Today’s meditation on the conclusion of Book VI will not post until late today or early tomorrow. Thanks for your patience! (This message will self-destruct once I have posted the new meditation).
One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
–Proverbs 18:24 (NIV)
Chapter 6: So much good stuff in this chapter. Augustine begins by pointing out that God will never let us be satisfied with less than himself, even as we chase after “honors, wealth and marriage”. In his words, “you probed [my soul’s] wound to the raw, to persuade it to leave all else behind and be converted to you”. What we think will make us happy can often just make us miserable. Augustine recalls being jealous of the drunken revelry of a beggar, for at least he was not riddled with the anxiety of upward advancement and greed. Although the happiness of the beggar was temporary (and temporal), “what I was seeking in my ambition was a joy far more unreal”. Of course, we lie to ourselves that the misery we experience in the pursuit of worldly wealth or status is actually exhilaration. Seeking status over accomplishment or marriage over true love will leave a gaping void in our souls. This disappointment is “the rod of [God’s] discipline” sent to teach us that we live not by bread, but by the Word of God (cf. Matt. 4:4)
Augustine even sees more honor in the drunkard’s joy, because at least he honestly gained his booze by begging “while I was seeking a swollen reputation by lying”. The beggar was honest and simple in his desires: he wanted to be drunk. But Augustine pretended that he cared about education or even the betterment of the Empire, while he really only cared about riches and personal glory. Even today, we in the Church would be more likely to harshly judge the beggar’s sin over Augustine’s. The ruthless businessman who exploits his workers and destroys the environment is seen as a champion of capitalism, while the addict trying to make it through the day is seen as a menace to society. Perhaps we ought to remind ourselves of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).
Chapter 7: Here we meet saint number four of the Confessions: St. Alypius of Thagaste. This long detour into someone else’s life has the feel of being lifted from a different book, and some scholars think that this is what happened here. Either way, Alypius had been a student of Augustine back in their mutual hometown of Thagaste and again in Carthage. He was a good kid, but overly taken with the circus. Perhaps I should make a quick aside here about why Augustine was so negative on circuses. I can think of at least four reasons: (1) The circus often included blood-sports, which excited a very un-Christian lust for violence. (2) The sports of the circus took advantage of the poor, specifically slaves, for the entertainment of the rich. This exploitation of the lower classes stands in stark contrast to the Golden Rule (see my three-part blog on slavery). (3) Gambling on the races was more or less expected at these events. The Church, then and now, discouraged gambling as a waste of God’s provision in our lives. Lastly, (4) the shows at the circus often reenacted stories from pagan mythology or mythologized Roman history. This was seen, probably rightly, as sacrilegious, especially since the line between worship and performance could be blurry.
In any case, Alypius had a “reckless addiction to worthless shows”. God, in His devious way, used the unbelieving Augustine to divert Alypius back onto the right path. When Augustine mocked those who loved the circus, he pricked Alypius’s conscience, in much the same way that a good sermon illustration can feel like it’s aimed right at you. With that, the young man quit the Carthaginian circus for good. Unfortunately, he followed Augustine in becoming a Manichee, but God was at work.
Chapter 8: Alypius beat Augustine across the Mediterranean, pursuing a career in the law in Rome. But in Rome there was a new temptation: the gladiators. This story is a perfect encapsulation of why we must be careful not to put ourselves in places where we will be tempted by the vices that tend to ensnare us. His friends drag him to the Colosseum, but Alypius vows not to watch the games. He does well for a while. However, upon hearing the roar of the crowd and “overwhelmed by curiosity, and on the excuse that he would be prepared to condemn and rise above whatever was happening even if he saw it, he opened his eyes”. We overestimate our ability to resist temptation, and can even justify giving in to our vices by saying that we’re just seeing what we don’t want to do (oh, how we can justify anything!). Our mind thus becomes “all the weaker for presuming to trust in itself rather than in [God]”. As Augustine puts it, he was no longer a man who joined the crowd, but “one of the crowd he had joined”. A good modern analogy for this would be pornography, but really any vice would do. It’s the drunk walking by a bar, the addict staying friends with his dealer, the reformed philanderer “innocently” texting a member of the opposite sex, and so on. A holy life is found not in going right up to the edge of sin, but in running the opposite direction (cf. 2 Tim. 2:22). We are not as strong as we think we are.
Chapter 9: The incident in this chapter feels mostly like comic relief. Poor Alypius ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets accused of a theft he did not commit. Augustine sees God’s grace at work through the “coincidence” that a senator would recognize Alypius on the way to jail and would take him right to the home of the real thief, where a young slave boy blurts out the whole truth. The lesson Alypius learned was “that in judicial hearings one person ought not to be condemned too easily through the rash gullibility of another”. As a bishop in Thagaste, the older Alypius would adjudicate many similar disputes, so God taught him how careful a dispenser of justice must be. Once again, we see how God can use even unjust suffering to bring us closer to Him and to teach us lessons we would not otherwise learn.
Chapter 10: Alypius would have plenty of opportunity to put these lessons to use as an assessor to the Chancellor of the Italian Treasury. Needless to say, this put him in the position to take bribes, but he refused, even under the intimidation of a powerful senator. To stay virtuous when under such stress is very hard — you have plenty of moral wiggle room to give in. But courage is a virtue. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty or mercy which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky” (The Screwtape Letters, Letter 29). Alypius even had the fortitude to resist the temptation to take a discount on books (now that’s a temptation!). It may seem like a small thing, but Augustine rightly points out that “anyone who is trustworthy in a small thing is trustworthy in a great one too” (cf. Luke 16:10-13).
This chapter ends with a quick hat tip to Nebridius, the man who had dissuaded him from astrology years earlier. He too joined Augustine in Milan and along with Alypius began to recreate the kind of community that Augustine had lost by leaving the Manichaen community in Rome. None of them had made it back to the fold of the Church, but they were all seeking together. In Augustine’s words, “there were three gaping mouths, three individuals in need, gasping out their hunger to one another and looking to you to give them their food in due time”. What an accurate image of all of us as we seek God together!
Conclusion: It’s a bit perplexing why Augustine would stop his story to give a lengthy biographical sketch of a friend, even a close friend. But we do not live in isolation. Our lives are intertwined with each other, and Alypius’s story mirrored Augustine’s. Our friends help shape who we are, sometimes unwittingly as in the case of Augustine mocking the circus. Our friends can help or harm us (they can take us to the Colisseum or take us to Church). We can emulate their virtues, learn from their vices, and share their experiences. Throughout his life, Augustine stressed the need for community in living the Christian life. We learn best how to pursue God by pursuing him with others. May we never neglect the community found in the Body of Christ.
Quote for meditation: “Very bitter were the frustrations I endured in chasing my desires, but all the greater was your kindness in being less and less prepared to let anything other than yourself grow sweet to me.”
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
–Hebrews 11:1 (ESV)
Chapter 1: I like to imagine Monica as short, no more than maybe 5’1″. The sailors are eyeing a cloud and wondering if maybe they should find a safe harbor to ride out the storm and here comes this little ball of fury. “I had a dream where God told me we’d be safe. Get back to your post, sailor.” After a short, stunned silence, they do just that and so St. Monica arrives in Milan. Pious, rural mothers are not to be trifled with. She carried herself with the confidence that she would get what she wanted eventually, even from God. Thus, when she found out that Augustine was a catechumen, she was overjoyed but not surprised. She had already, in Augustine’s arresting phrase, “offered me to you [God] upon the bier of her meditation”. Despite him not being a believer, she flat out tells him that he will become one before she dies. I can only aspire to this level of confidence in the promises of God. In particular, we should seek such faith for the bravery that it engenders.
