FIFTH SESSION SUNDAY FEBRUARY 11 —WHAT IS ST AUGUSTINE’S ATTITUDE TOWARD AND UNDERSTANDING OF HIS REDEMPTION, FORGIVENESS OF SIN, AND DEEPENED LOVE FOR GOD?
“Not in revelling and drunkeness, not in lust and wantoness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no thoughts on nature and nature’s appetites. (Romans 13:13-14) I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” (Confessions Book VIII, section12.
Preparatory Reading: Confessions Bk VIII, (especially sections 6-12) pp.141-154
Focus Text: Confessions Book. VIII, section 12. pp.152-154.
1.1. Our theme for this fifth and final exploration of St Augustine’s Confessions is his attitude toward and understanding of his redemption, forgiveness of sin, and deepened love for God? While preparing this presentation it was impossible not to notice the themes of the previous three talks coming through over and over again. The justice and mercy of God, the mention of his friends and their sound influence on Augustine, and yes always his sin. His consciousness of it deepening and darkening as he comes to the moment of his conversion and salvation.
1.2. Our procedure will be to review carefully Bk VIII, sections 6-11. We will address two issues in our review of these sections.
1.2.1. First we’ll pay particular attention to the great saint’s growing awareness of his need for deliverance from “the chain of sexual desire, by which I was tightly bound and from the slavery of worldly affairs” (vi, p. 141), and his salvation. He exclaims at the beginning of Bk IX. “You have snapped my chains… Let my heart praise you and my tongue, and ‘let all my bones say, Lord who is like you?’ (Ps. 34:10) Let them speak, answer me, and say to my soul ‘I am your salvation’ (Ps 34:3).
1.2.2. Second we’ll try to understand why Augustine gives so much attention to the nature of his “will” and why he is so powerless to exercise it to embrace the mercy of God. From an anguished heart he writes: “The mind commands the body and it is instantly obeyed. The mind commands itself and meets resistance. The mind commands the hand to move, and it is so easy that one hardly distinguishes the order from its execution. Yet mind is mind, and hand is body. The mind orders the mound to will. The recipient of the order is itself, yet id does not perform it. What causes this monstrosity and why does it happen.” (ix, p. 147)
1.2.3. I have been helped to understand these sections by a good colleague Nick Wolterstorff, the former Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University, in the opening chapter of his enlightening book Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks, Cambridge U. Press, 1995.
- Review of sections 6-11.
2.1. Here is the scene in which St. Augustine’s conversions took place as described by Nick Wolterstorff. “In the year 386…ever got around to discussing business.”
2.2. As they sat down to talk Ponticianus was surprised to find that a book up from a nearby table was nothing other than a copy of the epistles of St Paul. He smiled in surprise since unknown to Augustine he was himself a Christian and he knew Augustine only as a renowned teacher of rhetoric. St. A let on that he had been studying the epistles “ with the greatest attention.”
2.3. This prompted Ponticianus to tell A and his friend Alypius about the life of the Egyptian monk Anthony and his founding a monastic community. He goes on to tell of a visit on Roman business to Treves (Trier in modern Germany) with three other officials, all of whom were Christians. They split up into two pairs and the pair that did not include Ponticianus find in a small cottage a book of the life of Antony. One of them was so fascinated and thrilled by the story” that he decided there and then to abandon his career saying to his friend, “”What do we seek to gain by all the efforts we make? What are we looking for? What is our purpose in serving the state? Can we hope for anything better at Court that to be the Emporer’s friends?…But if I wish, I can become the friend of God at this very moment.” (vi, p.43) Later in the day Ponticianus and his companion find the other pair who at once told of their reading and of their decision. Ponticianus and his comrade didn’t join them in their decision but “offered their friends devout congratulations, and commended themselves to their prayers” (p. 144).
2.4 Ponticianus could not have had any idea of the impact his story had on Augustine. It was precisely the alternative ways of life those four men faced that was raging within him. Augustine had been desiring intensely to forsake his life of lust and ambition and live an ascetic life formed in him by the love of God. He describes the effect on him by using the remarkable image of placing himself behind his own back so that he stood naked before his own eyes.”
