“Closer to me than I am to myself”

On Saturday, August 28, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and teacher of the Christian faith. One of my favorite lines from Augustine’s writings comes in Book 3 of the Confessions, where he remembers how he wandered from God as a young man: “You were more inward to me than my most inward part,” or, as sometimes paraphrased, “you were closer to me than I am to myself.” (The Latin is tu autem eras interior intimo meo.)

It’s a remarkable statement. Who could be closer to me than me? What is more intimate to me than my own self? The answer, according to Augustine, is God. The One who made us, the One who is beyond us, also dwells within us. God is more inward to you than your very self.

It’s fascinating to read these words some sixteen hundred years later, at a time when there is great confusion about the self. We cheer “authenticity” and encourage each other to “be your true self,” presumably at any cost. We celebrate those who “find themselves” by breaking free from the constraints of culture, family, tradition, and even biology. We (mis)represent ourselves through social media, carefully curating a digital self that others will like. Much of our energy, much of our attention, is given to our own self-construction; as W.H. Auden put it, “each of us prays to an image of his image of himself.”

Continue reading ““Closer to me than I am to myself””

Christ’s-Side-Piercing Spear: Contemplative Thoughts on Disruptive Fiction

Editor’s note: We welcome Brazos Fellow Chris Norton to the blog for this reflection on the questions he’s been pursuing this year. Enjoy.


I first visited Waco with a three-month-old puppy and far too many books to read in one weekend. A potential host family had invited me to come for a visit, and I had fun meeting them and playing with the five dogs they were already keeping. 

But I had a secret mission. I’d been accepted as an incoming Brazos Fellow, but my faith was in shambles. I’m a fairly ambitious fiction writer, and several years of art-for-art’s-sake had left me shaken. My writing turned out to be something I had to repent of. I didn’t see God in it, and it seemed to divide me from myself.

Prayer had already become a way of seeking wholeness. Never mind that I found it nearly impossible to believe I was actually praying to anyone. I growled out the Creed every day precisely because I couldn’t believe it. I knew I had to establish my life on a spiritual tradition that possessed integrity, and I hoped that Brazos Fellows would help me do that. But first, I had to see how Paul and Paige would react if I told them what was actually going on. 

So when we pulled up chairs in the Gutackers’ back yard that weekend, I laid it all out for them: I was staking my whole life on the 3% chance that anything Christians believed was true. They didn’t condemn me when they heard I was trying my damnedest to believe and couldn’t. And so I decided that Brazos Fellows was the right place for me to spend a year trying to understand how to make my whole life an expression of prayer. 

I kept running into one particular snag. The stuff I’m able to bring to life in fiction usually doesn’t feel prayerful—by which I suppose I mean that it doesn’t feel reverent. It’s odd, often playful, and usually dark. To me, fiction is a kind of laboratory, a way of trying to understand. I push back on my own beliefs about God and other people. It’s a way of poking Jesus to see if he’s alive. It’s strange and disruptive.

Was this kind of storytelling inherently toxic? If so, I would probably have to leave fiction writing behind entirely, and I couldn’t imagine that kind of life. If not, how could it become prayer?

Continue reading “Christ’s-Side-Piercing Spear: Contemplative Thoughts on Disruptive Fiction”

“Further Up and Further In!”

Editor: please enjoy another reflection from Brazos Fellows Natalie Widdows.

The Christian life is an invitation in the very life of God. It is a life that seeks after goodness and beauty, wholeness and fullness. As Christians, we are a people of hope and of joy, for we have received the gift of salvation. Not every moment is characterized by an experience of joy (for, alas, we still journey through a valley of tears), but I have found that God often punctuates our lives with experiences of this fullness, offering us a foretaste of the fulfillment of God’s promises and inciting hope and longing for that which is to come. The fall Brazos Fellows retreat was one such moment for me. 

The weekend was characterized by feasting. For one thing, we did not socially distance from one another (after taking extra precautions and isolating in the week beforehand), and we were at last able to delight in another’s company without restrictions or masks. What a joy to dine together around a table, to give and receive a hug, or even to hold sweet little Marianne for the first time! We laughed so much together (which turned out be rather unfortunate for Marianne – the rich sound of laughter seemed to startle her, and more than a few tears were shed over the matter). Having fasted from physical closeness for so long, I treasured our time together on the retreat all the more. 

