True Confessions

So what is it with Augustine?

There are countless reasons to respect, revere and give one's life to studying Augustine, whose feastday was August 28, by the way, him being one of the cornerstones of Western Thought and all that, but my reliance on him as a reference point in my spiritual life is rooted, of course, in the Confessions, which I hope you might think about going back and reading or rereading.

What you'll find there, as I do every time I go back to it, is a startlingly honest account, contemptuous of the facile games of his culture.

I was expected to model myself upon men who were disconcerted by the rebukes they received when they used outlandish words or strange idioms to tell of some quite harmless thing they might have done, but revelled in the applause they earned for the fine flow of well-ordered and nicely balanced phrases with which they described their own acts of indecency… (Book I; 18)

(Quentin Tarrantino, anyone?)

We enjoyed playing games and were punished for them by men who played games themselves. However, grown up games are known as 'business.'

(Pastoral Council meetings, anyone?)

Through this the young Augustine waded, tempted by entertainment, partying, astrology, a religious system whose primary attraction was its release of the individual from responsibility for sin, and, of course, the warmth and joy that comes from friendships and from sex.

This is where Augustine gets a bad rap. “Oh yeah, Augustine. He was really wild for a long time, then he converted and calmed down” is the popular image of a long, very complicated and painful life.

Wrong. Augustine had his wild days, but they came early – when he was nineteen, he settled down with one woman – they never married- but he was faithful – with whom he stayed for fiftteen years, having a child named Adeodatus (gift of God).

But if he wasn't wild, Augustine makes it clear in the Confessions that sexual desire was the primary obstacle in his spiritual life- it was just too important to him, he hints.

Unfortunately, Augustine then universalizes his own experience into a theology of sexuality and marriage that hasn't been very good news for women over the past fifteen hundred years, but I'm sorry, that doesn't distract me from the power of his spiritual journey. I'd rather throw my lot in with Augustine, even with those reservations, than with post-Christian post-feminist womyn activists who see abortion as a sacred act.

Our Hearts are Restless, until they rest in Thee, O Lord.

That just about sums it up. Me and my restless heart turn to Augustine over and over again, searching out his life for my own insistence on depending on the temporal, my own pride in my achievements (hah!) and reputed but rarely evident intelligence, my excuses for not drawing completely and totally to God.

One of my favorite passages in the Confessions concerns that last point: excuses Augustines runs through explaining why he didn't turn his life over to God, despite knowing and even understanding the Truth:

Tomorrow I shall discover the truth…..Where am I going to get the books I need?….My pupils keep me busy all morning…..when could I visit my influential friends whose patronage I need?….It would need little effort to win myself a position of some standing in the world, and what more could a man ask?

How often have we lived out such excuses in our own lives? I'll get to that stuff later…when I'm older…when I have children…when the children leave home…as long as I'm not attached to my beach house, Lexus or my $300 shoes, it's okay, right?

As Augustine points out again and again – it's habit and will, habit and will. We get attached to those things by habit and then we choose to cling to them.

The fear, of course, is that in giving ourselves to God, we'll have to give something up.

And we will.

But is any of what we cling to really worth keeping anyway?

As an ever so with-it Catholic woman of the new millenium, I'm supposed to turn up my nose when he's mentioned, harrumph and steer my righteous self promptly in the other direction, probably towards some obscure Celtic mystic who left behind but twelve lines of verse scratched on the wall of her cave, describing God as the Glorious Bloody Pulsing Uterus, an image that the participants in the 2000 gathering of the womyn of SRYPB (Short for – Sophia Rules, You Patriarchal Bastards) may well have celebrated as the height of mystical awareness, but that actually emerged from a mind suffering severe protein depriviation due to the Great Famine of 1172.

No, I'm not supposed to like Augustine, since he's one of those sexophobic misogynist dead white patriarchal males. It's simply not done, you know. It's sort of like you're this crisply dressed VP of Something Important and you show up at the Christmas party with the wolf-whistling construction worker from across the street.

Good God, woman, the other Suits gasp, how could you?

I dunno, but gosh, isn't he dreamy?

It was away back in 1983 that I discovered Augustine – I mean really discovered him.

Not that the Catholic Church was in any way responsible, God forbid.

No, I'm a part of Generation CCD, in which religious educators suddenly decided that actually learning about faith was far less important than …coloring worksheets about it.

So the Future of the Church spent a lot of time making collages about the Movement of the Spirit in today's world, discussing the moral dimension of current events, mostly the drinking age, listening to Jesus Christ Superstar and meditating along with songs by James Taylor and Bread.

There was an almost pathological reaction against making any references to any Big Dog official, really and truly canonized saint. On All Saints' Day, the focus was on reminding us that we're all saints. Saints in the making. Whatever. In textbooks, in between vast white spaces and questions asking us how we felt about the role of Young People in the Church of Today, there might be a figure held up for emulation, but it was invariably a Baptist or a Mennonite or something. Tom Dooley was big. Martin Luther King, Jr., of course.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. The nasty little risk, though is that such appeals can become rather awkward and dated with the passage of time. A few years back, when I becane a teacher myself, I opened up a social justice textbook and found a couple of pages highlighting Fr. Bruce Ritter. Whoops.

No, I was introduced to the glories of Augustine by a liberal Presbyterian divinity school professor who sported a Rainbow Coalition button on his lapel and peddled Sandinista-grown coffee beans in his spare time.

As we started our graduate seminar in Augustine, the professor tapped the volume lying on the seminar table in front of him.

“This book,” he said, “is one of the few works of Western literature in which every single line has incredible depth and nuance, and can be fruitfully be reread time and time again.”

The miracle of that seminar is that the professor – Eugene TeSelle, a noted Augustine scholar – managed to convince those students – mostly maintream Protestant divinity students with one little lone petrified Catholic girl thrown in the mix – that he was right- that the Confessions of Augustine is a unique, profound book that speaks to the truth of the spiritual journey in a way few others do.

I wrote a paper in that class, on the function of angels in Augustine's cosmology, as I recall. TeSelle thought it was a good topic, but I'll never forget him warning me, in his usual mild, slightly abstracted way, that I might not want to be spreading word of what I was doing among the other students – I suppose it was a little too straightforward in a time when the more correct subject of research would have been:

“But Not Yet: Repressed Phallic Imagery and the Use of the Word Seed in the Confessions: A Derridan Pperspective on the Hermeneutic of Conjunctions.”

Yeah, well. I got an A anyway.

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