Chapter 2: Monica adored Ambrose, of course, but they soon come into conflict over offerings at the tombs of martyrs. It was a common practice in Africa, but Ambrose forbade it. It seems that the offering of wine at the shrines was over-indulged, shall we say. Also, the ritual revived the pagan practice of ancestor worship (indeed, devotion to martyrs is basically sanctified ancestor worship and can become pagan unless one is careful). Monica was used to getting her way, but because it was the revered Ambrose who told her to stop, stop she did. Thus, she made her position one of “criticizing her own custom rather than sitting in judgment on his prohibition”. Monica demonstrates the importance of submission to the elders of the Church in a faithful life, although I suspect Augustine was right that the real reason she listened to Ambrose was “the part he played in my salvation”. They seemed to have a mutual admiration society, which Augustine, still unsure and trying to curry favor with the emperor, must have felt excluded from.
Chapter 3: Reading between the lines here, I sense a bit of distance or even resentment toward Ambrose. Augustine wasn’t ready to pray yet; he just wanted some answers. And yet the bishop proved too busy. As a bishop himself, the older Augustine understands the struggles and weariness of the ecclesiastical life. This passage is famous for Augustine’s wonder at watching Ambrose read silently. The ancient world was an oral culture — even the intensely personal book we are reading was almost-certainly dictated to a scribe. Herculean memorization and recitation were the order of the day. To watch Ambrose read silently was to see an entirely new and interior way to experience words. One wonders if the extreme interiority of the Confessions bears Ambrose’s influence. At the time, this private and severe personage must have seemed like an alien from another world.
At least Augustine got to listen to Ambrose’s sermons and there he began “to unravel all those cunning knots of calumny in which the sacred books had been entangled by tricksters who had deceived me and others”. The catholic faith that he thought he had been fighting was “but the figments of carnal imagination”. He was finally beginning to understand God as not having a body, but as an omnipresent and eternal being beyond the bounds of our existence or understanding. Part of sharing the gospel with the world is telling the lost what we don’t believe. In our day, it may be something along the lines of refuting lies like “God hates gay people” or “Christians believe whatever the Republican party believes”. We certainly cannot assume Biblical literacy anymore, and we must be as much about dispelling misconceptions as proclaiming truth.
Chapter 4: All this is well and good, but Augustine was still searching for certainty, spurred on by “my shame at remembering how long I had been deluded and beguiled by assurances that falsehoods were certain”. Cue the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. I find it admirable that he wanted to be sure that he was committing to a belief that had a sure foundation, although the search for certainty always proves elusive, particularly to one with as questioning a mind as Augustine. “I longed to become as certain of those things I could not see as I was that seven and three make ten”. Wouldn’t we all, though? He realizes in retrospect that “healing was, ironically, within my reach if only I had been willing to believe”. Only faith can allow us to make that final step into certainty; intellectual certainty will never come, for we can always come up with objections to anything. I love his analogy of not wanting to trust a good doctor after being under the care of a bad doctor. I see this problem with people who have been burned by bad churches. They don’t really want to trust any church because they don’t want to be burned again. Yet we have to trust something eventually, or we will simply go with the tide of culture which carries all the filth of the world with it.
Chapter 5: Augustine begins to be won over by catholic doctrine mostly because of its modesty. It did not have all the answers, but then again, it didn’t pretend to have all the answers and then peddle nonsense like the heretics did. He makes a really good point here: we believe a great many things in our lives without proof. We believe what we are taught in school and we believe what our doctors tell us and we even believe that our parents are, in fact, our parents. “Unless we did believe them we should be unable to do anything in this life.” We take a lot more things on faith than we are willing to admit. Despite all his doubts, Augustine always had one bedrock belief: God exists. I’m with him on that one. I can disbelieve in the Holy Trinity or the omnipotence or the goodness of God, but I cannot believe that we are just accidents of matter. Ex nihilo nihil fit (out of nothing, nothing comes) is a foundational principle of logic. The universe didn’t exist once and now it does. There must be a being of unimaginable power outside the universe to cause it. His motives, his character, his personality, everything else about him are matters of faith. His existence feels, to me, undeniable. I know that it is denied by some very smart people, but I cannot bring myself, even in my moments of greatest doubt, to full-on atheism. It just takes too much faith to believe in the number of chance occurrences to create life and the miracle of consciousness. As Augustine puts it, “I always believed in your existence and your care for us, even though I did not know what to think about your essential nature”.
Thus, Augustine had to learn to be content with “holy and profound mysteries”. Scripture is worthy of reverence precisely because it contains “a mysterious dignity” while also being accessible to the simple. In a quote attributed to many (St. Jerome is a popular choice): “The Scriptures are shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for theologians to swim in without ever touching the bottom”. The faith of the Church is much the same. All are welcome and all can be fed, but we will never discover it all (for God is infinite) and we will never be sated. God uses such holy mystery to draw us to Himself.
Conclusion: In an uncertain world, people want a sure thing. Sometimes we can get too overeager and attempt to sell the Christian faith as a certainty. It just isn’t. “Blessed assurance” comes only after taking a Kierkegaardian leap of faith, of stretching past what our reason can ascertain. We are not offering the world a set of intellectual doctrines; we are offering a relationship with a God of literally infinite power, wisdom, and love. That is going to involve danger and mystery. St. Monica’s certainty in the promises of God derived from her life of vigilant prayer, in short, from her personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That is the only sure foundation for a life of holiness and peace.
Quote for meditation: “All the while, Lord, as I pondered these things you stood by me; I sighed and you hear me; I was tossed to and fro and you steered me aright. I wandered down the wide road of the world, but you did not desert me.”
…always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect
1 Peter 3:15 (ESV)
Chapters 10&11: As Augustine settles in with his Manichee brethren in Rome, his doubts about the sect come to a head. He was so unsure of his beliefs that he flirted with those who promoted radical skepticism — “these men had recommended universal doubt”. He probably encountered this belief through his intellectual idol Cicero, although the philosophy is Greek in origin. It’s a very recognizable philosophy in our postmodern world — it takes the intellectual humility we talked about yesterday (recognizing how little we know) and turning it into an ontological certainty. If I can’t know truth, they say, there must be no Truth (or at least nothing we can understand). This agnosticism leads to both despair and pride, as one believes in nothing but feels smug superiority toward lesser people who believe in God or, indeed, anything else. Skepticism has the patina of intellectualism, but it is really a cowardly cop-out. Agnosticism should be a temporary state for the searching soul, not a destination for the incurious mind. To quote G.K. Chesterton, “merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid”.
