THIRD SESSION SUNDAY JAN. 28 — WHAT IS ST AUGUSTINE’S ATTITUDE TOWARD AND UNDERSTANDING OF HIMSELF AND HIS RELATIONSHIP TO THOSE CLOSEST TO HIM, ESPECIALLY HIS MOTHER MONICA AND HIS FRIENDS?
“Men go to gape at mountain peaks, at the boundless tides of the sea, the broad sweep of rivers, the encircling oceans and motions of the stars; and yet they leave themselves unnoticed: they do not marvel at themselves.” Confessions Bk X, section 8.
Preparatory Reading: Confessions Book IV, sections 4-9, pp. 56-61 and Bk. IX, (especially sections 8-13) pp. 166-178.
Focus Texts: Confessions Book. IX, sections 8 and 9, pp. 166-170 and Book X, section 4-5, pp. 181-183.
In this third talk on St A’s Confessions we will focus all too briefly and inadequately on St A’s attitude to and understanding of himself, his friends and his greatest friend, his mother Monica. We must remind ourselves that we never leave the theme of our second presentation on St A’s attitude towards and understanding on God because—as we explored in the first talk— he confesses everything in prayer before a righteous and merciful God.
Having said that, I suggest that there is a bond uniting his reminiscences of each, and that is his profound exploration of the nature of human affection, and especially friendship. Each lead on to, but are markedly different from, the self-sacrificial love seen in the death of Christ on the one hand and lust— very bothersome for A—as one expression of eros on the other. He speaks of each in this revealing passage in the second section of Bk II that we will explore more fully next Sunday when we take up his attitude to and understanding of sin, his own and others.
The contrast is brought out better in the Pine-Coffin translation than in Chadwick’s. “I cared for nothing but to love and be loved. But my love went beyond the affection of one mind for another, beyond the arc of the bright beam of friendship… adolescent sex welling up within me exuded mists which clouded over and obscured my heart, so that I could not distinguish the clear light of true love from the murk of lust. Love and lust together seethed within me.” (Bk II,ii, p. 43, Chadwick, p. 24)
A couple of notes on this quote: 1. Pine-Coffin might have translated, “My love went “below” the affection of one mind for another…” 2. We think of the word “affection” as Lewis does as the “most biological of the loves,” a love that we do not have to learn to express like friendship or self-sacrificial love (agape) but more like sexual desire—more spontaneous and natural.
- St. Augustine’s attitude towards and understanding of himself before God.
2.1. He sees himself as both a marvel of God’s creation and a mystery to himself. “Men go to gape at mountain peaks, at the boundless tides of the sea, the broad sweep of rivers, The encircling oceans and the motion of the stars: and yet they leave themselves unnoticed: they do not marvel at themselves.” (Conf. X, viii, 15) He begins Bk. X ii. p. 179 by declaring that before God’s eyes “the abyss of human consciousness is naked.” For St A it is an abyss in part because as a creatures he cannot see as God’s sees. But that is made worse by his sin that dims his ability to “know himself” as God knows him.
2.2 Further, at this time as he emerges into adulthood and enjoys a friendship cut short by the death of the friend, he confesses: “What madness not to understand how to love human beings with awareness of the human condition!” (Bk IV, vii, P. 59) In a flight of rhetoric for which he was a master he laments. We heard in speak like this last week.
“I carried my lacerated and bloody soul when it was unwilling to be carried by me. I found no place where I could put it down. There was no rest in pleasant groves, nor in games or songs, nor in sweet scented places, nor in exquisite feasts, nor in the the pleasures of the bedroom and the bed, nor finally, in books and poetry. Everything was an object of horror… I had become to myself a place of unhappiness in which i could not bear to be but I could not escape from myself. Where could my heart flee to in escaping from my heart.” (Bk IV, vii, pp. 59 and 60)
[ Pine-Coffin translates it like this: “I carried about me a cut and bleeding soul, that could not bear to be carried by me, and where could I put it, I could not discover. Not in pleasant groves, not in games and singing, nor in the fragrant corners of a garden. Not in the company of the dinner-table, not in the delights of the bed: not even in my books and poetry. It floundered in a void, and fell back upon me. I remained a haunted spot, which gave me no rest, from which I could not escape. For where could my heart flee from my heart? Where could I escape from myself? (Conf. IV, vii, 12)
2.3. St. Augustine’s outer life at this time of confessing his inner self as a mystery and a misery. He is now a young adult and becoming a learned and admired teacher of rhetoric—the art of using words effectively in description or argument— one of the liberal arts (the first three came to be called the trivium, literature, rhetoric, and dialectic (logical analysis of truth claims often using questions and answers) and then the quadrivium, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. These together came to be known as the seven liberal arts. He is now a disciple of the Manichees and attracted to astrology, so Chadwick entitles Bk IV “Manichee and Astrologer” Again perhaps a misleading title since it has much to say— as we will not go on to explore—about the “sweetness” and sorrows of friendship. The later sections are further theological reflections where he is combating the false teachings of the Manichees.
- The pleasures and perils of friendship and having friends
3.1 A’s definition of and understanding of friendship. He gives us this brief definition in Bk II v, pp. 29-30) “Human friendship is (also) a nest of love and gentleness because of the unity it brings about between many souls.” Here St A probably unknown to him, expresses a very important insight of Aristotle (see Nicomachean Ethics, Book 7 and 8)
Aristotle believed that the cultivation of friendship was important for society first because friends have no need of justice or laws since their mutual care for each other, especially in the highest kind of friendship, the mutual cultivation of a good character.
In our reading in Bk IV viii, p. 60-61 he gives this fuller definition or at description of what his company of friend did. Read passage beginning with, “ to make conversation, to share a joke, to perform mutual acts of kindness, read together well written books, to share in trifling and in serious matters, to disagree though without animosity…and out of many to forge unity.”
