Angst, Adolescence and Spiritual Life
The introduction Book 2 of the Confessions starts with a summary that could be helpful. “He concentrates here on his sixteenth year, a year of idleness, lust, and adolescent mischief. The memory of stealing some pears prompts a deep probing of the motives and aims of sinful acts. “I became to myself a wasteland.”
Even those who are only slightly familiar with Saint Augustine might know that he had quite the conversion story. So it should come as no surprise that for him his adolescence might have presented a few challenges for him, especially given what we have already read.
But for most of us this time of adolescence is not really an easy time at all. The transition from childhood to adulthood is generally not something easy for anyone. But given that Saint Augustine is really a powerful and great saint, his struggles should provide for us some hope.
The autobiography provides for us the challenges he faced. “For as I became a youth, I longed to be satisfied with worldly things, and I dared to grow wild in a succession of various and shadowy loves. My form wasted away, and I became corrupt in thy eyes, yet I was still pleasing to my own eyes–and eager to please the eyes of men.” This sounds like something every adolescent could write.
To love and be loved
“But what was it that delighted me save to love and to be loved?” This is a really important question, isn’t it? And isn’t this question behind so much of anyone’s life, regardless of their age? It is true for all of us that we desire this. Of course the challenge is such that we do not always seek to fulfill this desire in ways that lead to true fulfillment because we often settle for less.
In this discussion Saint Augustine reminds us that our lives are indeed often about availing ourselves of the grace to know what it is we should do and to avoid the things we should not do. Perhaps this is the reason why adolescence is sometimes a challenge. Even grown adults have not always captured the skill to do this well.
God Uses Our Gifts
Another important thing that we read is that it is often the case that God uses the gifts we discover even if we are not aware of God’s presence. For example, it is the case that Saint Augustine’s parents are hopeful he will become a great orator and a persuasive speaker.
But when we have such gifts, we do not always use them for a good end or a good purpose. As we know from the life of Saint Augustine, after his conversion he did indeed become a great orator and a persuasive speaker. The difference was not in the gift of oration, but rather in the ways in which God would inspire Saint Augustine to use this gift.
We see the same in the life of Saint Peter. Before he became an apostle of Jesus Christ, he was a fisherman. We know that what happened is that Jesus used the talents in Saint Peter that he had which enabled him to be a successful fisherman in ways that helped him to “fish” for disciples.
The Forbidden Fruit
How much of adolescence is refusing to do something that is forbidden. We can understand the ways in which we were tempted to do things we were forbidden to do. Perhaps we still are. But in adolescence there is the additional challenge of our lack of wisdom and awareness about the reasons why something should be forbidden.
What parent of an adolescent has not had to deal with the mischievous pranks of their children? Saint Augustine describes one such instance when he and is friends steal pears from a pear tree. It is not really the quality of the fruit or the tree that is appealing for it was not appealing, nor were the pears tasty. It was that in doing the act they were doing something forbidden.
When Adam and Eve are tempted it is because the serpent convinces them that something God forbids is good. When we sin it is often for the same reason. We convince ourselves that the forbidden is really good even when deep down we know that it is not.
The Faith of His Mother
Many are familiar with the sadness Saint Monica experienced and lamented. The lack of the faith life of her son (an probably her husband too) hurt her greatly. As Saint Augustine says, his father and mother learn of the same event, but their reactions are completely different. How challenging Saint Monica’s life must have been?
How many parents today experience the same thing? And how challenging it must have been for the young Saint Augustine to have such strikingly different perspectives on life. It was not that his father did not love his son, and it was not the case that his father did not want the best for his son. He made such great sacrifices for the future success of his son.
His father made these sacrifices for his future because they seemed quite reasonable. Education is such an important component to a successful life. But his father missed the very thing that matters. Education needs to be grounded in its true purpose. Education is not just about skills, but more importantly it is about learning how to use those skills in a way the develops the entire self. Faith is the essential foundation for all true education.
This is still a temptation today, even in Catholic institutions. When we consider Catholic schools and universities, the temptation can easily be to focus on the type of job we can get or the amount of money we will make if we attend these schools. And these are really important things to consider, of course. But the direction gets lost if we do not remember the primary purpose or goal of education.
Thoughts to Ponder
Questions to Ponder
As you consider your adolescence, in what ways was it similar to the situation Saint Augustine found himself in?
How would you describe the faith life of your family as you grew up?
In what ways was your faith challenged as you grew up?
Did you drift away from your faith?