Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapters 8-9

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

Giving it over

St. Augustine under the fig treeProbably 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?

Viva 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.

Memento Mori, Monica

Augustine closes out the autobiographical portion of the book with his mother’s death in Ostia. The occasion prompts him to review a few significant events from her life. When she was a child, she had developed a habit of sneaking wine from her parents’ cellar. During an argument, a maid made a snide comment to her about this. Monica was so ashamed that she gave it up at once, prompting Augustine to remark “as flattering friends pervert, so reproachful enemies mostly correct.” Note that this follows the same pattern found in the earlier stories about Alypius’ circus addiction and Monica’s habit of making offerings to the martyrs. Augustine attributes much of Monica’s discipline later in life to this incident.

Monica relationship with her husband also stands out (Page 136). Augustine holds up her model of servitude to him, which is all the more impressive because Augustine does not for a moment pretend that his father was a good husband. Monica was clearly the better partner, and suffered a good deal of injustice and infidelity from her husband, yet was determined to be a good model of Christian humility and servitude, something that very few of us in the modern age would be likely to commend. However, the approach does bear fruit for her: she is reconciled to both her mother-in-law and her husband, and even wins him over to Christ in the end. By the end of their marriage, Augustine reports that “they lived in great harmony together,” and after her husband died, Monica took special care of the grave where she hoped to be buried next to him.

When the time came for her to die, however, Monica no longer considered it important where her body ended up. She was entirely focused on Heaven, and faced her death without fear. Augustine tried to do the same and hold back his grief, but was ultimately unable to (Page 147). He wraps the chapter up with a prayer for his mother.

Homework

Now that we’ve wrapped up the biographical portion of Confessions, we’re going to take a detour into the Pelagian Controversy, which was sparked by this very book. As preparation, go through this reading material on free will, predestination, and divine grace.

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