Category Archives: Augustine

Augustine on a Drunk Homeless Man–Augustine Again

I’m so glad I’ve been able to pick up Augustine’s Confessions again, and came across this passage of Augustine’s reflections on his encounter with a drunk homeless man. I love how it doesn’t go in the expected, modern direction (why is the man homeless? should the man be drunk?), but swerves into profound spiritual reflection instead:

My heart was panting with these anxieties, and boiling with the feverishness of consuming thoughts. For, passing through one of the streets of Milan, I observed a poor beggar, then, I suppose, with a full belly, joking and joyous: and I sighed, and spoke to the friends around me, of the many sorrows of our frenzies; for that by all such efforts of ours, as those wherein I then toiled dragging along, under the goading of desire, the burden of my own wretchedness, and, by dragging, increased it, we yet looked to arrive only at that very joyousness that the beggar-man had arrived before us, who should never perchance attain it.

For what he had obtained by means of a few begged pence, the same was I plotting for by many a toilsome turning and winding; the joy of a temporary happiness. For he verily had not the true joy; but yet I with those my ambitious designs was seeking one much less true. And certainly he was joyous, I anxious; he void of care, I full of fears.

But should any ask me, had I rather be merry or fearful? I would answer merry. Again, if he asked had I rather be such as he was, or what I then was? I should choose to be myself, though worn with cares and fears; but out of wrong judgment; for, was it the truth? For I ought not to prefer myself to him, because more learned than he, seeing I had no joy therein, but sought to please men by it; and that not to instruct, but simply to please.

Away with those then from my soul who say to her, “It makes a difference whence a man’s joy is. That beggar-man joyed in drunkenness; you desired to joy in glory.” But even as his was no true joy, so was the glory I sought no true glory: and it overthrew my soul more. He that very night should digest his drunkenness; but I had slept and risen again with mine, and was to sleep again, and again to rise with it, how many days, Thou, God, knowest.

But “it doth make a difference whence a man’s joy is.” I know it, and the joy of a faithful hope lies incomparably beyond such vanity. Yea, and so was he then beyond me: for he verily was the happier; not only for that he was thoroughly drenched in mirth, I disemboweled with cares: but he, by fair wishes, had gotten wine; I, by lying, was seeking for empty, swelling praise.”

  • Augustine, Confessions, Book VI*

I started Confessions last year and look forward to finishing it! This ancient man has a reputation for a reason, and his words hit us in the heart even today.

*Note: I simplified a few of the more difficult phrases in the translation I happened to find, so look up the full version if you want to quote this 🙂

 

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Shocked by Augustine’s Confessions

Lately I’ve had the leisure to do some more quality reading, as I’ve been laid up with an injury, and I’ve found myself facing Augustine’s Confessions without an excuse. So I dove into it. And I was quite shocked—not by any of his confessions (so far), but how readable it is. You always imagine classics to be quite unreadable, which doesn’t really make any sense, because how could anything become a classic unless people read it? But anyway…

The best thing about the first few chapters (and I’ve only read the first few chapters so far) is all of Augustine’s questions. Instead of doing what most books do, which is pose a question (Why does a good God allow evil? etc.) and then answer it, Augustine just poses questions. Each chapter is just a block of questions directed towards God, and Augustine doesn’t even pretend he has answers to most of them. If he has part of an answer, or a thought about the answer, he’ll say it, but it’s not from a position of authority. His bits of answers are not presented as definitive. He just lets his mind go wild with wonder over God.

I’d give a few examples, but to baldly state the questions in my own words destroys his beautiful wording of them. I’ll just say one or two—for example, haven’t you ever wondered whether you have to know God first before you cry out to him, or if you can cry out to him in order to know him? And haven’t you ever wondered how a God who’s outside time, and created time, experiences time?

The unexpected thing about this is Augustine is such a revered figure in the church. He’s more or less the ancestor of most of the churches that exist. So much of Christian theology has roots that go back to his writings. So I expected him to present himself as an expert.

And it was refreshing because I haven’t read a book that admitted it didn’t have the answers for a long time. Most often people write books because they do think they have the answers. Or they write because they think people need the answers, so they cobble together some kind of explanation. They know their book won’t attract our precious divided attention if they don’t make bold claims.  Augustine shocked me because he’s not presenting himself as the pattern the church after him should follow, even though the church does. (At least, he doesn’t present that way in the first part of The Confessions.) If anyone has a right to make bold claims, it would be Augustine, of all writers.

The second really cool thing about The Confessions is that, unlike if I was the one asking the questions, Augustine is able to ask them without a trace of cynicism. He doesn’t resent God for not providing answers to them. Somehow Augustine is able to put down all his wonderment with the deepest humility, and in a fever of steadfast love. He’s asking because he loves God. He wonders because a person is obviously interested in the things they love.

I can only hope I present a similar attitude one day.

I’ve only just started The Confessions, so I might have a few different thoughts once I’ve gotten farther in I’m only on Book I, Chapter 7, so I’m sure you could easily catch up with me before I come up with anything more to say.

If someone had wanted me to read The Confessions before now (and I don’t get the feeling anyone really did, as it was rarely on recommended reading lists), they should not have described it as Augustine’s autobiography, or however else people describe the book. They should’ve said, “Here’s a guy who lived a couple thousand years ago, who has a mind that works just like yours.” It’s crazy to reach across the centuries and find a thought pattern that feels familiar.

And as for the unanswered questions? This is what Augustine says about them:

“Let [people] ask what it means, and be glad to ask: but they may content themselves with the question alone. For it is better for them to find you, God, and leave the question unanswered than to find the answer without finding you.”

 

UPDATE: An updated version of this post is available at the Reformed Perspective!

 

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