We also feasted on food – we shared many delicious meals together, complete with wine and candlelight. In our feasting, we rejoiced in the abundance with which God has provided us and in the wonderful gifts of the earth. The gifts of food and wine are tangible examples of God’s grace for us, for by them we do indeed “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8). 

But more than feasting on friendship or food, our time together was permeated by the presence of God in prayer. Our retreat focused on the habits of Christian prayer and on the centrality of prayer in our lives of faith. We learned that to pray is to enter into the Trinitarian life. Scripture teaches us that we pray to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Thus, when we pray, we are drawn into the mystery of the Triune God. Prayer is not a time for mere supplication (though God does instruct us to make our requests known to him), it is an act of participation, and it is an exercise of the sonship that we have received in Christ. Through the waters of Baptism we are joined to Christ in salvation; it is by him that we pray to Our Father. As Cyprian remarks in his treatise On the Lord’s Prayer, 

So great is the mercy of the Lord, so abundant his condescension and goodness, that he desired that we should make our prayer in this manner in the sight of God, that we should address the Lord as “Father,” and that we should be considered sons of God, as Christ is the Son of God.

Prayer is an incredible gift, for our ability to pray through Christ (and even in the very words of Christ) is part of the inheritance we have received as children of God. 

During the retreat, we were also taught about various meditative and contemplative prayer practices. These practices were previously quite foreign to my prayer life, but I found that it was our time spent in meditative prayer that offered me the greatest amount of hope and joy on the retreat. This kind of prayer aims at listening to God, at seeking the presence of God, and at contemplating God. Beginning to pray in this way incited so much longing in me for greater intimacy with God, and it is this awakened longing that I esteem as the greatest gift of the retreat. 

Our retreat offered me tastes and glimpses of God’s goodness, and I leave with longing for the fulfillment of God’s glorious promises. Filled with joy and gratitude, my soul echoes the anthem of the Narnians who find themselves having just arrived in Aslan’s country“Further up and further in!”

“The light of Christ, the hope of the world:” A Reflection on Beginnings

Editor: We welcome new Brazos Fellows Natalie Widdows to the blog with her first of hopefully many reflections!

Sitting cross-legged on my carpet, I watch the flickering flame of a white taper candle. The wax pools for a moment near the wick before spilling over, streaming down the side of the candle like tears.

The day before, a priest gave me this candle as a part a house blessing. He blessed the candle and then lit it, and, as the little flame danced into existence, the priest uttered a simple, yet powerful truth:

“The light of Christ, the hope of the world.”

He then handed the candle to me to hold, and I looked down at it with a new sense of awe. The flame seemed so gentle, timid even. Could the light of Christ really be like this tiny flame? I cupped it tenderly in my hands. I feared that the smallest breeze would snuff it out, yet the flame persisted in its burning.

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We took that candle into every room of the house, pausing to pray and ask for God’s blessing upon the life and work that took place in that space. The work in each room seemed to take on new meaning in the presence of that candle, for it signified both the inbreaking of Christ’s hope into the mundane acts of life, from cooking to sleeping to teeth-brushing, and the reorientation of these quotidian tasks to the glory of God. The candle brought new life, new depth, and a new beginning.

Beginnings. Though often tinged with the poignant sorrow of a season just ended, beginnings are glorious in the opportunities they offer. The blessing of my new home marked the start of a new season in my life, a season dedicated to prayer, work, study, discernment, and spiritual growth.

The year of Brazos Fellows lies open before me, and as I begin this new season, I am struck by how the light of Christ seeks to permeate all the spaces and rooms of my soul. It searches out the shadows, and, with its glow, this flame brings hope and healing and wholeness.

Faced with the blessed opportunity of this year, I am praying that God’s light would dwell richly in my soul. I am praying that the fire of faith would be kindled more fully within me and that the work of this year would spark a new devotion and a new direction. Full of hopeful expectation, I commit myself to the disciplines of our life together in Brazos Fellows, praying:

“My hope, my Christ, my lamp, my light: I entrust myself and this beginning to you. Amen.”