Book IX, Chapters 11-13: A Grief Observed

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us

–Hebrews 12:1 (ESV)

Chapter 11: The preoccupation with where one is buried strikes me as an un-Christian obsession.  We even say things like “she would have wanted to be next to her husband” (neither of them are there) or call it their “final resting place” (which is actually heaven).  “So inept is the mind at grasping divine reality,” Augustine says.  We believe in the resurrection of the body and we are to have respect for the body, even after death, but we do not believe that the corpse we leave behind will be what is resurrected on the last day.  Paul is pretty clear about this in 1 Corinthians 15:

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  (vv. 42-53)

Thus, Monica’s willingness to be buried in Italy, far from her home and husband, demonstrates her faith in a quite tangible way.  She only asks to be remembered at the altar of the Lord, a righteous request.  Her peace in the face of death, indeed her willingness to welcome it with open arms, showed how she had loosed herself from the bonds of this world and was ready to be united with God.  So, at the age of 56 and a mere nine days after her ecstatic mystical vision “that religious and godly soul was set free from her body”.

Chapter 12:  Everyone grieves differently.  However, in my experience, men have a particularly difficult time grieving because we are expected to “be strong for the family” or whatever.  Men are expected to cry, if at all, in private and to carry on as if nothing has happened.  I think that’s part of what’s going on with Augustine here.  He feels that he should be strong enough not to cry at his mother’s rather sudden death.  In addition, as he says, Monica “neither died in misery nor died altogether”.  In other words, she died prepared and in the grace of God.  Her heavenly reward was certain.  Therefore, Augustine thinks that he should feel joy rather than sorrow.  “What was it, then, that gave me such sharp inward pain?  She and I had grown accustomed to living together; an exceedingly gentle and dear custom it was and its sudden disruption was like a newly inflicted wound”.  He had turned to her so often for comfort, but now she was not there to comfort him.  He had been so close to her that he says “my life was rent apart, for there had been but one life, woven out of mine and hers”.  A death, even a holy death, leaves a gaping hole in our lives and mourning that is no sin.

Even so, Augustine beats himself up for his grief, adding further suffering: “the woe I felt over my woe was yet another woe”.  He takes a bath, but it doesn’t really help.  Finally, sleep seems to do the trick (I like Ambrose’s little poem for bedtime, which praises sleep for restoring body, mind, and soul).  It is interesting that after sleep Augustine at last allows himself to cry.  Augustine, so aware of his own sinfulness, asks forgiveness of the reader for his weeping.  Perhaps the ancient world was a more severe place, but I cannot imagine even the most puritanical pastor alive today would chide a man for weeping in the privacy of his bedroom for his departed mother.  After all, “Jesus wept” at the death of his friend (John 11:35).  I think the instructions for funerals from the Book of Common Prayer puts it nicely: “The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy. It finds all meaning in the resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we too, shall be raised. The liturgy, therefore, is characterized by joy…This joy, however, does not make human grief unchristian. The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death. Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend. So, while we rejoice that one we love has entered into the nearer presence of our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn.”

Chapter 13:  Of course, we are all sinners and our eternal fate is in the hands of a just and merciful God.  Even the most praiseworthy saint relies on the grace of God for salvation.  Thus, Augustine offers up a beautiful prayer for his departed mother, appealing to “that healing remedy who hung upon the tree, the medicine for our wounds who sits at your right hand and intercedes for us”.  I could quote this whole prayer — it’s a nice model, I think, for praying for the dead.  We pray for them even though we “believe you have already done what I am asking you”.  It is not so much that the dead need our prayers as that praying for them unites us to them, and all others who have gone before, in the mystic communion of saints.  Augustine writes this remembrance of  his mother for just this purpose — to “inspire your servants who are my brethren”.  In praying for those who have left us, Christ can heal the wound of our grief and encourage us to run our race.  We should not, of course, attempt to communicate with the dead (see Lev. 19:31; Deut. 18:10-11; 1 Chr. 10:13; Is. 8:19; Acts 16:16-18).  But through the mystery of the Holy Eucharist, and by praying in the Holy Spirit, we can be assured of being united with them in the Body of Christ.

Conclusion:  It is a sign of becoming humility that Augustine concludes the autobiographical portion of the Confessions with a portrait of his mother.  As John Donne said, no man is an island.  We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before and we do well to honor the faith of those who made our faith possible.  Grief is healthy and even, if done properly, holy.  We will never stop missing those we love who have gone before us.  But Christ does not leave us comfortless.  Rather, he sends his Spirit to guide us, comfort us, and lead us into all truth (John 14).  And by that same Spirit we are joined together as one body with the living and the dead.  Happy All Saint’s Eve!

Quote for meditation:  “From that altar…the holy Victim is made available to us, he through whom the record of debt that stood against us was annulled.  He has triumphed over an enemy who does keep a tally of our faults and looks for anything to lay to our charge, but finds no case against him.  In him we win our victory.”


Book IX, Chapters 8-10: The Example of St. Monica

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

–Matthew 5:9 (KJV)

Chapter 8:  Today’s chapters constitute a mini-biography of St. Monica.  This section feels shoehorned in, as it was probably written around the time of her death and then included here.  Either way, it’s a nice tribute to both a great saint and a dearly-loved mother.  To Augustine, she was a mother twice over — she was “that servant of yours who brought me forth from her flesh to birth in this temporal light, and from her heart to birth in light eternal”.

He begins with her childhood and her instruction by a family servant who nannied her.  It seems like this servant was very strict, even to the point of not allowing them to drink water except at meals (lest they learn to drink stronger stuff).  This led, inevitably, to Monica becoming curious about alcohol and taking furtive sips of wine when sent to the cellar to fetch it.  At first she did this out of “youthful naughtiness”, but pretty soon she had a problem.  Augustine takes the lesson from this that “one who allows himself license in little things is ruined little by little”, which is certainly true when it comes to addiction.  Small compromises with sin can lead to much bigger problems over time.  However, I feel that the lesson here is for parents and teachers: being unnecessarily strict can lead to the very behaviors you are trying to discourage.  This often happens with sex, where parents treat sex as something not to be spoken about and peculiarly evil.  This, of course, leads a teenager to be curious about this particularly evil sin and thus seek it out all the more.  Not allowing a child to have water so that they won’t become a drunk seems like a perfect way to make sure they start drinking.  Discipline should be as much about encouraging enjoyment of healthy activities as steering children clear of dangerous or sinful actions.

Monica was saved from a life of alcoholism by an unlikely source.  A maid, during an argument, essentially called Monica a wino.  This cut to Monica’s heart “like a surgeon’s knife drawn from [God’s] hidden providential resources to cut away that diseased tissue in a single sweep”.  The remark may have been rude, but it was also true.  “Just as flattering friends pervert, so quarrelsome foes may often correct us.”  God’s providence works in mysterious ways.

Chapter 9:  As was customary for the time, Monica had a husband thrust upon her.  He was not a Christian, but she “made it her business to win him for you by preaching you to him through her way of life” as St. Paul had instructed (1 Cor. 7: 12-16).  She had to put up with marital infidelity and verbal abuse.  Her advice to other women with abusive husbands was to weather the storm and try to reason with them when their temper had subsided.  In the context of the time, this is probably the only advice that would have worked (women were basically slaves to their husbands, and divorce did not necessarily benefit the wife).  Nowadays, of course, staying with an abusive husband and trying to “change him” is terrible advice.  Being meek and mild and hoping he’ll notice how good you are is a recipe for getting steamrolled.  In the ancient world, women had to make the best of a bad situation.  Women today who are being abused and cheated on can get out and have the resources to help (often through the Church).  Thank God that we have made such progress.

