When wrong does not feel good: Book 2 Chapters 5-10: Confessions of Saint Augustine: The Friar Book Club
When wrong does not feel good
Chapter 5. Concerning the Motives to Sin, Which are Not in the Love of Evil, But in the Desire of Obtaining the Property of Others.
10. There is a desirableness in all beautiful bodies, and in gold, and silver, and all things; and in bodily contact sympathy is powerful, and each other sense has his proper adaptation of body. Worldly honor has also its glory, and the power of command, and of overcoming; from which proceeds also the desire for revenge. And yet to acquire all these, we must not depart from You, O Lord, nor deviate from Your law. The life which we live here has also its peculiar attractiveness, through a certain measure of comeliness of its own, and harmony with all things here below. The friendships of men also are endeared by a sweet bond, in the oneness of many souls. On account of all these, and such as these, is sin committed; while through an inordinate preference for these goods of a lower kind, the better and higher are neglected — even You, our Lord God, Your truth, and Your law. For these meaner things have their delights, but not like my God, who has created all things; for in Him does the righteous delight, and He is the sweetness of the upright in heart.
11. When, therefore, we inquire why a crime was committed, we do not believe it, unless it appear that there might have been the wish to obtain some of those which we designated meaner things, or else a fear of losing them. For truly they are beautiful and comely, although in comparison with those higher and celestial goods they be abject and contemptible. A man has murdered another; what was his motive? He desired his wife or his estate; or would steal to support himself; or he was afraid of losing something of the kind by him; or, being injured, he was burning to be revenged. Would he commit murder without a motive, taking delight simply in the act of murder? Who would credit it? For as for that savage and brutal man, of whom it is declared that he was gratuitously wicked and cruel, there is yet a motive assigned. “Lest through idleness,” he says, “hand or heart should grow inactive.” And to what purpose? Why, even that, having once got possession of the city through that practice of wickedness, he might attain unto honors, empire, and wealth, and be exempt from the fear of the laws, and his difficult circumstances from the needs of his family, and the consciousness of his own wickedness. So it seems that even Catiline himself loved not his own villanies, but something else, which gave him the motive for committing them.
Chapter 6. Why He Delighted in that Theft, When All Things Which Under the Appearance of Good Invite to Vice are True and Perfect in God Alone.
12. What was it, then, that I, miserable one, so doted on in you, you theft of mine, you deed of darkness, in that sixteenth year of my age? Beautiful you were not, since you were theft. But are you anything that I may argue the case with you? Those pears that we stole were fair to the sight, because they were Your creation, You fairest of all, Creator of all, You good God — God, the highest good, and my true good. Those pears truly were pleasant to the sight; but it was not for them that my miserable soul lusted, for I had abundance of better, but those I plucked simply that I might steal. For, having plucked them, I threw them away, my sole gratification in them being my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy. For if any of these pears entered my mouth, the sweetener of it was my sin in eating it. And now, O Lord my God, I ask what it was in that theft of mine that caused me such delight; and behold it has no beauty in it — not such, I mean, as exists in justice and wisdom; nor such as is in the mind, memory, senses, and animal life of man; nor yet such as is the glory and beauty of the stars in their courses; or the earth, or the sea, teeming with incipient life, to replace, as it is born, that which decays; nor, indeed, that false and shadowy beauty which pertains to deceptive vices.