Unfortunately for Augustine, Manichaeism proved to be more like a vapor than a solid. In this section, we get to the core of his beliefs at the time. Even then, his ideas were shaped in opposition to the catholic faith; he structured his life around what he was against. (1) An omnipotent, supremely good God cannot allow evil to exist. Therefore, God must not be omnipotent and evil must be a malevolent, even physical, force. This meant that sin was not the fault of the sinner — essentially, the devil made him do it. “My impious ideas set up a division, pitting me against myself and my sin was the more incurable for my conviction that I was not a sinner.” The only way to escape the physical evil inside us is to detach the mind through chastity, fasting, prayer, and study. (2) This leads to the obvious problem of Jesus’ incarnation: “I thought it contemptible to believe that you bore the appearance of human flesh and were confined to our bodily shape and our members”. Since Augustine believed that God was basically just a really big being (as opposed to an omnipresent deity), he could not figure out how to fit him into one human body. Also, if physical things are something to escape, why would God trap Himself within a body? “I was therefore afraid to believe in One who was born in the flesh, lest I should be forced to believe him defiled by the flesh”. Of course, if you believe this, you must also believe that (3) much of the New Testament was forged by Jewish interpolators who snuck in bits of the Old Testament. The problem with this is that “they [the Manichees] produced no incorrupt exemplars themselves”. If there was a “true” New Testament somewhere, nobody seemed to be able to produce it. Without that, the whole edifice of this false religion began to crumble. The only thing keeping him around was the friendly and comforting community of his fellow believers.
Chapter 12: Augustine’s rosy view of the students in Rome was quickly dispelled. In his poetic way of putting it, “because they hold wealth so dear they account justice cheap”. In other words, the students would scarper off at the end of the class before they had paid their fees. At least those vandals back in Carthage paid him! He was forced to look for other employment.
Chapter 13&14: Coincidentally (by God’s grace, I’m sure Augustine would correct me), a position of teaching rhetoric opened in the Alpine city of Milan. As it happens, the imperial court was in Milan at the time (it moved around with emperor these days), and this new position would provide a chance for real upward mobility in political circles. He might even be appointed a provincial governor. Of course, God had other plans and the “real reason for going [to Milan] was to get away from the Manichees, although this was not apparent either to them or to me at the time”.
Quick historical tangent: Rome had fallen on hard times and was all the more proud for it. Paganism, or at least the outward appearance of paganism, reminded the citizens of glories past. This put them at odds with the Christian emperor up in Milan. One pagan with contacts in the imperial court was Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (mentioned in chapter 13, paragraph 23). He was a classical scholar and no doubt hit it off with Augustine. Symmachus was also a senator and the prefect for Rome. He was at odds with Milan over the removal of an altar of Victory from the Senate chamber by a previous emperor. He wrote an impassioned letter to the new emperor (Valentinian II) for the altar’s restoration. Symmachus might have succeeded were it not for the formidable Bishop of Milan, Ambrose. Warned of the petition by the Pope, Ambrose told the boy emperor (he was 13) that he would be excommunicated if he dared to restore a pagan altar. Needless to say, Ambrose prevailed. It was in this context that Symmachus recommended Augustine for the post as master of rhetoric. Thus, Augustine arrived in Milan (in an imperial carriage, no less) stuck between his patron, the emperor, and a powerful bishop.
Here we meet the third great saint of the Confessions: St. Ambrose of Milan (340-397). Despite the potential awkwardness, Ambrose, as the de facto mayor of the city, received Augustine warmly. Fourteen years older than Augustine, the bishop must have struck the younger man as a fatherly (or at least avuncular) figure. His reputation preceded him and Augustine listened, “assessing his eloquence to see whether it matched his reputation”. The comparison with Faustus was stark. While the latter “would wander off into Manichean whimsy, [Ambrose] was teaching about salvation in a thoroughly salutary way”. Here was the meat, the true bread (John 6:32), that could satisfy, although Augustine did not recognize it because of his obsession with eloquence over substance. Nonetheless, “the truth crept in at the same time, though only by slow degrees”. The most important step at this point was realizing that the catholic faith “was in fact intellectually respectable”. Ambrose read the Old Testament figuratively, which answered many of the problems Augustine had with the text. This was enough to cause Augustine to finally shed the last vestiges of Manichaeism and become what we would now call an agnostic. When he says that “I resolved therefore to live as a catechumen in the Catholic Church”, this does not mean he converted. It simply means he was seeking, in much the same way he had been as a “Hearer” in Manichaeism. He was waiting for “some kind of certainty” to dawn. Believing in the possibility of Truth ennobled his skepticism. Despite being a sinner, “little by little, without knowing it, I was drawing near [to God]”.
Conclusion: The faith of the Church stands up to scrutiny in a way that the heresies do not. Ambrose proves the value of rhetoric and learning when it is applied to evangelism. Those who use skepticism as a tool to discover the Truth (rather than as a shield to defend themselves from it) can be persuaded by Biblical preaching and teaching. While “lifestyle evangelism” is the most effective way to win people for Christ (Ambrose’s kindness was important, too), we must not neglect the tools of persuasion and, yes, rhetoric to win over those who are willing to listen. Scoffers and self-righteous agnostics abound, and we shouldn’t waste our time with them, for we are commanded by Christ to “not throw your pearls to pigs” (Matt. 7:6). But a clear and winsome presentation of the gospel can still save souls. May we be like Ambrose and patiently lead to Christ those who are willing to be led.
Quote for meditation: “you yourself, O God,…are truth and overflowing wealth of goodness that deceives not, and pure, inviolate peace.”
The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.
–Proverbs 16:9 (ESV)
Chapter 6: It is said that you should never meet your heroes, and boy did that prove true for Augustine. He had been told that all his questions about Manichaeism would be answered when the bishop Faustus arrived in Carthage, and he had waiting with eager anticipation. What he found instead of answers was a man “who chattered on the usual themes more beguilingly than the rest”. Faustus was handsome, charming, and eloquent. But he was basically the Wizard of Oz, impressive to behold until you look behind the curtain. Wisdom is not found in “a handsome face and a graceful turn of speech”, and bad ideas don’t become good by being well-expressed. How often are we fooled by smooth talkers who disguise lies with beautiful wrapping paper? Augustine gives wise advice: “nothing should be regarded as true because it is eloquently stated, nor false because the words sound clumsy”. Once he finally got to talk with Faustus, he found the man to be woefully under-educated. The man with all the answers turned out to be nothing but a windbag.
A quick aside on why Augustine spends so much time talking about eloquence. In classical education (which continued all the way through the Renaissance), students were educated in the trivium, that is the three liberal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric (to be followed by the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy — taken together these are the seven classic “liberal arts”). In the trivium, the student first learns the mechanics of language (grammar), then how to analyze that language (logic), and finally how to express language persuasively (rhetoric). So to be good at rhetoric (i.e. persuasive speech) was to be an educated person. To be able to express knowledge in an eloquent way demonstrated your education, and, by extension, made your ideas worth listening to. Augustine bucks the idea that rhetoric is more important than logic, that the expression of an idea was more important than its content. This is actually a pretty big deal in context of his career as an educator.
Chapter 7: To be fair to Faustus, he was willing to admit what he did not know and “was not one of the talkative kind, of whom I had suffered many, who tried to teach me but said nothing”. Augustine admires “the restraint of mind that admits its limitations” for it evinces the virtue of humility (Socrates reportedly said “I know that I know nothing”, and the Oracle at Delphi called him the wisest of men). All well and good, but this did nothing to answer Augustine’s questions. Manichaeism depended on believing that Mani or his disciples had all the answers. This is Gnosticism in a nutshell: we have secret knowledge of ultimate Truth. But you have to take such assertions on blind faith, for the slightest inspection or resistance will make the whole edifice collapse like a bad souffle. Augustine admits to only remaining a Manichee out of inertia “unless some preferable option presented himself”. One imagines he was a very glum soul.
