Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapters 7-8

“A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.”

Leading up to Augustine’s conversion are 3 other conversion stories (although one is merely referenced as something his readers would already know), each of which build upon each other.

Victorious Victorinus

Victorinus was a neo-platonic philosopher who investigated the Christian scriptures and concluded that they were true. However, he was at first hesitant to admit so in public. (Page 127)

He used to read the Holy Scriptures, as Simplicianus said, and thought out and studied all the Christian writings most studiously. He said to Simplicianus — not openly but secretly as a friend — “You must know that I am a Christian.” To which Simplicianus replied, “I shall not believe it, nor shall I count you among the Christians, until I see you in the Church of Christ.” Victorinus then asked, with mild mockery, “Is it then the walls that make Christians?” Thus he often would affirm that he was already a Christian, and as often Simplicianus made the same answer; and just as often his jest about the walls was repeated. He was fearful of offending his friends, proud demon worshipers, from the height of whose Babylonian dignity, as from the tops of the cedars of Lebanon which the Lord had not yet broken down, he feared that a storm of enmity would descend upon him.

Probably all of us have heard similar views. There are many who claim to be Christians who avoid being involved in their church or being publicly associated with fellow-believers. But Christianity is a community religion as much as an individual one, and to be practiced properly it must be practiced with others.

Some are motivated by laziness; Victorinus was held back by his pride, which he eventually overcame, “for he more feared to be denied by Christ before the holy angels because he was now afraid to confess Christ before men.” He even made sure to profess his faith in public, because he had publicly taught rhetoric, which was far less important.

Augustine here takes a moment to wonder why there is more rejoicing the more unexpected a salvation is. God himself confirms that there is “more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7) He mulls over many examples of this seeming contradiction, noting that drinkers will eat salty food to increase their enjoyment when they quench their thirst. He wraps it up with a prayer.

Anthony and Ponticianus

Ponticianus held a high office in the emperor’s court. He told Augustine about St Anthony the monk. One day Anthony walked into church as Matt 19:21 was being read (“Go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor”), and immediately went out and did so. He was the first most famous of the desert monks, inspiring many thousands to follow him and kickstarting the entire monastic movement.

At some point, Ponticianus and three of his friends had gone for a walk. Two of them came to a cottage where they find the book about the life of Anthony. They read it, and were inspired then and there to abandon their pursuit of political power and dedicate their lives to God instead.

Then, suddenly being overwhelmed with a holy love and a sober shame and as if in anger with himself, he fixed his eyes on his friend, exclaiming: “Tell me, I beg you, what goal are we seeking in all these toils of ours? What is it that we desire? What is our motive in public service? Can our hopes in the court rise higher than to be ‘friends of the emperor’? But how frail, how beset with peril, is that pride! Through what dangers must we climb to a greater danger? And when shall we succeed? But if I chose to become a friend of God, see, I can become one now.” Thus he spoke, and in the pangs of the travail of the new life he turned his eyes again onto the page and continued reading; he was inwardly changed, as you did see, and the world dropped away from his mind, as soon became plain to others. For as he read with a heart like a stormy sea, more than once he groaned. Finally he saw the better course, and resolved on it.

The story affected Augustine greatly; for all his learning, he was unable to do what the illiterate Anthony had done without hesitation. He is thrown into a moment of crisis, torn between a will that wants to follow God, and a will that wants to cling to his old sins.

Giving it over

Probably the most famous quote of Augustine’s is his prayer to God as he struggles with the idea of giving his life over:

“Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” For I was afraid that you would hear me too soon, and too soon cure me of my disease of lust which I desired to have satisfied rather than extinguished.

They are sentiments we can all relate to. Make me righteous, after I’ve had the chance to be wild and enjoy myself. The conflict tears Augustine apart, as part of him desperately wants to make the leap, but the other part just as desperately clings to his old habits and lusts. Many times he comes very close to making the change, but never quite gets there. On his own strength, he is powerless to change. Finally, in frustration, he throws himself down under a fig tree in his backyard and gives up, submitting himself fully to God’s power:

“Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?”

Like the man who said to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24), Augustine is praying not only that he will change, but that he will want to change. The change in his heart that needs to take place goes down to the very core, covering his actions, his motivations, and even that part of him that attempts to change his motivations.

The prayer is answered right away in an odd form. He overhears a voice chanting “Pick it up, read it. Pick it up, read it.” This he views as a sign to open the Bible and read whatever page he randomly turns to. He finds Romans 13:13-14:

“Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.”

