The Question of Augustine

One of the wonderful moments in St. Augustine’s Confessions returned to me in force from out of the blue. Now, I’ve not been a Christian for long in my adult life, having been raised within the fold of the Church, but having fallen away for 20 years of my adult life until fairly recently. The point of that observation is that regular and ordinary Christian culture is often new to me. The point of that observation is that I have questions about my experiences now as a Christian for which I lack the context and background of one who has been within the community for that missing time as an adult. This question in turn requires a little background or stage setting, which in turn can be found below the fold.

One of the struggles that Augustine underwent and recounted in his Confessions was about chastity. He felt that he couldn’t become Christian unless he was celibate. Now he was, in his own view, something of a ladies man and had additionally a long term relationship with a woman whom by customs of the time because of station and class he would perhaps be unable to marry. Now today as then, normally becoming Christian did not automatically entail a vow of chastity, even if it did mean restricting sex only between those who were married. Yet for Augustine … this was not the case. And he makes the reason for this implicitly if not explicitly clear. Augustine could not be within the church without being celibate because he was too large for that. Augustine was destined for a life of intellectual and personal heroism. In secular life he was one of the most renowned rhetoricians … and he was reaching the height of his powers. Plato, Socrates, Thales, and Cicero have names which are remembered today because they had an unusual clarity of vision. Augustine recognised in himself that he was peer group. He could not be anything and apply himself fully to it, without that sort of renown.  Essentially Augustine could not become an “ordinary” Christian but knew that if he was to become Christian he could not do so without fully embracing the full heroic and complete vision of the Christian life. At that time the Christian heroic ideals was chaste, that is to say both unmarried and celibate.

It is true that today this particular vision of what constitutes Christian heroism has been uniquely rejected by the Protestant West, but that is not the point to which I am driving. Compared to the question to which I am aiming, it is comparatively unimportant (this is a hint that it this particular matter I hope will not become a highlight in the comment thread). The key element to be extracted from Augustine’s reflection is the following … and it is a point which might be asked even of persons in any walk of life. Augustine on reaching the threshold of becoming Christian put for himself the highest goal possible. If he was going to be Christian he was going to be a Saint (capitalised). He was not going to be ordinary. He was not going to be lukewarm about this thing but would embrace it fully with all his heart, with all his mind, and all his soul. He would put all his effort, all his training and skill in rhetoric to the service of God and the Church.

So, the question that arises is … why don’t I do the same? Why do I not aspire to be a capital “S” Saint? Why do I fail to seek that sort of life? For that matter, why don’t you? Or do you think that you do? One reason or excuse I give myself is that I have a responsibility to my children. But in a decade they will be out of the house. What will I (or should I) then do?

Or to make the question more generic. If you undertake to do anything, why would you not aspire to be a peer of those who are counted great in that field? Should aspirations of greatness not be a default?

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2 comments

  1. Else T. says:

    Mark, sounds like you are asking the question, “What is God’s will for me?” Last year I heard a lecture by Father Thomas Hopko, who was asked that question by one of his students. Fr. Thomas’ answer was “God’s will for you is what you are doing right now.” His point was that Jesus commands us to “live in the moment” when he said, “Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” We are not to worry about the future–He has that in His Hands. In addition, aspirations to be Someone are usually a sign of pride. The only way to know what to do (or what to be or what to aspire to, etc., etc.) is prayerfully ask God whilst trying to live the Orthodox life to the best of our ability and as led and helped by the Holy Spirit. Who are we to say we should be Anybody? In humility, we should be nobodies. That is why Jesus said, the last shall be first. Hang in there, brother, and keep walkin’ the walk. 🙂

  2. SheepInWolf'sClothing says:

    I have mixed feelings about Augustine- his conversion from Paganism (specifically Manichee and Gnostic philosophy) to Christianity seems a good story but he never escaped the philosophies of the old lies that he took comfort in originally. Though a student of the Bible, his attempts to rationalize Christianity met with a disaster that has radiated throughout history. Because of his Manichee philosophies about the evil of the flesh, Christianity as derived from Rome is not Biblical but derived from the doctrines of men. With his emphasis on hatred of the flesh, asceticism, and even meditation, Augustine molded Roman Catholicism into a Buddhism of the West.

    Later, in his “City of God”, he expounded that since the church doctrine was a source of salvation in the world, rather than Christ, Augustine created papal infallibility. This shaped history for centuries as loyalty to Rome was viewed as a substitute to loyalty to Christ. The Dark Ages occurred as a result and the lack of literacy would remain that way until the Reformation. The Popes would not provide Bibles in the vernacular languages, thus the common people of Europe became illiterate. In spite of living near large cathedrals (another Augustinian legacy of building impressive churches to show how “righteous” the state was), many of the Dark Agers never learned of God’s salvation plan for them. A Buddhism-like hatred of flesh and the natural world, submission to worldly authorities over God, and a belief that the church was the sole arbiter of God’s Word rather than the individual is Augustine’s contribution to Christianity.