Cleansing for Life with Augustine and Me

by | Aug 6, 2019 | 6 Pure in Heart

Augustine writing his Confessions and cleansing his heart.

Cleansing the heart with Augustine.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Matthew 5:8).

Is life a long cleansing?

Ancient people believed their deities kept clear of uncleanness. Thus, those who want a relationship with them must cleanse. That cleansing meant bathing and other ways of physically purifying, but it also meant behaving honorably. One who came before the divine clean of body and character could know the divine.

As a rather scrupulous child, I assumed my primal cleanness and felt guilty about making myself filthy with misbehavior or foul language. As I get older, I see it the other way around, although it’s not filth I let go. Rather, I let go of false ideas about myself, habitual acts from outdated roles and defenses, and baggage packed for journeys I need never take again.

In other words, as I child, I cleansed of accidental messes. As an aging adult, I cleanse of stuff attached to me as long as I can remember. The cleansing of childhood made me feel restored, which is well and good. But the cleansing of adulthood makes me feel lighter, freer, more myself.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). He took the insight that cleanliness clears the way to divine encounter and made it a matter of the heart. So letting go of immoral habits, self-deceptions, and idolatrous attachments is more than a matter of being a good girl or boy. It is a matter of realizing freedom to love. We receive that freedom when we let go of the things that hold us back. When we freely practice that love , God clears the brush and fog on our trail, and with the sun at our backs, we see God.

In his Confessions, Augustine inferred that he was born a rat, a selfish, demanding fiend. Reading this, I recoil. As a psychologist, I want to lecture him on the inevitability and necessity for survival of childhood egocentricity. What if our children only thought of others and did not broadcast their needs? They would not survive.

Yet, I must agree with his larger point: We come into this world with baggage. Self-deception and construction of a provisional identity set us up for a lifetime of cleansing. Lost from the start, we let go and find ourselves chapter by chapter throughout our stories.

Augustine told his life story as a tale of vanities and selfish motivations, from buying into his parents’ status-seeking to stealing pears for the heck of it to sexual adventures — and oh how he was vexed by sex! We may quibble with him about his relentlessly scrupulous attacks on himself, but in our narcissistic age, the first great autobiography refreshes me with the author’s willingness to name his flaws. And it was a tale of letting go, of cleansing until Augustine found himself in the arms of God.

I would not tell my story just as Augustine does. I see all of us as mixes of the imago dei and the demon, and I tell my story that way. But whereas confession of sin was an occasion for guilt in my childhood, it is an occasion for peace as I age. I look into my heart and see things I could not bear to see before. Yet, I welcome them because when they show up, they drop their guns, confess their unruly ways, and together we pray. And laugh. For a merciful God hosts the party.

Blessed are the pure in heart, although I do not see the end of the cleansing, not in this lifetime at least. But the trajectory assures me that in moments of this life and in the eternity of the next, I will see God. Sinner that I am.

Related Posts

Pollution Wars: How the Kindness of Jesus Offended and Healed
Hold Your Head Up and Practice Confession
Original Mercy
Freedom to Love

2 Comments

  1. Michael Parnell

    Your post here reminds me of Ruth Bell Graham. When she died she had this placed upon her tombstone: “Construction completed. Thank you for your patience.”

    Reply
    • J. Marshall Jenkins

      That’s priceless! I’ll be a little less bold than her and say that I’m glad for eternal life because it will take forever to complete me.

      Reply

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