Monday, 14 November 2016

The Confessions of Augustine

Although I had heard a lot of great things about the theological giant, Saint Augustine, it took an essay task for me to actually read his Confessions. When I did, I was completely blown away by the beauty and honesty of his writings, (as my classmates soon discovered by my need to comment at every chance I was given in class). Although he is writing in Latin in the late 4th century, Augustine's account of how he came to know peace with God has a way of being relevant even today.

Augustine grew up in the town of Thagaste, in what is today known as Algeria, with a pagan father and a Catholic mother by the name of Monica. He was an intelligent boy, good at expressing himself through spoken word and had a hunger for the wisdom of the philosophers. Augustine never doubted the existence of God but was more intrigued by the teachings of philosophy than the words of the Bible that appeared immoral and contradictory to him. 

It was to Manichaeism that he first turned in search of answers to his tormenting questions about the existence of evil. Here he was taught that the judgmental God of the Old Testament was to be rejected as a malevolent demon at war with the loving God of the New Testament. It was the mind and spirit of man that was good, a separate entity from the evil nature of the human body. This belief allowed Augustine to push away the increasing feelings of guilt that were building up inside of him over the thoughts and actions he knew to be wrong but from which he could not escape.

He eventually turned away from the teachings of Manichaeism, explored Platonism and encountered the influential bishop Ambrose during his time teaching in Milan. Ambrose's rational and allegorical sermons made a big impact on Augustine as did the Platonists' view of a distant and unknown God, but despite all his gained knowledge, Augustine's soul remained restless. Knowledge puffed up his own pride but did not draw him closer to knowing God.

As Augustine came to yearn for the presence of God he was also made more aware of another desire within him – that of rebellion and disobedience towards God. In recollection of his boyhood, Augustine tells the story of when him and some friends stole pears from a neighbour’s garden and threw them to the pigs for no other reason than their own need for adventure and the desire to impress one another. The deed in itself was insignificant but revealed a deeper problem inside -  the inherited state of sin that man cannot escape from.

 As a young man, he battled lust and pride and could not bring himself to let go of them despite the burden of his own conscience. He took a concubine and lived with her for many years, but knew that this was not in accordance with God’s laws for marriage. Later, when his mother arranged for him a young Catholic bride, he was forced to send the concubine he had come to love away and was heartbroken. However, not even whilst waiting for his bride to come of age, could he control his sexual desires and instead took for himself another concubine. He had not yet tasted the sweetness of God and was therefore held captive to the beauty of worldly things. "The enemy had control of my will, he writes, and from that had made a chain to bind me fast". 

It was the doctrine of Jesus, God in flesh, that Augustine struggled the most to come to terms with. Yet as he read the letters of Saint Paul, he came to understand the need for a mediator to reconcile sinful man with the holy God through his perfect sacrifice on the cross. God made himself humble, lowly and weak in order to become accessible to man but in order for Augustine to receive the freedom offered to him, he too had to lay down his own pride and will.
Augustine's journey towards finding rest for his soul was long and full of battles but eventually God met with him as he cried out in desperate prayer under a fig tree in his garden. He heard the voice of a child calling him to open and read so he opened the letters of Paul and read the first passage his eyes fell on – Romans 13:13. It was a call to give up the life of sin and clothe oneself with Christ and Augustine took this message to heart, deciding then and there to give his life to God. Although he continued to battle with the temptations of sin, he was captivated by a beauty richer and more satisfying than that of the world and this empowered him to serve God in the Church.

What I find most inspiring about Augustine's writings is his honesty about the struggles he faced and his passionate and genuine response to God. He wrestled with God and he questioned God but then he fell so in love with God that he wanted nothing more than to be transformed by him and to share him with the world.

"Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours."  
Augustine's Confessions, Book 10:xxvii