Monica was a particularly gifted peacemaker, even managing to pacify a belligerent mother-in-law!  One important way she did this was by not participating in gossip.  Or as Augustine puts it in his inimitable style: “She would hear many a bitter accusation from each against the other, of the kind that lumpy, ill digested discord is wont to belch forth when someone dyspeptic with hatred spews out acid talk to a present friend concerning an absent enemy; but never would she repeat to one anything the other had alleged, except what would be effective in reconciling them”.  Peacemaking is often effected by clearing away lies and prejudices and bringing those in conflict face-to-face.  In the end, even her husband came around and was baptized.  Her steadfast faith, a combination of stubbornness and gentleness, bore abundant fruit.

Chapter 10:  Augustine and company traveled south in the summer of 387 to Ostia (Rome’s port) with the desire to return home to Thagaste.  However, politics intervened.  A usurping emperor based in Trier named Maximus had invaded Italy with the intention of deposing Emperor Valentinian.  By invading, Maximus lost the support of the Eastern emperor, Theodosius, who blockaded Italy’s ports.  Caught in the midst of this civil war, Augustine and his mother were stuck in Ostia for the winter.  This gave the two of them time for intellectual discussion and spiritual contemplation.  In a remarkable scene, the two saints share a mystic vision.  Augustine had always thought of Neoplatonic ecstasy as being a private event, but this experience opened him up to the communal aspect of Christian spirituality (cf. Matt. 18:20).  Together, they touched the very heart of That Which Is, which Augustine calls Wisdom (“she is as she always has been and will be for ever…for she is eternal”).  They could not live in such ecstasy, but “left the first fruits of our spirit captive there”.

The poem that follows tries, in the “noise of articulate speech”, to encapsulate what happened.  Notice the repeat of the word “silence” five times in the first six lines, as if trying to shush the very words that he’s writing.  The entire creation falls silent in order to declare that it serves the God who made it.  Augustine and Monica moved beyond the universe “that we might hear his Word (logos)…hear him unmediated”.  It could not last, but if it could…”this moment of knowledge–this passing moment that left us aching for more–should there be life eternal”.  The vision ends with questions and wonder.  Monica is so moved by this experience of heaven that she can “find pleasure no longer in anything this life holds”.  Having seen her son’s salvation and communed with God, she declares herself ready to die.  It is a wish that would be granted very quickly.

Mystic visions get to the heart of faith.  We may intellectually assent to Christianity, but unless we have experienced God, it is difficult to have endurance.  All of us, I hope, have had at least one experience that words cannot describe.  I’m reminded of that other genius writer, St. Thomas Aquinas, who, after experiencing a vision during Mass, said to a friend “all that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me”.  I’m sure Augustine felt the same.  God is greater than any words we can use to describe him.  That is why our faith is not a doctrine, but a relationship.

Conclusion:  St. Monica’s example reminds us to be steadfast in the face of adversity and to pray, even when it seems like nothing is changing.  The people she was closest to, her husband and her son, made her life miserable for a long time, but she did not let that deter her from spreading the love of Christ.  She spoke peace into angry hearts and demonstrated faith to those who wandered.  Monica was no shrinking violet, but a warrior for Christ with a spine of steel.  She stood up to abuse, betrayal, and abandonment with courage, patience, and faith.  I don’t always agree with her decisions, but her attitude was the same as that of Christ’s (Phil. 2:5-11) and her reward was the same as well.  May we never allow the difficulty of our circumstance to sway us from our mission as peacemakers in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Quote for meditation:  “You, Lord , are the ruler of all things in heaven and on earth, and as worldly events flow on their tumultuous way you dispose them in due order, diverting the course of that deep torrent to serve your purposes.”

Book IX, Chapters 5-7: A Physical Faith

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…

1 John 1:1 (ESV)

Chapters 5&6:  Augustine’s time at Cassiciacum had been idyllic, in his words a Christianae vitae otium or a “Christian life of retirement/leisure time” (see Brown, Augustine of Hippo, ch. 11).  Looking back as a busy bishop, Augustine must have felt the pleasant pain of nostalgia and a tinge of regret for the lost life of philosophical consideration and spiritual renewal.  It was the beginning of his formidable work as a writer:  in just three months (November 386-February 387) Augustine wrote four complete works (Against the Academics, The Happy Life, On Order, and Soliloquies) amounting to 60,000 words total.  He had also grown closer to his mother, whose mental and spiritual acumen pleasantly surprised him, to Alypius, who was going the way of heroic asceticism by walking barefoot through the snow and to his son, who gets a lovely and poignant tribute here. Augustine expresses the feelings of parental inadequacy well: “nothing did I contribute to the boy’s making except my fault”.  Now a boy of fifteen, he has grown both attractive and intelligent, and is even a Socratic interlocutor in one of Augustine’s books.  It is remarkable that Adeodatus was considered a peer of in this philosophical circle (Augustine, hardly an objective observer, calls him a prodigy — “the brilliance he evinced filled me with awe”).  Alas, by the next year Adeodatus, “God’s gift”, would be dead.  This is the last time Augustine mentions his son.  One imagines that the grief made it hard to write much more.

So the whole crew returns to Milan to be baptized by Bishop Ambrose.  I love that the brilliant Augustine, when asked by Ambrose to read Isaiah, declared that the “first part I read of this book was incomprehensible to me”.  So he puts it off until he understands Scripture more fully.  This strikes me as a good way to handle parts of Scripture we find troublesome.  Maybe just skip that part until you can find someone to help you walk through it.  Or maybe it will make more sense at a different point in your life.  Either way, it is good not to simply discard the parts of Scripture that we have difficulty understanding.

Augustine does not discuss the actual rite of baptism in the Confessions but we have a pretty good idea of how it went.  He underwent extensive instruction under Ambrose’s watchful eye during Lent, including memorizing (at minimum) the Creed and the Lord’s prayer, not bathing, and wearing a hair shirt.  Ambrose felt that the rite of baptism was highly symbolic, carrying the weight and legacy of Noah’s flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, the water Moses sweetened, and the floating of Elijah’s axe.  Ambrose warned them away from polytheism and idolatry, taught the Church’s dogma about Christ’s nature, and spoke about the Final Judgement.  On Holy Thursday, the catechumens (including Alypius and Adeodatus) bathed and were “inspected”.  On Holy Saturday, they fasted and prayed through the night, renouncing Satan at dawn.  Then they went to the octagonal pool, and, one-by-one, stripped naked to enter it (that pool still exists in a tunnel under the cathedral plaza in Milan).  After being submerged three times, Augustine was clad in a white robe and led into the basilica to the cheers of the faithful and stood on a special platform to receive Holy Eucharist.  It was an impressive and solemn ceremony with symbolic resonances the would ring out through Augustine’s subsequent writing — “I could not get enough of the wonderful sweetness that filled me as I meditated on your deep design for the salvation of the human race”.  The whole process moved him to tears.  This is why the Sacraments, properly performed, are so important.  They engage our whole selves, body, mind and spirit, in the worship of God. (Thanks to Brown, ibid., pp.117-18, and Wills, Saint Augustine, pp. 56-57 for the information in this paragraph)

Chapter 7:  Augustine notes the particular way of singing in the cathedral of Milan, which was (perhaps) the start of Ambrosian chant.  It seems that they sung much of the liturgy, which I rather like.  Singing has a way of bypassing our stubborn reason to reach our hearts and spirits.  Augustine notices the “mutual comfort and encouragement” that singing in unison can bring, and he himself weeps at the music because “now at last I breathed your fragrance”.  Incorporating the arts into worship (I would include dance and drama and visual art) allows God to speak in different ways to His people.  Participating in the arts together draws the community together and can lead to frankly mystical experiences with God in worship.  Those who reject such things out of an attempt at solemnity are denying themselves an avenue of grace.

The political machinations at this time are complicated and not terribly germane to Augustine’s story.  Suffice it to say that Ambrose brooked no opposition to the gospel and the dogmas of Christ’s Church, even if it came from the emperor’s mother.  He’d already stood his ground the previous Easter over the issue of Arianism and a pagan-ish devotion to the emperor cult.  Now, at the consecration of a new basilica, Ambrose had a trump card to keep the people on his side: martyr’s relics.  He dug up the bones of Gervasius and Protasius, and miracles began to occur in conjunction with them, including healings from demon possession and blindness (which included healing via handkerchiefs, in an obvious echo of Acts 19).  These miracles caused the government harassment of Ambrose to stop.