The passage speaks perfectly to Augustine’s struggle. He shows it to Alypius, who was there with him, and Alypius finds that the very next verse, Romans 14:1, applies directly to his own situation. Both give their lives to God at once.

Here we see God performing one of those deniable miracles which He seems so fond of. Nothing in the chain of events is explicitly supernatural, but the string of coincidences is so unlikely that is hard to take any other explanation seriously. The voice Augustine overheard did not boom down from heaven, and may well have been simply a child in a neighboring house, and yet the strange chant was exactly what Augustine needed to hear (Augustine himself seems unclear as to whether the voice had an actual human behind it or not). Augustine then opens his Bible and against all odds lands on a verse that is again exactly what he needs to hear; one followed immediately by another verse that is exactly what his companion needs to hear. It could all be a coincidence, but would a mere string of coincidences really have been able to make such a radical change in both Augustine’s and Alypius’ lives?

The symbolism in Augustine’s story is meant to parallel humanity’s fall from and return to grace as well. Augustine focuses on his sin of stealing fruit from a tree (simply because it was wrong), just as Adam and Eve fell by taking fruit from a tree they had been forbidden. Mankind’s salvation is ultimately derived from Jesus being hung on a tree, and Augustine’s own salvation is found when he flings himself at the base of a tree. Note also that in each of the stories he tells, the inner change is induced by receiving the written word.

Homework

The biographical portion of Confessions is just about finished. Augustine wraps things up with the death of his mother. Read Chapter 9.

Optionally, you can also read the very same biography of St. Anthony that was read by Ponticianus’ friends. It was written the Athanasius, himself a great church father.

Confessions of St Augustine – Chapter 6

Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_St_Augustine“Rebuke a wise man and he will love you.” -Proverbs 9:8

Chapter 6 follows Augustine through a period of his life when he was particularly depressed. His faith in Manichaeism had unraveled, and he was beginning to doubt that he would ever find answers. The chapter does a great job of conveying the sense of despair that hung around him and his companions during this time. This is Augustine’s dark night of the soul; soon to be swept away by his conversion.

Ambrose

A significant event here is that Augustine meets Ambrose, who is to become his mentor and spiritual father. Importantly for Augustine, Ambrose introduces him to the concept of interpreting scripture allegorically:

First of all, his ideas had already begun to appear to me defensible; and the Catholic faith, for which I supposed that nothing could be said against the onslaught of the Manicheans, I now realized could be maintained without presumption. This was especially clear after I had heard one or two parts of the Old Testament explained allegorically — whereas before this, when I had interpreted them literally, they had “killed” me spiritually.

A particular turning point comes with Augustine’s revisit of the passage in Genesis where God makes man “in His own image.” Previously, Augustine had assumed that this must mean that Christians believe God is trapped inside a human body of His own; now he realized that this was more commonly understood to refer to a spiritual image, even though he wasn’t entirely clear on what this meant. He began to suspect that other “knotty” passages in scripture may hide deeper meanings as well.

The Laughing Beggar

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.” -John Stuart Mill

The story of the laughing beggar (page 102) plunged Augustine even further into depression. I don’t think I can add anything to the text itself, so here it is:

While walking along one of the streets of Milan, I saw a poor beggar — with what I believe was a full belly — joking and hilarious. And I sighed and spoke to the friends around me of the many sorrows that flowed from our madness, because in spite of all our exertions — such as those I was then laboring in, dragging the burden of my unhappiness under the spur of ambition, and, by dragging it, increasing it at the same time — still and all we aimed only to attain that very happiness which this beggar had reached before us; and there was a grim chance that we should never attain it! For what he had obtained through a few coins, got by his begging, I was still scheming for by many a wretched and tortuous turning — namely, the joy of a passing felicity. He had not, indeed, gained true joy, but, at the same time, with all my ambitions, I was seeking one still more untrue.

If the beggar had asked me whether I would prefer to be in his merry state or my own fearful one, I would have answered that I would rather be merry. On the other hand, if he asked whether I would rather be a beggar like him, I should say that I would choose to be myself, even though worn out with cares and fears. But was that poor judgment and was it the truth? Shouldn’t I prefer to be like him? I had more knowledge than he, but no joy in all my pursuits. I was robbed of my joy because I sought to please men by impressive deeds.

The joy of a faithful hope lies very far from a scholar’s egotism. That was why the beggar had moved beyond where I was. He was happier because he was thoroughly drenched in mirth, while I wasn’t because I was hollow inside with cares. He had gotten precisely what he wanted in the wine. I listened to lies and sought empty, head-swelling praise.

