One thing that is quickly noticed about Saint Augustine is the emphasis he places on the importance of the relationship of the individual with God. In his Confessions, this is reflected in the intimacy of his narrative. The conversation is always between “I”, that is, Saint Augustine, and “You”, that is, God. In an important sense, his most important audience is God. This is such that he sometimes seems to forget the reality of his human audience. And so in Augustine, the relationship between God and man is supreme. This was deepened by the fact that he was brought face to face with his sinfulness and complete inability to save himself. He was forced to recognize that he had no hope other than to put his trust in Jesus Christ, who had died to pay the price for his sins. He had to learn that to be a Christian was to be in fellowship with the Son of God, to be united with him in a deeply individual union that rested on personal conviction, not on outward support or tradition. From beginning to end, his faith was a walk with God that could only be expressed as a dialogue between two spirits. Take that away and there would be nothing to speak of at all—no faith to confess and no life to live.
During these days of pestilence, circumstances have arisen for humanity to once again evaluate her relationship with God, and if there are times when we have failed God, the time has come to rebuild our relationship with Him. For the simple reason that Christ says: “Cut off from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15: 5). The Psalmist says: “If the Lord does not build the house in vain do its builders labor; if the Lord does not watch over the city, in vain does the watch man keep vigil” (Ps 127:1).
Saint Augustine understands our present life as a journey or pilgrimage towards eternal happiness- In his sermon he writes, “On earth we are wayfarers, always on the go. This means that we have to keep on moving forward”(Sermo 169.18); in his Commentary on the Psalms he also writes- “Earthly life is a pilgrimage” (Enn. In Ps. 80. 3). And happiness for him, is the uninterrupted enjoyment of God (De Civ. Dei. 11. 13). The function of prayer, therefore, is to assist us in shaping and strengthening our progress and desire towards God- who is happiness itself. In Augustine, prayer becomes a desire (Enn. In Ps. 37. 14). At such a moment in our history, Augustine would ask: what is your desire?
Let us turn to God with the desires of our hearts and ask for mercy, grace and the healing of our land. Scripture says: “If my people called by my name will humble themselves and pray, and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven. I will forgive their sins and heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14).
Such a prayer ascending from a faithful heart will be like incense rising from a hallowed altar. No fragrance can be more pleasing to God than when we breathe out this perfume (Enn. In Ps. 140. 6). Let us not allow the present circumstance to change our faith in God, but let us drag our circumstance to the altar of divine providence, where God changes all things. The fact that church buildings are closed does not mean that the Church is closed or that the prayers of the saints have ceased to rise before God’s throne of mercy.
Saint Augustine’s understanding of prayer as a desire of the heart places it beyond the bounds of church buildings. In spite of the lock down, the Church is in prayer. Priests continue to celebrate the Mass every day in private, offering the Holy Sacrifice of Christ for the salvation and spiritual growth of all the faithful and imploring the Lord to deliver us from this terrible evil. The lay faithful, in their different capacities also continue to offer prayer to God. Let us pray and not faint. It is prayer that assures our safety in our pilgrim journey. Always remember that Churches are not being closed; buildings are being closed. You are the Church. You are to remain open.