[INCARNATIONAL SERIES part 8]
According to Philip Sheldrake, author of A Brief History of Spirituality, Augustine viewed sin as an inwardization and privatization of one’s self. Sin, Augustine contested, was an indication that a person was living for himself. “The most insidious sin” in Augustine’s opinion, “was privacy or self-enclosure.”1 Not coincidently, this was precisely the sort of behavior Augustine had displayed in the years prior to his conversion and that he felt so ashamed off later. Ultimately, in his visionary work, City of God, where he paints the picture of an earthly city and one heavenly city that constantly interact with one another, the earthly city decays as it turns inward on itself.
Augustine’s constant temptation before his conversion was his desire to “sink back to [his] usual level of relapse.”2 Augustine argued that a person’s soul, “still groaning here, still bearing about the frailty of the flesh, sill in danger in the midst of the offenses of this world,” causes a person to draw back into himself. If a person’s soul were “to rest in itself,” Augustine suggested, “it would not see anything else beyond itself; and in seeing only itself it would certainly not see its God.”3 Having experienced this personally, he identified with the psalmist who peered inwardly and cried, ‘Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why do you disturb me?’4 Augustine confessed that he had turned too far inward during the days of his youth and as a result had wandered away from God. As a result, he lamented, he became to himself “a barren land.”5
The desolation of his soul was far from satisfactory for the restless scholar. For years he “looked for a way to obtain enough strength to enjoy” God. Relentlessly, but in vain, Augustine buried himself in the teachings of grand philosophies that claimed to be the pathways to spiritual wisdom. But all of his endeavors left him empty and exhausted inwardly. It wasn’t until he “embraced that ‘Mediator between God and human beings, Christ Jesus, himself human, who is God over all,”6 that his soul found “that object of it’s search.”7 Augustine recognized that it was not by his own doing, but by the transcendently relentless and passionate calling of God that he was pulled out of his inwardization.8 In Confessions, Augustine wrote:
“Our true life came down to this earth, and bore our death and killed it out of the abundance of his own life. Thundering loudly, he called to us to return to him into that secret place from which he came forth to us—coming first into the Virgin’s womb, where humanity was joined to him, our mortal flesh, that it might not be forever mortal, and from there, ‘like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course’ (Psalm 19:5). For he didn’t delay, but ran, calling loudly by words, deeds, death, life, descent, ascension, crying loudly for us to return to him.”
1 Sheldrake, Philip. A Brief History of Spirituality. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007, pp.30-31.
2 McGinn, 25.
3 Ibid., 23.
4 Psalm 41:6.
5 Augustine. You Converted Me: The Confessions of St. Augustine: Introduction and Notes by Tony Jones, Modernized Translation by Robert J. Edmonson, CJ. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006, 50. (henceforth referred to as YCM.)
6 Ibid., 189. See 1 Timothy 2:5, Romans 9:5.
7 McGinn, 23.
8 “You converted me to yourself.” (Augustine, YCM, 229) Also, “The reason that he confesses his sins in these pages isn’t to cleanse his soul, for he knows that his soul has already been cleansed by his confessing sins to God and by the love of Christ. No, he confesses his sins in print so that he can make the same point over and over: In spite of Augustine’s sinful ways, God had his hand on young Augustine all along. That’s why, at many points, Augustine quits telling his story and virtually breaks out in song to God… Not only is Augustine confessing his sins, but also he’s confessing to the world his faith in Christ. And, most important, he’s confessing his love for God. The Confessions, in fact, are written to God.” (YCM, Tony Jones prologue, xiv)
9 ibid., 91-92.