In his “Confessions,” St. Augustine describes how his conversion to Christianity involved two separate moments of grace, the first that convinced him intellectually that Christianity was correct, and the second that empowered him to live out what he believed. There were nearly nine years between these two conversions, and it was during those nine years that he said his famous prayer: “Lord make me a good and chaste Christian — but not yet.”
Interestingly, a contemporary of his, also a saint, Ephraim the Syrian (A.D. 306-373) wrote a similar prayer: “O my beloved, how daily I default and daily do repent. I build up for an hour and an hour overthrows what I have built. At evening I say, tomorrow I will repent, but when morning comes, joyous I waste the day. Again, at evening I say, I shall keep vigil all night and I shall entreat the Lord to have mercy on my sins. But when the night is come, I am full of sleep.”
What Augustine and Ephraim describe with such clarity (and not without a touch of humor) is one of the real difficulties we face in our struggle to grow in faith and human maturity, namely, the tendency to go through life saying, “Yes, I need to do better. I need to bear down and work at overcoming my bad habits, but now is not the time!”
It’s consoling to know that a number of saints struggled for years with mediocrity, laziness, and bad habits, and that they, like us, could for years give in to those things with the shrug, “Tomorrow, I will make a new start!” For a few years, one of Augustine’s expressions was, “tomorrow and tomorrow!”
“Yes, but not yet!” How often does this describe us? I want to be a good Christian and a good person. I want to live more by faith, be less lazy, less selfish, more gracious to others, more contemplative, less given over to anger, bitterness, paranoia, and judgment of others. I want to stop giving in to gossip and slander. I want to be more realistically involved in justice. I want a better prayer life. I want to take time for things, spend more time with my family, smell the flowers, drive slower, be more patient, and be less hurried. I have a number of bad habits that I need to change, there are still areas of bitterness in me, I am defaulting on so many things, I really need to change, but now is not the time.
First, I need to work through a particular relationship, grow older, change jobs, get married, get rested, get healthy, finish school, have a needed vacation, let some wounds healed, get the kids out of the house, retire, move to a new parish, and get away from this situation — then I will get serious about changing all this. Lord, make me a more mature person and Christian, but not yet!
In the end, that’s not a good prayer. Augustine tells us that, for years, as he said this prayer, he was able to rationalize his own mediocrity. However, a cataclysm began building inside him. God is infinitely patient with us, but our own patience with ourselves eventually wears out and, at a point, we can no longer continue as before.
In Book 8 of the “Confessions,” Augustine shares how one day, sitting in a garden, he was overwhelmed with his own immaturity and mediocrity and “a great storm broke within me, bringing with it a great deluge of tears. … I flung myself down beneath a fig tree and gave way to the tears which now streamed from my eyes … in my misery I kept crying, ‘How long shall I go on saying, tomorrow, tomorrow. Why not now?’ ” When he got up from the ground, his life had changed; he never again finished a prayer with that little nuance, “but not yet.”
We all have certain habits in our lives that we know are bad, but for a variety of reasons (laziness, addiction, lack of moral strength, fatigue, anger, paranoia, jealousy, or the pressure of family or friends) we are reluctant to break. We sense our mediocrity, but take consolation in our humanity, knowing that everyone (save full-blown saints) often has this spoken or unspoken caveat in their prayers, “Yes, Lord, but not yet!”
Indeed, there is in fact a valid consolation in this prayer in that it recognizes something important inside the infinite understanding and mercy of God. God, I suspect, copes better with our faults than we cope with them, and others cope with us. However, like Augustine, even as we say, “tomorrow and tomorrow,” a storm steadily continues to build within us and, sooner or later, our own mediocrity will sicken us enough to cause us say, “Why not now?”
When the psalmist says, “Sing to the Lord a new song,” we might ask ourselves, what is the old song? It’s the one that ends with us praying, “Yes, Lord, but not yet!”