Chapter 8: Many a parent has said to an ill-behaved child, “I hope you have kids like you one day”. I don’t know if Monica or Patricius ever said this to the boisterous young Augustine, but it happened anyway. Augustine describes his students as acting, well, like he used to act: “unbridled licentiousness…like madmen…boorishness that defies belief”. He could barely get through his lessons without being interrupted, and the violence he suffered from his students would be considered criminal in any other context. So he made the momentous decision to sail to Rome, where the students reportedly “study more quietly and are controlled by a more systematic regime of strict discipline”. This life-long African, disabused of his beliefs and burned out by his career, would make a fresh start on a new continent.
But the real story for Augustine, indeed the story of these chapters, is God’s plan for his life. In all these trials and the planned move to Rome, “your deep, secret providence was at work and your ever-present mercy”. It was “my soul’s salvation [that] prompted me to change my country”. God was directing Augustine’s steps, even when he was in rebellion: “To bring my steps back to the straight path you secretly made use of both their perversity and mine”. The Lord does not let go of our souls, and will keep drawing us back to Himself, whether we like it or not. He can even use human sinfulness, be it others’ or our own, to call us to repentance. Looking back, we can often see how God used our unhealthy and sinful desires to lead us to a place where we could find Him. The devil often defeats himself this way.
Needless to say, Monica was not happy with Augustine’s plan and followed him all the way to the docks to keep him from leaving. So he lied to her. Saying he would stay, he sailed under cover of darkness, leaving his mother weeping on the shore. Augustine is torn up with guilt about his lie, surprised that he did not drown on the passage (this inland-born boy was no sailor), but “you kept me safe from the waters of the sea to bring me to the water of your grace”. Monica must have felt that her tears had all been for naught, that God had ignored her prayers. But that is not what was happening. According to Augustine, “you listened to the real nub of her longing and took no heed of what she was asking at this particular moment, for you meant to make me into what she was asking for all the time”. That is such an important point: if we do not see God answering our prayers in the way we expect, perhaps that is because His plan requires Him to do something different. His plans are always to prosper us and give us hope (Jer. 29:11), but He has to draw straight with crooked lines. Often, we must journey far from our comfort zones to find our true home. Sometimes we must travel through the valley of death to discover the feast that God has set for us (Ps. 23).
Chapter 9: Speaking of the valley of death, Augustine gets to Rome and immediately becomes grievously ill. He sees this as punishment for his sin, and indeed, sometimes physical sickness can be that (though not always — John 9:1-3). I like how he juxtaposes his heretical belief that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross with the very real death of his (Augustine’s) soul from sin and his body from illness. Thanks to Monica’s prayers and God’s grace, “I recovered my bodily health, though I remained sick in my sacrilegious heart”. Augustine really believes, in a way I think most of us don’t, in the power of prayer. Monica went to church twice daily to pray for her wayward son — “with far more anxious solicitude did she give birth to me in the spirit than ever she had in the flesh”. She was just following Jesus’ command to be persistent in prayer, believing His promise that God hears: “will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?” (Luke 18:7). Jesus promised us that those who ask will receive. Augustine credits his salvation to his mother, who would not stop bothering the Almighty until she got what both of them wanted: the salvation of her son. Scripture tells us in many places to pray constantly for our needs both physical and spiritual (see Ps. 88:13; Phil. 4:6; 1 Thess. 5:17). If we do so, we have this amazing promise from our Lord: “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14). Of course, we must be careful that our motives line up with God’s (James 4:3), but if that is the case it would be “unthinkable” that God would not hear and answer our prayer. Perhaps it will look different than we expect. But answer us He will.
Conclusion: There is a balanced view of predestination in these chapters. Yes, God orders our steps and we are at the mercy of His grace and forgiveness. But we also must humbly submit to him on behalf of both ourselves and those we love. God will accomplish His purposes, with or without our help. But if we submit to him humbly, it will go much better for us, even if we must walk through the vale of tears. Through disillusionment, illness, dislocation, or separation from those we love, we must be persistent in prayer in order that God may guide our steps.
Quote for meditation: “What other provision is there for our salvation, but your hand that remakes what you have made?”
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
–Proverbs 9:10 (ESV)
Chapters 1&2: Augustine begins this new book with praise. Indeed, he prays that his confession may give God glory, and that by giving God glory his soul “may love you the more”. He wonders again how anyone can run from the Lord. They can’t, really, for “you abandon nothing you have made” and those who distance themselves from the grace of God “trip over your probity and fall upon the rough edges of your anger”. God is everywhere, even within our hearts, so we need only look straight ahead to find Him. To try to abandon God is to lose our very selves. Those who leave Christ and His Church to “find themselves” are going in exactly the wrong direction, and will only find confusion.
Chapter 3: The year 383 dawns and the 29-year-old Augustine is still ensconced in his teaching position in the large port city of Carthage. His faith in Manichaeism was wavering, but he hoped a visit by a famously-eloquent bishop named Faustus would answer his questions. However, Augustine was not so much interested in eloquence (“the dainty verbal dish”) but rather “how much knowledge he could provide me to eat” (we’ll find out what Augustine thought of him in tomorrow’s reading). The reason for this is that he had become enamored of philosophy or what we today would probably call science. It made the myths he had come to believe seem feeble by comparison.
Our age worships science. Seeing the remarkable advancements made in almost every area of human endeavor, we have come to believe that we have not only conquered nature, but that we understand it entirely. Paradoxically, we believe ourselves to be in control of the world while at the same time being just another animal. This is made explicit in the works of people like Richard Dawkins, but it is implicit in the ways we talk about science and even politics. For example, people will decry those who offer prayers after a mass shooting by saying that only gun control can solve the problem, as if a political solution will solve a spiritual problem (full disclosure: I think we should have tighter gun control in this country, but I’m skeptical that it will really solve the problem). This is one way in which scientism (the worship of science) has deligitimized the spiritual world in the minds of many. Scientists are the new priests, and their proclamations are treated as dogma (although it certainly shouldn’t be — Google “replication crisis”). Which is not to say that science is without value — I appreciate antibiotics and air conditioning as much as the next guy. But it has, at least in the popular imagination, tried to answer questions for which it is simply not equipped. The ultimate questions of where we came from and what happens when we die and what it all means are not the purview of science. Once science is expected to answer such questions, it can lead to disastrous results (read up, for example, on the history of eugenics). Human dignity depends upon divine revelation. When Augustine writes about “philosophy”, he has this battle between reason and revelation in mind.
Augustine writes that he was very impressed that the scientists of his day could predict solar and lunar eclipses. Yet, in a clever turn of phrase, “these scholars who foresee a future eclipse of the sun long beforehand fail to see their own in the present”. Because they are pagans, these scholars have missed the most important sign in the skies, that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). They walk in the pride of their discoveries and thus cannot see God for “you will not let yourself be found by the proud” (cf. James 4:6). These scholars cannot understand the world or even themselves without understanding “him who is the Way, your Word through whom you made those very things they are reckoning”. They make true statements, but they miss the Truth because they have not humbled themselves before God. Jesus is the source of all creation (John 1:3) and thus the source of all wisdom, understanding, and right living (1 Cor. 1:30). Augustine speaks again of how people try to switch places with God, putting themselves in His place, and trying to recreate Him into our image (think of the very-human foibles of the Roman gods). They have knowledge without knowing the love of God, and, as Paul says, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1).
