“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” ~ Proverbs 27:16
Augustine breezed through his studies in Carthage and began his teaching career at the age of twenty, returning initially to his hometown after the death of his father. He brought two things with him, to the dismay of his mother Monica – he had fallen into the arms of a woman whom he did not marry but with whom he had a son. And he had fallen into the arms of a rapidly growing gnostic cult known as Manichaeism.
Monica was far more disturbed by his departure from Christianity, and initially refused to even eat with him. But through a dream she claimed was from God, she became assured of her son’s future conversion and relaxed her strictures.
There is little doubt that one of the stabilizing forces in Augustine’s life during his turbulent twenties was his orbit of family (represented by Monica) and friends. Monica is never far from her son (to his great irritation at times – she might be labeled a helicopter parent in our day).
What also stands out in Confessions is that Augustine is always in the company of friends, whom he naturally gathers around him because of his engaging personality, but whom he also intentionally seeks out, because he knows that he needs them.
Despite his razor-sharp intellect and assured manner, Augustine is humble enough to allow his friends to have access to his heart and speak into his life. When the death of his closest friend sends him sinking into depression, it is other friends who lift him up. When he struggles to emerge from the Manichaean fog, it is a friend who helps give him doctrinal clarity. When he cannot see how to break his addiction to sex, he seeks counsel from a wise and older believer. Naturally, on the day of his break-through and conversion, he is with friends.
If in your own struggle for purity you are convinced that you can do this on your own, just you and Jesus, you could not be more mistaken. Jesus loves you too much to allow you to do life solo, apart from community. He intentionally mediates his presence and power to us through others. “When two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them,” Jesus said (Matthew 18:20). If Augustine had no qualms about this, neither should you. Your freedom is waiting in the presence of family and friends.
The Love Of A Mother
One can’t help but think of the complicated and deep relationship Jesus must have had with Mary when reading how Augustine describes his mother. It some respects, she is the quintessential “spiritual mother”, her love for her son exceeded (only slightly at times) by her love for her Lord. Augustine describes her as a woman of constant prayer and piety.
She tried to enlist the help of a local bishop to go to Augustine and show him the error of his Manichean ways, but the bishop refused, saying that her son was too full of himself, ‘not yet fit to be taught’. Let him alone and keep praying, the bishop counseled her. Monica left Augustine alone, but not the bishop, whom she continued to pester, begging and weeping for him to reconsider. Exasperated, the bishop finally showed her the door once and for all, but added, “As you live, it is impossible that the son of these tears should perish.” (3:12)
Several years later when Augustine relocated to Milan, his mother followed, determined to see her son brought to faith. When her ship was nearly wrecked at sea, Augustine casts his mother in the mold of Paul the Apostle from Acts 27. “It was she who put fresh heart into the sailors although as a rule it is for the sailors to reassure the passengers…But she promised them that they would get safely to land because you had promised this to her in a vision.” (6:1) The bishop of Milan, the famed Ambrose, quickly came to adore Monica, and congratulated Augustine for ‘having such a mother.’
Shortly after her arrival, Augustine sent away his concubine – whom he never named but clearly loved – and prepared for marriage to a proper Christian girl from a respectable (i.e. rich) family, the only problem being the girl was still two years away from the legal marriageable age. Augustine says of this, “In all of this my mother played a large part.”
It seems like meddling – and the courtship practices of the fourth century are clearly perplexing to us in the 21st – but Monica’s help in blowing up this comfortable charade of a “marriage” invariably drives Augustine closer to his conversion.
Upon his conversion, Monica is among the first that Augustine tells, and a year later, shortly after his baptism, Monica dies, but not before she and Augustine share a spiritually intimate conversation that is one of the most beautifully written in all of Confessions (9:10).
In it, Augustine describes how he and Monica try to envision what it would be like to quiet every noise, and tune out every sensory perception, and transcend any sense of self until all that was visible and audible was only Jesus. Augustine is trying to convey the thought that for as strong a bond as can exist between a mother and child, there is a deeper bond yet to be experienced, and for a fleeting moment, Augustine and Monica catch a glimpse of it. And when it is over, Monica says to her son, “So what am I doing here?” Five days later, she succumbs to a fever and dies.
In time, Monica would be venerated by the Catholic church for the example she set of a praying, faithful mother. (and here’s a fun fact: Santa Monica, California was even named after her). In Augustine’s eyes, his mother was one of God’s mightiest tools in bringing him to faith, without whose intercession and intervention he would have been lost. If you have warriors of faith within your family, Augustine would encourage you to be open with them about your struggles, however painful or embarrassing it might seem at first.
The Love Of A Friend
The incident of the death of his close friend is worth a closer look because Augustine goes on at length about it, then draws from it deeper reflections on the theme he first began to explore when recounting the theft of the pears – that evil originates when we love lesser things with the love that we owe God.
Augustine’s description of this unnamed friend leaves no doubt that this was what some would call a “bosom” friendship. “My soul could not be without him,” Augustine writes (but it would be a mistake to attribute homoerotic affection to this friendship simply because it was close – which is sadly where many modern readers have been conditioned to go in their thinking. Augustine is transparent enough to have told us if that were so.)
His recollection is tinged with regret though because Augustine influenced his friend to embrace Manichaeism. Shortly afterwards, his friend fell violently ill, and while he hovered between life and death, other friends came who baptized him into Christianity while he was unconscious. Then miraculously, his friend temporarily recovered. Augustine told his friend about the baptism assuming that he would laugh along with him of how comically desperate it was, but instead, his friend “shrunk back from me as though I were an enemy” and warned Augustine to stop talking about Manichaeism. A short time later, his friend lapsed, and suddenly died, sending Augustine into an inconsolable grief, which he writes about with incomparable pathos.