“This was the story Ponticianus told… so that I should discover my iniquity and hate it” (vii. pp. 144-45)
2.5. His agony of indecision in a garden, his friend Alypius with him. In retrospect he gives this description of his anguish. “[M]y madness with myself was part of the process of recovering health, and in the agony of death I was coming to life. I was aware how ill I was, unaware how well I was soon to be… I was deeply disturbed in my pact and covenant with you, my God, when all my bones (Ps. 34:10) were crying out that I should enter into it and were exulting it to heaven with praises.” (viii pp. 146-47)
So why?we might ask didn’t he “enter into it”? Why didn’t he cast himself in full repentance and accept God’s freely offered forgiveness? The reason comes in these words that bring us to his long description from here to the end of section xi (pp. 147-52). “The one necessary condition, which meant not only going but at once arriving there, was to have the will to go—provided only that the will was strong and unqualified, not the turning and twisting first this way, then that, of a will half-wounded, struggling with one part rising up and the other part falling down.” (viii, p. 147)
2.6. Ah this twisting and turning, how could he be free of this torment of indecision? He thinks at this time that if he just struggles long enough and energetically enough he will prevail. “I was twisting and turning in my chain until it would break completely. I was now only a little bit held by it, but I was still held…Inwardly I said to myself: Let it be now, let it be now. And by this phrase I said I was already moving towards a decision; I had almost taken it, and then I did not do so.” (xi, p. 150) Again, what is holding him back? He tells us what it is. “Ingrained evil had more hold over me than unaccustomed good. The nearer approached the moment of time when I should become different, the greater the horror of it struck me. But it did not thrust me back nor turn me away, but left me in a state of suspense. (xi, pp. 150-51) And he adds, “my old loves, held me back. The tugged at the garment of my flesh and whispered: ‘Are you getting rid of us?’…I hesitated to detach myself, to be rid of them, to make the leap to where I was being called. Meanwhile, the overwhelming force of habit was saying to me: ‘do you think you can live without them?’ “ (xi, p. 151)
2.7. Augustine at “the end of his tether” or better in his metaphor “his chain.” He now leaves the company of his deeply sympathetic friend Alypius and breaks down into a “downpour of tears.” Throwing himself down under a fig tree he cries out over and over again in misery, ‘how long, how long is it to be? Tomorrow, tomorrow. Why not now? Why not an end to my impure life in this very hour?’ “(xii, p. 152)
- Salvation and forgiveness COME TO St. Augustine.
Here is his account of his conversion. “As I was saying this…All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.” (xii, pp.152-53)
3.1. The word “will” and “decision” are nowhere to be found, they have disappeared. Up till this point the language of decision and willing was central. For example, he said, “In my own case, as I deliberated about serving my Lord God (Jer. 30: 9) which I had long been disposed to do, the self which willed to serve was identical with the self which was unwilling. It was I. I was neither wholly willing nor wholly unwilling.” (x, p. 148) As Professor Wolterstorff well says, “when Augustine is describing the actual moment of turning, there is not one word about will, not a word about decision, not a word about resolution; What he does say is this. ‘As I came to the end of the sentence, …the light of confidence flooded my heart… Rejected his former way of life and embracing the new way not something he decided to do but something he found himself doing” (Divine Discourse, p. 5) This is a fine and different way of saying that St Augustine’s conversion was not first a matter of his decision but first a matter of God’s grace; of the coming of God the Holy Spirit to call forth from him an answering faith.
3.2. We notice that St Augustine says the child chanting was not part of some game. Rather through the child’s chant, “Take and read, take and read,” he was being commanded by God to do just that. He takes up the book of Paul’s epistles that he had previously read “with great attention” but now it is not his attention to the text that is central but the text which he opens addresses him. It’s God’s address to him there and then, in that moment of his reading: “Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh and its lusts’. (Romans 13:13-14) He had cried out earlier in his distress “Why not now?’ and God through the apostles words says in effect “yes my dear child now.”
3.3. Augustine end his account of his conversion with the joy of his mother Monica that her long, fervent and fateful prayers for just this have been answered. “From there we went in to my mother, and told her. We told her how it had happened. She exulted, feeling it to be a triumph, and blessed you who ‘are powerful to do more than we ask of think’(Eph. 3:20). She saw that you had granted her far more than she had long been praying for in her unhappy and tearful groans.” (xii, p. 153.)
3.4. St Augustine’s final summing up of God’s grace to him, his mercy toward him, his gift of salvation to him. At the beginning of Book IX he gives us this moving summing up. “”But where through so many years was my freedom of will? From what deep and hidden recesses was it called out in a moment?” Here he is repeating what he had said earlier. Salvation came to him: it wasn’t something he laid hold of by an act of his will. He no longer prayed as he had prayed earlier. ‘Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.’ Now he says, “Suddenly it had become sweet to me to be without the sweets of folly. What I had once feared to lose was now a delight to dismiss.” And he is “free of ‘the biting cares’ of place seeking [i.e. ambition].” Rather, he now says so simply and truly “I was now talking with you, Lord my God, my radiance, my wealth, my salvation.” ( Bk IX, i, p. 155)
4.1. Thanks to Fr Tim for asking me to give these talks. I have very much enjoyed preparing them. And you my dear sisters and brothers at CTR have been a very receptive audience. Thank you.
4.2. My own spiritual life has been challenged and invigorated by really studying the Confessions and having the words of this great saint sink deeply in my own heart.