enough of being told to go and play, to go to school, to go to bed, to “eat my peas”, to “sit up straight”, to “stop scratching”, to do all sorts of things of no particular importance. Now I want to be treated with respect. I want my life to be of some consequence. And hence each day I analyze my life for its value and try to do things that will make it seem more important. And yet I am not all that sure what IS important. Certainly it is more than being feared, being a presence in the lives of others. I was that when I lumbered clumsily about the basketball court as a sincere but inept member of my high school team. I was a presence to others. Some may even retain the scars. But the whole affair had little meaning. It was just a game that children play. Is there nothing more to life than that?

I along with the young Augustine hope there is more. I hope that I am not now wasting my life on adult games. In his Confessions the forty year old Augustine sardonically observed that the trifling games of children are called “business” when they grow up. (Confessions, 1.9.15) I hope that is not the story of my life, a movement from game to game. I want to be different. I want to be myself. I want to depend on no one else. I say

If only I could stand on my own private mountain, a person of special character and independent means, then the world would look up and I would be important.

Of course it is a fantasy. I cannot exist by myself. To get by I need a little help from my friends. Oh it is true that I want to be free, (that is another of our basic desires) but the freedom I seek is not the freedom of the solitary. It is the freedom I feel when I am held in the arms of one who loves me. I want to live, and I want my life to have meaning, but more than either of these … I want to be LOVED.

This is my third great hunger. I hunger for love. I want my life … no, I want ME to be loved and I want somebody for me to love. I want to be important for someone else. I want someone to be a fool for. I want someone to look at me and truly SEE me and not turn away in horror. I want someone who will be able to say to me:

“My friend, I cherish you.”

I want someone so close to me that if I should ever leave I would rip away part of their life and take it with me. I want someone to be so buried in me that when they leave part of me will go with them. I want someone who would be willing to empty themselves and take me into them. I want someone who would be willing to live in me. I want someone for whom I would willingly die. I want someone who would die for me. I know that if I have such a love, whatever else happens to me, my life will flourish and have meaning. In such an eternal, all-embracing love I may even last forever. And forever I will never ever be alone.

After 30 years Augustine found such a person, it was Jesus-God … lover who indeed died for Augustine and lived in Augustine even before Augustine came to recognize him.

And so too is this wonderful fact true for us. It is a fact known only by faith, but it is a fact nonetheless.

d. We are limited beings who are somewhat cracked.

Such a fact is indeed a happy fact and there are other happy facts about ourselves that are well to remember especially in the midst of the sometimes winter days of our spirit. It is that basically we human beings are GOOD and we have wonderful powers. Thus, we find Augustine saying:

The great good God has made us human beings the loveliest ornaments on earth. City of God, 19.13

And again:

If you praise the works of God, then you will also have to praise yourself, for you too are a work of God.

Commentary on Psalm 144, 1.

And again:

If the creation of any living creature calls for unutterable praise to the Creator from the thoughtful person who devoutly considers it, how much more the creation of a human being above that of any living creature!

Letter 166, 15

Indeed, God does not make junk. Or, Augustine succinctly observes:

There is no such thing as a useless human being. Freedom of the Will, 3.23.66.

This being said, there is a somber fact that must be added a fact we learn from experience, if not by the sometimes unkind remarks of others. It is that we are beings who are limited and cracked. When some came to Augustine proudly proclaiming that they were going to create the perfect society by admitting only those who were perfect, Augustine laughed and said:

How in the world are you going to find such people? Many promise themselves that they will live a holy life, but they forget that they have been placed in the furnace of life and have come out half-cracked.

Commentary on Psalm 99, 11

Indeed, I (and you too) are “cracked pots” and we must face up to that reality every day of our lives. I may be destined for heaven but just now I don’t feel that good. I roll out of bed each morning in parts. I have knees that ache and a stomach that gets upset. Just now I sometimes have unreasonable fears for my future. Just now I sometimes have very justified remorse for my past. I am a professed religious but that does not change things. Augustine once said that when you baptize a drunk all you get is a baptized drunk. (Sermon 151, 4-5) So too, when you profess a cracked pot all you get is a professional cracked pot.

God knows (though sometimes I don’t act that way) I am limited. I can’t figure out the answers to everything. I can’t do everything. Such limits are not a sign that there is something wrong with me. My limitations come not from my cracks but from my creatureliness. I am limited because I was created from nothing. My “crackedness” shows itself in my limitations when I pretend that I am not limited, that I know everything, that I am a savior of the world capable of doing anything. The fact that I cannot know or do everything is not a disability; it is just an expression of my being “me”, this “Donald”. Not accepting my limits is a sign that this “Donald” is cracked.