My heart was darkened over with sorrow and whatever I looked at was death. My own country was a torment to me, my own home was a strange unhappiness…My eyes looked for him everywhere and could not find him. And as to the places where we used to meet I hated all of them for not containing him…For I felt that my soul and my friend’s had been one soul in two bodies, and that was why I had a horror of living, because I did not want to live as a half being… I could not rest, I could not think intelligently…There was no rest for it anywhere – not in pleasant groves, not in games and singing, not in sweet-smelling gardens, not in fine banquets, not in the pleasures of the bed, not in the reading of books, nor in poetry. I loathed everything…” (4:4, 4:5, 4:7)
For Augustine the bishop, there was no doubt that God took his friend to save him – to save him from himself, whose heresy nearly brought about his friend’s damnation. It was that ‘near miss’ that causes Augustine to reflect further on the intensity of his grief, and how misguided it was in light of eternity.
The reason why that great sorrow of mine had pierced into me so easily and so deeply was simply this: I had poured out my soul like water onto sand by loving a man who was bound to die just as if he were an immortal. (4:8)
Augustine thought this friendship was a pleasure he would be able to enjoy unendingly. Which of course was utter foolishness, since everything on earth ends, but one thing – God. This being the case, the only way a pleasure, like friendship, cannot be lost is to love it in God – by allowing it to pass through your hands, enjoying it in its time, then giving it back to God.
Blessed is the man who loves you, who loves his friend in you, and his enemy because of you. He alone loses no one dear to him, for they are all dear to him in one who is not lost. And who is this except our God, the God who made heaven and earth and who fills them…Wherever man’s soul turns, except toward you, it is fixed to sorrows, even if it fixes itself on things of beauty outside you and outside itself. These things of beauty would have no existence at all unless they were from you. (4:9, 4:10)
Everything in existence on this side of eternity – even time itself – has a beginning, middle and end. We see this law at work even in our very speaking. The first words we speak in a sentence must go and make room for the next to follow, or the meaning of the complete sentence could not be appreciated. So it must be with the pleasures of life. We cannot hang on to things too tightly.
Instead what we must do is love, then let go, and give back to God. And if we see things properly – through the lens of eternity – we will learn to gladly let go, for in eternity we will receive the pleasure back from God, but this time, not just the tiny part we grasped on earth, but the entire, majestic whole.
What is withered in you will flower again, and all your illnesses will be made well, and all that was flowing and wasting from you will regain shape and substance and will form part of you again…and abide with you forever before God who stands and abides forever.
For those reading this who are addicted to porn or sexual pleasure, read these next two paragraphs carefully!
Why then be perverse, my soul, and why follow your own flesh? Will you not rather turn and let your flesh follow you? Whatever you perceive through the flesh you perceive only in part, and you are ignorant of the whole, of which these are parts; yet still these parts delight you. But if your bodily sense were capable of comprehending the whole…you would wish that everything in existence at the present moment would pass and go, so that you might have the greater pleasure of perceiving the entirety of things. (4:11)
If bodies please you, praise God for them and turn your love back from them to their Maker, lest you should displease him in being pleased by them. If souls please you, love them in God, because by themselves they are subject to change, but in him they are established firm; without him they would pass away and be no more. So you must love them in him and take with you to him as many souls as you can and say to them: ‘It is he whom we must love; he made all this and he is not far off.’ (4:12)
I hope in light of this discussion you are able to see your sin addiction in a new and liberating way. These words of Augustine’s, when first I read them, slammed against my frozen heart like an ice barge, and it didn’t take long for cracks to appear, and like spring returning to Narnia after that long frozen winter, I slowly came back to my senses, back to myself, back to my Lord. Augustine would summon you to do the same.
If you haven’t noticed, in these last few quotes, Augustine is no longer speaking to God, but he is speaking to us. He had the reputation of being one of the finest preachers in his age, and in the remainder of chapter 12, he allows his pen to preach – something he rarely does in Confessions. I can do no better than to allow the words of Augustine to ring out on their own as we finish this reading, and pray the Holy Spirit breaks your heart and brings you to your knees.
Return, sinners, to your own heart and cling to Him who made you. Stand in Him, and you shall stand fast; rest in Him, and you shall find peace. Where are you going to over those rough paths? Where are you going? The good that you love is from Him; but its goodness and sweetness is only because you are looking toward Him. It will rightly turn to bitterness if what is from Him is wrongly loved, He Himself being left out of the account.
What are you aiming at then, by going on and on walking along these difficult and tiring ways? There is no rest to be found where you are looking for it. Seek what you seek, but it’s not there where you are seeking. You seek a happy life in the country of death. It is not there. For how can life be happy, where there is no life?
But our Life came down to us and suffered our death and destroyed death by the abundance of His own life. And He thundered, calling us to return to Him…For He was not slow; He ran, crying aloud in His words, in His deeds, in His death, in His life, in His descent, in His ascension, crying and calling us to return to Him…
What ideas in this reading did you find helpful or challenging?
Do you have anyone like Monica in your family who cares about you enough to “meddle” with you?
Describe an experience of deep grief that you have had.
What do you think Augustine means when he says to love something “in God”? How would you think differently about sex if you loved it “in God”?
Prayer and Worship
“Father, I thank you for…”
“Father, please help me with…”
“Father, please be with…”
“In the name of Jesus, who died for my sins, who rose from the dead and who is with me now through the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Today’s Worship Suggestion: “How Great Is Our God” (Chris Tomlin)
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