Now I believe that miracles can happen anywhere, at any time, and that God can use the occasion of devotion to martyrs to work His wonders.  That said, the medieval obsession with relics and their (supposedly) miraculous powers strikes me as more than a little pagan.  Bones do not have any power, for it is not by the martyr’s sacrifice, but only by Christ’s that we are healed (1 Pet. 2:24, cf. Is. 53:5).  Only by the Holy Spirit working can believers obey Christ’s command to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons” (Matt. 10:8).  While some places and times are more “open” to miracles than others, there is no magic power in relics or pilgrimage sites or altars or icons.  When Jesus healed someone, he said it very clearly: “your faith has made you well” (see, e.g., Matt. 9:22 and Luke 17:19).  I don’t doubt that the people in Augustine’s story were healed.  I also don’t doubt that it was their faith in Jesus Christ, and not some magic bones, that healed them.

Conclusion:  Going to church in the fourth century was a very physical, tactile experience.  Candles and chanting, baptismal pools and martyrs bones, icons and sacred books.  Everything about the services existed to engage the senses and point them toward God.  For a person like Augustine, stuck as he had been in his fleshly desires, these appeals to the senses would have been a great aid in his walk with God.  While we must be aware of the appeal of superstition and idolatry, of neo-pagan devotion to our ancestors or “graven images” (Ex. 20:4), we must also not neglect the senses.  Radical Protestants threw the baby out with the bathwater by rejecting the Sacraments and whitewashing their churches.  We are saved by grace through faith alone (Eph. 2:8), but it is the Church’s job to aid the faithful in accessing the grace of God by whatever means necessary.

Quote for meditation: “The truth was distilled into my heart until it overflowed in loving devotion; my tears ran down, and I was better for them”.           

Book IX, Chapters 1-4: Learning to Trust God

Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

–Matthew 18:3 (ESV)

Chapter 1:  “But who am I, what am I?”  Augustine is still asking the same questions, but with a much different attitude.  You can almost hear the sigh of relief in these chapters.  He is asking his questions of the Almighty not from a place of anxiety and doubt, but a place of peace and wonder.  His will was now in line with God’s will and the “cesspit of corruption” within him had been drained.  Freed from lesser loves by the great Love of God, he has returned to an Edenic innocence.  “Childlike, I chattered away to you.”  Children ask questions of their parents from place of genuine curiosity and trust.  To learn to pray in this way brings a step closer to the childlike faith that Christ desires.

Chapter 2:  Augustine quits his career in court, which had always caused him moral pain.  He was forced to lie and preen to gain the favor of those above him, but now he will serve One above even those.  He decided to stay on for three weeks in order to quit during the holidays and not cause too much ruckus, but he does wonder if staying in that career after his conversion constitutes a sin.  My feeling is that it was not sinful — he even says that “it therefore seemed like boastfulness to refuse to wait for a holiday period so close at hand” to quit.  He would have been drawing attention to himself.  This delay, done in the spirit of humility and with the desire to “live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18), served God’s purposes.  This is all part of living in the world even as we are not of it.  Some compromise with the operations of the world needs to be made for the sake of the Gospel.  Attempting to live our holiness in a way that draws attention to ourselves risks Phariseeism and belies a spiritual pride that proves deadly in the long run.

I found it interesting that he viewed that his unspecified lung condition and failure of voice (bronchitis perhaps?) as a gift from God because it made it harder for him to do his unholy job.  I’m sure he didn’t see it that way at the time, but on looking back we can often see how temporary suffering actually helped us grow healthier spiritually.  Rather than a punishment for sin, this sickness was as a gift that allowed him to live more faithfully.

Chapter 3:  Augustine, along with Monica, Adeodatus, and his close friends, retired to a villa in Cassiciacum (north of Milan in the mountains) to pray and study in preparation for baptism.  The villa was owned by a man named Verecundus, who did not buy into Christianity for a frankly silly reason.  He was married and seemed to believe that the only way to be a Christian was to be celibate.  Why the ancient church had this hang up about celibacy I will never quite suss out (it’s probably a misreading of 1 Corinthians 7, but even then it seems a bit much).  I mean, how is one supposed to make more Christians if everybody is unmarried and abstaining from sex?  In any case, Verecundus was also given the “gift” of illness and, with his mind properly focused, accepted Christianity on his deathbed.  I can only think about what he missed out on by not accepting Christ earlier.  That said, by offering his villa to Augustine and company he demonstrated that he already had the grace of Christ in his life, even if he did not recognize it.

Nebridius, meanwhile, had a different problem, which was a theological issue with the person of Christ (specifically Docetism: the belief that Christ’s physical body was just an illusion).  This kept him from baptism for a while, but he did come around eventually.  Augustine pays tribute to him here, as he died while serving God back in Africa (the timing on all this is a little fuzzy).  I always feel that we should judge heretics in the early Church less harshly than we sometimes do.  After all, the Church itself was still trying to figure out what to make of Jesus.  Prior to the Council of Chalcedon in 451, faithful Christians could have many views about the person of Christ.  Even today, our denominations have wildly divergent beliefs about a great many things.  Charity requires us to bear with one another in love (Eph. 4:2) as we each seek God in our own way.  God will, by His grace, correct our errors of judgment if we seek Him first.

Chapter 4:  It is in Cassiciacum that Augustine fell in love with the Psalms: “How loudly I began to cry out to you in those psalms, how I was inflamed by them with love for you and fired to recite them to the whole world”.  Augustine internalized Scripture, particularly the Psalms, in a way that few people ever have.  Keep in mind that all the Scripture quotes in the Confessions were likely from memory, and even his manner of speaking and thinking was “scriptural”.  The psalms changed and catalyzed his thinking, providing him a framework for making sense of all of life.  It particularly helped him come to terms with the Manichees, toward whom he felt “bitterly angry…though my indignation was tinged with pity, because they knew nothing of this remedy [the psalms] and ranted against the very antidote that would have healed them”.  Augustine found the same wrestling spirit in the psalms that he found in himself.  Looking back on his life of sin, he felt angry, not a fruitless anger, but an anger that restrained his sinful desires.  You can see Augustine giving himself a form of therapy here, with the Scripture as his therapist.  It might not work for everybody, but it worked for him.  “I read on and on, all afire,” he writes, with elation and wonder.

I love this quote: “Those who want to find their joy in externals all too easily grow empty themselves”.  How true!  Rather than filling us up as the Spirit of God does, lesser “gods” demand sacrifices from us of time, emotional energy, mental and physical work, etc.  “Externals” drain us rather enrich us.  I think author and pastor Frederick Buechner sums it up well in his definition of lust (apropos for Augustine): “Lust is the craving for salt of a person who is dying of thirst.”

This section ends with another “gift” of illness, this time a severe and debilitating toothache (the Alps seemed to be rough on this African boy’s health).  Keep in mind that in the centuries before antibiotics, people died from toothaches.  Having learned from his mistakes, Augustine gathered his friends together to pray for relief and experienced miraculous healing.  He immediately saw this as a sign from God that he would be taken care of through whatever trials might come.  Even this idyllic retreat to a villa proved to be a trial by fire as God was fashioning Augustine into a vessel he could use, much as a potter fashions clay (Is. 64:8).  God is teaching Augustine humility and trust in His providence.

Conclusion:  Pastor Chuck Swindoll said that life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.  I agree.  In these chapters, Augustine is dealing with a move, a career change, and at least two bouts of major illness.  But through it all he keeps his eyes on Jesus and walks on top of these stormy waters (Mat. 14:22-33).  His faith and joy remained undimmed because he was bathing himself in the words of Scripture and learning to see the world from God’s perspective.  He was learning to trust like a little child and to rely solely on God.  May we also learn to see everything in our lives as a gift from God and turn it over to Him, trusting that He has it under control, saying at all times and in all circumstances:  “thy will be done”.

