Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Brief Reflection on St. Augustine's Confessions

Humility has a very special place in Saint Augustine’s Confessions.[1]  Though he writes rather extensively on virtues, be they kindness, love, charity, and so forth, it must be stated that humility is particularly set apart.  What is so significant about humility for Augustine?  What does this reveal about his personal life?  How does humility inform how we think of Holy Scripture and how it is appropriated?  What does Augustine’s concentration on the virtue of humility mean in light of his conversion to the catholic faith?  What bearing does it have upon his conception of God?  Any of these questions deserve a great deal of attention and can hardly be exhausted.  I will however, provide a brief meditation on Augustine’s thinking on humility and its implications for Christology and Christian living.      

In the narrative of Augustine’s conversion, the primal sin of pride is set in direct opposition to humility.  It is precisely pride, the desire to be something other than what man authentically is in Christ, which wages war against Augustine in his desire to fully belong to God, and thereby enter into the catholic faith.  Augustine roots pride in the first sin and the consequent fall, “My stiff neck took me further and further away from you.  I love my own ways, not yours.  The liberty I loved was merely that of a runaway.”[2]  Pride, like evil itself, is irrational like the wandering of the prodigal Son.  Augustine reflecting upon stealing the pears recalls, “I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself.”[3]        
Prior to Augustine’s conversion he is primarily seeking one thing, “I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardour in my heart.”[4]  This questing apart from God’s divine condescension and humility of Christ will of course be a disastrous course and a dangerous one.  Nevertheless, God is guiding and governing all things.  Therefore, this pilgrimage for wisdom is not an inherently evil or ungodly thing.  Movement and pilgrimage is good, for praise is the innermost and most powerful desire of man.  As Augustine opens his confessions, “our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[5]  For in seeking him they find him, and in finding they will praise him.

That main obstacle that clings to Augustine, which for so long delays his conversion and baptism is pride.  This willful pride which directs the orientation away from God is not simply some vice or personal shortfall for Augustine.  Pride is that which places one in direct opposition toward God as He is.  Augustine often links pride with a willful wandering “but I traveled away from you into a far country to dissipate my substance on meretricious lusts.”[6] Pride moves one toward a dissolution and fragmentation of the self.  Though pride and the pleasures of lusts come with certain promises, be they wisdom or enjoyment, honor or prestige, the result is the exact opposite.  Augustine in book XIII reflects upon the corrosive nature of pride and its consequence:

The haughtiness of pride, the pleasure of lust, and the poison of curiosity (1 Jn. 2:16) are the passions of a dead soul.  The soul’s death does not end all movement.  It’s ‘death’ comes about as it departs from the fount of life, so that it is absorbed by the transitory world and conformed to it.[7]   
The haughtiness of pride therefore brings with it death.  A life filled with willful pride moves one to be cut off from the very source of life, and is therefore conformed to the transitory world bringing about what amounts to self-extinction – to be something other than what man truly is – in fact to be nothing at all.  All of Augustine’s wanderings and intellectual achievements in the public arena as rhetor, professor, intellectual, follower of Mani, and neo-Platonist, ultimately does not result in continence and rest in God.  As Augustine begins to make certain discoveries in his pilgrimage, it is precisely the on-going battle with intellectual pride that stands in his way. 

As humility begins to be revealed to Augustine, it is not humility as such that is found, certainly not as a particular virtue or ethical principle.  At this point Augustine is able to confess, “The Word was made flesh, so that our infant condition might come to suck milk from your wisdom by which you created all things.  To posses my God, the humble Jesus, I was not yet humble enough.  I did not know what his weakness was meant to teach.”[8]  Augustine here reveals that humility is not a mere virtue among others, but has to do with the very existence and being of God Himself, and furthermore informs and shapes how Christ is appropriated to the sinner still bent on his own pride.  Though disillusioned with Manichaeism, the wisdom of the Platonists is not yet able to instruct him in what the “humble Jesus” is meant to teach.  Augustine writes: “Those pages do not contain the face of this devotion, tears of confession, your sacrifice, a troubled spirit, a contrite and humble spirit…In the Platonic books no one sings: ‘Surely my soul will be submissive to God…They disdain to learn from him, for he is meek and humble of heart.”[9] 

