Many of us may feel a sense of powerless over all that is going on in the world with the pandemic, civil unrest, and now threat of new wars overseas. How might Saint Augustine help us understand how to respond to this sense of powerlessness?
“And you all say, ’The times are troubled, the times are hard, the times are wretched.’ Live good lives, and you will change the times by living good lives.” – Saint Augustine (Sermon 311, 8).
Why Did Augustine Say This?
First, we have to ask why did Augustine say this? This quote is found in a sermon Augustine preached on the birthday of the Martyr Cyprian in which he explains the best way to celebrate the feasts of the martyrs is by imitating their virtues (Sermon 311, 1). So despise the world, Christians; despise the world, despise it. The martyrs despised it, the apostles despised it, the blessed Cyprian despised it whose memory we are celebrating today. You all want to be rich, want to be held in honor, want to enjoy good health; the man in whose memory you have come together despised the lot. (Sermon 311, 3). He then reflects on how Cyprian experienced his own conversion of sorts: He himself writes, testifies himself to the sort of life he led once, how profane, how godless, how reprehensible and how detestable (Sermon 311, 7).
The way to change the times, Augustine says, is therefore to change people: People are harmed, people are stripped of their possessions, people are oppressed. By whom? Not by lions, not by serpents, not by scorpions, but by human beings. (Sermon 311, 8). Thus we too can change the world as we commit ourselves to love the things the martyrs loved.
What Does This Mean for Us Today?
In the 1990’s there was a movie called Pay it Forward in which a 7th grade social studies teacher gives his class an assignment to do something that will make the world a better place. One of the students implements a plan where he does a favor for three people and then asks those three people to go and do likewise to three other people. Those people that they help are to be asked to do the same. The project sparks a movement of good deeds that rapidly spreads to thousands of people throughout his hometown.
The movie Pay It Forward may be fiction, but it might illustrate what Saint Augustine is trying to get at. We can influence change by first becoming ourselves the change we hope to see. If we are not sure where to begin, we can always begin with the Saints. Our tradition is filled with people who lived lives that were seemingly “powerless” over the circumstances and injustices of their own time, but through their own commitment to God, they were able to influence great change over the course of the centuries that followed.
The story of Saint Rita, Saint Nicholas of Tolentino, and so many others are often stories of ordinary people who lived relatively “powerless” lives. However, through their own conversion and commitment to walking the ups and downs of the life of faith, they planted seeds of faith, hope, and love that we still see growing even today through the influence their lives had and still have on the Church and the world around us.
If we truly despise “the world” and its proclivity towards conflict and division (as Saint Rita did as she dedicated her life to peacemaking) or its tendency to discard and marginalize the weak (as St. Nicholas of Tolentino did as he traveled to the poor and sick and mobilized a network of lay helpers to do the same) we should not underestimate the good that God will do through us to help make the world a better place, even when we “feel” powerless over the powerful people and circumstances that create that conflict, division, and marginalization of people.
 Augustine, “Sermon 311,” 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), 72.
 Michael Di Gregorio, O.S.A., Hearts on Fire (Villanova, PA: Brothers of the Order of the Hermits of Saint Augustine, Inc., 2018), 187-189.