Do you like gladiator movies?

“What make resisting temptation difficult for most people is that they don’t want to discourage it completely.” -Franklin P. Jones

This chapter also digresses into some stories of those close to Augustine, and there is a parallel theme in both Monica and Alypius’s stories. Both had a bad habit, and both give it up after correction. Monica makes offerings at the tombs of martyrs (Page 98); Alypius is addicted to gladiatorial games. Alypius’s story is especially interesting, because it serves to illustrate how he tries (and fails) to overcome his sinful ways on his own power, but is able to do so instantly once God intervenes. Monica, who has already submitted herself to God’s will, has no such struggle.

Alypius’s method of dealing with temptation will no doubt be familiar to all of us (Pages 105-108). At first, he hates the gladiator fights. But, when a group of his friends go to the circus games, he allows them to bodily drag him along with him, while loudly proclaiming that he will be mentally absent. He then sits there in the crowd with his eyes closed, trying to block everything out. Then, he allows himself just a little a peek, confident that he will “remain aloof from whatever evil was before him.” Before long, he is caught up in the excitement with all the rest, and after that, even tried to draw others into attending the games. Their hold is finally broken on him when Augustine makes an offhand comment mocking the games, which Alypius takes to heart.

Assignment

Read Books 7-8, which includes the story of Augustine’s conversion.

Confessions of St Augustine – Chapters 4-5

Augustine in his study“You shall have no other Gods before Me.” -Exodus 20:3

“Most men regard idolatry as being limited to these practices alone: burning incense, immolating a victim, giving a sacrificial banquet, or being bound to some sacred functions or priesthoods… [However, idolatry] can be practiced outside of a temple and without an idol.” – Tertullian, ca. 200 AD

“It became clear to him that no security can be found in this flood of Samsaric existence, and that the threat of death is ever-present.” -The Legend of Buddha Shakyamuni

Distractions

When we left our hero, he was grieving the death of his best friend. He was so upset that he even moved to Carthage to get away from places that would remind him of his old friend. Over time, he healed, and gathered a new, tight-knit circle of friends. However, looking back, Augustine does not see this as an unalloyed good:

For wherever the soul of man turns itself, unless toward thee, it is enmeshed in sorrows, even though it is surrounded by beautiful things outside thee and outside itself. For lovely things would simply not be unless they were from thee. … But far better than all this is He who made it all. He is our God and he does not pass away, for there is nothing to take his place. … You [God] alone cannot be lost; You alone are certain.

Ultimately even the good things in this world perish, so relying on them is foolish. Only God is lasting. It is important to keep in mind that Augustine does not condemn friendship, but rather treating friendship as an ultimate good. Even things which are good can be stumbling blocks if we allow them to take the place of God.

Fame and Folly

When he was 26 or 27, Augustine wrote a book called The Beautiful and the Fitting. He had already lost it by the time he wrote Confessions, which was apparently not much of a loss, because Augustine describes it as “miserable folly.” From his account, it was a mix of Manichean and Neo-Platonic philosophy.

Augustine dedicates the book to an orator who was famous at the time. However, Augustine himself actually knew nothing personally about this orator he admired, except that other people admired him (but they also knew nothing about him). Augustine’s vanity gets the best of him: he wants the man’s approval simply because he is famous, even though he may not be worthy of that fame. But Augustine doesn’t want just any fame; the kind of celebrity status enjoyed by actors and gladiators isn’t something he wants, even though he admires it in them. We saw a similar contradiction earlier, where Augustine realized that he enjoyed it when plays stirred up feelings that he hated in real life.

Smarts and Sanctification

Augustine continues to delve into philosophy, reading Aristotle’s Categories, and then trying to use it to understand God. However, because the categories are only good for understanding the created world, Augustine actually ends up moving further from the truth. He concludes that while intelligence is good, it is better to have faith without intelligence than intelligence without faith. This is similar to his thoughts on friendship; even good things become bad if they stand between us and God.

Near the end of this segment, Augustine meets Faustus, a prominent Manichean. Faustus is eloquent, but not all that smart. He doesn’t really know any more than the other Manicheans; he’s just better at saying them. This left Augustine thoroughly disillusioned with the religion, which now seemed utterly unable to resolve the problems he saw with it.

Assignment

Read through Chapter 6. Augustine begins to move back towards Christianity in this section. There is an important theme developed in this section of knowing the right thing to do, but being unable to follow through with it, both in Augustine’s own life and the lives o those around him.