When it comes to Augustine’s conversion and the way of humility, the haughtiness of pride most importantly leads astray from a more complete Christology.  The way Augustine sets up the contradistinction between pride and humility it seems to point toward a misrepresentation of God.  Over and above all else, it is intellectual pride that cannot grasp the coming of God into the flesh, born in the form of a servant.  He writes, “You wanted to show me how you resist the proud and give grace to the humble,’ and with what mercy you have shown humanity the way of humility in that your Word was made flesh and dwelt among men”[10]  The way Augustine speaks of humility is that it is indeed the very portal for knowing God and knowing one’s very self.  Humility is “the way,” for Augustine, and descriptive of who God is in his nature.  Through Augustine’s own narrative, he seems to make it clear that pride in one’s self distorts one’s conception of who God is and who He can be.  Apart from the exercise of humility, how could God become man and why would he be willing to do so?  What sense would there be in God humbling Himself in the form of a servant.  Augustine writes what he considers to be his “principle error:”

In particular I had no hope that truth could be found in your Church, Lord of heaven and earth (Gen. 24:3), maker of all things visible and invisible.  The Manichees had turned me away from that.  I thought it shameful to believe you to have the shape of the human figure, and to be limited by the bodily lines of our limbs...That was the principle and almost sole cause of my inevitable error.[11] 
Augustine’s feverish quest for knowledge and understanding in a sense undermines the search for continence that he is truly seeking, insofar as he seeks mere knowledge and noetic understanding apart from the wisdom of the Incarnation.  Eventually, his intellectual pursuits lead him to despair and disillusionment, “I had no confidence, and had lost hope that truth could be found…I had lost all hope of discovering the truth.”[12]   Only very slowly does Augustine come to see that God is not to be sought above but rather below.  His own life bears witness to this movement.  Augustine writes of what must eventually take place, “They are no longer to place confidence in themselves, but rather to become weak.  They see at their feet divinity become weak by sharing in our coat of skin.”[13]  Therefore, Christian faith cannot be understood without seeing the humility of God Himself.  Only when we ourselves come down from our lofty places of pride can we see where God has come down to us.  There is two movements, God’s divine condescension to man to be among us in our scarred humanity, and man’s descent from his pride and vain spiritual imagination.  God works both descending movement.  Regarding Augustine’s own humbling he writes, “My memory calls me back to that period, and it becomes sweet for me, Lord, to confess to you by what inward goads you tamed me; how you level me by bringing down mountains and hills of my thoughts and made straight my crooked ways and smoothed my roughness.”[14]            

Humility, in addition to being a Christological reality, is also the hermeneutical key to reading and appropriating the Holy Scriptures.  Reflecting on his days in Milan and approaching the Scriptures for the first time he writes, “The Bible offered itself to all in very accessible words and the most humble style of diction.”[15]  In Augustine’s attempt to know and master, the simple humble texts of the Scriptures simply did not match the lofty prose of a Cicero, Seneca, or Virgil. Several years ago Benedict the XVI reflecting on Pope Gregory the Great spoke of humility, particularly in regards to approaching the Scriptures.  Benedict says Gregory:

“energetically underlines this function of [sacred Scripture]: To approach Scripture simply to satisfy one's desire to know, means to give in to the temptation of pride and thus expose oneself to the risk of falling into heresy. Intellectual humility is the main rule for one who seeks to penetrate supernatural realities flowing from the sacred book…He was profoundly impressed by the humility of God, who in Christ made himself our slave; he washed and washes our dirty feet.[16]

Benedict went on to reflect on the ministry of the Gospel itself, saying that a bishop "must imitate this humility of God and, for love of God, be able to make himself the servant of all in a time full of tribulations and sufferings, to make himself the 'servant of the servants.”  Augustine and Benedict are of one mind here: humility is central to the Christian faith and life in the church.  Humility is descriptive of who God is and what man is in Christ for the neighbor. 

