Thursday, December 31, 2009

Great Books: Augustine's Confessions Books 1-8 (Part 4)

Augustine spends very little time in Rome as he is also disheartened by the lackluster dedication of the students he had come to teach. However, his ambition for his career as a teacher of literature and rhetoric and his continued love for his concubine were to be major obstacles to his ultimate conversion to the Christian faith. During his time in Rome he meets Ambrose who was a major Christian player in Milan. It would ultimately be Ambrose who baptizes Augustine in Christ's name. As mentioned in our last segment, Augustine had begun to move away from the Manicheans' philosophy and yet used their connections to better his career. In 384, and entirely due to these very same connections, he won a highly prestigious position in Milan as the professor of rhetoric for the imperial court.

He was joined in Milan by his mother who continued to pressure him into a conversion to the Christian faith. But, unable to release his lustful desires and his need for female companionship, he sends his long-loved concubine back to Carthage (Augustine's son would remain with him) and allows his mother to arrange an appropriate Christian marriage to a girl of thirteen years. He would have to wait two whole years until the marriage could be official so he takes yet another concubine instead during this waiting period. It is interesting to note again that Augustine speaks of very few people with any kind of love outside his mother and his newly growing group of Christian fellows yet he speaks always of his first concubine with respect and sincere devotion. But, she is not important enough to ever be named, perhaps because Augustine feels such intense shame over what he perceives to be only lustful desires.

Augustine's conversion is full of dramatic theatre and overwhelming physical machinations. Book VIII deals solely with his conversion and what Augustine learns about the Great Idea of Will. Separating himself further and further away from Manichees who viewed all soulful creatures as having two conflicting wills, one based in evil and the other based in good, Augustine finds himself staring at the Truth of which he had so long sought.

For there is no means whatsoever by which corruption can injure our God, whether by an act of will, by necessity, or by chance. This is because he is God and what he wills is good and he is himself that same good: whereas to be corrupted is not good. And you are never compelled, my God, to do or suffer anything against your will, because your will is not greater than your own power. It would be greater only if you were greater than yourself, for the will and power of God are God himself. (VII, 4)

Yet still, Augustine suffers immensely within himself because despite this Truth he had finally come to fully believe, he could not will himself to make a final and full conversion as he saw it which was to completely turn away from the seductions of the material world. In many ways, the language Augustine uses about himself tell the story of an addict whose will is perverse and who "was now its reluctant victim rather than its willing tool." Augustine states that, "For the rule of sin is the force of habit, by which the mind is swept along and held fast even against its will, yet deservedly, because it fell in the habit of its own accord." (VIII, 5) Augustine becomes, "a house divided against itself" (VIII, 8) whose wants and desires can no longer be placed before the Truth for which his soul craves.

Augustine and his friend Alypius are visited by an old friend named Ponticianus from Africa whose spiritual father was also the Christian monk Ambrose. Ponticianus was quite surprised to find Paul's Epistles to the Romans sitting atop a table in Augustine's home and begins in earnest to share with Augustine and his friend the story of his own (almost) conversion. He begins to recount the story of the illiterate Egyptian monk Antony who entered into a Christian church, heard a passage of scripture and took it to be words spoken only for him. These words led Antony to lead a strict ascetic life in the deserts of Egypt. But, it was not only the story of Antony that lead to Augustine's final, excruciating dark night of the soul, but the story of Ponticianus' own experience when he had heard the story of this famed monk the first time for himself. Ponticianus was still a member of the Emperor's royal guard and he had witnessed two of his friends readily and instantly giving up their lives in service to the Emperor in order to follow the words of Christ. These men left the material world and ventured into lives dedicated solely to the pursuit of Truth in the name of Christ. Ponticianus himself could not take that leap, despite his joy for his friends and his heart's desire to do so.

Augustine, obviously, felt that this story was meant solely for him when he states, "While he was speaking, O Lord, you were turning me around to look at myself." (VIII, 7) Augustine laments that twelve years had passed since reading Cicero's Hortensuis which had lead him to Platonic thought and ultimately to the teachings of Paul. And yet, in all that time, he had been totally unable to accomplish what even unschooled men had the courage to do: to enter willingly into the service of God.

What is the matter with us? Augustine asks Alypius, What is the meaning of this story? These men have not had our schooling, yet they stand up and storm the gates of heaven while we, for all our learning, lie here grovelling in this world of flesh and blood! Is it because they have led the way that we are ashamed to follow? Is it not worse to hold back? (VIII, 8)

At this point, Augustine is set upon by "madness that would bring me sanity." (VIII, 8) He flees to the community garden of his home and throws himself down upon the ground, beating his fists against himself, tearing at his hair, and basically, commences to test his Will against that of God. Augustine finds himself staring at yet another Truth when he realizes that "The mind gives an order to the body and it obeys, but when it gives an order to itself, it is resisted." (VIII, 9) Augustine is confused and aghast at himself for his shame that his will has only the power to control the limbs of his body and nothing more. At last, his dueling wills exhausted, he collapses under a fig tree in tears where he is visited by an image of Continence and many men and woman and children. In this visitation, she extends her arms to him and asks him a simple set of questions:

Can you not do what these men and women do? Do you think they find the strength to do it in themselves and not in the Lord their God? It was the Lord their God who gave me to them. Why do you try to stand in your own strength and fail? Cast yourself upon God and have no fear. He will not shrink away and let you fall. Cast yourself upon him without fear, for he will welcome you and cure you of your ills. (VIII, 11)

