Readings:We live in a culture that is quite taken with fresh starts and new beginnings. We often hear phrases such as these: “I need to turn over a new leaf” and “I’m hoping to make a fresh start” or “A change of scenery will do me good.”
• Ex. 32:7-11, 13-14
• Psa. 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19
• 1 Tim. 1:12-17
• Lk. 15:1-32 or 15:1-10
The modern world, with all of its technological wonders, especially the ease of travel and communication, provides a so many ways to make such changes possible. We are restless creatures who seek fulfillment and meaning in all sorts of ways: moving to a new home or different town, taking a new job, getting rid of a habit, taking up a new pastime, and so forth. But this isn’t so much a modern way of thinking as something inherent to the human condition, as reading the Bible or Saint Augustine’s Confessions readily testify.
In the opening paragraph of his Confessions, Augustine wrote these famous words about God: “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Augustine identified himself with the Prodigal Son—whose story is presented in today’s Gospel reading—because his proud wandering and humble return paralleled the dramatic life of the man who would become Bishop of Hippo and a great Doctor of the Church.
“Indeed I wandered far away, separated from you,” wrote Augustine, “not even granted to share in the husks of the pigs, whom I was feeding with husks.” He readily admitted the depravity he embraced, much like the Israelites described in today’s reading from Exodus, who had been shown mercy and love by God but still turned back to idols, longing for the comforts of slavery in Egypt.
“What advantage did it bring me,” Augustine lamented, “to have a good thing and not to use it well?” A man of immense intellectual and rhetorical skills, Augustine was wasting them on the pursuit of pleasure and “meretricious lusts.” Fittingly, it was the writings of Saint Paul that played a key role in Augustine finally, after much anguish and many hesitations, converting to Christianity. “With avid intensity I seized the sacred writings of your Spirit and especially the apostle Paul.” While reading a passage in Romans 13, chosen randomly at the behest of a mysterious voice, Augustine was filled with the “light of relief” and “all the shadows of doubt were dispelled.”
A similar relief and grateful joy was expressed by Paul in his first letter to Timothy, today’s reading from the New Testament. As Augustine did three centuries later, Paul readily confessed his plight and his need for salvation: “This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost.”
Both of these brilliant, strong-willed men were humbled and transformed through what Jesus calls metanoia, a Greek word often translated as “repentance.” But the word “repentance,” while describing the action of turning from sin, does not fully capture the other turning, which is toward God and the state of being a new creation in Christ, infused with divine life, and having a mind transformed and renewed by the Holy Spirit (cf., Rom 12:2).
This interior repentance, remarks the Catechism, “is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart…” (CCC 1431). Such conversion is powerfully and poignantly described in the story of the Prodigal Son, one of the best-known parables of Jesus. Each of us can relate, in some way, to the pride and restlessness of the younger son, whose desire to experience new places and things was rooted in rebellion against his father.
The key moment of his conversion is when he comes to his senses—literally, “having came to himself”—and recognizes his pitiful and restless state. He finally grasps that he belongs in one place only—in right fellowship with his father, who joyfully exclaims: “He was lost and has been found.” These are the words of the Father for everyone who seeks the only new beginning of eternal value.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in a slightly different form in the September 16, 2007, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)