13. For thus does pride imitate high estate, whereas You alone are God, high above all. And what does ambition seek but honors and renown, whereas You alone are to be honored above all, and renowned for evermore? The cruelty of the powerful wishes to be feared; but who is to be feared but God only, out of whose power what can be forced away or withdrawn — when, or where, or whither, or by whom? The enticements of the wanton would fain be deemed love; and yet is naught more enticing than Your charity, nor is anything loved more healthfully than that, Your truth, bright and beautiful above all. Curiosity affects a desire for knowledge, whereas it is You who supremely knows all things. Yea, ignorance and foolishness themselves are concealed under the names of ingenuousness and harmlessness, because nothing can be found more ingenuous than You; and what is more harmless, since it is a sinner’s own works by which he is harmed? And sloth seems to long for rest; but what sure rest is there besides the Lord? Luxury would fain be called plenty and abundance; but You are the fullness and unfailing plenteousness of unfading joys. Prodigality presents a shadow of liberality; but You are the most lavish giver of all good. Covetousness desires to possess much; and You are the Possessor of all things. Envy contends for excellence; but what so excellent as You? Anger seeks revenge; who avenges more justly than You? Fear starts at unusual and sudden chances which threaten things beloved, and is wary for their security; but what can happen that is unusual or sudden to You? Or who can deprive You of what You love? Or where is there unshaken security save with You? Grief languishes for things lost in which desire had delighted itself, even because it would have nothing taken from it, as nothing can be from You.
14. Thus does the soul commit fornication when she turns away from You and seeks without You what she cannot find pure and untainted until she returns to You. Thus all pervertedly imitate You who separate themselves far from You and raise themselves up against You. But even by thus imitating You they acknowledge You to be the Creator of all nature, and so that there is no place where they can altogether retire from You. What, then, was it that I loved in that theft? And wherein did I, even corruptedly and pervertedly, imitate my Lord? Did I wish, if only by artifice, to act contrary to Your law, because by power I could not, so that, being a captive, I might imitate an imperfect liberty by doing with impunity things which I was not allowed to do, in obscured likeness of Your omnipotence? Behold this servant of Yours, fleeing from his Lord, and following a shadow! O rottenness! O monstrosity of life and profundity of death! Could I like that which was unlawful only because it was unlawful?
Chapter 7. He Gives Thanks to God for the Remission of His Sins, and Reminds Every One that the Supreme God May Have Preserved Us from Greater Sins.
15. “What shall I render unto the Lord,” that while my memory recalls these things my soul is not appalled at them? I will love You, O Lord, and thank You, and confess unto Your name, (Revelation 3:5) because You have put away from me these so wicked and nefarious acts of mine. To Your grace I attribute it, and to Your mercy, that You have melted away my sin as it were ice. To Your grace also I attribute whatsoever of evil I have not committed; for what might I not have committed, loving as I did the sin for the sin’s sake? Yea, all I confess to have been pardoned me, both those which I committed by my own perverseness, and those which, by Your guidance, I committed not. Where is he who, reflecting upon his own infirmity, dares to ascribe his chastity and innocence to his own strength, so that he should love You the less, as if he had been in less need of Your mercy, whereby You forgive the transgressions of those that turn to You? For whosoever, called by You, obeyed Your voice, and shunned those things which he reads me recalling and confessing of myself, let him not despise me, who, being sick, was healed by that same Physician (Luke 4:23) by whose aid it was that he was not sick, or rather was less sick. And for this let him love You as much, yea, all the more, since by whom he sees me to have been restored from so great a feebleness of sin, by Him he sees himself from a like feebleness to have been preserved.
Chapter 8. In His Theft He Loved the Company of His Fellow-Sinners.
16. “What fruit had I then,” (Romans 6:21) wretched one, in those things which, when I remember them, cause me shame — above all in that theft, which I loved only for the theft’s sake? And as the theft itself was nothing, all the more wretched was I who loved it. Yet by myself alone I would not have done it — I recall what my heart was — alone I could not have done it. I loved, then, in it the companionship of my accomplices with whom I did it. I did not, therefore, love the theft alone — yea, rather, it was that alone that I loved, for the companionship was nothing. What is the fact? Who is it that can teach me, but He who illuminates my heart and searches out the dark corners thereof? What is it that has come into my mind to inquire about, to discuss, and to reflect upon? For had I at that time loved the pears I stole, and wished to enjoy them, I might have done so alone, if I could have been satisfied with the mere commission of the theft by which my pleasure was secured; nor needed I have provoked that itching of my own passions, by the encouragement of accomplices. But as my enjoyment was not in those pears, it was in the crime itself, which the company of my fellow-sinners produced.