Quote for meditation:  “With the arrows of your charity you had pierced our hearts, and we bore your words within us like a sword penetrating to the core.”


Book VIII, Chapters 8-12: Finding Rest in God

Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him.

–Psalm 62:1 (NIV)

Chapter 8:  “What is happening to us?” Augustine asks Alypius, his face flushed, his eyes crazed.  Augustine is having a full-on mental breakdown/spiritual crisis.  He can’t believe that he’s making this so hard on himself.  “The untaught are rising up and taking heaven by storm, while we with all our dreary teachings are still groveling in this world of flesh and blood.”  He throws himself into Alypius’s garden while his friend follows at a distance, concerned.  “I was going mad, but for the sake of my sanity, and dying that I may live”.  Looking back, Augustine sees himself living through Christ’s passion.  Just as Christ suffered in a garden, not wanting to follow His Father’s will and sweating blood (Luke 22:39-44), so did Augustine retire to a garden for a final struggle with God.  Unlike Christ, he cannot give himself immediately, completely, and joyfully over to the will of God.  He is paralyzed by indecision.

Chapter 9:  Augustine the writer amps up the suspense here by going on a digression on the nature of the human will.  He is amazed that you can command your hand to move so seamlessly that you are not even conscious of the command, while the mind cannot even command itself.  “How did this bizarre situation arise [lit. “whence this monstrosity?”], how develop?  The mind commands the body and is instantly obeyed; the mind commands itself and meets with resistance.”  Why should this be?  Augustine postulates that the mind cannot command itself because it is divided against itself.  We have not one mind but two, or actually many (modern neuroscience confirms this theory — the brain is not a unity, but more of a “team of rivals”.  See David Eagleman’s Incognito for example).  We do not change because our various minds are at war with each other.

Chapter 10:  This leads, inevitably, to the Manichaean/dualist idea that there is a “Good” will and an “Evil” will fighting it out within us.  But the problem is within ourselves — the war is psychological, not cosmic.  And besides, “if we were to take the number of conflicting urges to signify the number of natures within us, we should have to assume that there are not two, but many”.  We may be of divided mind, but our soul remains a unity.  The mind has to fight over something — that something is our soul or our very nature: “there is but one soul, thrown into turmoil by divergent impulses”.  Our urges and ideas pull us in different directions, but what do we mean by “us”?  Our true self is an imperishable soul given to us by God.

The fight within ourselves is much more complicated than a black-and-white good vs. evil battle.  To wit: “The choice may lie between two impulses that are both evil, as when a person is debating whether to murder someone with poison or a dagger…The same holds true for good impulses.”  Life is rarely easy enough to give us a simple either/or choice between the good and the bad.  Rather, we are usually offered a menu of options during our day in that messy gray area between good and bad.  We must make the best of it.  Of course, when choosing salvation over self-indulgence, as Augustine is here, such psychological and spiritual wisdom is not really necessary.

Chapter 11:  Augustine’s shame and fear are, in his eyes, simply an example of God’s severe mercy.  God will not let him go until He has him completely.  “Let it be now,” Augustine says, trying to will himself to do the right thing, but falling just short.  The shoreline keeps getting further away the more he sails toward it.

He envisions a more poetic version of the devil and the angel on his shoulders.  On one side are his “frivolous aims, the futility of futile pursuits” saying, “do you mean to get rid of us? Shall we never be your companions again…do you imagine you will be able to live without these things?”  Making a choice inevitably means closing doors to other choices.  Many people don’t get married because they choke at the words “forsaking all others”.  The fear of change can paralyze us, keeping us from making the life-giving choice simply because we must die to our old self.

On the other shoulder is the personified figure of Continence, similar to Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8.  She is no stern taskmaster, but “calm and cheerful…modest, pure, and honorable”.  Far from being sterile, he envisions her as a mother of many children, who represent the virtues or perhaps the fruits of the Spirit.  Her offer is simple: you cannot stand up by yourself.  Lean on God and “he will support and heal you”.  Her manner is almost teasing, smiling at Augustine with that smile that mothers give to petulant toddlers.  And Augustine responds as toddlers are wont to: by weeping uncontrollably.

Chapter 12:  At last, Augustine leaves Alypius, seeking solitude and solace under a fig tree.  Commentators have noted that the fig tree is rich with symbolism.  Some have linked it to the fig tree that Nathaniel was sitting under when Jesus called him in John 1:47-8.  But the more resonant image comes, as usual for Augustine, from Genesis.  After disobeying God, the eyes of Adam and Eve were opened “and they knew that they were naked.  And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths” (3:7).  Just as Adam had his eyes opened to sin and covered himself with fig leaves, so was Augustine about to have his eyes opened to a holy life underneath a fig tree.  He is moved from being clothed in a “garment of flesh” (see paragraph 26), the clothing of the Fall, to being clothed the garments of salvation (Is. 61:10).  Under this tree, he hears a child’s voice singing, “tolle, lege; tolle, lege” (“pick it up and read; pick it up and read”).  This did not seem like any child’s game he could remember.* (footnote)  But he did remember how Antony of Egypt converted to Christ and to the ascetic life upon hearing Matthew 19:21 (“If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”).  Perhaps he too should search the Scriptures.  Running back to Alypius he opens to Romans 13 and sees the passage that would change his life: “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom. 13:13-4).  It is hard to think of a more apropos passage for him to have read.  At last, his doubts were silenced.

The moment was so powerful that it even converted Alypius, who applied the following verse, Romans 14:1 (“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him”), to himself.  Unlike Augustine, Alypius was actually converting to Christianity here, not just to a celibate lifestyle (which he was already living).  In some ways, his conversion is even more momentous than Augustine’s.  Inside the house, they told Monica about what had happened, to which she presumably reacted with both joy and vindication.  She would have no more grandchildren, but she would have a son who followed the Lord.  It was a tradeoff she was more than willing to make.

Conclusion:  This scene in the garden is Augustine’s case study proving the maxim from back in Book I: “our heart is unquiet until it rests in you”.  Throughout the Confessions, Augustine characterizes his soul as being torn into pieces by his sin and rebellion.  Here we finally see him uniting his soul, his mind, and his body on a singular goal.  He is finally a whole person, united to himself and to God through the grace found in Jesus Christ.  It was the peace of Christ that ended the tempestuous war within his mind and body.  By desiring a holy life and actively seeking God, and by submitting to the Word, Augustine found the peace that had eluded him.  “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).

Quote for meditation:  “Why try to stand by yourself, only to lose your footing?  Cast yourself on him and do not be afraid: he will not step back and let you fall.  Cast yourself upon him trustfully; he will support and heal you.”


Footnote: One modern scholar, Pierre Courcelle, doubted that the scene in the garden actually happened, saying that the whole thing was symbolic.  But this little detail contradicts that idea.  To quote Gary Wills: “The Dutch scholar Alexander Sizoo has suggested that Augustine was genuinely puzzled, since he was hearing an Italian harvest chant he would not have known in Africa.  “Lege” regularly means “pick” or “select” as well as “read.”  If the chant was “Lift! Sort!” in the child’s mind but “Lift! Read!” in Augustine’s, then the very misunderstanding would guarantee the narrative’s authenticity” (Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography, p.75).  In short, this scene actually happened as reported.  The symbolic resonances were only apparent in retrospect.

Book VIII, Chapters 5-7: The Pleasant Prison of Sin

If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin.

–John 15:22 (ESV)

Chapter 5: What is it that keeps us imprisoned to our sins?  Augustine’s answer: “It was no iron chain imposed by anyone else that fettered me, but the iron of my own will”.  The root of sin is a will that is out of line with God’s will.  This leads inevitably to addictive and destructive behavior.  Addiction is a three-step process: “disordered lust springs from a perverted will; when lust is pandered to, a habit is formed; when habit is not checked, it hardens into compulsion”.  These compulsions sink deep roots into our souls and become very hard to eradicate.  The struggle between the will of God and Augustine’s disordered will “tore my soul apart”.  We must beware of small compromises with sin, for soon the little pet sin we have been nurturing will turn into a diabolical monster.

