St. Augustine at the Seashore

St. Augustine at the Seashore

I love this picture, if only for the rollicking seas and the lush beach. It is a beautiful place! But, not only is it a gorgeous picture, but there is a fantastic story behind it!

As the legend goes, once St. Augustine was walking on the beach, contemplating the nature of the Holy Trinity. He had been working for over thirty years on a grand treatise, De Trinitatein which he sought to explain the rationality of the Trinity. After all, the Holy Trinity is a difficult subject that many people simply have a hard time grasping. And he, being a rational person who was one of the best apologists that the Catholic Church has ever had, hoped that he could be the one to explain it!

As he was walking along the beach, he saw something a bit odd and he stopped to take a look. A boy was running back and forth from the ocean to a spot on the beach, carrying water in a seashell, and dropping the water in a little hole in the sand not too far off.

“My boy,” said St. Augustine. “What are you doing?”

“I am trying to bring all the sea into this hole!” the boy said with a big smile.

St. Augustine looked at the hole, which was tiny, and said, “But that is impossible, my dear child. The hole cannot contain all that water. It is too small.”

“It is no more impossible than impossible than what you are trying to do — comprehend the immensity of the mystery of the Holy Trinity with your small mind!”

St. Augustine stopped at his words and glanced away from the boy, surprised by the boy’s response. When he turned back to the boy, he had vanished.

St. Augustine at the Seashore, by Alessandro Magnasco, c. 1740. Cincinnati Art Museum, Cicinnati, Ohio, United States.

Some say that the child was an angel sent by God to give St. Augustine a reality check. In any case, that was definitely a wise little boy!

There is something to be said about letting go and trusting in God, even though there are some things that you just don’t understand! As much as I like apologetics and reasoning through the faith, and as much as I adore the scientific method, being a trained engineer, God sometimes works in supernatural ways that our brains, which are wired for the natural way of life, have difficulty of even conceiving.

For example, just consider the idea of eternity. Our lives are so dependent on time that it is hard for us to think of God being outside the dimension o time. So, we’ll say things like, “God was here for me at this time of my life… why is He not here for me at this time?” But for God, time doesn’t really mean anything. If He’s there for you at one time, that might mean that He’s there for you for all time! Is that confusing enough? And then one of the most common questions that many agnostics and atheists who struggle with Christianity ask is, “Why did Jesus choose to come at that point of time and let so many suffer in the meantime?” And the answer? Only God knows… because time for Him, an eternal being, is different for us to even try to comprehend.

And so is it with many things about God. We simply can’t understand some things… though we may wish we can! St. Thomas Aquinas, who is the saint who brought me back to the church because of his profound theological treatises in his massive work, Summa Theologica, was one of the greatest doctors of the church with a brilliant, intellectual mind. Yet, he stopped writing Summa Theologica after a profound mystical experience which happened to him during mass at the Feast of St. Nicholas. When asked about why he stopped, he replied, “Everything that I have written seems like straw to me compared to those things that I have seen and have been revealed to me.”

And perhaps this is a good thing. After all, yes, reason can carry us through a huge amount and help guide us through many tough situations. For many of us who have struggled with questions of doubt about God, like myself, reason has helped bring us closer to God. It is absolutely necessary for us to do our best to develop ourselves intellectually and to use our God-granted intelligence to guide us through certain situations that may not be completely clear.

Yet, at the same time, we should never forget that, at the end of the day, we need to trust in God. Because there will always be something that we cannot understand.

Dear Jesus,

Thank You for giving us reason to be able to discern many things. Help us to use our reason to fulfill Your will. And, no matter what, give us the strength to put our trust in You, even when things are hard and we don’t understand why things are the way they are.

Amen.

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