In his “Confessions”, St. Augustine describes how he became a committed Christian after a long struggle that involved two conversions: one which intellectually convinced him that Christianity was correct and the other that empowered him to actually live out what he believed. There were nearly nine years between these two conversions and it was during this time (when in his head he was a Christian but in his actions he wasn’t) that he used to say his famous prayer: “LORD, MAKE ME A GOOD AND A CHASTE CHRISTIAN … BUT NOT YET!”
Interestingly enough, a contemporary of his, also a saint, Ephraim the Syrian (306-373 A.D.) wrote a very similar prayer:
“Sorrow on me, beloved! that I unapt and reluctant in my will abide, and behold, winter hath come upon me, and the infinite tempest hath found me naked and spoiled and with no perfecting of good in me. I marvel at myself. 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 name with such clarity (and not without a touch of humour) in these prayers is one of the great difficulties we face in our struggle to grow in faith and human maturity, namely, the tendency to go through life saying perpetually: “Yes, I need to do that, but now is not the time!”
It’s consoling for us to know that saints struggled for years with moral mediocrity, laziness, and bad habits, that they, like us, could for years cave in to these things with the shrug: “Tomorrow, I will make a new start!” For years one of
Augustine’s favorite expression 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, and my tantrums. 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, to spend more time with my family, to smell the flowers, to drive slower, to be more patient, less hurried. I have so many bad habits that I need to change, there are so many areas of bitterness in me, I am defaulting on so many things, I really need to change, but now is not the time …
First … First, I need to first work through this relationship, to grow older, to change jobs, to get married, to get divorced, to finish school, to have a good vacation, to let my ulcer heal, to get the kids out of the house, to retire, to move to a new parish, to get away from this person (or persons) … then I will get serious about changing this all. “Lord, make me a mature Christian, but not yet!”
In the end, this is not a good prayer. Augustine tells us that, for years, as he said this prayer he was able to somehow justify to himself his own mediocrity. But steadily a cataclysm kept building within him. God is infinitely patient with us, but our own patience with ourselves eventually wears out and eventually we explode. In Book 8 of the “Confessions”, he writes how one day, while sitting in a garden, he was overcome with his own immaturities and mediocrity and suddenly “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 Augustine got up from the ground, his life had changed; he never again finished a prayer with that added little nuance, “but not yet.”
We all have in our lives habits which we know are bad but which for a variety of reasons (laziness, addiction, lack of moral strength, tiredness, anger, paranoia, jealousy, the pressure of family or friends) we are reluctant to break. We sense our mediocrity, but we take consolation in the fact that saints themselves often defaulted by praying: “Yes, Lord, but not yet!”
There is valid consolation in that prayer. It teaches us something about the incredible mercy of God under which we live. God, I suspect, copes better with our faults than we cope with each other and with ourselves. However, like Augustine, even as we say “tomorrow and tomorrow” a storm steadily begins to build within us. Sooner or later our own mediocrity will sicken us and we will cry out: “Why not now?” The “new song” that the psalmist invites us to begins with that line.