As I said earlier, science has its place, and Augustine’s growing scientific knowledge has begun to pry him away from the lies of the Manichees. Mani’s views of the cosmos were provably wrong; Augustine’s heretical faith could not withstand even cursory scientific scrutiny. Learning to use our God-given reason is perhaps the best gift of the natural sciences.
Chapter 4: “Unhappy is anyone who knows it all but does not know you.” Well put! Knowing God and knowing academic subjects is no greater than simply knowing God (a simple equation: God + the universe = God). “A person who lives by faith owns the whole world’s wealth.” We do not need experts to tell us the Truth or how to live our lives, for God has revealed all truth to his people in His Son. This is not to say we shouldn’t listen to experts in certain fields when it is called for, but we should not believe that the common man must be led by his “betters”, especially in areas of morality. I would trust the decency and good sense of the apple farmers and auto mechanics I live near far more than the university educated “thought leaders” in Washington, New York, or Silicon Valley.
Chapter 5: Mani was the worst of both worlds — he had neither scientific understanding nor piety, which “is proved by confession to you”. Augustine sees it as “providential” that Mani was so wrong about science, because it allowed him to see how wrong he was about questions of the faith. How could this man be the incarnation of the Holy Spirit if he didn’t know the first thing about the creation? Augustine is willing to be patient, in the spirit of Christian charity, with fellow believers who are ignorant of scientific truths so long as it does not affect their faith. As long as we have the important things right, a little error in our intellectual understanding will not lead us too far astray. The key, once more, is the attitude of our heart. Errors resulting from humble ignorance are not sin, while those arising from pride do lead to sin. Mani was not a bad man because he was ignorant; he was “grossly deranged” because he set himself up as a god. Those who wish to be wise must fear the Lord.
Conclusion: The battle between science and religion is almost a cliche at this point. But they needn’t be at odds. Science can teach us how to think and allow us to reject erroneous ways of thinking and those who would manipulate us with persuasive words or emotional appeals. All truth is God’s truth. If we submit science and the liberal arts to Him, they can be life-giving trees that bear much fruit. But we must be wary of deceptive philosophies (Col. 2:8) that purport to be “scientific” while denying the truth of Holy Scripture. Reason must be submitted to revelation. Working together, our minds and our hearts, reason and revelation, science and religion, can allow us to discover God in all his truth and beauty and mystery.
Quote for meditation: “Let them only turn back, see! there you are in their hearts, in the hearts of all those who confess to you, who fling themselves into your arms and weep against your breast after their difficult journey, while you so easily will wipe away their tears.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
–1 Corinthians 1:20-21 (ESV)
Chapter 13: Augustine was a romantic in an intellectual’s clothing. Just look at the topic he chose for his first major treatise, The Beautiful and the Harmonious. Struck by the beauty in the world, moved by harmonies in man and nature, he applies his mind to understand why his heart feels as it does. The treatise, written c.381 when Augustine was 26 or 27, is now lost, but it doesn’t sound like we’re missing much. He wants to write a work of philosophy like his idols, but what he produced sounds more like a dorm room bull session. Earnest, overweening undergraduate philosophizing happens to the best of us.
Chapter 14: It’s kind of funny that he spends more time wondering about the dedication to his book than the book itself. He dedicated the book to a noted orator named Hierius who he did not know personally. Why, Augustine wonders, would he dedicate a book to someone who wouldn’t know him if he saw him? Roman society was about currying favor with the favored, and renown was considered a sign of blessing from the gods. So Augustine liked “the fact that he [Hierius] found favor with others”. If someone is famous, they are listened to and respected regardless of the actual quality of their ideas or character. This can even happen in the Church, where heretical celebrity preachers and televangelists amass thousands of followers while proclaiming nonsense.
Augustine seems perplexed that he would be awed by fame when he does not want it. But aren’t many of us that way? We don’t want fame, but we enjoy basking in the glow of the famous. Our society worships celebrities as gods — it helps distract from the problems of life. I think in Augustine’s case the answer is a bit simpler: he wanted respect. He didn’t care if he was “loved in the way actors are”, but he did desire that his intellect and oratory be deemed worthy. Either way, human motivations are tough to untangle. “A human being is an immense abyss,” Augustine says, “but you, Lord, keep count even of his hairs” (cf. Luke 12:7). The key point here is that, like all sin, worshipping fame or famous people clouds and disorients our minds. On the other hand, “Truth is straight ahead of us”.
Chapter 15: The answer to Augustine’s question (essentially “whence beauty?”) has, as it turns out, a very simple answer: “your artistry, almighty God”. Things (and people) are beautiful to the extent that they reflect the ultimate beauty of God Himself. Augustine couldn’t see this at the time because he was still stuck in a dualistic, Manichaean mindset. He believed that a “sexless soul” called a “Monad” was battling it out with the evil “Dyad” for the fate of the world. Here we see Augustine contradict the two central lies of Manichaeism with two simple truths: (1) “evil is no substance at all”, and (2) “our mind is not the supreme, immutable good”. One of the central tenets of Gnosticism is that evil is a real (usually physical) entity that must be overcome through intellectual advancement or some kind of higher mental state. One of the central tenets of Christianity is that God created everything good, and that evil can only be overcome by accepting what God has done on our behalf. As a Manichee, Augustine was striving to be like God (through reason), and striving to make God like him (changeable and fallible). “What could be prouder than my outlandish delusion, whereby I laid claim to be by nature what you are?”
I love the image of these false ideas creating “a din in the ears of my heart, ears which were straining to catch your melody, O gentle truth”. The most harmonious sound we can hear is the Bridegroom’s voice (John 3:29), for Christ is the bridegroom and we are the bride (Rev. 19:7). Augustine reminds us that only the humble can hear this most beautiful sound, for pride listens only to itself. As Jesus said, “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12).
Chapter 16: Augustine reaches new heights of humblebragging here, saying how easy it was for him to understand Aristotle’s Categories while his students were universally mystified. I don’t doubt that he’s telling the truth; it’s just kind of funny how casually Augustine likes to bring up his fierce intelligence. Anyway, he sees it as all for naught: “what profit had it been to me?” The only worthy object of study, in Augustine’s mind, is God Himself, and God is beyond any categories. In fact, He is the basis for all categorization — we cannot group Him by beauty or greatness because He is the source and standard of Beauty and Greatness.
Perhaps it’s overstating to say that God is the only worthy object of study. Augustine clearly appreciated the liberal arts, “yet from this gift I offered you no sacrifice”. Studies not offered to God are fruitless, as are all pursuits not given up to Him. Furthermore: “what profit was this good gift to me when I failed to use it well?” If we are studying for our own self-aggrandizement and not to make the world a better place, what’s the point? “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)
It is better to be a little child in the kingdom of God than a world-renowned scholar outside of it. Indeed, learning can be an impediment to accepting God’s kingdom because it feeds our pride. Perhaps that is why Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children” (Matt. 11:25). Great learning cannot save you anymore than great riches. Thus, Augustine ends these chapters with a poem/prayer for humility, for “when our security is in ourselves, that is but weakness”. I can think of no better way to end than by meditating on the final words of Book IV:
“Unspoilt, our good abides in you, for you are yourself our good. We need not fear to find no home again because we have fallen away from it; while we are absent our home falls not to ruins, for our home is your eternity.”