Chapter 9. It Was a Pleasure to Him Also to Laugh When Seriously Deceiving Others.
17. By what feelings, then, was I animated? For it was in truth too shameful; and woe was me who had it. But still what was it? “Who can understand his errors?” We laughed, because our hearts were tickled at the thought of deceiving those who little imagined what we were doing and would have vehemently disapproved of it. Yet, again, why did I so rejoice in this, that I did it not alone? Is it that no one readily laughs alone? No one does so readily; but yet sometimes, when men are alone by themselves, nobody being by, a fit of laughter overcomes them when anything very droll presents itself to their senses or mind. Yet alone I would not have done it — alone I could not at all have done it. Behold, my God, the lively recollection of my soul is laid bare before You — alone I had not committed that theft, wherein what I stole pleased me not, but rather the act of stealing; nor to have done it alone would I have liked so well, neither would I have done it. O Friendship too unfriendly! You mysterious seducer of the soul, you greediness to do mischief out of mirth and wantonness, you craving for others’ loss, without desire for my own profit or revenge; but when they say, “Let us go, let us do it,” we are ashamed not to be shameless.
Chapter 10. With God There is True Rest and Life Unchanging.
18. Who can unravel that twisted and tangled knottiness? It is foul. I hate to reflect on it. I hate to look on it. But you do I long for, O righteousness and innocence, fair and comely to all virtuous eyes, and of a satisfaction that never palls! With you is perfect rest, and life unchanging. He who enters into you enters into the joy of his Lord, (Matthew 25:21) and shall have no fear and shall do excellently in the most Excellent. I sank away from You, O my God, and I wandered too far from You, my stay, in my youth, and became to myself an unfruitful land.
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.
The dangerous delight of sin
The dangerous delight of sin. Why do I sin? Even when we decide to sin, it can be the case that I know it is a bad idea even as I sin. These chapters from Saint Augustine provide a reflection on a sin of his youth, namely the stealing of pears.
The question for Augustine is one of trying to figure out why it was that he stole pears that were not tasty and that he did not want. He admits he had much better pears at home. He had tastier pears at home. He even recognizes that were he alone he would not have stolen the pears. And each of these considerations make sense to me.
Why do I sin?
“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.
So why did Augustine participate in the stealing of the pears? Because he was not supposed to be stealing pears, and he desired to be doing something with his friends. As an adolescent he recognizes that it can be the case that we do things wrong because they are wrong.
For Augustine this becomes an opportunity to think about why it is we do anything. When we sin, it is because we find ourselves desiring something quite inferior. What is clear is that we can have two types of desire. We can desire the good, which God tells us is good, or we can desire the bad, which we seem some benefit in despite the harm it causes us.
This is true for Augustine even in the most brutal of cases. There is some pleasure or good that we perceive. We have some desire for what we do. Yet, it is the case that our desire can be misplaced. For many of us, it can be the case because we experience regret after a wrong action, which was true eventually for Augustine.
And, of course, it is true for us. We can be easily misguided in desiring something that is bad for us. Our desire is faulty. How often is it the case that something that is not terrible good becomes something we desire.
The People We Spend Time With Matter
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.
Be careful how you choose your friends. I heard this from my parents when I was a kid. Because what my parents knew from experience was that I could be influenced by those around me. And such is the case for Augustine. He made the decision to steal the pears under the influence of his friends.
I think the fact others can influence us for good or bad was the reason that Jesus chose a community of apostles. The collective faith of the apostles became the way in which each of them was made stronger in their faith. Conversely when Judas collaborated with those religious leaders opposed to Jesus he was made worse.
The same is true for each one of us. We are called to gather for Mass each Sunday because we can pray for each other, we can support each other. By seeing the good examples of others in our parish, we can realize that we too can have good desires and pray for one another.
Thoughts to Ponder
In what ways have you thought about why you are tempted to sin?
What is the impact of other people on your actions?
How is it that you can inspire others to respond to God’s grace?
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