3.2 In our reading for this session A tells he had come to have a friend who because of their “shared interest was very close.” However, he goes on to observe that it was less than a true friendship. Why? Because “a true friendship is only possible by those who cleave to one another by the love which is “poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us. (Rom 5:5). Nevertheless, it was a very sweet experience, welded by the fervor of our identical interest.” Unfortunately his friend dies and though he has denied it was “a true friendship” he nevertheless says that friendship “had been sweet to me beyond all the sweetness of life that I had experienced.” (p. 59) Unlike most neoplatonists he was not content with just a spiritual meeting of souls; he yearned too for the physical presence of friends. As Peter Brown notes, he might agree with the Platonists that “the physical presence of a friend was a “tiny thing”: but he had the courage to admit how much he “greatly craved” this “tiny thing”—a face, eyes that could still speak of a soul hidden in the envelope of flesh.” (Augustine of Hippo, p.154.)
He now ruminates on the loss of his friend. He can go so far as to say, …all that I had shared with him was without him transformed into a cruel torment. My eyes looked for him everywhere, and he was not there. I hated everything because they did not have him, nor could they now tell me ‘look, he is on the way’, as used to be the case when he was alive and absent from me. I had become to myself a vast problem.” (p. 57) It’s hard to take seriously this friend he has now lost, whom he never names, was just a “tiny thing.”
3.3 Looking back on this he now sees he had made his friend into an idol and that the loss of his friend was really the loss of an idol. So he now goes on to confess to God that his misery at the loss of his friend is “the state of every soul overcome by friendship with mortal things and lacerated when they are lost. “ (p. 58) He thought of his friend as his “other self”. “I had felt that my soul and his soul were ‘one soul in two bodies’… would have died.” (p. 59)
Psychological diviner of he own soul that he was, he can go so far as to say, that he “felt a greater attachment to my life of misery than to my dead friend. Although I wanted it to be otherwise, i was more unwilling to lose my misery that him,…” (Ibid)
Reflecting on this now as a much older man and a bishop he comes downward on himself. “What madness not to understand how to love human beings with awareness of row human condition.” (Ibid) In his despair then he thinks that if he left his home town Thagaste for Carthage he thought he might have some relief from his grief for there his eyes would see him less “in a place where they were not accustomed to see him.” (p. 60) And he did so without telling his mother. In fact he deceived her. And that brings us to now consider this complicated relationship. Are sons relationships with their mothers ever otherwise?
- St. Augustine’s relationship with his mother Monica as portrayed in Confessions Bk. IX, viii-xiii, pp. 166-178
“While we were at Ostia by the mouth of the Tiber, my mother died.” (p.166)
4.1 St A’s confession of the affection and friendship he had with his mother. Let’s begin with this touching passage written from his grief at the death of Monica. “Why then did i suffer pains of inward grief…since my life and hers had become a single thing.” (pp.174-75)
4.1.1 …a very affectionate and precious bond suddenly torn apart.
4.1.2 in her last illness she lovingly calls him a “devoted son” and with “much feeling in her love, she recalled that she had never heard me speak a harsh or bitter word to her.”
4.1.3 But this he says could not be compared in its value to “the service she rendered to me.”
4.1.4 …my life and hers had become a single thing.” This may lead us to recall what he had said earlier about the loss of his unnamed friend. I think that what he says here is different from what he said the despite a superficial resemblance. Here he does not say she was his “other self” or that she and he were “one soul in two bodies.” Yes,with her death his soul was wounded but it is the support she had given him and the affection and mutuality of their life together that he refers to as a “single thing.” He’s not speaking ontologically as he did earlier about his friend but psychologically in thanksgiving for her affection and moral and spiritual support.
4.2 St. A begins his reflections and confessions of this support by confessing that she was not just his mother physically but spiritually too. “But I shall not pass over whatever my soul may bring to birth concerning your servant, who brought me to birth both in her body, so that i was born into the light of time, and in her heart so that I was born into the light of eternity
4.2 His testimony to her formation in a Christian home and church especially God’s gift to her of good, if severe discipline from a “decrepit maidservant”, “ who in training Monica and her sisters “exercised a discrete prudence.” (p. 167)
4.3 St Augustine telling on his mother. What was his motivation in retelling the story of his mother had told him about her “weakness for wine” as a young girl. Some may think that St. A was intent on showing that he was not the only one who had his youthful wayward desires —Mum too. Perhaps but I think it was more a matter of 1. showing her humanity, her having a weakness that was not so much “an appetite for liquor but the surplus high spirits of a young person.” (Ibid). 2. Questioning the effectiveness of harsh discipline of the “decrepit maidservant” “Where then was the wise old woman and her vehement prohibitions.” 3. This is because the laws does not save us from ourselves only the grace of God does that and that trough a very unlikely source. The household slavegirl called Monica “a boozer,” and out of spite “sought to wound her little mistress, not to cure her.” But St A confesses that God in his mercy “from the fury of one soul” brought healing to Monica. She was moved to reflect “on her own foul addiction, st once condemned it, and stopped the habit.” (p. 168)
4.4 St A’s praise for his mother’s patience with and persistence in leading her husband Patrick at the end of his life faith in Christ his redeemer and doing the same for him. While he husband “loved, respected and admired’ his wife tolerated his infidelities and patiently endured his anger. She waited till he was “calm and quiet” and then she would why she had done what angered him and suggested that “perhaps he had reacted without sufficient consideration.” (p.168)
We have to end here today but I will have something to say about Augustine’s chaffing on occasions under her domineering attitude and actions. For next time read Bk II and we will address St A’s attitude and understanding of sin, his own especially and others too.