O Lord my God, tell me what you are to me. Say to my soul, I am your salvation. Say it so that I can hear it. My heart is listening, Lord; open the ears of my heart and say to my soul, I am your salvation. Let me run toward this voice and seize hold of you. Do not hide your face from me: let me die so that I may see it, for not to see it would be death to me indeed.
– St. Augustine, Confessions
Tell me what you are to me…
Such powerful, frightening words, because they suggest not an egoist’s drive to be affirmed, but a willingness to be overwhelmed by the answer, whether it is a negative or a positive.
Our very bodies help us to better understand Augustine’s plea. One of the gifts of our central nervous system is something called “proprioception”—the sense that keeps us grounded by informing us, all subconsciously, of where we are in space and within our surroundings. It keeps us upright and functional, and lets us move about within our routines without much thinking about what we’re doing.
Through our proprioception, we can reach for a fresh diaper without looking while we nibble a baby’s cheek, or clean a kitchen counter while talking on the phone, or simply walk along a busy city street while sipping a cup of coffee without having to strain to figure out where our mouths are.
St. Augustine’s plea to the Almighty is one we ask in the moment of conversion (and then over and over again in our lives, if we are working our faith), and it is one that, like a kind of spiritual proprioception, helps us to adapt to a new orientation that includes the widths and breadths of heaven, as well as earth, into our spaces, both interior and exterior.
Tell me what you are to me is a request born of shivering vulnerability, “God, now that I accept your existence; Christ, now that I acknowledge your primacy, tell me what that means to me? Who you are, to me?”
We want to know the way to go, how to get from the moment of grace-filled acceptance of the fact of Christ, to the rest of it: the reconfiguring of the soul, the new way of working within the world and with others; the eternal mystery of mercy and how we wear it or bestow it upon those we meet.
And there is yet a further unspoken aspect to this prayer: “If opening myself to you is going to cost me something – and I suspect it will – then what’s in it for me? What makes the cost bearable?”
This is why Augustine so badly needs to hear, “I am your salvation,” because that word, that concept, encompasses everything (things seen and unseen) and tells us that the cost is “worth it”; because if we are saved in Christ, then even our mistakes, even our misunderstandings, even our sins, will be used by God for His own purposes, because God’s purposes are all to the Good.
So, yes, it is a frightening plea Augustine makes: Tell me what you are to me also means “Tell me how I will be used, and how many of my mistakes I will have to face – even as you have cast my sins behind your back – because you want to use them in some way I cannot understand but must (and willingly do) trust in?”
And yet, Augustine waits for the response only that he may run to it, whatever the answer, whatever the cost.
Well… that’s what saints do, isn’t it? Not only do they rather heroically “run the way of God’s commandments” but they run toward God fully trusting that whatever answer He makes to their pleas, it will be the right answer, the complete answer, the answer they will embrace as they continue running and working.
Think of St. Teresa of Calcutta (or, really any of the Theresa-saints) who endured decades of spiritual dryness and darkness, and yet continued her pursuit of the Good, to the calling of her initial assent, understanding that even within His perceived absence, Christ was there, and God’s grace was sufficient.
Think of Elizabeth Ann Seton, estranged from family and friends, impoverished, sent into strange surroundings, her children in tow, suddenly charged to come up with a plan, and a way, to serve students and orphans and the whole Church.
Undoubtedly, at some point in her prayers, Elizabeth must have asked Augustine’s question, “Tell me what you are to me,” that she might better understand her own creativity, her own intrepidity, her own willingness to work within her own spiritual proprioception, encompassing heaven itself, for the sake of the Work of God.
It is work we don’t always recognize, but we manage to offer it all to God within the sphere of Greatness which encompasses our salvation, in all we have done, in all we have failed to do.
And to begin it, we must ask the question, just like Augustine did, just as Mother Seton must have, as evidenced by her own musings on her submission to Christ, of which she wrote, “This, Lord, is the submission I owe You, and from which I cannot depart without forgetting who You are and what I am…”
Of course Mother Seton must have asked that question. It is an essential question that must be asked, so that these saints – these Augustine’s, these Elizabeth’s and Teresa’s, these you and I’s – may then turn to the world, in imperfect service to God’s own plan – and say, “Let me tell you who He is to me…”
ELIZABETH SCALIA is the award-winning author of Strange Gods, Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life and Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick You.
Image: Augustine in His Study, Sandro Botticelli, 1480.