Sunday, March 13, 2005

Book II, Chapters 1-3, My Comments

When it comes to behavior, everything has limits, and some things, in their extreme are forbidden. Everyone knows this, if not explicitly, then intuitively. One of the tasks of parents and school teachers is to teach their children what the limits are and to abide by them. Experiencing puberty, lust, and “the bubbling of manhood,” (and let’s not forget womanhood!) is a natural, normal thing. Disregarding a strictly religious judgment of Augustine, for purposes of discussion, but going by Augustine’s own description of his behavior, he certainly seems to have exceeded the boundaries of proper sexual ethics. He has little self-control and is acting out his sexuality on others in an un-responsible manner. Indeed he seems to be completely controlled by his hormones, which is practically a normal state for a young male. I think that one of the developmental tasks of adolescence is to learn control of one’s impulses, and Augustine had yet to learn.

Augustine’s father and mother had different and conflicting ideas of what the boundaries of behavior were for him. His mother Monica’s boundaries were the traditional Christian limits, and his father’s were those of society at large, which were virtually without limit. And Augustine, of course, completely disregarded his mother’s values and admonitions. I do not envy the saintly Monica.

Another way of looking at Augustine’s situation is by looking at priorities. Let me make a comparison: While making money in itself is not sinful, to make the acquisition of wealth a priority over the love of God or of one’s neighbor is sinful. Analogously, it is normal to experience lust, but for Augustine, it became his one and only priority. Moreover, when we hurt others or ourselves, lust becomes sinful. When it controls our life, it is sinful. We must know its place and use it properly. Love of God and of our neighbor must come first. Treating people as objects is sinful. Treating them with correct human dignity and respect are what Christianity demands.

Book II, Chapters 1-3

Augustine begins, “I want to call back to mind my past impurities and the carnal corruptions of my soul, not because I love them, but so that I may love you, my God. It is for the love of your love that I do it, going back over those most wicked ways of mine in the bitterness of my recollections so that the bitterness may be replaced by the sweetness of you, O unfailing sweetness, happy sweetness and secure!” And so, Augustine plunges deep into his confession of lust and fornication. In the narrative, he is now sixteen and, “on fire to take my fill of hell.”

Chapter 2 is a very powerful evocation of his state of mind. He uses outstanding imagery throughout—muddy carvings of the flesh, whirlpools of vice, brambles of lust, the clanking chain of his mortality, and plenty more. It is one of the most literarily powerful passages in the book. It calls to mind the fire and brimstone sermon in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce. Augustine again uses the word disorder to describe himself. He describes himself as being completely controlled by lust and having run amok with immorality:

“But I, poor wretch, boiled up and ran troubled along the course of my own stream, forsaking you. I broke through all the boundaries of your law but did not escape your chastisement.” Similar to his statement, “every inordinate affection should be its own punishment,” In Book I, Chapter 2, Augustine writes, “in you Lord, except in you, who shape sorrow to be an instructor, who give wounds in order to heal, who kill us lest we should die away from you.”

“The madness of lust…held complete sway over me and to this madness I surrendered myself completely.”

So far, I have chosen not to criticize Augustine, positively or negatively, for his stand on sex, but to let his statements speak for themselves. It is his confession, after all. Perhaps at the end of this exercise I will state my own opinion on the matter.

Understanding Augustine

The hyperlink above points to a review of the Peter Brown biography of St. Augustine, in First Things, in May of 2001. I wish to cite:

And Brown reminds modern interpreters, particularly on the matter of sexuality, that Augustine was the defender of marriage against the extreme asceticism of his contemporaries. “We must never read Augustine as if he were contemporary with ourselves.” He was the contemporary of Jerome and Gregory of Nyssa and Ambrose, and Christian tradition would have taken a quite different direction, I am sure, if Augustine did not stand between us and them. His is a voice of moderation. As Brown notes, “He wished for a greater recognition of the physical, sexual components of human nature, and was prepared to defend their legitimate expression (if in a disciplined manner) in marriage.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The Influence of St. Augustine in One Man's Life

R.R. Reno, a professor of theology at Creighton University, explains his recent conversion from Episcopalianism to Roman Catholicism.
It includes an erudite and deep discussion of how The Confessions of St. Augustine affected his spiritual growth and thinking. There is also discussion of John Cardinal Newman's thought regarding the authenticity of the Catholic church.