Friday, November 11, 2005

Book VIII, Chapter 7

As a result of Ponticianus’ witness of the two Roman officials, Augustine had become overwhelmed: “I had no where to escape myself.” I’d like to point out that Augustine was not overwhelmed here by logic, reason, theology, philosophy, scripture, or any other intellectuality. He was overwhelmed by a story.

“But you Lord, while he was speaking, were turning me around so that I could see myself; you took me from behind my own back, which was where I had put myself during the time that I did not want to be observed by myself, and you set me in front of my own face so I could see how foul a site I was—crooked, filthy, spotted, and ulcerous. I saw and I was horrified, and I had nowhere to go to escape from myself. If I tried to look away from myself, Ponticianus still went on with his story, and again you were setting me in front of myself, forcing me to look into my own face, so that I might see my sin and hate it. I did know it, but I pretended that I did not, I had been pushing the whole idea away from me, and forgetting it.”

This chapter is very emotional and loaded with powerful imagery. If I were to try and quote all of the imagery, I would have to quote the entire chapter, which I am almost doing anyway. Augustine is so richly nuanced that, often, if one quotes him, one must quote more rather than less, to get the full context. Read the chapter 7 in its entirety, but it must be read together with chapter 6. This is also the chapter with the well know quote, “…make me chaste and continent but not yet.”

I note two other lines that I must count as favorites of mine:

“I was stripped naked and my conscience cried out against me: can you not hear me?”

“I was lost and overwhelmed in a terrible kind of shame.”

I must quote the last part of the final paragraph of the chapter, as I think it is a very acute description of not only Augustine’s conflict but our own:

“When the story was over and the business about which he had come had been settled he went away, and I retired unto myself. Nor did I leave anything unsaid against myself. With every scourge of condemnation I lashed my soul on to follow me now that I was trying to follow you. And my soul hung back; it refused to follow, and it could give no excuse for its refusal. All the arguments had been used already and had been shown to be false. There remained a mute shrinking; for it feared like death to be restrained from the flux of a habit by which it was melting away in death.”

[This “lashing of the soul” is exactly the kind of trouble I’m having motivating myself to finish this blog!]

Augustine, the intellectual giant whose thought towers over all of Christian philosophy and is second only to St. Paul in Christian influence, could not bring himself to the gospel by argument. It took massive amounts of shame and guilt to bring him to the brink.

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