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
–2 Corinthians 4:18 (NIV)
Chapter 8&9: Time heals all wounds, they say. For Augustine, this proved to be especially true once he returned to his Manichaean brethren in Carthage: “what restored and recreated me above all was the consolation of other friends”. Despite his hatred for their ideas, he speaks here with great warmth about the community he found with his fellow believers. Indeed, once Christianized, this kind of community would provide the model for the ideal Christian society that Augustine wanted to build: an intellectually rich and emotionally supportive community of like-minded friends — “out of many becoming one”. Gary Wills is reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford memories (Saint Augustine, p.26), while I’m reminded of that later Oxford group, the Inklings (whose members included C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, and Charles Williams). However wrong they may have been about religion, Augustine’s friends helped pull him out of himself and back into the world. That is the grace of God, even if it came from heretics. Ultimately, of course, all of our lesser loves come from the great Love of God: “Blessed is he who loves you, and loves his friend in you and his enemy for your sake”.
Chapter 10: It is a tragic paradox that even as people grow and develop “toward their perfection” they are progressing also toward their death. If we cling to the things of this world, even other people, we will only be left with sorrow, for “the world is passing away along with its desires” (1 John 2:17). Our soul seeks solace in what it loves “but in them it finds no place to rest, because they do not stand firm” (cf. Matthew 12:43). Created things are fine as far as they go, but our unquiet hearts will never find rest in them. We ought to make our prayer the same as the collect for Proper 12 in the Book of Common Prayer (p.231): “O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
Chapter 11: In light of the transience of worldly things, there is no room for vanity. God’s love is “a place of imperturbable quiet, where love is never forsaken unless it chooses to forsake”. God will live with whoever will have Him and will take as much of our selves as we are willing to give Him. I love this quote: “Entrust to Truth whatever of truth is in you, and you will lose nothing”. To lose ourselves in God is to find everything we need. Here we really see the influence of Neoplatonism on Augustine’s thinking (about which more later), because he sees all contingent and partial aspects of reality as uniting in an eternal and pre-existing One. “He is our God, who does not pass away, for there is nothing else to supplant him.”
Chapter 12: Again, Augustine asserts that God is the only stable basis for true friendship and true community. He doesn’t decry relationships with non-believers, but “let them be loved in him, and carry off to God as many of them as possible with you”. What follows is Augustine’s brief summary of the gospel, how he would, presumably, “carry off” a friend to God. He starts by acknowledging the difficulty of life without God and asks “why persist in walking difficult and toilsome paths?… You are seeking a happy life in the realm of death and it will not be found there”. The Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness is a chimera unless we pursue God above all (cf. Matt. 6:33).
“[Jesus] slew death by his abundant life.” I love this joyful, life-affirming view of the Atonement. Christ did not just save us by His death on the cross; He saved us with His incarnate life. This is the Christus Victor or ransom theory of the atonement — it’s the patristic theology of how Christ saved us, which has been lost amid the modern emphasis on substitutionary theories. Without getting into the weeds, Christus Victor says that humanity was subject to the devil because of the fall, but God basically baited Satan into killing His Son, thus giving Jesus the right to mankind following His resurrection. Jesus was not appeasing His angry Father on our behalf; He was a spy on a rescue mission. To quote C.S. Lewis for the umpteenth time: “Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage” (Mere Christianity, p.46).
I also love the image of Jesus shouting to us about our salvation through everything He said and did. “Then he withdrew from our sight, so that we might return to our own hearts and find him there. He withdrew, yet look, here he is”. You can feel the wonder in Augustine’s words. He looks deep within himself and finds Jesus there waiting for him. What a miracle! Thus, you can “ascend even to God, for you have fallen in your attempt to ascend in defiance of God”. Christ left us so that we could have the Holy Spirit to lead and guide our every step (John 16:5-15). Through that same Spirit, we can proclaim the gospel to others. That’s the gospel in a nutshell.
Conclusion: Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). We are all searching for peace, for something permanent in this uncertain, transient world. True peace can only be found in the “kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Heb. 12:28), the Kingdom of the Son of God. The things of this world can bring temporary joy or at least temporary relief from sorrow. But God “has also set eternity in the human heart” (Ecc. 3:11, NIV) and given us an ultimate desire for which He is the only satisfaction. Let us seek Him first today so that “we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in [His] eternal changelessness through Jesus Christ our Lord” (BCP, p.133)
God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
–C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p.81
Chapter 1: It’s now A.D. 374 and the 20-year-old Augustine has returned home to Thagaste to teach rhetoric and proclaim the glories of Manichaeism. “In the one we were arrogant, in the other superstitious, and in both futile.” In retrospect it all seems foolish, but “let them laugh who have never been flat on their faces”. Looking back, Augustine realizes that God allowed him to fail for his own good, and so proclaims “let me confess my disgraceful deeds to you, and in confessing praise you”. That’s the Confessions in a nutshell. Even our sins can be turned to praise for God if we offer them up to Him in faith. Only when we recognize ourselves as “week and needy” can we truly praise and serve God.
Chapter 2: Augustine mentions his cohabitation with his lover here, although it must have started back in Carthage (they already had a kid). He makes the important distinction between marriage and living together here: the one is for “founding a family” while the other is “charged with carnal desire”. Marriage is intentional while cohabitation is an accident of lust.
What’s interesting about this chapter is how the residue of Christian ethics, a sort of common morality, still guides Augustine’s steps despite his apostasy. First off, he taught rhetoric “honestly” because “amid the smoke a spark of integrity still guttered in me”. The flame of Truth was not quite extinguished. Secondly, although he was living with a woman out of wedlock, he “was sexually faithful to her”. On top of that, he clearly cared for their child. For the sexually adventurous and thrill-seeking young man, such domesticity was surely a sacrifice. Lastly, he refused a sorcerer who offered to sacrifice to demons in order to help him win a poetry contest. Augustine was listening to his conscience, although he was by his unfaithfulness still sowing the wind (Hos. 8:7). And “what does ‘feeding the wind’ mean but feeding demons, providing pleasure and amusement for them in our errors?” Even if we do not directly call on demonic powers, they can still gain entry to our lives by our sins (Luke 11:24-26).
Chapter 3: As I mentioned yesterday, Manichees relied heavily on astrology. This practice has found renewed popularity in our own day — I know a few people who will blame a bad week on Mercury being in retrograde. It’s a handy philosophy for those who wish to evade responsibility, for it says that “the sky is responsible for your sin, so you cannot avoid it.” People who laugh at the concept of original sin also believe that the time of year they were born (i.e. their Zodiac sign) determines their entire personality. The problem with all this is that it “invalidate[s] our whole salvation”. If we cannot be held responsible for our actions, if it is preordained in the stars, we have no need (or no hope) of a savior.
Augustine raises the question of how astrology can correctly predict the future if it is in error. A similar question could be raised about psychics, Tarot card readers, and the like. A wise man (we’ll find out later that his name is Nebridius) tells him that “this was due to chance, a force prevalent throughout nature”. He might have also added that horoscopes and “psychic readings” use a combination of psychological insight and vague language to fool the gullible. The only reason to accept such things is on blind faith, and the mature Augustine cannot accept that. Neither should we.
