Augustinian spirituality would put a surprising twist on the classic Christian image of Christ standing at the door of our hearts and knocking. (Rev 3:20) Now picture it this way: Christ is the one on the inside, knocking to get us to come in.
St. Augustine writes, “But you were more inward than my own inwardness.” (Confessions 3.6.11) Author Denys Turner explains the passage this way, “God is not to be sought outside the self, for God is already there ‘within’, eternally more intimate to me than I am to myself. It is I who am ‘outside’ myself and it is the God within who initiates, motivates and guides the seeking whereby and in which God is to be found. Not only is God within my interiority; it is from the God within that the power comes which draws me back into myself, and so to God.” (The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism, p. 59)
What is Augustine talking about when he says he is “outside” himself? This is a familiar and default mode of being to all of us. We live our lives focusing on exteriors. Sometimes the things we focus on are obviously exterior: seeking thrills and pleasures, distractions, entertainments. Sometimes they are more subtle: living for the approval of other people, seeking accomplishments or various accolades, focusing on maintaining our reputation, even if only so that we can feel proud in our own mind of measuring up to some external model.
But for St. Augustine, the quest to find God and to find himself were both solved in a profound moment of recognition that led him deeply inward. In that interior place, there is no concern about “What will people think? What will happen if…?” but only the deep desire for God, for Beauty, for Truth. In turning inward, Augustine not only discovers himself, but also creates himself, as if suddenly giving sunlight and water to a stunted and long-neglected seedling. When he was living “outside himself,” there was very little of Augustine to find. The journey inward creates depths of self that did not exist before. Turner calls The Confessions “the story of the making of a soul, not of its rediscovery.”
We are left with the image of Christ standing in the “broom closet of our hearts” and knocking, inviting us to come in. And as we journey inside through the door, the dusty little broom closet gradually expands and transforms to become the promised mansions of heaven.
“Late have I loved you, o Beauty ever old, ever new, late have I loved you. You were within me, and I was outside myself and it was there that I sought you and, myself disfigured, I rushed upon the beautiful things you have made. You were with me but I was not with you. They held me far from you, those things which would not exist if they did not exist in you. You called, you cried out and you broke through my deafness, you shone out, cast your radiance and put my blindness to flight, you shed your fragrance and I drew breath and pine for you, I tasted you and so I hunger and thirst for you, you touched me and I burn with love of your peace.” (Confessions 10.27.38)