Every once in a while I come across a prayer which helps me pray. I normally stay with it for a while, trying to use it every day. Sometimes I paste it into the prayers I say each week.
A few weeks ago, I found a prayer of St. Augustine in a copy of a sermon someone handed me to read (for a different reason) and it spoke to me very powerfully. I don’t remember seeing the prayer before but when I looked it up, clearly it is known and used, particularly in Roman Catholic circles. However I think it deserves to be better known in the Church of England.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was a Bishop in North Africa and is one of the most influential of the Latin Fathers of the Church. The prayer isn’t from one of his major works but is thought to date from early in his time as a bishop as he wrestled with a number of complex issues and his own sense of inadequacy before them.
It’s a beautiful prayer of dedication to God. I think I would rank it alongside the Methodist Covenant Prayer for the power of the words and the honest dedication to God’s cause. Perhaps Augustine’s prayer influenced John Wesley.
The English translation I was given didn’t really flow so this is my attempt at a revision:
May I know myself and know you.
May I desire nothing if not you.
May I forget myself and love you.
May I do everything because of you.
May I humble myself and exalt you.
May I think of nothing if not you.
May I die to myself and live in you.
Whatever happens may I accept from you.
May I renounce myself and follow you
and always long to follow you.
May I flee myself and fly to you.
May I be worthy to be defended by you.
May I fear myself and fear you,
that I may be among those chosen by you.
May I mistrust myself and trust you.
May I be willing to obey because of you.
May I cling to nothing if not to you
And may I be poor because of you.
Look upon me that I may love you,
Call me that I may see you
And in eternity may I delight in you.
I’ve reproduced the Latin text at the end, together with the reference.
There are several things I love about the prayer. It is Christ-centred with every line ending with “you”. It is self-aware. There are two lines in particular where the same word is used for myself and for God: “May I know myself and know you”; “May I fear myself and fear you”. There are three lines where the phrase “if not” is used: “May I desire nothing if not you”; May I think of nothing if not you”; “May I cling to nothing if not to you”. There are four or more lines (depending on what you include) where the opposite words are used. I softened the word “hate” in line 4 to “forget” following the traditional English translation but that disguises the opposition to love. The others are humble and exalt, die and live, mistrust and trust.
Like much of Augustine’s writing, the prayer is deeply scriptural and faithful to scripture but draws the ideas and lines together in a way which distills biblical truth and addresses it back to God and to myself.
Several of the lines have already challenged me deeply: “Whatever happens may I accept from you”; “And may I be poor because of you”. Several have made me think – especially the three which end “because of you”. There are patterns in the prayer and the language but they are very subtle.
The final three lines are especially beautiful and worth learning as a short prayer in their own right.
Like all good prayers, this one is a call to holiness. It’s a prayer for quiet days and retreats, for moments of special dedication or seasons of pondering the way forward.
Domine Jesu/ Noverim me,
noverim Te/ Nec aliquid cupiam
nisi Te./ Oderim me et amem
Te./ Omnia agem propter
Te./ Humiliem me,
exaltem Te./ Nihil cogitam nisi
Te./ Mortificem me, et
vivam in Te./ Quaecumque
eveniant, accipiam a Te./ Persequar me,
sequar Te,/ Semperque optem
sequi Te./ Fugiam me,
confugiam ad Te./ Ut merear defendi
a Te./ Timeam mihi,
timeam Te./ Ut sim inter
electos a Te./ Diffidam mihi,
fidam in Te./ Obedire velim
propter Te./ Ad nihil afficiar,
nisi ad Te./ Et pauper sim
propter Te./ Aspice me, ut
diligam Te./ Voca me, ut vidam
Te./ Et in aeternam
fruar Te./ Amen.
Oratio Sancti Augustini qua petitur intima
Jesus Christi cognotio ac sequel
In Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, Typis
Polyglottis Vaticanis 1952 n.88