“Always be dissatisfied with what you are if you want to arrive at what you are not yet.  Because wherever you are satisfied with yourself, there you have stuck.” – Saint Augustine (Sermon 169, 18).[1]

Why Did Augustine Say This?

Saint Augustine offers this piece of wisdom in a Sermon on Philippians 3:3-16 in which Paul reckons with the fact that the more he clings to hope of Christ and Heaven, all that he previously thought he had gained he now counted as loss. In Sermon 169, Augustine thus invites us to examine our own progress towards clinging to this new hope in our own lives.  

This quote in Augustine’s Sermon 169 comes just after a reflection on Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) in which Augustine says Mary has “chosen to contemplate, chosen to live on the Word.” (Sermon 169, 17).  He likewise encourages us to “think about the things to come” and to “not look back” else we “may stick” at whatever point we stop to turn and look back (Sermon 169, 17). Augustine urges us rather to “forge ahead” in continuing the journey of growing closer to God by always examining ourselves “without self-deception, without flattery, without buttering” ourselves up (Sermon 169, 18).  In this way we will always be “dissatisfied” with that we are so we can hope to “arrive” at what we are not yet.[2]

In this sermon, Augustine likely drew from his own experience of restlessness.  As he describes throughout his Confessions, Augustine discovered the things he thought would make him happy (e.g., career, titles, possessions, education, sex) failed to fully satisfy him.  Through this experience, he discovered that it is in God alone that we find complete and final happiness.  While these things in themselves are not necessarily bad, treating them as an end in themselves rather than as a means to a greater good (i.e., rest in God) will always fail to satisfy our deepest longings.  Augustine likens this human tendency to a traveler who falls in love with the boat they are on rather than the destination that boat is taking them to (Teaching Christianity, 1.4.4). 

What Does This Mean for Us Today

What are we clinging to in life? Have we fallen in love with the “boat” we are traveling on or are we still longing for the destination it is taking us to? The image of the boat could serve as a metaphor for many things we find ourselves attached to in life: material possessions, careers, titles, hobbies, relationships, etc. To what might God be inviting us to let go of in order to “forge ahead” in hope of things yet to come? Have we found hope in the many promises God has given us through His word as Augustine credits Mary with doing?

[1] Augustine, “Sermon 169,” in The Works of Saint Augustine:  A Translation for the 21st Century.  Translated by Edmund Hill, O.P.  Edited by John E. Rotelle, O.S.A (New Rochelle, NY:  New City Press, 1992), 235.

[2] Ibid., 233-235.

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