In the opening prayers of Confessions[17] it is clear that the narrative as a whole will be indecipherable if one does not well note Augustine’s highly developed Christology: “In seeking him they find him, and in finding they will praise him.  Lord, I would seek you, calling upon you – and calling upon you is an act of believing in you.  You have been preached to us.  My faith, Lord, calls upon you.  It is your gift to me.  You breathed it into me by the humanity of your Son, by the ministry of your preacher.”[18]  The union of Christ’s humanity and His divinity, as second Person of the Trinity is no doubt central for the Confessions.  As Augustine moves away from Manichean error toward neo-Platonism, and finally conversion, it is ultimately the “door” of the Incarnate Word that must be opened to him.      

            Augustine writes, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives and the door is opened to the one who knocks’ (Matt. 7:7-8).  These are your promises, and when the promise is given by the Truth, who fears to be deceived?”[19]  In short, the door by which Augustine enters is the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, found in the scriptures and sacraments.  Although the Oxford printing heads this particular section with the title, “The Bible is the firmament,” I am not sure that Augustine himself would use this language, although he does write, “you have stretched out the firmament of your book like a skin.”[20]  These scriptures however, for Augustine, are not a book as such, but rather the viva vox of a God who speaks, “marvelously speaking and marvelously creating in Your Word, Who is Your Son and Your strength and Your Wisdom and Your Truth”[21]  In this way, Augustine can speak of the sacred writings as flesh and skin, for the content is Christ.  This can best be seen in chapter 13 where the first few chapters of Genesis are opened up not as some ancient biblical history but as descriptive of the catholic church by way of preaching, sacraments, and worship.        

Augustine would no doubt link his conversion with Holy Baptism, in which he took off his doctor’s robe along with the wisdom of the world, to descend into the wisdom of Christ.  Although his conversion is found here, it must not be seen as a mere punctiliar or episodic event.  Augustine’s conversion was long and drawn out, like many a post-modern man’s pilgrimage through a treacherous and dark forest of prideful ambitions, dangerous sects, and heresies, which all threaten to damn and confound.  Augustine begins his Confessions with the prayer, “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[22]  Therefore, the door by which Augustine enters through the scriptures and through the person of Christ, though rooted in baptism is a pilgrimage, to be sure – a lifelong journey to find rest in God Himself.    

Augustine’s allusion to the door in light of Matthew 7:7-8 must be seen through the story of his conversion.  The birthpangs of conversion in Book VIII, I believe, is a fine place to start.  In many ways, the conversion of Victorinus prefigures his own conversion.  Victorinus, an African professor of rhetoric himself, and translator of Neo-Platonic writing, might stand as a sort of microcosm of the entire narrative of Confessions.  Here the great scholar, rhetor of Rome, confesses the catholic faith on the plank before the marveling crowd of commoners, and descends into holy baptism.  Like Augustine, he had not held the catholic faith to be the embodiment of faith, and to a greater extent than Augustine had been hostile to the primitive religion: “The old Victorinus had defended these cults (pagan) for many years with a voice terrifying to opponents.  Yet he was not ashamed to become the servant of your Christ, and an infant born at your font, to bow his head to the yoke of humility and to submit his forehead to the reproach of the cross.”[23]  We learn that his conversion was brought forth by Simplicianus, who urged Victorinus to the reading of Holy Scripture, along with the fatherly admonition, “I shall not believe that or count you among the Christians unless I see you in the Church of Christ.”[24]  Augustine links the conversion of Victorinus with the Prodigal Son, and therefore links the conversion to his very own.  The dramatic conversion and baptism of the famous rhetor personifies the narrative of Augustine’s Confessions.  The primal sin of pride, to rise over and against where God’s has placed one’s self, is at last overcome by virtue of humility and divine life in holy baptism and Christ’s cross.     

