Adolescence and Spiritual Life: Book 2 Chapters 1-4: Confessions of Saint Augustine: The Friar Book Club
Angst, Adolescence and Spiritual Life
Chapter 1. He Deplores the Wickedness of His Youth.
1. I Will now call to mind my past foulness, and the carnal corruptions of my soul, not because I love them, but that I may love You, O my God. For love of Your love do I it, recalling, in the very bitterness of my remembrance, my most vicious ways, that You may grow sweet to me — You, sweetness without deception! You, sweetness, happy and assured!— and recollecting myself out of that my dissipation, in which I was torn to pieces, while, turned away from You the One, I lost myself among many vanities. For I even longed in my youth formerly to be satisfied with worldly things, and I dared to grow wild again with various and shadowy loves; my form consumed away, and I became corrupt in Your eyes, pleasing myself, and eager to please in the eyes of men.
Chapter 2. Stricken with Exceeding Grief, He Remembers the Dissolute Passions in Which, in His Sixteenth Year, He Used to Indulge.
2. But what was it that I delighted in save to love and to be beloved? But I held it not in moderation, mind to mind, the bright path of friendship, but out of the dark concupiscence of the flesh and the effervescence of youth, exhalations came forth which obscured and overcast my heart, so that I was unable to discern pure affection from unholy desire. Both boiled confusedly within me and dragged away my unstable youth into the rough places of unchaste desires and plunged me into a gulf of infamy. Your anger had overshadowed me, and I knew it not. I was become deaf by the rattling of the chains of my mortality, the punishment for my soul’s pride; and I wandered farther from You, and You suffered (Matthew 17:17) me; and I was tossed to and fro, and wasted, and poured out, and boiled over in my fornications, and You held Your peace, O You, my tardy joy! You then held Your peace, and I wandered still farther from You, into more and more barren seed-plots of sorrows, with proud dejection and restless lassitude.
3. Oh for one to have regulated my disorder, and turned to my profit the fleeting beauties of the things around me, and fixed a bound to their sweetness, so that the tides of my youth might have spent themselves upon the conjugal shore, if so be they could not be tranquillized and satisfied within the object of a family, as Your law appoints, O Lord, — who thus forms the offspring of our death, being able also with a tender hand to blunt the thorns which were excluded from Your paradise! For Your omnipotency is not far from us even when we are far from You, else in truth ought I more vigilantly to have given heed to the voice from the clouds: Nevertheless, such shall have trouble in the flesh, but I spare you; (1 Corinthians 7:28) and, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman; (1 Corinthians 7:1) and, “He that is unmarried cares for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but he that is married cares for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:32-33) I should, therefore, have listened more attentively to these words, and, being severed “for the kingdom of heaven’s sake”, (Matthew 19:12) I would with greater happiness have expected Your embraces.
4. But I, poor fool, seethed as does the sea, and, forsaking You, followed the violent course of my own stream, and exceeded all Your limitations; nor did I escape your scourges. (Isaiah 10:26) For what mortal can do so? But You were always by me, mercifully angry, and dashing with the bitterest vexations, all my illicit pleasures, in order that I might seek pleasures free from vexation. But where I could meet with such except in You, O Lord, I could not find — except in You, who teaches by sorrow, (Deuteronomy 32:39) and wounds us to heal us, and kills us that we may not die from You. ‘Formest trouble in or as a precept.’ You make to us a precept out of trouble, so that trouble itself shall be a precept to us, i.e. have willed so to discipline and instruct those Your sons, that they should not be without fear, lest they should love something else, and forget You, their true good.” Where was I, and how far was I exiled from the delights of Your house, in that sixteenth year of the age of my flesh, when the madness of lust— to the which human shamelessness grants full freedom, although forbidden by Your laws— held complete sway over me, and I resigned myself entirely to it? Those about me meanwhile took no care to save me from ruin by marriage, their sole care being that I should learn to make a powerful speech and become a persuasive orator.
Chapter 3. Concerning His Father, a Freeman of Thagaste, the Assister of His Son’s Studies, and on the Admonitions of His Mother on the Preservation of Chastity.
5. And for that year my studies were intermitted, while after my return from Madaura (a neighboring city, where I had begun to go in order to learn grammar and rhetoric), the expenses for a further residence at Carthage were provided for me; and that was rather by the determination than the means of my father, who was but a poor freeman of Thagaste. To whom do I narrate this? Not unto You, my God; but before You unto my own kind, even to that small part of the human race who may chance to light upon these my writings. And to what end? That I and all who read the same may reflect out of what depths we are to cry unto You. For what comes nearer to Your ears than a confessing heart and a life of faith? For who did not extol and praise my father, in that he went even beyond his means to supply his son with all the necessaries for a far journey for the sake of his studies? For many far richer citizens did not do the like for their children. But yet this same father did not trouble himself how I grew towards You, nor how chaste I was, so long as I was skillful in speaking — however barren I was to Your tilling, O God, who are the sole true and good Lord of my heart, which is Your field.
