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.

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