BISHOP JAMES T. SCHUERMAN
A few weeks ago, a college seminarian was telling me about the classes he had been taking since entering the seminary. In the course of the conversation, he mentioned that in one of his courses, the professor assigned the book, The Confessions of St. Augustine. I was very interested to hear this. The Confessions is one of the most popular spiritual classics of all time. It is an autobiographical work, a story of conversion. Augustine wrote this work between 397 and 400 A.D.
As Augustine related his spiritual journey in The Confessions, he described how he had fallen into various traps, which held him bound and kept him from arriving at the truth. One of the first traps he mentioned was his approach toward theater and pagan philosophy. As a youth, he enjoyed the theater. He described how he would get emotionally involved with the plays, moved by their ideals and the drama itself. He would later come to call this foolishness, in part because of the immoral themes of the plays, but more in that he had invested himself emotionally in myths and legends while carelessly ignoring the reality of his own life – his need for God and for conversion. As he looked back on his study of pagan philosophy, Augustine regretted that it took so much of an investment of himself just to understand it, and, without proper guidance, seemed to lead nowhere. It did not provide an answer to his deepest yearnings, nor did it bring him happiness. Thus, theater and pagan philosophy, held in high esteem and meant to edify, were, for Augustine, a form of bondage.
Augustine also writes about how his own illicit desires held him captive. He mentioned his sexual experiences as a youth and later, as an adult, living with a concubine. His enslavement to his passions became quite apparent when he became engaged to be married and had to send away his concubine. Almost immediately, he took up with another woman, but one for whom he had no affection. His relationship to her was simply to satisfy his own lust – a situation that brought him misery.
Heresy and idolatry were also elements that held Augustine bound. He became involved with the Manichean sect. The Manicheans espoused a dualistic form of Gnosticism – they believed that the entire created world was evil, and that only in the realm of the spiritual could one find goodness. Augustine had hoped to find revelation and enlightenment within the sect. He came to see, though, that there were many ideas held by the sect that he could not defend logically. He also saw, reflecting on it later, the moral peril in which the sect put him. With Manicheism’s understanding of creation as evil, it was easy for Augustine to imagine that the evil he had done in his own life was not his responsibility, but rather that of some evil dwelling within his created nature. In this way of thinking, it would be possible for a person to absolve himself or herself of immorality by shifting the blame elsewhere. Ultimately, Augustine realized that Manicheism enslaved him by giving a false outlook on God and human nature. It also lacked a sense of the need for conversion of heart.
Liberation took place for Augustine in a type of religious experience involving the Sacred Scriptures. One day, he was having a conversation with an acquaintance, Ponticianus, who related to him many things about faith, which moved him deeply. Augustine related that he came face to face with himself and saw clearly the stains and deformities of sin. In a state of inner turmoil and grief, he retired to the garden accompanied by a friend, Alypius. There he heard a child’s voice say repeatedly the words, “Take up and read, take up and read.” At that moment, he took up the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans and read the first passage upon which his eyes fell: “Not in rioting or drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in strife and envying; but you put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provisions for the flesh and its concupiscence.” (Romans 13:13b-14.) After reading this passage, all doubt fell away, and he knew he was ready to follow Christ.
Augustine’s conversion experience was one of accepting God’s grace through faith. The acceptance of grace meant freedom from the folly of his former life, taking on the mild yoke and light burden of Christ. In God’s grace, Augustine found freedom.
In The Confessions, Augustine reflected on the fallacious notions he espoused that kept him from experiencing the limitless God of love. For Augustine, a life of true happiness and the promise of eternal life depend upon God’s grace. While he was living in error, the paths he took led to dead ends. He used the image of “wallowing in the mire” to describe his situation. It was only through accepting God’s grace and being washed clean in the waters of Baptism that he was restored to innocence. Augustine focused on the notion of fallen human nature, pointed out the depravity of human desire, and saw salvation as a gift that depends on God’s grace.
Today, of course, Augustine’s perspective has come under criticism. Many find his over-emphasis of original sin and fallen human nature distressful, and an attack on the truth of the goodness of creation. While it is true that Augustine exaggerated the notion of the depravity of human nature and portrayed human sexuality in a rather bleak light, it is important to remember that his own personal experiences, culture and era influenced his spiritual and theological insights. That is not to say, though, that the spirituality found in The Confessions is irrelevant for today.
In The Confessions, Augustine tells a story that Christians of any age can recognize. In his weakness, Augustine searched for the God of truth and life. In his search, he met dead ends in his pleasure seeking, in philosophies that remained in his head, disconnected from real life, and in false teachings that could not provide answers. As a youth, he was weak willed and impressionable. As an adult, he discovered that he could not find salvation on his own. He learned to depend on God for enlightenment. In giving himself over to God in faith, he found forgiveness, truth and love.
Augustine’s spiritual journey is not unlike that of contemporary Christians trying to find their way in a world of ambiguities, conflicting value systems, trends, fads and philosophies. Faith in God’s grace means true freedom for the one who seeks it.