We fool ourselves, Augustine says, when we say that the objections we have to serving Christ are intellectual.  For once his doubts were swept away, still he resisted submitting to God.  Why?  “The prospect of being freed from all these encumbrances frightened me as much as the encumbrances themselves ought to have done.”  Better the devil we know than the God we don’t.  We have the illusion of control over our vices, whereas submitting to Christ means ceding all control of our lives, which is terrifying.  Also, it’s just easier to keep on living the way we are accustomed to: “I was thus weighed down by the pleasant burden of the world in the way one commonly is by sleep”.  I love Augustine’s analogy of trying to wake up in the morning and trying to borrow “just a minute, one more minute”.  Every parent has heard that little negotiating tactic and knows that “just one minute” can get extended to an hour if you start to give in.  But God calls us to awake from our slumber into the new dawn of Christ’s light (Eph. 5:14; Is. 60:1).  And our salvation will not wait, for “behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).  We are out of excuses for living in sin; it is time to arise into our new life in Christ.

Chapter 6:  While all this inner turmoil roiled Augustine’s mind, he continued to attend to his duties at court.  A friend (and fellow African) from the imperial court, Ponticianus visited Augustine and Alypius and, impressed that they were studying the Scripture, introduced them to the story of Antony of Egypt (251-356), the legendary desert monk.  Amazingly, they had never heard of the man and his lifestyle of extreme asceticism.  The stories of the desert fathers “stupefied” Augustine (I feel the same way) and convicted him of his lax attitude toward the faith.  Ponticianus went on to relate how two fellow court officials, upon reading Athanasius’s The Life of Antony in a garden, renounced their careers and ambitions in order to follow a monastic life (they also gave up the prospect of marriage and their fiancees also pledged themselves to the celibate life).  The list of questions these men asked about their careers must have resonated with Augustine: “Where do we hope all these efforts are going to get us?  What are we looking for? In whose cause are we striving?”  At best, they could become a “friend” of the Emperor.  “Whereas I can become a friend of God here and now if I want to”.  It reminds me of a story one of our bishops told of striving and struggling to reach the top of a mountain only to realize once he’d reached the summit that he had climbed the wrong mountain.  We must choose each day which god we will serve, be it ourselves or some other person or God Himself.

Chapter 7:  Augustine could no longer avoid confronting his sinfulness.  “You set me down before my face, forcing me to mark how despicable I was, how misshapen and begrimed, filthy and festering. I saw and shuddered.”  We all live in denial sometimes, but God, in His grace and mercy, will often use others to shine a light on the parts of our lives that we would prefer to stay in the dark.  There are a number of ways to respond.  We can wallow in self-loathing; we can lash out at those who are holier than us, as if our sinfulness were their fault; or we can act with “blessed impulsiveness” and give ourselves over to God for healing.  But how self-serving our prayers, even our prayers for healing, can be!  Here we find perhaps the most famous quote in the whole of the Confessions: “As I prayed to you for the gift of chastity I had even pleaded, ‘Grant me chastity and self-control, but please not yet.’ I was afraid that you might hear me immediately and heal me forthwith of the morbid lust which I was more anxious to satisfy than to snuff out.”  We often don’t really want to live virtuously because it means sacrificing comfortable vices for virtues whose benefits aren’t always immediately obvious.  We know that virtue takes work, while vice panders to both our sloth and our vanity (“For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many” [Mat. 7:13]).  Change is scary (Augustine felt “a dumb dread”) but inevitable.  We are changing every day either into a misshapen and sickly version of who we were created to be, or we are being “conformed to the image of [God’s] Son” (Rom. 8:29).  If we try to run from God, we can escape neither Him nor ourselves.  We must make the choice, not whether to change (for that is inevitable), but what we are going to change into.

Conclusion:  I found this section to be psychologically and spiritually astute.  We often act like we have no choice but to keep on sinning, to keep on living in our addictions.  But the saving power of Jesus Christ available to us by the Holy Spirit has removed all of our excuses.  We cannot save ourselves, but we are responsible for what master we serve.  Augustine gets a lot of guff for being anti-sex, but for him, sex was the master that ruled his life in the place of Christ.  He rejected sex not because it was evil but because it demanded mastery over his life.  Only by renouncing his sexual desires could he allow Christ to take the throne of his life.  Maybe your addiction is different, but it is good to ask yourself what you put ahead of God, even if it is something good.  Be it money or worldly ambition, drugs or alcohol or pornography, sex or a relationship, family (Luke 14:26) or friends, even ministry itself, anything that stands between us and God is a sin.  We must believe that God has our best interests in mind, that He has “plans to prosper you and not to harm you” (Jer. 29:11, NIV), and that, in the end, if we “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” then “all these things will be added to you” (Mat. 6:33).  Whatever we give up for God will be given back to us, better and in more abundance.  Let us end with this promise from our Lord: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30)

Quote for meditation:  “A new will had begun to emerge in me, the will to worship you disinterestedly and enjoy you, O God, our only sure felicity.”   

Book VIII, Chapters 1-4: The People Make the Church

I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

–Luke 15:7 (ESV)

Chapter 1:  Having been converted in his mind, Augustine sets about converting his life to Christ.  “Besieged by you on every side…what I now longed for was not greater certainty about you, but a more steadfast abiding in you.”  First off, he had become “irked by the secular business I was conducting”, having lost his overweening ambition for worldly status.  The lying and preening required for his position as the court rhetorician could not be reconciled with the truth of Christ and the humility required to follow Him.  There was, however, a more thorny problem: he was still living with a concubine while waiting for his potential bride to come of age.  It seemed clear that Augustine was headed to a life of religious devotion, and at the time that generally meant celibacy (although it should be noted that clerical celibacy was encouraged but not yet required in the Catholic church).  At the very least, he would have to put off sex until marriage.  But Augustine was not quite ready to give up conjugal life yet.

Chapter 2: Augustine seeks the advice of another man who would become a Catholic saint: Simplicianus (320-400).  This wise man had been a mentor to Ambrose and would become his successor as bishop of Milan in 397.  Meeting him was a divine appointment, for it connected Augustine’s reading of the Neoplatonists to a conversion story.  The man who translated Plotinus into Latin, Marius Victorinus, had been converted by Simplicianus.  So the older man tells Augustine the story to “inculcate in me that humility of Christ which is hidden from the sagacious but revealed to little ones”.

Victorinus’s story mirrored Augustine’s.  He too was a rhetorician from Africa with searching intelligence and a soft spot for paganism (the quote in this chapter is from the Aeneid).  He read the Christian Scriptures, and, unlike Augustine, resonated with them, calling himself a Christian.  But he was not part of the Church, saying with scorn “It’s the walls that make Christians, then?”  It’s a good question.  Many Protestants in particular would say that you are a Christian as long as you have made a profession of faith and follow Jesus in your personal life.  The only thing that matters is the individual’s relationship with God.  But unless you are part of the Body of Christ (see 1 Cor. 12), unless you gather together (cf. Acts 2:42; Heb. 10:25), you are not being obedient in following Christ, whose greatest desire was “that they all may be one” (John 17:21).  The walls do make the Christian.  It turns out, in Victorinus’s case, that he didn’t attend church because he didn’t want to lose his pagan friends.  But it is a sin to “be ashamed of the holy mysteries instituted by your humble Word [i.e. the Sacraments], while feeling no shame at the sacrilegious rites of proud demons”.  So Victorinus humbled himself to make a public confession of faith before Christ’s Church.  Though given the offer of making a confession and being baptized only before a few (an option given to the shy), this rhetorical master knew he must stand and deliver the Creed before the whole community.  I love the scene of him saying the Creed followed by the people chanting his name like they’re at a sporting event.  It’s a really lovely moment that shows the power and importance of living our faith within the love and care of Christ’s Church.

