Aleteia

What a child taught St. Augustine at the seashore

SAINT AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO
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That sometimes God reveals himself in tiny drops …

It was around the year 415 and St. Augustine was walking along the beach on a bright, sunny day. He was frustrated, having taken a break from working on what’s become known as one of his greatest doctrinal contributions to the Church, De Trinitate, or “On the Trinity.” The subject matter had left him bleary-eyed – in need of fresh air.

It was in this moment, as the frothy tide rushed out, that a little boy caught St. Augustine’s eye. The freckle-faced child had a determined, furrowed brow. He was clearly up to something, running back-and-forth, back-and-forth, between the sea and a tiny hole in the ground.

“My son,” St. Augustine called over the crashing waves, “What are you doing there?”

The boy held up the pink shell he was using to move water, “I’m trying to fit that great big ocean into this tiny hole,” he yelled, pointing assertively at the sand.

St. Augustine smiled, charmed by the child’s innocence, his bright eyes, the way sunlight shone in his curly hair. He then followed the boy to kneel beside the tiny hole, watching him spill out a few meager drops.

“My child,” the bishop of Hippo broke the news gently, turning the boy’s skinny shoulders to face the sea. He then spread his own arms wide, “You could never fit this great, magnificent ocean into that tiny hole!”

The child didn’t flinch, but responded quickly: “And you could never possibly understand the Holy Trinity.” Then in a flash, the boy disappeared.

Over the centuries many great thinkers have speculated about this legend. Was the child an angel? Was he Christ himself? Many have taken the boy’s words literally, concluding that it’s impossible for man to understand the Trinity – so why even try?

But as I sat on the beach the other day, watching my own son fill a sandy hole with water again and again, the wisdom of my confessor came to mind in regard to life’s big questions – “We can never understand these mysteries all at once” (much like the ocean – where scientists discover new life all the time). “But if we open our minds to God, he reveals himself to us bit by bit.”

And it’s this bit by bit or drop by drop part that means so much to me. Could that child fit the whole ocean into his tiny hole? Of course not – just as St. Augustine couldn’t fit the entire mystery of the Holy Trinity into his brain all at once.

But could the little boy fit a tiny bit of salt water into the sandy hole, before it sank away, nourishing the ground? Yeah, and in my experience, that’s the same way God often imparts himself to us – bit by bit or drop by drop.

Interestingly, St. Augustine, best known for great works such as the Confessions and City of God, worked on De Trinitate for over 30 years without ever finishing it. Or did he? Perhaps leaving this treatise on such a remarkable mystery unfinished was the best ending of all.

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