Chapter 4: Augustine had led a childhood friend away from the Church and into Manichaeism, but now his friend was on death’s door. So, as was the custom, he was baptized. However, he soon recovered. Augustine rejoiced and started making fun of the silly sacrament that had been performed. But the sacraments are strong medicine, and the friend rebuffed Augustine’s heretical entreaties. Soon afterward, the friend was dead, “snatched away from my mad designs, to be kept safe with you”. There is a beautiful description of grief here, reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. As always, he turns to the Psalms — “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (43:5).
This is why infant baptism, even though they cannot profess the faith, and taking Holy Communion, even when your faith is flagging, is so important. The Sacraments, as vehicles of grace, work regardless of our rational assent to them. Submitting to the sacraments can lead to salvation, even if we cannot perceive it.
Chapter 5-7: Augustine is inconsolable — “weeping alone brought me solace”. His friend’s death left a hole in his life and his tears did nothing to fill it. He echoes the Psalms once again: “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise? I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping” (6:5-6). He grieved like those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). I am always amazed at unbelievers who hold themselves together at funerals, for without that blessed assurance of salvation in Christ, what hope do we have in the face of inevitable death? “I was miserable, and miserable too is everyone whose mind is chained by friendship with mortal things”. Augustine pictures death as “a hideous enemy…ready to devour all human beings”. He wasn’t wrong; he was just missing a key piece. Jesus has “put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor. 15:25-6). Thanks be to God!
Augustine’s insights here are excellent — subtle and empathetic. He realizes that he was just wallowing in self-pity, more sad for his loss (“a friend is half one’s own soul”) than for his friend. He is amazed, as all grieving people are, that life goes on much the same after someone dies as before. All the while “within me I was carrying a tattered, bleeding soul that did not want me to carry it, yet I could find no place to lay it down”. So he tries to distract himself as he had before, in entertainment, food, sex, and the Manichaean rites. Nothing worked. There is only one cure for a broken heart: “I should have lifted it up to you, Lord, to be healed”. Unfortunately for him, “an empty fantasy and my own error were my god”. It is at times such as this when grief threatens to drown your soul, that false gods prove their weakness, and the Lord of all proves himself mighty to save (Zeph. 3:17). “Whither could my heart flee to escape itself?” Therein lies the problem. Run though we may, we cannot escape our problems because we cannot escape ourselves. Thanks be to God, we also cannot escape his Spirit (Ps. 139:7-12). But run Augustine did, back to Carthage and back into the arms of those who had led him astray.
A quick sidebar on friendship: Is it true, as Augustine says, that “friendship is genuine only when you bind fast together people who cleave to you through the charity poured abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us”? My best friends have always, it seems, been either non-Christians or nominal Christians. Those bonds were genuine and did not ultimately draw me away from the faith. Perhaps Augustine means that what theologians call “common grace” infuses all true friendships, and that the friendships of his young adulthood were not “genuine” because they led to sinful behavior and self-destruction. Augustine is disturbed by how comfortable he felt with the Manichees, especially since his post-conversion life was spent attempting to start monastic communities. The closest friendships are, indeed, bound by a mutual love of Christ and a common goal of serving Him. But friendship with worldly people is not the same as “friendship with the world [which] is enmity with God” (Jas. 4:4). I’m not sure how to square this particular circle; it’s a lifelong conundrum. But it’s an issue worth pondering.
Conclusion: I can feel the hoofbeats (pawbeats?) of the Hound of Heaven chasing Augustine in these chapters. God is using Augustine’s teaching of rhetoric, his relationship with his lover and his son, the wise counsel of those around him, and even the death of a close friend to point his heart back toward the Truth. Conversion, even of the sudden and dramatic kind, usually involves a process of many such mini-conversions beforehand. In particular, it seems, he uses suffering to get our attention; it is his “megaphone to rouse a deaf world”. I pray that we may instead listen to the still small voice of our Father (1 Kin. 19:12) every day so that He can keep the megaphone in storage.
Quotes for meditation: “You, our God, sweetness and the fount of justice, who will repay each of us as our actions deserve, and do not disdain a broken and humbled heart.”
“Ah, but you were pursuing close behind us, O God of vengeance who are the fount of all mercy and turn us back to yourself in wondrous ways.”
Since it plays the lead role in these chapters, I thought I would insert a quick introduction to the religion of Manichaeism here. You can skip it for time if you like, but I hope it will be helpful. The meditation on this section of Confessions can be found below the second set of stars.
A SHORT PRIMER ON MANICHAEISM
The Manichees were a Gnostic Christian heresy founded by a Iranian “prophet” living in Babylonia named Mani (216-274). Raised in a heterodox Christian household, Mani received a direct divine revelation (think Muhammad or Joseph Smith) at the age of 12 from his “divine twin”. Mani incorporated aspects of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism into an entirely new religion that spread across the Mediterranean and even as far as China. It would become perhaps the greatest rival to Christianity before the rise of Islam in the 7th century obliterated all other competitors. Mani believed in a strict spirituality of education, fasting, self-denial, and chastity. He saw himself as the promised Paraclete (the Holy Spirit in orthodox Christianity) that was bringing the true revelation of Jesus Christ to the world. His followers claim that he was crucified.
The basic teaching of Manichaeism is that the world is stuck in a battle between the forces of light and dark. A powerful, but not omnipotent, God is opposed by an equally powerful devil (dualism, in other words). The power of darkness has broken the Light up into “god-particles” which inhabit everything, both human and inanimate. The spiritual light is trapped in material darkness and must be liberated. Creation was the result of the constant struggle between the two. Needless to say, such a cosmology required that Manichees dismiss the Jewish scriptures as primitive fables and expurgate the New Testament of all Old Testament influence. They also denied that Jesus was the incarnate God for obvious reasons; his position in Manichaeism was similar to his portrayal in Islam. Christ was seen as representing “wisdom” and Mani was his prophet. While matter was not inherently evil, anything involving sex absolutely was. All physical desires were a product of the darkness. Through secret prayers and ultra-asceticism (and a healthy dose of astrology), one was expected to transcend such base desires. This included elaborate food laws, since some food had more “god particles” than others (melons and cucumbers were particularly good), while wine (predictably) was forbidden. This combination of holy living, secret knowledge and rites, and a psychodramatic cosmology proved irresistible to a world caught between paganism and emergent Christianity. It had a bit of rebellion about it, too, as the religion was banned by the Christian Roman Empire.
Followers of Manichaeism were divided into two groups: the Elect, who followed all the tenets of Mani, and the Hearers, who were seeking the religion (a bit like catechumens). Augustine was the latter. Manichees were noted as good orators, and their communities had a bohemian flair: humane, learned, and fun-loving. The closest analogy today might be the “New Age” movement, if it also included a scholarly element (scholar Peter Brown compares the intellectual appeal of Manichaeism to the popularity of Bolshevism in British universities in the 1920’s). Despite believing in a highly-mystical religion, the Manichees thought themselves to be championing rationality against the catholic faith, which relied on revelation and authority. All religions contained some truth (they were universalists in that way), but Mani had found the ultimate Truth. They hoped, in the way of all heretics, to supplant the Church as the bearer of Christ’s message to the world. In places like the university world of Carthage, they had largely succeeded. Thus they found themselves in the position to attract new converts among bright young men. And in strode Augustine.
