Monday, 31 January 2011

Summary of Book VIII - Part 2

Having set the background, Augustine moves on to tell the story of how he was delivered from ‘the chain of sexual desire’. Augustine and his friend Alypius received a surprise visit from a baptized Christian believer named Ponticianus. Ponticianus shared the story of Antony the Egyptian monk. Augustine had never heard about the monk, and was even unaware of a monastery ‘full of good brothers’ outside of the Milan city walls. It was through this monastery that a friend of Ponticianus read the Life of Antony, and in reading was converted to the monastic way of life.

On hearing this story, Augustine despised his own hesitation about seeking wisdom and serving God fully. The day had come when his conscience started complaining against his own reservation and reluctance. After Ponticianus left Augustine moved out into his back garden, so that no-one could interfere with him in his struggle. In the agony of death Augustine was coming to life. Deeply disturbed, angry and in distress about his inability to enter into covenant with God, Augustine experienced the struggle of his two wills. He was powerless to make the change. As Augustine deliberated about serving God, he discovered that the self which willed to serve was identical with the self which was unwilling.

In his imagination, or in some form of vision, Lady Continence appeared to him. Augustine was made aware of numerous good examples that he could follow: all those who had achieved the very thing that Augustine desired. The Lord God had given all these people exactly what Augustine wanted too.

The debate in his heart was a struggle against himself. Augustine threw himself under a tree and repeatedly cried, “How long, O Lord? How long?” As he was saying this he heard a voice from a nearby house, repeating over and over again ‘Pick up and read, pick up and read.’ Taking the voice as a divine command, and reminded of how Antony had responded to a gospel reading, Augustine rushed back to his book, opened it and read the first passage his eyes fell on: “Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts.” A light of relief from all anxiety flooded his heart.

Alypius decided to join Augustine in his new found way of life. They went into the house and told Augustine’s mother, who was filled with joy at the answer to her prayers. The effect of Augustine’s conversion was that he no longer desired a wife, and he no longer had any ambition for success in the world.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Summary of Book VIII - Part 1

Simplicianus. Victorinus. Two wills. The law of sin.

Augustine begins this chapter by confessing God’s mercies over his life. He also admits to being certain about the nature of eternal life; as well as the idea of an ‘indestructible substance’ from which all other substances derive. His theological distinction between the eternal and the temporal is illustrated when he describes how he remained unstable and in need of purification of heart. Attracted to the Christian way, Augustine still needed to start walking on that way. He visited Simplicianus in Milan for counsel.

Career aspirations no longer gripped Augustine. But the attraction of marriage remained a problem. The problem he experienced – knowing St Paul’s teaching exhorting something better, but choosing the softer option – seemed to lead onto other anxieties and struggles. Augustine knew that he had discovered how the created things declare and witness to God and his Word. But he had to give up those things in his grip, in order to pick up the good pearl that he had discovered.

Simplicianus listened to Augustine, and shared stories and wisdom which helped his spiritual struggle. This included the example of Victorinus, a learned man expert in the liberal disciplines. Victorinus, after much reading and study of the Christian scriptures, eventually requested to join the Christian Church. He professed his faith in public just as he had taught rhetoric in public. Augustine comments on this example by describing how God and the heavens rejoice when the lost are found and recovered. The example of Victorinus was significant. A strong and influential man against Christ had been made fit to serve Christ’s cause.

Augustine was keen to follow that example. But two wills were struggling within him. Progress towards conversion was slow and gradual. Augustine interprets his experience with reference to Paul’s arguments about the flesh and the spirit in Galatians 5 and Romans 7. He no longer had the excuse of ignorance or lack of perception in relation to the truth. His lack of serving God totally and fully could only be explained by the law of sin, “the violence of habit by which even the unwilling mind is dragged down and held, as it deserves to be, since by its own choice it slipped into the habit.”

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Summary of Book VII - Part 2

Weakness. Strength. Christology. Breakthrough.

Augustine’s enjoyment of God was not stable. He describes his sexual habit as a weight which tore him away from God. Yet he was aware that his judgments about beauty and truth were based upon something outside of himself. The power and divinity of invisible God was visible in created things. But Augustine did not have the strength to hold on to this vision and insight.

It was only in Christ Jesus that he would learn how to retain joy. Augustine had to learn that the weakness of Jesus provided strength to those seeking God. The exact nature of the union of Word with flesh was more mysterious than Augustine had assumed. But this struggle was to help in future work prepared by God. God intended for Augustine to be shaped by Platonist thinking:

“…so that when later I had been made docile by your books and my wounds were healed by your gentle fingers, I would learn to discern and distinguish the difference between presumption and confession, between those who see what the goal is but not how to get there and those who see the way which leads to the home of bliss, not merely as an end to be perceived but as a realm to live in.”

Augustine seized upon the Scriptures, especially Paul. Suddenly the problems disappeared. All the truth that Augustine knew from other places was present along with God’s grace. Only in “the sacred writings of the Spirit” did Augustine find solution and remedy to the problems of his internal conflict and his weakness. The wretched man was now close to finding the Saviour who could deliver him safely to the heavenly city.