St. Augustine and Newton’s First Law of Motion

Homily for the First Sunday of Advent, Year A.

When you take an introductory physics course, either in high school or in college, some of the first things you learn are Newton’s three laws of motion. The first of these laws concerns momentum. It states that an object in motion will stay in motion, and an object at rest will stay at rest, unless acted upon by an outside force. In the absence of such a force, an object either remains where it is or continues on its present course. It’s been my discovery, not as a physicist but as a priest, that this is true in the spiritual world as well. There is a such a thing as spiritual momentum. Unless a spiritual force acts upon us, and unless we open ourselves up to that force, the course of our spiritual life remains the same.

On November 13, 354, in Roman-occupied North Africa, a Christian mother and pagan father welcomed a baby boy into the world. Like parents of all ages, they wanted to give their son a good education and see him succeed in life. Sparing no expense, they sent him to the best schools where he excelled in language, literature, and rhetoric. Both highly intelligent and extremely ambitious, he was destined to climb the ranks in the public and professional world. While he distinguished himself from his classmates and friends in this regard, he was like them in many other ways. Like other boys, he got into trouble. He stole, he partied, and he womanized. By eighteen, he had already fathered a child out of wedlock. The woman he lived with, whom he claimed to love, he treated as an object of lust. In search of freedom, he found himself a slave: bound by his sinful desires.

The saving grace was his mom. Like moms of all ages, she didn’t give up on her boy, although he had wandered from the right path. She wanted him to succeed, but not lose his soul. Wherever he went, she followed. She was the quintessential helicopter parent. At one point, her boy got so annoyed by her, that he ditched her. They were supposed to travel by boat together across the Mediterranean Sea from Carthage to Rome. It was night and they were going to leave together in the morning. Leaving his mom to pray at a shrine near the dock, he told her that he was going to see a friend one last time. Instead, he got on the boat, and left that night. From Rome, he traveled to Milan where he took a prestigious position as a professor of rhetoric. When his mom found out, she followed him there.

In Milan, he met the local bishop who impressed him greatly. The bishop helped him overcome some of his difficulties with the Bible, which he considered to be inferior literature compared to the Latin classics that he had studied. Despite that, his life continued mostly as it did before. He was still consumed by worldly ambitions and lustful desires. But as he came to understand the appreciate the truth of the Catholic faith, he longed to be set free. His will, however, was divided: he wanted to change, but he didn’t want to give up his sinful habits. And, so, the momentum of his life, both spiritual and otherwise, remained unchanged.

One day, a visitor came to his house in Milan. The visitor told him about a worldly man by the name of Antony who, upon hearing the words of Jesus in the gospel, “Go, sell all you have…and come, follow me,” did exactly that. The visitor’s story left him deeply troubled. If Antony could do this, why couldn’t he? Why couldn’t he let go of his sinful life, right here and right now? Why did he keep putting off until tomorrow what could happen today?

Plagued with indecision and on the verge of tears, he left the house and went into the backyard where there was a garden. Throwing himself to the ground beneath a fig tree, he sat and wept. In this moment of agony, as bitter tears flowed down his face, he suddenly heard a voice chanting. It sounded like a child next-door playing a game, but a game he had never heard of. The voice said, “tolle lege, tolle lege,” “pick up and read, pick up and read.” Taking this as a divine command, he left his place under the tree and picked up the nearest book. It happened to be a collection of the letters of St. Paul. He opened the book at random, put his finger on the page, and read the words which we just heard in our second reading:

“Brothers and sisters: You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”

As you can imagine, these words spoke directly to him; they cut him to the heart. And they proved to be the spiritual force needed to change the course of his life. One moment, he was on a trajectory guided by ambition and lust, the next, on a path guided by God’s will. The inspired words of St. Paul, commanding him to wake from sleep, to throw off the works of darkness, and put on the Lord Jesus Christ, were enough to change his spiritual momentum. He had opened himself to a force of conversion, and that force changed the course of his life as well as the course of history.

Baptized at the age of thirty-three, this man would go on to become a bishop and one of the most influential thinkers in the history of the Church, writing over two-hundred books, including the first autobiography in western literature. Born Aurelius Augustinus, he is better known today as Augustine who, together with his mother Monica, as well as Ambrose, the influential bishop of Milan, are canonized saints of the Church…

As we begin the season of Advent, the Church calls us to awake from our spiritual slumber. Advent is a time of conversion; a time to change our spiritual momentum. As we prepare to celebrate Christ’s coming in history two-thousand years ago, and as we anticipate His second coming at the end of time, we also invite Christ to come into our hearts in the present, right here and right now. In order to change our spiritual momentum, we, like St. Augustine, must open our hearts to a force of conversion. We must stop putting off until tomorrow what God wants to accomplish in our lives today. “It is the hour now for us to awake from sleep…the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

My challenge to all of us this week is to identify one area in our life where we have become spiritually drowsy—a part of our heart that is asleep and needs to be woken up. Perhaps, like Augustine, there is a sinful habit in our lives that needs to be broken. Perhaps we have become complacent or apathetic in our efforts to overcome selfishness and grow in love of God and neighbor. Whatever that area of drowsiness or complacency is in our life, let us identify it, and invite Jesus into it. “Come, Lord Jesus. Come, and do not delay. Come illumine the shadows of our hearts. Awaken what is drowsy; bring to life what is dead.” May this be our prayer this week and throughout the Advent season. Amen.