Chapter 3:  Augustine marvels that we rejoice more at the conversion of a notorious sinner than we do at the faith of someone more virtuous.  Of course, Christ mentions this in the gospels in the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and, most poignantly, the Prodigal Son (Luke 15).  This seems to be a universal human feeling: we rejoice the more for peace when we must defend it in battle; we rejoice at safe travel when the journey proves perilous; we rejoice at good health when overcoming a grave illness.  “Even the natural pleasures of human life are attained through distress”, such as when we experience the satisfaction of eating after suffering hunger pangs.  These various sufferings and lacks are given to us by God that we may value the blessings we have, be it peace, safety, health, satiety, conjugal joy or anything else.  Augustine posits that God ordains times of plenty and time of want by His providence and for His purposes.

Chapter 4:  Public conversions are not just good for the convert — they build up the whole Body.  Just as Augustine was encouraged by the example of Victorinus, so do the examples of each other’s faith allow us to “catch the flame from one another”.  While it is true that notable or rich people are no more important in the kingdom than the poor and lowly, famous converts can be an example of God’s grace that is seen far and wide.  They are not more important for being prominent, but their prominence allows their testimony to the love of God to be seen by more people and thus is a particularly effective witness.*(footnote)  Thus, Victorinus’s conversion was particularly sweet because of how prominent he had been as a pagan.  When a prominent foe of Christ is won to his side, it demonstrates the power of the Gospel to change lives, and means that the weapons he had used against the Church were now “seized, cleaned, and made fit to serve in [God’s] honor as equipment useful to the Master for every good purpose”.

Conclusion:  Our testimony is our best evangelistic tool.  Augustine was drawn into his life in Christ not by yet more philosophical speculation, but by the story of someone like him who had also committed his life to Jesus.  Telling our story and the story of others who have made that same journey makes concrete the message of the Gospel for others and allows us all to see how the Christian life can be lived out.  Once again, Christianity is not a philosophy to believe or a ritual to perform, but a life to live.  And the learning is in the doing.  We learn how to walk with Christ by walking side-by-side with other believers in the Church.  Maybe it’s not the walls that make Christians, but I know one thing for sure: the people make the Church.  Without the support of others, we cannot hope to live the victorious life to which Christ has called us.  So let us not neglect to meet together and let us rejoice in all the lost sheep that God has called back into His fold.

Quote for meditation:  “Come, Lord, arouse us and call us back, kindle us and seize us, prove to us how sweet you are in your burning tenderness; let us love you and run to you.”


*Augustine’s story of how why Saul changed his name to Paul (in honor of converting Sergius Paulus in Acts 13) is not generally agreed upon by historians.  We don’t really know why Paul changed his name, and thus Augustine using this as an example of why “celebrity confessions” are worthwhile doesn’t really hold water.

Book VII, Chapters 11-21: Discovering the Way

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

–Romans 7:24-25a (ESV)

Chapters 11-16:  These chapters comprise a single, carefully constructed argument about the origin of evil.  (1) God is the source of existence, and thus anything that moves closer to Him is more “real” and anything that moves away from Him is less so.  (2) Anything that can be destroyed (a.k.a. all created things) are good, but not absolute good.  Their ability to be destroyed means that they are not evil, but it also means that their goodness isn’t absolute (and thus indestructible).  As long as some part of a thing exists, there is good in that thing, for God created all things good. (3) The central point: “Everything that exists is good, then; and so evil, the source of which I was seeking, cannot be a substance, because if it were, it would be good”.  (4) While we may prefer certain parts of creation over others, “the totality was better than the higher things on their own would have been”.  Mosquitoes are part of the food chain and wildfires replenish the soil.  We must not confuse personal annoyance and inconvenience (or suffering) with absolute evil.

I love the image of God holding Augustine’s “stupid head” while he slumbered in ignorance, waiting for him to wake up and see His infinite glory.  This is God the Father caring for His children, even when they rebel against Him.  God can be patient because He “abide[s] eternally”, not subject to the passage of time.  Augustine finally has a vision of a God outside the universe who can order everything not only in place, but in time.  Nothing comes as a surprise to God because the future has already happened for Him.

Chapter 17:  Having tasted the presence of God, Augustine is hungry for more.  But he’s frustrated that he can’t live in a state of mystical ecstasy with God.  His physical nature keeps dragging him back down to earth.  He gets almost Gnostic here in saying that “the perishable body weighs down the soul”.  But, of course, he just spent paragraphs explaining how the physical world isn’t evil, so he’s not a Gnostic.  I think this is his way of articulating the Pauline war between the flesh and the spirit (“For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” [Gal. 5:17]).  If we are bound by fleshly appetites, desires, and perceptions, we will not be able to either envision or experience spiritual reality.  This is why Augustine emphasizes the importance of the memory of his spiritual encounter as a way to overcome the temptations to remain in the flesh.

He maps out his method.  First, he starts with just meditating on what his senses are telling him (“the intelligence of animals can reach as far as this”).  Second, he uses his reason to ponder what his senses tell him.  Third, he seeks the source of his reason, “the fount whence flowed its concept of the Unchangeable”.  He looks for something solid and unchanging to rest in, knowing that what he finds will be God.  Lastly, he has a momentary glance of “That Which Is” another Neoplatonic name for the “One” or God.  However, he does not have the strength within himself to stay in that state.  This Platonist method has reached the end of its usefulness.  It has brought Augustine to the gate of heaven, but he finds that he cannot abide there (cf. John 15:4).  He “yearned for something of which I had caught the fragrance, but could not yet feast upon”.

Chapter 18:  “I looked for a way to gain the strength I needed to enjoy you, but I did not until I embraced the mediator between God and humankind, the man Christ Jesus, who is also God” (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5).  Without Jesus, the Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24) and the Way to the Father, Augustine could not remain in “That Which Is”.  By humbling Himself (Phil. 2:7-8) to “become for us the milk adapted to our infancy”, Christ allowed us to feast upon the riches of God.  Seeing God Himself “sharing our garments of skin”, we can “wearily fling [our]selves down upon him, so that he may arise and lift [us] up”.  What a powerful insight: the very weakness of Christ in the flesh is what gives us strength, for God exalts the humble.  We attain the glory of God through humbling ourselves.

Chapter 19:  At this time, Augustine bought into what I call “the Tammy Wynette heresy” (“’cause after all he’s just a man”).  He thought Jesus to be very wise and morally upright, but that’s about it (this is basically Arianism).  However, Augustine makes the vital point that Scripture clearly shows us that Christ was 100% human “not a human body only, nor a body with a human soul but lacking intelligence”.  Jesus was exactly like we are.  This is crucial to remember.  When we are called to be like Christ, we have to remember that He didn’t “cheat” to live a sinless life.  He was just as human as we are, yet He didn’t sin.  It can be done (by the Spirit)!  Alypius, meanwhile, believed in the “God-in-a-man-suit” heresy (Apollinarianism, if you want to get technical), saying that Jesus had no human nature.  Of course, if t hat were the case, He could not have redeemed human nature.  Thankfully, Alypius would come to realize his error and accept the catholic faith.  Augustine argues that this was all for the good, “for heresies…emerge in order to show up the people of sound faith among the weak”.

Chapter 20:  Augustine’s growing understanding of Neoplatonism leads him once again to arrogance in his own understanding, even though he was “too weak to enjoy you.  Yet I readily chattered as though skilled in the subject, and had I not been seeking your way in Christ our Savior I would probably have been killed than skilled” (Ha!  By the way, it’s wordplay in the Latin, too: “non peritus [skilled], sed periturus [killed] essem”) He would have to learn the difference between intellectual attainment and a life in Christ “between presumption and confession, between those who see the goal but not the way to it and the Way to our beatific homeland, a homeland to be not merely descried but lived in”.  There is a big difference between studying about God in books and abiding in Christ day-by-day.  It’s the difference between knowing about God and knowing God.