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
–Colossians 2:8 (ESV)
Chapter 6: Here Augustine meets this book’s antagonists: the Manichees, “proud madmen, exceedingly carnal and talkative people”. These chapters will take apart their lies piece by piece. Even though this religion is long gone, the heresies they preached are not. To start, Augustine reasserts that the Paraclete promised by Christ (cf. John 14:16) was not any person, but God the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. “O Truth, Truth, how the deepest and innermost marrow of my mind ached for you,” Augustine cries when he hears lies proclaimed as secret truth by these Gnostic heretics (“gnosis” [γνωση] = “knowledge”). I love his analogy of eating in a dream, when you think you are feasting but in fact you are just asleep. So it is with false knowledge. He also rejects astrology saying that “I was hungering and thirsting for you, not your creations”. Thus he also denies the pantheistic philosophy of the “god particles” saying simply that “you [God] are not those material objects that we can see”. The Manichees viewed God as basically like a huge and powerful person, not as an omnipotent and omnipresent deity. God is greater than the sun or the moon, greater than any “figment of my imagination”. He is nothing less that “the life of all life…the life of my own soul”.
While declaring God’s omnipresence, Augustine wonders: “Where were you at that time? How far from me?” Even his pagan schooling never really stuck (he didn’t believe that Medea was actually flying around in a chariot), but he did buy into Manichaeism. Despite this, Augustine concludes that “you were more intimately present to me than my inmost spirit”. He could not perceive the truth contained in this paradox because he was busy clouding his mind with lies.
Chapter 7: This chapter deals with the problem of the Old Testament. I think many of us have the same sort of revulsion when encountering the stories of the Jewish scriptures, including as it does tales of polygamy, religious military conquest, and animal sacrifice. The incarnation of Christ also offers the logical issue of how God could possibly become human. To top it off, the problem of evil is ever present. We dealt with the problem of evil in book II, but Augustine summarizes his position beautifully here: “evil is nothing but the diminishment of good to the point where nothing at all is left”. Evil is not a separate entity fighting things out on an even plane with Good. God is the source of all, and evil is simply a perversion of His good creation, a return, ultimately, to the nothingness from which creation itself was born.
“God is spirit” (John 4:24) and therefore cannot be contained by the physical world. God is not trapped in a material prison in need of rescue. In fact, he chose to contain Himself fully in one human body in order to rescue us (see Col. 2:9). God is the eternal, and preeminent Father above, the incarnate Son beside, and the omnipresent Spirit within us. To deny any part of this is to deny the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith.
As for the Old Testament, Augustine makes a distinction between God’s law, which “has remained unchanged everywhere”, and the customs and rules specific to a time and place. The Jewish scriptures cannot be discarded simply because their world looked different (and, frankly, more barbarous) than ours. Augustine uses a number of analogies to convey this. Certain pieces of armor go on certain parts of the body or some servants perform some tasks while others perform different duties or some actions are acceptable at one time of the day but not another. So it is with God’s law. “God laid down one rule for the former and a different one the for the latter, as the difference between the two periods of time demands; whereas in fact both sets of people have been subject to the same norm of righteousness”. This is why God could order the utter destruction of the Canaanites in the Old Testament when such an action now would be considered genocide. Which raises an obvious question: “Does this mean justice is fickle and changeable?” Augustine provides a quick reply: “No, but the epoch over which she rules do not unfold in the same way because times change.” Just as different songs require different meters, so does justice demand different applications. Justice does not change, but its demands ebb and flow with the tide of time and culture.
I feel like this last argument misses something big. The incarnation of Jesus changed everything. We live in an age of grace, not an age of law, and the Holy Spirit now dwells with anyone who accepts Him. This was not the case in the Old Testament and thus, of course, the application of God’s justice had to be different. Augustine’s point stands, but I thought this clarification might help.
Chapter 8: God’s law stands above human law, thus we must follow Him over any human custom. Augustine doesn’t really say how one is to determine when it is appropriate to defy human regulations; I guess he felt it was obvious. It seems to me that there is a lot of gray area there. Oh, well!
Augustine points out the many reasons we commit sins, from desire to cause pain to covetousness and envy to pure schadenfreude (or, in Scriptural terms, “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” [1 John 2:16]). But how can such sins hurt God? In short, Augustine says, they can’t, but instead rebound back on the sinners who “are maliciously damaging their own souls”. The only way to repair the damage is to turn back to God “through loving humility”. Only then can God break the chains that we forged for ourselves.
Chapter 9: Known for his austere vision of God’s justice, Augustine does not get enough credit for how nuanced he can be. He says that some things which look like sin, like accumulating wealth, may in fact be done to benefit others. The “appearance of the action and the intention of the agent” can be at odds. We ought not to judge one another too harshly based on outward appearance and social custom because “the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). Divine justice supercedes human institutions — indeed, “a human society is just precisely insofar as it serves [God]”.
Chapter 10: Augustine takes one last shot at the Manichees before moving on, this time about their pantheistic belief that God could reside in food. The problem here is that “I believed, poor wretch, that it was accordingly a higher duty to show mercy to the fruits of the earth than human beings”. Thus, a Manichee would not give forbidden food to someone, even if they were starving to death. This is how we “leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8) and provides a perfect case study for how God’s law of love overrides human customs.
Chapter 11: Augustine’s mother Monica moved to Carthage to live with him, probably so that he could help take care of her after the death of Augustine’s father some two years earlier (she may have also wanted to spend time with her new grandson!). Initially, she didn’t want to move in because of Augustine’s “blasphemous errors”, but she relented after having a dream in which she and her son were both standing on a wooden ruler. This is the Rule of Faith, the plumb line (Is. 28:17; Amos 7:8) of God’s truth. She was reassured that Augustine would return to the truth. She even corrects Augustine that he will move to her beliefs, not vice versa (a formidable woman!). For the time being she would offer tear-filled prayers to the Lord for her son’s salvation, believing that “he who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23).
Chapter 12: Monica needs further reassurances, and goes to her bishop. She wanted him to persuade Augustine to return to the Church. Wisely, the bishop refuses, noting that while Augustine was caught up in “the novelty of [his] heresy” he would be unreachable. This is why always searching for the newest self-help book or the trendy philosophy of the day leads to disappointment. The novelty wears off and we see the defects in the ideas we thought would save us. The bishop himself had been a Manichee, but the flimsiness of their ideas eventually fell apart for him. Monica, not one to be dissauded easily, persisted in her request, leading to that beautiful assurance: “it is inconceivable that he should perish, a son of tears like yours”. Jesus Himself said that God would not put off a persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8). St. Monica reminds us to never give up in praying, even through tears, for the salvation of those we love.
Conclusion: We all want a place to belong, a community of like-minded peers. Therefore, groups like the Manichees will forever be attractive, particularly to the young and impressionable. The only cure for lies is the Truth, and the only cure for false community is the Body of Christ. The rise of cults and false religions (including the false religion of secularism) are inversely proportional to the strength of the Church. If we build strong Churches that proclaim the Truth and love our neighbors as ourselves, the “Manichees” of the world will be disarmed. Let us not seek hidden truth for “nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17), and God has already revealed himself through the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:10). So let us hold fast to the Truth revealed in Holy Scripture and most of all to Him who is the Truth, Jesus Christ (John 14:6).
Quote for meditation: “How else could this have happened, if not because your ears were open to the plea of her heart, O good and all-powerful God, who care for each of us as though each were the only one, and for all alike with the same tenderness you show to each.”