Even this visage did little to quell Augustine's tormented soul. Somehow though, through the sounds of his weeping, he did hear a small child's voice telling him to "Take it and read it" in a sing song fashion. At last he remembered the story of Antony and managed to get himself up off the ground and find his way back to Paul's Epistles to the Romans where he read, Not revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature's appetites. Rom. 13. 13-14. After reading this passage, Augustine was finally able to conjure the strength and courage to relinquish all his desires for ambition and for the love women (except the love of his mother, of course, since she is still the instrument through which God's love had been shared with Augustine). He tells his friend Alypius of his discoveries and he is also converted on the spot with Augustine. The last lines of Book VIII tell of the joy experienced by his mother upon hearing of her son's conversion. His mother rejoices, "far fuller than her dearest wish, far sweeter and more chaste than any she had hoped to find in children begotten of my flesh." (VIII, 12) Thus, did God also rejoice as his wayward sheep had finally come back to the flock.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Great Books: Augustine's Confessions Books 1-8 (Part Three)

Augustine continues his exploration of the nuances of sin throughout his Confessions, however, as he ventures to Carthage for the continuation of his studies, a tangible shift occurs in his search for Truth. It is a new stage in his life in which he shifts his focus to the Great Ideas of Good and Evil which compel and elude him as he continues his spiritual autobiography. Also in play is Augustine’s themed continuation of his own life as a parable. He becomes the Prodigal Son or the wayward sheep that strays from the herd with God the ever present herdsman. Augustine states that, "Yet all the while, far above, your mercy hovered faithfully about me." (III, 3) Alas, Augustine had no eyes to see that God was with him throughout his life and, due to his own misperceptions, God seemed totally absent during his years as a young adult in Carthage and beyond.

Augustine describes Carthage as an, "hissing cauldron of lust" (III, 1) where he became addicted to the pursuit of love or, as he later came to know it, lust. He fell in love with the theatre, poets, philosophers and astrologers (sensualists) who he credits with leading him further and further away from the Truth of God.

Truth! Truth! How the very marrow of my soul within me yearned for it as they dinned it in my ears over and over again. To them it was no more than a name to be voiced or a word to be read in their libraries of huge books...while my hunger was for you, for Truth itself, they served me up the sun and the moon...not you yourself nor even the greatest of your created things. (III, 6)

Augustine describes himself locked in a world starved of anything real or true and yet he also finds companionship with friends and with a concubine who bore him a son. It is interesting to note that Augustine claims to have been totally faithful to his concubine (for more than ten years) and that he was with her only due to his own lustful nature. Augustine never names this woman and scholars will probably never know more than what Augustine shares about her in his Confessions. Yet, he was faithful to her and to the son she bore him and after he decides to abandon her he speaks of her with words of respect and love.

During his time at Carthage, his father dies (which he barely mentions) and he abandons his study of law, turning instead to the study of literature and public speaking. He finds himself inspired by the words of Cicero. He would eventually also enjoy the works of Plato who would lead him back to Paul of Tarsus. It would be Paul who inspired him to begin studying the scriptures for pure novelty's sake. His mother continued to support him financially after his father's death and she also continued with her prayers that he would find his way back to Christ. As mentioned in our previous segment, Augustine's relationship with his mother begins to mirror that of his relationship with God. Turning his back on his mother and her stalwart prayers for him becomes equivalent to turning his back on God. After completing his studies at Carthage, Augustine journeyed home to Thagaste where he began teaching literature and public speaking. However, he lamented the lack of discipline his students showed in Thagaste and so took a job teaching in Rome. The correlation between the relationships he had with his mother and with God became very apparent in a literal sense when he lies to his mother and leaves her weeping on the banks of Thageste after he sneaks away in the middle of the night for his journey to Rome.

The polarity through which Augustine views himself is absolute and finds its manifestation no place more apparent than during the many years he spent as a part of the Manichean cult. Augustine says, "I was trying to find the origin of evil, but I was quite blind to the evil in my own method of research". (VII, 5) The Manicheans believed in the concepts of Good and Evil as separate and disparate entities who lived and clashed with each other within every human soul.

For this same reason, Augustine states, I believed that evil, too, was some similar kind of substance, a shapeless, hideous mass, which might be solid or air..This they imagine as a kind of evil mind filtering through the substance they call earth. And because such little piety as I had compelled me to believe that God, who is good, could not have created an evil nature, I imagined that there were two antagonistic masses, both of which were infinite, yet the evil in a lesser and the good in a greater degree. (V, 10)

The Manicheans claimed to resolve questions of religion with that of science and visa versa. This claim was alluring to Augustine for many reasons as during his studies he had become quite fond of the sciences and, quite apparently, continued to struggle within himself over all things religious. Slowly, however, Augustine began to turn his back upon the Manicheans who he found to make grandiose claims about astrology, God, Christ, Good and Evil that were not backed up by the sciences of the day and they also made claims about theology which had no direct correlation to his studies or his experiences. Yet, he did not break ties with them completely as they were useful to him during his short time in Rome.

Augustine fell ill almost immediately upon reaching Rome coming once again close to death. But, he believed he was saved by God despite their prolonged separation because God was ever watchful of him. It is at this point we begin to see changes in Augustine, his continued struggle with his own ideas of Good and Evil and, most importantly, his relationship with God.

It was made clear to me also that even those things which are subject to decay are good. If they were of the supreme order of goodness, they could not be corrupt; but neither could they become corrupt unless they were in some way good, (VII, 12) Augustine states he did not know that, Evil is nothing but the removal of good until finally no good remains," (III, 7) and "So, we must conclude that if things are deprived of all good, they cease to be; and this means that as long as they are, they are good. (VII, 12)

This realization helps Augustine to understand that despite his corruptible nature, or actually, because of it, he can be redeemed in the Truth and light of God. Yet, his true conversion to the Christian God would be made manifest through a heavy grief through which Augustine was unsure of his ability to endure.