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Nov 12, 2022 183 Father Sean Davidson
Engage

Free at Last!

It is a relentless saga when trying to find the truth but a quick renewal when truth itself finds you

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was once asked what book he would want to have with him if ever he found himself stranded on a desert island. Along with the Bible he chose St Augustine’s Confessions. Some might have found the choice surprising but I think I agree. Having just gone through the book again for the fourth or fifth time I found myself even more engrossed in it than ever before. The first half of the book which recounts his conversion story is especially engaging.

Like The Story of a Soul by St Thérèse this book feels at once more familiar after several readings and yet somehow more filled with new lights. What St Augustine does is to instruct us in how to pursue something which is fundamental to spiritual growth, namely, the attainment of self-knowledge. He traces the thread of the working of God’s grace, as well as his own sinfulness, from his earliest memories right through to the time of his conversion and beyond. He even goes back further than his own memories can take him and writes of what he was told of his babyhood by others. The little detail about him being prone to laughter during his sleep as a baby is particularly endearing.

After this fourth or fifth reading, I have been left pondering something which I would like to share with you in this short article. It has to do with the influence of his youthful friendships. Parents cannot be vigilant enough when it comes to the question of their children’s friends. So many of us have been drawn away from whatever little virtue we had in our youth by the example and enticement of our wayward companions. Augustine was no different. Life in the fourth century sounds surprisingly similar to life in our own day.

Pears and Peers

Augustine’s famous story of the stealing of the pears illustrates the point. He probes his memory for the motivation behind the decision to rob an orchard, even though he had better pears at home and wasn’thungry. Most of the pears ended up being thrown to the hogs. He knew full well at the time that what he was doing was an act of gratuitous injustice. Did he do evil then purely for the sake of doing evil? Yet, this is not the way that our heart is generally disposed. Sin in us is normally the perversion of some good. In this case, it was done out of a kind of rambunctious camaraderie and the mocking delight of a group of friends at the thought of the outrage of the owners of the orchard.

It was friendship gone awry that was its motive. Augustine would never have done such a thing alone, but only because he was spurred on by his peers. He was desperate to impress them and to have his share in their act of mindless mischief. Friendship is one of God’s greatest gifts, but friendship warped by sin can have ruinous effects. The eloquent lament of the saint unmasks its danger, “O friendship all unfriendly! You strange seducer of the soul, who hungers for mischief from impulses of mirth and wantonness, who craves another’s loss without any desire for one’s own profit or revenge—so that, when they say, “Let’s go, let’s do it,” we are ashamed not to be shameless.” (Confessions. Book II, 9).

Captivity

There is a similar pattern in relation to the sin which would become fatal poison for Augustine’s soul and which could have led to his eternal perdition. The sin of lust also took hold of his heart as he journeyed with his friends ever further out upon what he calls the “stormy fellowship” of human life. In the company he kept during his teenage years it became the custom to want to outdo one another in lasciviousness. They would boast of their exploits and even exaggerate the real scale of their immorality to impress one another. The only thing that they were by now ashamed of was innocence and chastity. His holy mother had warned him sternly in his sixteenth year to avoid fornication and to stay away from other men’s wives. He would later write to the Lord about his arrogant dismissal of her admonitions, “These appeared to me but womanish counsels, which I would have blushed to obey. Yet they were from Thee, and I knew it not.” (Confessions.Book II, 3) What began with one or two sins of the flesh became a habit before long, and sadly for Augustine, this evil habit would later begin to feel like a necessity. What started as a boast to his friends finally enchained his will and took on a life of its own within him. The demon of lust had found its doorway into the throne room of his soul through a vain longing to impress.

The Spark of Truth

After reading Cicero at age nineteen, the saving grace of his intellectual quest to discover wisdom was sparked off. This passionate search would lead him through the study of different schools of philosophy, gnosticism, and a prolonged pondering of the problem of evil. All the while, this journey ran parallel to the sexual immorality which had engulfed his life. His mind was groping upwards for light, but his will was still mired in the mud of sin. The climactic point of this journey, when both tendencies within him would at last clash violently, came at around the age of thirty-two. It was then that the struggle which would determine his eternal fate—and whether or not he would become a light for all subsequent generations of Christians or simply disappear into darkness—broke into a raging interior inferno.

After listening to the sermons of the great Saint Ambrose and after reading the letters of Saint Paul, there could be no more doubt in his mind that in the Catholic Church alone would he find the truth he had always sought. It was clear to him now that Jesus Christ was his heart’s true desire and yet he was powerless to break the chains of lust which had shut that same heart up in a prison of vice. He was too sincere in the face of truth to think that he could ever come to life in Christ without a willingness to die to grave sin.

War and Liberation

The final battle which would decide the war for his soul followed upon a discussion with his friends about some illustrious Romans who had left everything behind to follow Christ. (Now the presence of good friends was beginning to right the wrongs of youth.) Seized with a holy desire to follow the example of the saints, and yet unable to do so because of his attachment to lust, an emotional Augustine stormed out of the house into the garden. Seeking out a place of solitude, he allowed the tears of regret and inner frustration to finally flow freely. They were to prove cleansing tears.

The moment had at last come when he was ready to let go. He consented to release his grip on sin for good. No sooner had this holy spiritual desire overcome his inordinate desire for physical pleasure than he heard a child’s voice singing repeatedly, “Take and read.” He interpreted this as a command from Almighty God placed upon the lips of babes. Rushing back to the house to take up the book of Saint Paul’s letters which he had left on the table, he told himself that he would accept whatever words his eyes first fell upon as an expression of the will of God for his life. This was what he read, “Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Romans 13:13-14)

Triumph

Along with these words of Sacred Scripture, supernatural light was infused into his soul. Only moments after truly desiring to be delivered for the first time ever, deliverance was now his. The chains which had fettered his will for so long, subjecting it to the tempestuous rule of the passions, had been smashed to pieces by the grace of Christ the Liberator. His tormented soul was permitted to enter instantly into joy, peace, and the freedom of the children of God. In that momentous hour for the whole Church, the man once enslaved to lust through the unfortunate company kept as a youth had died and one of the most influential saints of all time had suddenly come to life.

Looking back years later, it was hard for the saint to believe that he could have ever allowed such paltry trifles to hold him back from the Lord and the ecstatic joys that would be given him in Christ. He had been like one clinging desperately to worthless trinkets while priceless treasure was held out to him. The Protestant scholar R.C. Sproul sums up the consensus of all Christians about the monumental importance of what happened on that day, “If there is any giant that stands out in the history of the Church as the man upon whose shoulders the whole history of theology stands, it is a man by the name of Aurelius Augustine, Saint Augustine.”

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Father Sean Davidson

Father Sean Davidson is parish priest of St Joseph’s Parish and Eucharistic Shrine in Stockport, Greater Manchester, UK.

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