If we were not cracked, If we had remained whole, we would have rejoiced in our limits. We would have been happy with our limited intelligence, knowing that we had infinite time to discover the answers. We would have been like kids giggling as they pieced together a huge jigsaw puzzle because they just KNEW that ultimately they would discover how all the pieces fitted together. Without our cracks we would have rejoiced in our limited powers of loving, knowing that our taste for infinite good would be continuously satisfied. Like children clutching giant cups of lemonade, we would have exulted in our limited straws that extended the pleasure of our long cooling drinks.

It follows from the good and bad we find in us that the best we can hope for in this life is that our lives will be a mixture of the good and bad, of the pleasant and the unpleasant, of sorrow and joy. But, whatever the character of our life may be just now, another fact is that it is transitory.

e. Life is passing.

Augustine stated this fact about our lives in terms like the following:

We are now travelers on a journey. We cannot stay in this place forever. We are on our way, not yet home. Our present state is one of hopeful anticipation, not yet unending enjoyment. We must run without laziness or respite so that we may at last arrive at our destination.

Sermon 103, 1

Indeed, the reality of our life just now is that it is constantly passing away. Whether we are now feeling the pleasure of a good life or the pain of a bad life, whether we are in the innocence of our infant life or in the regrets of a life lived long but not always well, whether we are at the peak of our mental and physical powers, or at a stage where we are beginning to forget that “long ago” period when we were “flourishing” and not simply existing … in sum whatever our condition is at the present moment we are in the midst of a life that is moving towards death.

We are in the midst of a truly dying life. Whether we are young or old, we are all travelers on the same road, a road that leads ultimately through the door of death to a life without death. We are in the midst of a life that is rushing towards that death-door that is the entrance to eternal life. To ignore this fact is a special form of madness. It is like living in a motel, an Inn for Travelers, as though we would be there forever.

All of the facts mentioned so far, the facts …

… that we are body;
… that we are spirit;
… that we want to be happy:
… that we are essentially good;
… that we are limited and cracked;
… that we are in transit

… each of these facts can be known by experience if we but open our minds to see them. But there is a fifth and perhaps most important fact that can be known only by Faith. It is simply this: we live in a world ruled by an infinitely good God who by his provident care works with us so that some day we can be perfectly happy and who, in the meantime, gives us the strength to get through.


The question now becomes: how should we deal with such a transitory life just now? Augustine suggests that it comes down to two things:

1. we must control ourselves

2. we must endure.

First, we must control our enjoyment of the good things of life. And, if we are not terribly unlucky there will be good times, times which prove the truth of Augustine’s statement:

The world is a smiling place, a place filled with beauty and power.

Sermon 158, 7.7

But also we must be prepared to endure the bad times that will inevitably come upon us, times perhaps filled with sorrow when we are tempted to despair. Augustine put it this way in a sermon to his people:

There are two things enjoined in this life by the Lord, which seem toilsome to us: to hold back and to hold out — restraint and endurance. We are told to restrain ourselves or hold back from things that in this world are called good, and to hold out against or endure the things that abound in this world that are bad. Whether we never had it so good or never had it so bad, we must wait for the Lord, wait for him to give us what is truly good and pleasant and to ward off from us what is truly evil.

Sermon 38, 1.1; cf. City of God, 1.29

Finally, in good times and bad we must constantly remember that they will not be forever, that we are still like the injured Samaritan in the New Testament story. In good times or bad we are waiting for the Lord to come and take us to our heavenly home.

Augustine came to believe in the promises of Jesus Christ that, whatever happens to us in this life, we will never be left alone. If we are lucky (and again sadly some are not), we will always have some humans who care for us who are willing to rejoice with us on our good days and support us on our bad. But even when we lose all of these we still have present with us a loving God … a God who, though unwilling to overrule the bad human decisions that cause so much of our suffering in life, has through his own death guaranteed that we can have perfect happiness on the other side of death, who has promised that on this side of death and through death he will stay with us supporting us along the way.

This is the reality of our lives. Facing up to it and dealing with it, is the beginning of a truly spiritual life.

Professor Burt’s presentation was part of a four part series on Augustinian Spirituality, sponsored by the Office for Mission Effectiveness at Villanova University. This text has been graciously provided by the author and is posted with permission. It may not be reprinted or retransmitted for public use without permission of the author. Brief quotations may be taken from the text without permission but must carry appropriate attribution. 

For more information about this program, contact the Office for Mission Effectiveness.