Continued from Part 2…
KQ: Why did you choose to write about St. Augustine for your STL dissertation?
Father Connor Danstrom (FCD): You might be able to tell that I answered all your questions with stories. Augustine saw the work of God by looking back at his life through his memory. What resonates with me in the Confessions are these tableaus like the “pear incident” and it brought to mind the post-lapsarian Adam in Augustine who was just doing evil for evil’s sake even though he did not know why. It sickens him now that he has converted to Christ, but in meditating on that he can see God at work even in the midst of his sin.
I remember one night while I was on a retreat going through a journal that I had been keeping since I was around nineteen, and the experiences I wrote about I had not thought about for a long time and in the context of being on this long retreat with a spiritual director it gave me this wave of consolation to see how God had been guiding me this whole time. It was good for me to see myself grasping out at what I thought I wanted and either not getting it or getting a better version of it. Through that experience he was drawing me to Himself. I saw God through my memory, which at that time I had no idea that He was working on me. You can see His work in retrospect and that is what appeals to me about the Confessions.
Augustine was in Carthage living his life as a hedonist, and it didn’t bother him much until later in his life. Thomas Merton said about his life that being a priest was the great secret for which he was born. No one looking at me in high school would have envisaged me as a priest.
All of us have some version of Augustine’s story, unless you’re like St. Therese of Lisieux who supposedly did not commit a mortal sin. At some point you are carried into a new body, this Body of Christ that connects us. Our existence does not make sense on its own terms any more. We are incorporated into a body and we are connected to everybody else. Once you know your place in the Body, you would not want to be anywhere else. There is a beauty to the non-competitive nature of the Body of Christ. Instead of competition we are in communion with each other. That is real freedom; not the “I am more powerful than you and so I can do what I want to you and take what I want from you.” But the proper stance is that my life only has meaning in the context of true relationality to you.
Like Augustine, I was trying to fill myself with different things, whether it was people or ideas; but the true path to freedom is not any sort of filling but it is an emptying. You must empty yourself and realize that you are utterly dependent on this one relationship, and that is with Christ. You must be able to say to Christ, “You tell me where to go because I cannot find my way on my own.” That’s faith. It is not just believing something naively that the authorities tell you to believe. It is realizing that you do not have the capacity to make yourself happy and get what you’re after in life but this person is where happiness is found. And my faith is not in an idea or proposition. It is in a person. That is why I think it is important to stress the personal encounter in the Sacraments and preaching. Do not try to over explain it or over stylize it. Just let it be what it is because Christ is already at work in His Church. Allow Christ’s work to happen and if you do vocations will come. Jesus says, “Remain in me” and “without me you can do nothing.” But if you remain in me “ask whatever you want and it will be given to you.” The problem is how do you even get people in the door to even encounter that message.