St. Augustine & Sinning Saints
Psalm 19:7-14, Romans 13:8-14, John 8:1-11
He was the best of men; he was the worst of men.
He was brilliant; he was stupid.
He was highly religious – and deeply profane.
He longed for purity – and lived in promiscuity
He yearned for truth – and embraced just about every heresy of his day.
That was Augustine for his first 33 years.
He was born in AD 354, over 1600 years ago, in North Africa into the home of a religious mother and an irreligious father. He was born at a time when the once invincible Roman Empire was collapsing. Rome had ruled its world for more than 400 years, but now was sick at heart. Power had corrupted it, and absolute power had corrupted it absolutely. It had become a diseased civilization. Immorality and corruption were the norm. No one knew it then, but it was on its last legs. The barbarian hordes of northern Europe were all set to invade and reduce Rome to rubble.
But Northern Africa was far from the centre of that world, and so the debauchery of Rome had not quite inundated Augustine’s world. The church there was still vigorous. It had presence in every town and village, and Augustine was raised in a world where religion was still vital.
I said he is brilliant. Even as a teenager he is obviously a cut above his peers. He is a child prodigy. At 16 years of age he is made professor of the Liberal Arts of his day. He will become an Einstein in the realm of philosophy and religion. Everywhere he went he finds people following him, wanting to learn from him. In argument he is invincible. In logic he is unsurpassed. He is a genius. 1600 years later Augustine’s words are still argued about in the world of theological debate.
For his was a mind alive! But – he is a young man controlled not by his brain, but by his body. At 18 he fathers an illegitimate son. He lives with mistresses (concubines) because he is not ready to settle down in a marriage. He wants only the pleasures and privileges of his relationships, but none of its responsibilities. He writes in his confessions of this weakness of his. He writes “O God give me chastity, but not yet.” He admires the call to moral purity, but he refuses to resist his impulses. That’s his life for 33 years.
But he is obsessed not only with sex; he is obsessed with God. But not the God of Monica, his mother; not the God of the Christians. He wants a “better” version. So he finds himself entwined in a variety of the religious cults of his day.
For 9 years he is an adherent of a cult called The Manicheans. It was a new religion that united Buddhist, Zoroastrian & Christian elements. This movement ridiculed the Christian faith for they saw it as much too primitive. His new faith offered salvation only through understanding mysteries hidden from most of humanity, but revealed to the few insiders of the cult.
But, when Manichaeism failed to answer the serious questions that haunted him, Augustine jumps in the opposite direction and joins himself to the skeptics of his day, who declare that truth can never be known. They call themselves “The Cynics”, who loved questions, but had no use for answers. We would call them the agnostics of the day. His brain is up to the best of these Academics. He is a member of the “Mensa” of his day – the High IQ people.
Cynicism, however, may be a pleasant place to visit, but it is a terrible place to live, and soon he finds that it too is bankrupt. His mind is too good a mind to be only a debunking mind. He is not prepared to jettison his search for God and truth by joining with those who said, “Who knows, and Who cares?!”
Off to Rome
Finally, at 33 years of age, he finds himself a prodigal son, running away from his home in Africa, to escape his praying, weeping mother. He ends up in Rome, the center of that world. But he doesn’t know anyone there, and is not good for a man to be alone. So he visits an old friend of his mother’s – Bishop Ambrose. He begins to listen to this Bishop of Milan. This man too happens to be pretty smart. Augustine begins to think that the Christian faith might make sense after all. One day, while meditating in a garden he hears a child-like voice coming over the hedge saying, “Take up and read.” He opens his companion’s New Testament and it falls open to the book of Romans. He stabs at it with his finger and it lands on this text:
“Let us live honourably … not in reveling or drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provisions for the flesh to gratify its desires.” (Rom. 13:13-14)
The text nailed Augustine to the heart. He is overcome with guilt and shame, and in deep remorse, he turns to God. He is converted to Christ, and shortly after is baptized.
From that moment on his life is changed. He finds the strength to live in purity. He finds life now has meaning. He has been found by God, and now begins the search to find answers to the great questions that had plagued his mind and minds of the cynics.
Four years after his conversion, he was shanghaied, against his wishes, by the church, and ordained a Priest in the Church of God. He feels so unworthy. But the church has sensed the grace of God in this reprobate man turned righteous. Five years later they make him Bishop. But why would they do that? Because the church wants to be led by this man into its future. And what a wise choice! As the years went by Augustine poured all of his brilliance and all of his passion into the life of God’s people. He became the great defender of the faith and the rescuer of the church.
For the church of his day was under attack on two fronts.
- The Roman Empire was under attack by the Vandal hordes from the north. Civilization was tottering, and the church had become entwined with the Roman Empire. (a bit like the entanglement of the Evangelical Churches with the Republican party in the US!) Augustine helped the church to extricate itself from the embrace of the empire, so that when Rome fell, the church would not go down with it.