6. But while, in that sixteenth year of my age, I resided with my parents, having holiday from school for a time (this idleness being imposed upon me by my parents’ necessitous circumstances), the thorns of lust grew rank over my head, and there was no hand to pluck them out. Moreover when my father, seeing me at the baths, perceived that I was becoming a man, and was stirred with a restless youthfulness, he, as if, from this, anticipating future descendants, joyfully told it to my mother; rejoicing in that intoxication wherein the world so often forgets You, its Creator, and falls in love with Your creature instead of You, from the invisible wine of its own perversity turning and bowing down to the most infamous things. But in my mother’s breast You had even now begun Your temple, and the commencement of Your holy habitation, whereas my father was only a catechumen as yet, and that but recently. She then started up with a pious fear and trembling; and, although I had not yet been baptized, she feared those crooked ways in which they walk who turn their back to You, and not their face. (Jeremiah 2:27)
7. Woe is me! And dare I affirm that You held Your peace, O my God, while I strayed farther from You? Did You then hold Your peace to me? And whose words were they but Yours which by my mother, Your faithful handmaid, You poured into my ears, none of which sank into my heart to make me do it? For she desired, and I remember privately warned me, with great solicitude, “not to commit fornication; but above all things never to defile another man’s wife.” These appeared to me but womanish counsels, which I should blush to obey. But they were Yours, and I knew it not, and I thought that You held Your peace, and that it was she who spoke, through whom You held not Your peace to me, and in her person was despised by me, her son, the son of Your handmaid, Your servant. But this I knew not; and rushed on headlong with such blindness, that among my equals I was ashamed to be less shameless, when I heard them pluming themselves upon their disgraceful acts, yea, and glorying all the more in proportion to the greatness of their baseness; and I took pleasure in doing it, not for the pleasure’s sake only, but for the praise. What is worthy of disapproval but vice? But I made myself out worse than I was, in order that I might not be disapproved; and when in anything I had not sinned as the abandoned ones, I would affirm that I had done what I had not, that I might not appear abject for being more innocent, or of less esteem for being more chaste.
8. Behold with what companions I walked the streets of Babylon, in whose filth I was rolled, as if in cinnamon and precious ointments. And that I might cleave the more tenaciously to its very center, my invisible enemy trod me down, and seduced me, I being easily seduced. Nor did the mother of my flesh, although she herself had ere this fled “out of the midst of Babylon” (Jeremiah 51:6) — progressing, however, but slowly in the skirts of it — in counselling me to chastity, so bear in mind what she had been told about me by her husband as to restrain in the limits of conjugal affection (if it could not be cut away to the quick) what she knew to be destructive in the present and dangerous in the future. But she took no heed of this, for she was afraid lest a wife should prove a hindrance and a clog to my hopes. Not those hopes of the future world, which my mother had in You; but the hope of learning, which both my parents were too anxious that I should acquire — he, because he had little or no thought of You, and but vain thoughts for me — she, because she calculated that those usual courses of learning would not only be no drawback, but rather a furtherance towards my attaining You. For thus I conjecture, recalling as well as I can the dispositions of my parents. The reins, meantime, were slackened towards me beyond the restraint of due severity, that I might play, yea, even to dissoluteness, in whatsoever I fancied. And in all there was a mist, shutting out from my sight the brightness of Your truth, O my God; and my iniquity displayed itself as from very “fatness.”
Chapter 4. He Commits Theft with His Companions, Not Urged on by Poverty, But from a Certain Distaste of Well-Doing.
9. Theft is punished by Your law, O Lord, and by the law written in men’s hearts, which iniquity itself cannot blot out. For what thief will suffer a thief? Even a rich thief will not allow him who is driven to it by want. Yet I had a desire to commit robbery, and did so, compelled neither by hunger, nor poverty, [but] through a distaste for well-doing, and a lustiness of iniquity. For I pilfered that of which I had already sufficient, and much better. Nor did I desire to enjoy what I pilfered, but the theft and sin itself. There was a pear tree close to our vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was tempting neither for its color nor its flavor. To shake and rob this some of us wanton young fellows went, late one night (having, according to our disgraceful habit, prolonged our games in the streets until then), and carried away great loads, not to eat ourselves, but to fling to the very swine, having only eaten some of them; and to do this pleased us all the more because it was not permitted. Behold my heart, O my God; behold my heart, which You had pity upon when in the bottomless pit. Behold, now, let my heart tell You what it was seeking there, that I should be gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved to perish. I loved my own error— not that for which I erred, but the error itself. Base soul, falling from Your firmament to utter destruction — not seeking anything through the shame but the shame itself!
The introduction Book 2 of the Confessions of Saint Augustine 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?
Previous Chapters of the Confessions of Saint Augustine
The Confessions of Saint Augustine Book 2 Chapters 1-4
The Confessions of Saint Augustine Chapters 15-19
The Confessions of Saint Augustine Chapters 11-13
The Confessions of Saint Augustine Chapters 6-10
The Confessions of Saint Augustine Chapters 3-5
The Confessions of Saint Augustine Chapters 1-2
The Confessions of Saint Augustine Introduction