Augustine in his Confessions, when finally considering his conversion to Christianity, had serious misgivings. His problem was that he was too enamored of the pleasures of the flesh, specifically of a sexual nature to become Christian. Now, he was clearly aware that he could be a Christian, marry and have sex and children as a parent and partner. The reason he puts forth that this wasn’t a choice was that celibacy was (is!) a higher calling for the Christian than the married life. He couldn’t become Christian unless he could aspire to and reach for the highest and best that could be achieved. It is easy to dismiss this as egotistical and wrong. I think that perhaps is mistaken. At the time of Augustine there were two major branches of intellectual inquiry, philosophy and rhetoric. Augustine made his living as a teacher of rhetoric. He was a known and acknowledged master of the field. With that in mind, he had a good sense of what and how much he might accomplish putting his talents to the task of Theology. He was a “master of the ways of Word”, and knew that these skills would transfer. Furthermore he wouldn’t accept joining/converting and being a hypocrite. He anticipated being pressed/called into the priestly and episcopal role, by virtue of his talent (not his faith). That required celibacy. If he couldn’t do it right, he wouldn’t do it. There are problems with this attitude, but much of it is right.
We should not be so fast to dismiss the notion that each of us should aspire to greatness. While we all cannot achieve that world renown, it certainly might be best if we all strive to the best of our ability to be the best and greatest that we might be. We may not all be, in fact few of us are, called to world become renowned parsers of theological thought. But we all have our particular talents and gifts. Should we not be thinking and striving to push our talents out into the larger Christian and secular world?
What are your talents and skills? What things are you best at? How might they be put to God’s purpose. They are not to be hidden under a basket after all, but to shine forth. No matter what you do, greet, pray, comfort, teach (younger or older), sing, or read should you find ways spread your joy, your news, your gifts with as large an audience as you might? Furthermore, we all have neighbors, those who are closest are those who worship alongside us in our home parishes. It is just as important, then, that we find ways to encourage, to push, and to enable those around us to shine their light and their talents out in God’s world.
For me, this is counter-instinctual. After I fell away from my faith as a twenty-something college student and in grad school, I felt myself most closely aligned with Taoist thinking. In part because it encouraged being as “the wizened wiry useless tree” in the village, which survives the times of troubles because it is not useful to the world at large. Taoism is a manual and philosophy for survival in “interesting times” as the Chinese curse goes. It does not promote “pushing” yourself into to a place of prominence, into the wide world, out of your safety zone and out of your comfortable life.
Jesus teaches us to not stay safe, nor to stay careful, nor to be quiet and unnoticed. Even today, Augustine (especially by the Western churches) is perhaps the most influential theologian of the 1st millenia, the East has a different set of giants. Might that we each strive, in our own way, to be remembered in the 5th millenia as one of the great Saints of the age. Therefore we should be examing what it is in ourselves holding us back, as the siren call of sex held back Augustine so many years ago. Is it a sense of inadequacy? A sense that we are not worthy? Not ready? What keeps you from stepping forth?