Desire as a Path to Augustinian Contemplation

This post was adapted from a retreat given by Fr. Allan Fitzgerald, OSA on Augustine's Routes to Contemplation.

Let’s us now go to the expression “Return to your heart”.

For Augustine this did not mean introspection nor a sentimentalism, which the word, “heart”, frequently connotes. Nor can it mean a subjectivism that judges everything in the light of one’s prejudices or present state of mind. Rather, returning to one’s heart requires discipline, detachment, and an accurate self knowledge. At the same time it did not mean merely intellectual activity.

The key to contemplative prayer for St. Augustine, in fact all prayer, seems to be the innate desire for God that is in every person. We saw it at the beginning of the Confessions in the famous line: “You have made us for yourself, o Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (Conf. I, 1) We also saw it as he talked about himself as a university student in Cartahage:

For within I was hungry, all for the want of that spiritual food which is yourself, my God: yet though I was hungry for want of it, I did not hunger for it. I had no desire whatever for incorruptible food, not because I had it in abundance but the emptier I was, the more I hated the thought of it.

Saint Augustine (Confessions III, 1, 1)

The discovery of this desire comes through the process we just saw in Augustine’s life that ended up in that high meditation. Disappointment, disillusion and disenchantment are a dislodging of our spirit from all we used to believe valuable. They lead us to search for what it is we truly want and desire. Call it a purifying and enabling process. Augustine would say: “Let it happen”.

There are a number of places where he speaks of a prayer of the heart which flows from desire:

Prayer is a cry that rises up to the Lord. But if this cry consists only in the noise of a voice and not in a heart that pants for God, it is wasted breath. If you cry out with your heart and your voice stays silent, the cry, unnoticed by others, will not escape God. Therefore, when we pray, we can cry out to God with a loud voice, if need be, or remain in silence. In any event, it should be a cry of the heart.

This cry of the heart calls for a concentration of the spirit which reflects a deep desire. The person does not lose confidence in its effect. You can cry with your whole heart only when there is nothing in your thoughts but prayer.

This kind of prayer is rare for most people, Only a few succeed in doing it frequently. If someone is able to pray always, I don’t know. In any case, the singer of this psalm tells us that such was his prayer: I cry out with my whole heart, hear me O Lord.

To show us the purpose of his crying out, he adds: I will seek the ways of justice. That’s why he cried out with all his heart. That is what he desired to receive from the Lord when his prayer would be heard: to be able to always seek the ways of His justice. We pray then that our minds be searching always for what we are asked to do.

The cry of the heart is a solemn earnestness of thought, which, when given vent to prayer, expresses the profound yearning of the one who prays. (In Ps. 119, 29)

Saint Augustine (On Psalm 119, 29)

Or elsewhere:  

The mouth speaks through the medium of words; the heart speaks through the medium of its desires. It is your heart’s desire that is your prayer.

Saint Augustine (On Psalm 37, 14)

In a famous letter to the Roman gentlewoman, Proba, asking his counsel how to pray, which occupies almost the entire 29th week of the year in the Office of Readings: we hear him say:

We pray always with a continuous desire flowing out of faith, hope, and charity. But at fixed hours and in given circumstances we also pray to God with words, so that by means of these external signs we may inspire ourselves. Through them we become aware of how much we have advanced in desire and make the effort to increase it. The greater the fervor, the greater the effect. What then does the Apostle’s command, Pray without interruption, mean except “to desire untiringly the happy life, which is none other than eternal life, from Him who alone can give it”? Therefore, if we always desire this from God, we never cease to pray. That is the reason why in certain hours we divert our attention from daily concerns that may cool our desire and turn to prayer. We rouse ourselves with the words of prayer in order to concentrate on what we desire, so that the desire not cool down, grow cold completely, and go out. Therefore the same Apostle says: Your petitions should be made before God (Phil 4, 6). Not that the petitions need to be known by God, who certainly knew them before they were spoken. Rather, they need to be known by us for our encouragement in the presence of God, and not in the presence of men and women to brag about.

Saint Augustine (Letter 130, 9)

He tells her that it is not necessary to use many words:

It is not a waste of time to pray long when we have the time, that is, when we are not impeded by good and important activities. Even during those activities, as I said, you must pray with desire. In fact, praying long does not equal praying with many words, as some think. One thing is to speak for a long while, another thing is to have an intimate and enduring desire. To use too many words in prayer means doing something necessary with a superfluity of words. Praying much, instead, means knocking with a constant fervor of heart at the heart of Him to whom we send our prayer.

Saint Augustine (Letter 130, 10)

He said as much once to his congregation:

So when you pray, it is devotedness you need, not wordiness. But your Father knows what is necessary for you before you ask him for it. So don’t talk much, because he knows what is necessary for you…If he knows what is necessary for us, why should we even say a few words? Why pray at all? … Yes, but the reason he wanted you to pray is so that he can give to an eager recipient … This eager desire, you see, is something he himself has slipped into our bosoms.

Saint Augustine (Sermon 56, 4)

Interior prayer for Augustine seems to be a resting in our desire for God. At the same time it is a rest without repose because it keeps reaching inwards and upwards. The prayer of desire is a true contemplative prayer. Real prayer begins when desire takes over.

Important for Augustine was what happens to one’s heart while praying the prayer of desire. In a homily on John’s Gospel he once said:

The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise of holy desire. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes you may see and be utterly satisfied. Suppose you are going to fill some holder or container, and you know you will be given a large amount. Then you set about stretching your sack or wineskin or whatever it is. Why? Because you know the quantity you will have to put in it and your eyes tell there is not enough room. By stretching it, therefore, you increase the capacity of the sack, and this is how God deals with us. Simply by making us wait he increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us. So, my brethren, let us continue to desire, for we shall be filled.

Saint Augustine (On John 4, 6)

He says something similar to Proba:

Why he should ask us to pray, when he knows what we need before we ask him, may perplex us if we do not realize that our Lord and God does not want to know what we want (for he cannot fail to know it) but wants us rather to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us. His gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it. That is why we are told: Enlarge your desires, do not bear the yoke with unbelievers. ((2 Cor 6,11). The deeper our faith, the stronger our hope, the greater our desire, the larger will be our capacity to receive that gift, which is very great indeed. No eye has seen it; it has no color. No ear has heard it; it has no sound. It has not entered man’s heart; man’s heart must enter into it.

Saint Augustine (Letter 130, 17)

Then there is his famous prayer in the Confessions that ends with desire:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new! Late have I loved you! For behold you were within me, and I outside; and I sought you outside and in my unloveliness fell upon those things that you made. You were with me and I was not with you. I was kept from you by those things, yet had they not been in you, they would not have been at all. You called and cried to me and broke open my deafness; and you sent forth your beams and shone upon me and chased away my blindness. You breathed fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath and now pant for you. I tasted you, and now hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I have burned for your peace.

Saint Augustine (Confessions, X, 28)

It’s interesting to note to whom these ideas were expressed: Not to monasteries, not to assemblies of bishops or even to his own community, but to a Roman lady who wanted to know about prayer and to ordinary congregations that were gathered in African churches for the Eucharistic celebration.

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1 year ago

Very interesting. I am currently doing my PhD on desire with Thomas Boston and need to research desire with Augustine in secondary literature as a context of Boston. Do you have any tips for scholarly research on desire with Boston?