In the seminar course I’m taking on The Confessions of St. Augustine, we have just finished Book V and VI.( My reflection on Book I – IV are here.) According to the course outline, we learn more about Augustine’s 29th year and his move to Carthage, Rome and finally, Milan. He begins to realize that the Manichees are full of hot air. As he becomes more ambitious, his mistress becomes a hindrance to his future and he sends her back to Africa. He continues to grow in ambition but becomes increasingly miserable.
Mistress? Yup. But she left their son with him. Son? Yeah, you read that right.
Augustine was a very restless soul as he ended his 20s and headed into his 30s. He still belonged to the cult of the Manichees and although he had questions about their beliefs, he felt that Faustus, a Manichean bishop would lay to rest all his doubts. It turns out that Faustus didn’t really know all that much; he just knew how to present the little knowledge he had. Style over substance. Augustine was disappointed. He continued to “energetically (apply his) critical faculty to see if there were decisive arguments by which (he) could somehow prove the Manichees wrong.”
At the same time as he was having a crisis regarding Manichean belief, he was on the move, propelled by scholarly and material ambition, first to Carthage, then to Rome, and finally to Milan where he met Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. He was drawn to Bishop Ambrose because of his great skill in rhetoric. At first, he didn’t care about Ambrose’s teachings on the Catholic faith, just how he presented them. Eventually, into his heart and mind, “there also entered no less the truth which he affirmed, though only gradually.” It was through listening to Ambrose that he came to the decision that “for the time being” he would become a catechumen in the Catholic Church, “until some clear light should come by which (he) could direct (his) course.” Translation: until something better came along.
His secular ambitions caused him misery. “I aspired to honours, money, marriage and You laughed at me. In those ambitions I suffered the bitterest difficulties” and “the goads of ambition impelled me to drag the burden of my unhappiness with me, and in dragging it to make it even worse”. Passing by a beggar on the street one day, he noted that the beggar owned nothing except what people gave him. Despite his circumstances, he was happy while Augustine was wracked with worry and anxiety. He wanted to be merry like the beggar but he much preferred his life of “anxieties and fears.” He and some friends wanted to live communally, away from “the storms and troubles of human life” but realized it wouldn’t work because some of the wives and children would never agree to it.
What “tortured” him the most was his “habit of satisfying with vehement intensity an insatiable sexual desire.” When his long-term mistress was sent packing back to Africa and while he was waiting for his betrothed to come of age in two years, he “procured another woman, not of course as wife.” Unfortunately, (or fortunately) his misery caused him to be “frigid but desperate.”
Poor Augustine – materially successful but still a bundle of anxiety and misery. Later, as he reflected on this period of his life, he noted that God was working in him even if he didn’t realize it. Through the ardent prayers and tears of his mom, Monica, and through the people God placed in his life, most notably Ambrose, God was slowly but surely turning Augustine around. Many of Augustine’s plans came to naught. He was like the proverbial hamster in a cage, spinning round and round but getting nowhere. In retrospect God was guiding him, revealing Himself only to the point that Augustine was able to understand. Baby steps, much like feeding cereal to a baby first before pureed peas before strained meat. God gave Augustine only as much as he could digest.
I really like Augustine. He’s so real, so flawed, so much like me, so much like us. He wanted true happiness but was unwilling to let go of his worldly ambitions and lusts. I can relate when he writes that he “postponed ‘from day to day’ [Ecclus. 5:8] finding life in You.” He “longed for the happy life, but was afraid of the place where it has its seat, and fled from it at the same time as (he) was seeking for it.” Sound familiar? Don’t we all do that? I know I do.
So, here’s the take-away from Book V and VI. Even while Augustine continued to run away from God, God continued to watch over him, using Augustine’s impressive arsenal of bad deeds and motives to convert our hero. Now, that doesn’t mean that I can live stupidly thinking that no matter what I do, God will use it for good and in the end, someone at the Vatican will put St. in front of my name. What it does mean is that when I trip up and offend God and hurt my neighbours, He will continue to pursue me. What I have to do is be willing to surrender everything that is keeping me from Him.