During this time, Augustine felt increasing anxiety about his metaphysical speculations and philosophies independent of an external authority, “I chattered away as somebody in the know…Had I continued to be such an expert, I should have gone to my destruction.”[25]  What follows is a discourse on the Romans 7, as a reflection upon Augustine’s sparring with lusts and the chains of sexual desire.  Soon “Lady Continence” beckons Augustine toward a more chaste and pious life:

To receive and embrace me she stretched out pious hands, filled with numerous good examples to follow.  There were large numbers of boys and girls, a multitude of ages, young adults and grave widows and elderly virgins.  In every one of them was Continence herself, in no sense barren but ‘the fruitful mother of children’, the joys born of you, Lord, her husband.  And she smiled on me with a smile of encouragement as if to say: ‘Are you incapable of doing what these men and women have done?  Do you think them capable of achieving this by their own resources and not by the Lord their God?[26]
It is hard to over-emphasize this particular passage and its significance as Augustine will soon be converted, entering in through the narrow door.  It shows the condescension that man himself must make to be made a partaker in God’s love and His grace.  The example for a wisdom par excellence is set by children, boys and girls, grave widows and elderly virgins.  The icons of wisdom are no longer Cicero or contemporary neo-Platonists.  His entrance into Truth and the catholic church will not be some intellectual pursuit or worldly quest for a hidden wisdom, but is rather predicated upon a humility that allows one to be dependent upon another.  Not dependent in the Schleiermacher sense of “ultimate dependence,” but rather upon a piety of posture that is despairing of one’s self, open to being addressed and spoken to by another – namely Christ.[27]  It is this realization and shifting of orientation that plants Augustine in a state of lament under the fig tree, where he weeps in the language of the Psalter.  The allusion of Adam is no doubt clear (Gen. 3:7, Jn 1:48), and one might even anticipates God’s own corresponding lament, “Where are you?” 

It is in this state of bitter agony and despair that Augustine hears a child, saying, “Pick up and read, pick up and read.”[28]  Under the fig tree, despairing of his own resources, only now is he ready to open up the Scriptures by way of humility.  Concerning the Scriptures, Augustine recounted in an earlier stage of his life, “I was not in any state to be able to enter into that, or to bow my head to climb its steps…My inflated conceit shunned the Bible’s restraint, and my gaze never penetrated to its inwardness…I disdained to be a little beginner.  Puffed up with pride, I considered myself a mature adult.”[29]  Receiving the Scriptures, hearing them, and being addressed by them required a certain humility, which at earlier stages of Augustine’s life was simply not possible, “the Bible did not stand out by its high authority and if it had not drawn crowds to the bosom of its holy humility.”[30]      

As the voice of the child beckoned him to the reading of the scriptures, we find that his countenance changed and in turn he interprets the voice as “a divine command to me to open the book and read the first chapter I might find.”  Upon reading from Paul, “All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.  Then I inserted my finger or some other mark into the book and closed it.”[31]  It does not seem a stretch of the imagination to see that Augustine has Thomas in mind, who demands to see and stick his fingers right in Christ’s side.  It is fascinating that Augustine links Thomas’s encounter with the risen Christ to his immersion in the Holy Scriptures.  The significance lies in the fact that the sum and substance of the Scriptures is the Word made flesh.  That is to say Christ is the content of the Scriptures.  Therefore, Augustine can pray, “Who but you, O God, has made for us a solid firmament of authority over us in your divine scripture?  For the ‘heaven will fold up like a book’ (Is. 34:4), and now ‘like a skin it is stretched out’ above us.”[32]  As Thomas was presented with the risen Christ as God and Lord, Augustine encounters God in the experience and exercise of Scripture and His Word.  The Scriptures are not simply a text, but descriptive of the activity of the love between Christ and His Church mediated by the Word and sacraments.   

[1] Henry Chadwick. Saint Augustine: Confessions. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2009.
[2] 38.
[3] 29.
[4] 39.
[5] 3.
[6] 70.
[7] 291.
[8] 128.
[9] 131.
[10] 121.
[11] 85.
[12] 90.
[13] 128.
[14] 159.
[15] 96. 
[18] 3.
[19] 246.
[20] 282.
[21] 225.
[22] 3.
[23] 135.
[24] 136. 
[25] 126.
[26] 151. 
[27] I find that most adult Christian converts begin entry in the church by way of desperation, more so than any other particular factor. 
[28] 152.
[29] 40.
[30] 96. 
[31] 153.
[32] 282.

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