Chapter 21:  So, at last, Augustine returns to Holy Scripture.  He fell in love with Paul’s epistles, for they said much the same thing as the Platonists did with the added bonus of the “gift of grace”.  Thus, we can not only see and experience “That Which Is”, but be healed by Him.  Reading Paul, Augustine finally understands the gospel, that we have sinned against a just God and only by the grace found in Jesus Christ can we be saved from ourselves.  The devil slew Christ, and in doing so unwittingly cancelled the debt of sin that humanity had accrued.  Only in Scripture can we find this best of all possible news which goes by the humble name of Gospel.

Augustine ends the book with an analogy of a journey through “impassable terrain” beset by fugitives sent by “the lion and the dragon” (cf. Ps. 91:13).  We have no hope on such a path.  But a new way has been made, a “well-built road opened up by the heavenly emperor” that the enemy cannot assail, for the Way is Christ Himself, (“very God of very God” as the Nicene Creed reminds us).  At this vision, Augustine is “filled with dread”, that fear of the Lord commended by Scripture.  May we always have a new convert’s awe at the majesty of the Gospel.  May we never lose our wonder at the grace and love of God found in Jesus Christ.

Conclusion:  Augustine has solved the problem of evil, not by devising a logically unassailable explanation for its existence, but by entering a relationship with the One who conquered our enemy forever.  The answer to evil is not an intellectual assent to a dogma, but an acceptance of the mediation of Christ on our behalf and a humble recognition of our limitations and sinfulness.  This is not done through mental gymnastics or physical mortification, but through simple, humble submission to God.  We do not have to work to get to God, for God already came down to us.  “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor. 9:5)

Quote for meditation:  “He heals their swollen pride and nourishes their love, that they may not wander even farther away through self-confidence, but rather weaken as they see before their feet the Godhead grown weak by sharing our garments of skin and wearily fling themselves down upon him, so that he may arise and lift them up.”

Book VII, Chapters 6-10: An Encounter with the “One”

And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

–John 8:32 (ESV)

Chapter 6:  Our lives are ruled not by the stars but by “the Wisdom who governs the whole world, even to the fluttering of the leaves on the trees”.  We all want to believe that fortune-telling works.  Even in the charismatic Church, we often treat prophecy like fortune-telling, just waiting for a God to reveal our future to us rather than learning to walk with Him day-by-day.  But horoscopes are still very popular today, and Augustine (through his friend Firminus) shows how ridiculous that is.  If a rich man and a slave are born at the exact same time in the exact same place, their horoscopes should be the same, even though their futures would clearly be different.  “I would either have to make divergent predictions in order to give a true answer, or else make the same prediction in the two cases and thereby speak falsely”.  Any accuracy from astrology is a product of either luck or trickery.  Augustine points out that even twins can go in different directions in life (just look at Jacob and Esau!), even though supposedly the circumstances of our birth determine everything.  We mere humans cannot determine our fates by divination, for God’s providence works in accordance to His will and “our soul’s secret deserving”.  Only God controls our destiny.

Chapters 7&8:  “What agonizing birth-pangs tore my heart, what groans it uttered, O my God!”  The new life in Christ that was trying to be born in Augustine involved a long labor.  He was in such torment that he couldn’t even express what he was feeling to his close friends. “Yet even as my heart roared its anguish my clamor found its way to your hearing”.  When no one else is there to comfort us, God is always ready to hear the cry of our heart, even if that cry is caused by pride.  Augustine is stubbornly refusing to submit to God until he has an answer to the problem of evil, something that has befuddled humans since the beginning of time.  It was the height of arrogance to think that he alone could solve this dilemma.  “My swollen pride got in the way and kept me from you, and my face was so puffy that my eyes were closed [!]”.  But God allows us to suffer the consequences of our pride, to “chafe impatiently”, that we may learn to turn to Him.  Continuing the eye metaphor, Augustine says that God provided salve for his eyes so that he could begin to see God with his spiritual eyes.  The Lord allows us to fall under the weight of our pride that He may show us His grace and mercy and pick us up again.

Chapter 9:  Amid this internal sturm und drang, Augustine picks up “some books by the Platonists”.  Scholars have been kept busy trying to figure out what books he was reading, but the most likely candidates are the Enneads of Plotinus (204-270) as edited by Porphyry (234-305) and translated into Latin by an African Christian teacher of rhetoric named Marius Victorinus.  Plotinus was the prime expositor of what we now call Neoplatonism, a movement that attempted to combine the thought of Plato (427-347 B.C.) with later Hellenistic philosophy into a sort of philosophy of everything. It’s…complicated.

Perhaps we should start with the most famous passage in Plato: the allegory of the cave.  In it, Plato says that human beings are prisoners chained in such a way that they can only see a cave wall and watch shadows dance along it.  Philosophers are those who have escaped the chains to see the figures that are producing the shadows, that is, reality.  Reality, for both Plato and the Platonists, is found in the immaterial or spiritual realm, the Realm of Forms.  All physical things are just pale shadows of a greater reality; a beautiful sunset just imitates absolute Beauty.  In Plotinus’s system, all reality centers on the One, the ultimate source of Goodness and Truth.  The One exists prior to and above all existence, and existence “emanates” from it to lesser degrees of perfection.  Two of these emanations exist eternally in a sort of unequal Trinity with the One: the Mind and the Soul.  Crucial to Christians like Augustine was the Platonists’ belief in the logos (the Word) as a mediating principle between the One, the Mind, and the Soul.  While this may sound Gnostic, Plotinus actually wrote screeds against Gnosticism, particularly against the idea of evil as an entity.  With his theory of reality as emanations from an immutable One, Plotinus could believe simultaneously in an absolute and spiritual power and in the existence of evil, which was just a defective form of the Good.  The imperfection of matter leads the soul into bad choices; overcoming evil meant transcending physical reality in order to reach mystical union with the One.  This was done through the pursuit of Wisdom — “our end is to attain the contemplation of Being” (Porphyry, quoted in Chadwick, Augustine, p. 21).  This is done through intensive internal questing in order that our soul, which is immortal, may return from whence it came.  The soul remembers its source and we must reject worldly encumbrances to allow our souls to reunite with the One, that it may end its dissolution and find unity.  The effect of all this on Augustine’s thinking should be clear.

In this chapter, Augustine draws a straight line from Plotinus/Porphyry to the first chapter of the gospel of John.  The logos was a mediating principle that was with God and was God while also bringing about creation.  Humanity is made in the image of the Light, but is not the same as the Light.  In the concept of logos, Augustine, with the help of the Platonists, finally begins to understand God as a spiritual reality beyond the physical creation.  But Plotinus lacked something really crucial:  he missed Christ.  Although Plotinus thought the Word equal to God, he did not see that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).  The incarnation, the atonement, and all the rest were matters of Christian revelation which philosophy did not, and could not, discover.  Moreover, the Platonists were pagans (Porphyry actually wrote an anti-Christian treatise), but Augustine says “I did not eat that food”.  He took what helped him and left the rest, saying that he came to God “from the Gentiles”.  Just as Paul used the Athenian’s philosophers to help them understand the gospel (Acts 17:22-31), so did Augustine use the Platonists to assist himself in overcoming his obstacles to faith.  They were a stepping stone on his journey from Manichaeism to the catholic faith.

Chapter 10:  Having bought into Neoplatonism, Augustine figures he’ll give their methods a whirl.  He has what can only be described as a mystical experience in which he feels bathed in an inexpressible light (cf. 1 John 1:5-8).  He experiences a knowledge beyond the intellectual: “Anyone who knows truth knows it, and whoever know it knows eternity.  Love knows it.”  He has entered the presence of the Holy Trinity itself, which he expresses beautifully by praying: “O eternal Truth, true Love, and Beloved eternity, you are my God”.  He even hears the voice of God saying that he will consume God but not to change God into him, but “you will be changed into me” (perhaps a nod to the Eucharist).  God then names Himself the same way to Augustine that He had to Moses: “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14).  This is the Neoplatonic “One” that is beyond the universe and yet the source of it, the basis of existence and yet somehow greater than all that is.  And with that, Augustine comes crashing back to earth, trembling with “love and dread”.  The experience proved brief, as such things usually are, but transformative.  His doubts seemed so small now.  While his actual “conversion” came later, I can’t help but feel that this intellectual conversion is the true beginning of his walk with Christ.  It doesn’t really matter (the evangelical obsession with pinpointing the date and time of your salvation is silly).  Whatever else you want to say, from here on, Augustine is a changed man, at least mentally.  Bringing his body along for the ride will be the project for Book VIII.

Conclusion:  God draws straight with crooked lines.  He uses whatever tools we allow Him to in order to draw us to Himself.  If we seek Truth, He who is the Truth will find us.  God is not hiding away in heaven waiting for us to get our act together to find Him.  He is just waiting for us to seek Him, and will sprint through any door in our heart that we care to open (Rev. 3:20).  Whether he knew it or not, in attempting to reach Neoplatonic “ecstasy”, Augustine was praying.  And in his prayers he found more than he bargained for: a revelation from the Living God.  May we enter prayer with eager anticipation that God will meet us there, too, and may we open the doors of our minds and hearts that He may enter in.

Quote for meditation: “There, unknown to me, were your hearkening ears, for as I labored hard in my silent search the mute sufferings of my mind reached your mercy as loud cries”.



Book VII, Chapters 1-5: God’s Nature and the Existence of Evil

Image result for augustine flaming heart

(Saint Augustin, Philippe de Champaigne, c. 1645)

This portrait is the perfect encapsulation of what Book VII is all about, and my favorite portrait of the saint.  Who knows if this is what Augustine looked like, but it’s the truest portrait of him I’ve seen.  I leave it for your meditation and analysis.  By the way, “Veritas” is Latin for “truth”.


For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.

— 1 Timothy 4:4 (ESV)

Chapter 1:  It seems funny from our perspective that Augustine had such trouble envisioning God as something other than a really big physical entity.  And yet, so many people in our day and age will not believe something unless they can perceive it with their senses (although: why should the senses be considered 100% trustworthy?).  This leads to either a thoroughgoing secularism that brooks no possibility of the spiritual or miraculous, or its total opposite — a pantheistic New Age philosophy in which God is everywhere and inside of everything.  The latter seems to have been Augustine’s belief for a time: “I thought that you penetrated the whole mass of the earth and the immense, unbounded spaces beyond it on all sides, that earth, sky, and all things were full of you”.  To be clear, this is a heresy in Christian orthodoxy.  God is omnipresent in the sense of being in all places at once, but the creation is separate from His being.  Augustine points out the silliness of pantheism in that God would have to be more present in things that are larger (like an elephant) than in things that are smaller (like a sparrow).  Yet it hardly seems that elephants are holier than sparrows.  In some ways, science is our friend in a way it wasn’t for Augustine.  Everything from the Big Bang theory to the space-time continuum in relativistic physics helps us envision the possibility of an existence outside of the physical universe.

Of course, Augustine came up with his own reason for believing in non-physical reality: thought itself.  “As my eyes were accustomed to roam among material forms, so did my mind among the images of them, yet I could not see that this very act of perception, whereby I formed these images, was different from them in kind.  Yet my mind would never have been able to form them unless it was itself a reality, and a great one.”  Augustine has hit on the mind-brain problem, which is really the problem of consciousness itself.  How can a merely physical object like the brain produce a mind that seems to work independently of it?  Thoughts are immaterial, yet they are no less real for that.  This was the great insight of Rene Descartes (1596-1650) a millenium after Augustine: he could doubt everything except for the fact that he was doubting — “I think, therefore I am”.  If we believe that thought exists, then believing in an “imperishable, inviolable, and immutable” God is not that large a leap.

Chapter 2:  Augustine (with the help of Nebridius) neatly refutes Manichaeism with a simple dilemma.  Either God is able to be injured by an evil opposing force and therefore is not God, or He isn’t able to be injured and therefore their entire theory of how evil exists is untrue.  They cannot have their cake and eat it.  Either there is no God worth the name (in which case Manichaeism is false) or God is omnipotent and therefore cannot be injured in a “fight” with evil (in which case Manichaeism is false).  They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.  “I ought to have squeezed these people from my gullet and vomited them out,” Augustine says with disgust.

Chapter 3:  So Augustine reaches the real nub of the problem: if God is incorruptible, omnipotent, and immutable, and He created a world of absolute good (cf. Gen. 1:31), then why does evil exist?  Augustine’s complete answer comes later in this book, but he starts his journey here.  The explanation he was offered (presumably by Ambrose) was: “the cause of evil is the free decision of the will, in consequence of which we act wrongly and suffer your righteous judgement”.  This helped reorient Augustine’s vision.  He had viewed evil “as something I suffered rather than as something I did”.  But we have seen the enemy, and he is us.  However, this brings its own set of problems.  If God made me good, how can I commit evil acts?  Postulating the existence of a devil doesn’t help, because where did he come from?  These questions kept Augustine’s conversion at bay for a time.  One begins to see why his search for certainty was proving so taxing.

Chapter 4:  God, in order to be God, must by indestructible and incorruptible.  This brings to mind St. Thomas Aquinas’ (1225-1274) “Five Ways”, i.e. his evidence for the existence of God.  In particular, I’m think of the argument from contingency (or the “necessary being” argument).  The philosopher Fr. Frederick Copleston summarizes the argument this way: “We see that there are…some beings which do not necessarily exist, for there are beings that begin to be and cease to be.  But, these beings (contingent beings) would not exist, if they were the only type of being; for they are dependent for their existence.  Ultimately, there must exist a being which exists necessarily and is not dependent” (Medieval Philosophy: An Introduction, p. 90).  It can’t be turtles all the way down.  Also, if we have any concept of “good”, there must be an immutable, imperishable, and inviolable source for that (this is the crux of C.S. Lewis’s argument in Mere Christianity).  Jesus put it succinctly: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18).  This seems clear enough: a God of infinite power and goodness must exist.  This also seems undeniable: evil exists.  How?

Chapter 5:  This problem was insoluble for Augustine because of his inability to separate God from His creation.  “I imagined you, Lord…like a sea extending in all directions through immense space, which held itself a sponge [i.e. creation] as vast as one could imagine but still finite, and the sponge soaked in every fiber of itself by the boundless sea”.  A sponge completely saturated by the absolute good of God should have no room left for evil.  Perhaps there isn’t any evil and we are fearful of nothing.  But…”if we say that our fear is meaningless, then the fear is undeniably evil, for it goads and tortures our heart to no purpose.”  Nope, evil exists.  Maybe, Augustine continues, the stuff God used to make the world was evil.  But couldn’t He have changed that or just not created the universe at all?  The Gnostic belief that matter was evil leaves no room for an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.  Matter cannot be both inherently evil and the creation of a good God.  With these observations, Augustine ends the chapter.  He asserts, interestingly, that at the time he had “faith in Christ…though it was a faith still at many ways unformed, wavering and at variance with the norm of [the Church’s] teaching.”  Faith comes to all of us in different ways.  For this brilliant man, it came through philosophy, through the endless churning of a restless mind and an unquiet heart.

Conclusion:  I appreciate Augustine, even if I can get a bit exasperated at his endless questions.  He was willing, like Jacob in Genesis, to wrestle with God and would not let Him go until God blessed him.  I think Augustine is a saint rather than a cautionary tale because he was willing to listen, to friends like Nebridius, but more importantly to the teaching of the Church.  It is no accident that His erroneous views about God began to change when he became a catechumen (no matter how mixed his motives were in becoming one).  Whatever help the Neoplatonists may have been (more about them later), it was the teaching of the Church that got Augustine on track.  When asking difficult questions it is good to remember that we are probably not the first people to ask them and to seek guidance from Scripture first and then the Church both past and present.  By God’s grace, Augustine has become for us what Ambrose was for him: a guide for dealing with difficult questions through prayer and faith.

Quote for meditation: “Corruption can touch our God in no way whatsoever: neither by will, nor by necessity, nor by any unexpected misfortune.  He is God, and what he wishes for himself is good, and he is himself the very nature of goodness.”