- The second issue he had to face was just as serious. There was a growing movement in his day that he sensed jeopardized the very gospel itself. It centered in a British monk named
The Pelagian Controversy
Pelagius was an Englishman who had lived a life of sanctity from his childhood. He was a holy and good man, who was horrified by the sinfulness of the church in Rome. He urged the church to moral reformation. He told the church to work more diligently to be holy in life. To be holy, he said, we need to be more disciplined! We should work harder, run faster, and jump higher. Be disciplined!! His words sounded sensible. He reminded his audiences that God had given us a free will to use to improve our lives. So just do it!
But Augustine sensed there was something about this attempt to be holy that was terribly and insidiously defective. He knew his own story of his constant attempts to be morally pure. He knew of his own failures to do the things he should, and his failed attempts to refrain from things he shouldn’t be doing. He knew that we are not as free as we think we are to do what we want. He knew the helplessness of those that said “I can quit anytime I want” but who couldn’t. And so the debate was joined between these two men. The entire Christian Church looked on.
- Pelagius taught that person’s will was free, absolutely free. We all have the power to do the right thing if we want to.
Augustine believed that our will had become so weakened, and sinning was so addictive that we had no power to do the right thing – unless – aided by God.
- Pelagius believed people could live a sinless life, and in fact not sin at all, if only they were vigilant.
Augustine believed that our sinfulness infects all that we do from cradle to the grave, and that all of us sin inevitably.
- Pelagius believed that people are born without any bias for evil or goodness. Every man is his own Adam and every woman her own Eve.
Augustine believed that all people are born with a bias towards evil. The scales are tipped from birth. None of us play on a level playing field. There is a bias in us all towards selfishness, towards self-interest, towards sin; in thought, and word, and deed. And then Augustine went even further. Not just a bias, but a compulsion towards sin. Sinning comes rather naturally to the human creature.
- Pelagius said that we are basically good people, who on occasion do wrong things, and need forgiveness.
Augustine said that we are not basically good. We are wicked and weak people, who need the constant help of God to enable us to be good and to do good.
Augustine knew from experience the words of Jesus “Without me you can do nothing.” But he was just as convinced of St. Paul’s words “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
The church of that century wrestled long over that question, and then took the side of Augustine, not Pelagius. They did sense that both men had overdrawn the issue in their fierce debates, but the church of the West chose to side with Augustine rather than with Pelagius.
They sensed that: Pelagius opened the door to human pride and self-sufficiency. That was too dangerous a road to travel down. While Augustine opened the door to humility and dependence upon God.
Well friends that was a long time ago.
What does this ancient debate have to do with us today?
Augustine is the reminder that even we who are Christians find ourselves sinning far too frequently and need the continued forgiveness of the gracious God. We will never be so good that we no longer need the forgiveness of God and never so strong that we no longer need his empowering presence.
Sometime ago I saw the video-report by one of the traffic news guys that fly over the highways in helicopters to give traffic reports to the news stations. The video that day showed a small car put-put-putting its way down an entry ramp on to a major multi-lane highway. The driver of the small car seemed oblivious to the amount of traffic that was zooming towards him down the three-lane highway. The traffic was traveling at well over 100 km/hr as it approached the place where his entry ramp intersected the highway. The small car maintained its slow speed as it merged left into the right hand lane. The car speeding towards him in the inside lane hit its brakes and swerved to avoid him. That car collided with the car in the middle lane who was knocked into the traffic in the far left lane, and then the cars behind all three lanes started crashing into the rear end of the cars in front. Dozens and dozens of cars ended up strewn all over that highway. Meanwhile the little car kept put-put-putting down the highway, all by itself, unaware of the mayhem it had caused on the highway behind.
When I saw that multi-car pile up and the little car slowly drifting off down the highway, I thought of myself. I do not for a moment intend evil as I journey through life, but there is something about each of us that is flawed far more than we imagine, and we too leave damage on the road behind us, bringing grief to the lives of others.
We speak our words and do our deeds, then turn our backs – and God alone sees the damage that results. We have intended no evil, therefore we feel no responsibility. But God sees the consequence of our thoughtless words and irresponsible behaviour and forgives us, even when we are unaware of our need for his absolution.
Augustine is very clear in his teaching. Even we, who are the people of God, who have been adopted as his children, need his intervention in our lives. For:
- We sin in thoughtless ways, so preoccupied with our own lives, that we are often oblivious to the needs of others.
- We sin in unintentional ways, when we get upset by trivial things and become anxious about insignificant matters.
- We sin in the relationships of our lives by our aloofness, and by our irritabilities expressed and unexpressed.
- We find ourselves weak before the onslaught of envy and avarice, pride and sloth, anger, gluttony & lust.
There has been a long debate over the past century as to whether we should keep on repeating week after week the Lord’s Prayer. After all it was intended only to be a template for our own praying, not a prayer to be endlessly repeated for 2000 years and more! But some of us say, right! But, because we are prone to forget what manner of people we are, some of us think there is great value in prayers of confession each time we gather to worship God, and there is still value in praying the Lord’s Prayer, especially the lines,
“forgive us our sins/debts/trespasses as we forgive those who sin against us,
and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
Perhaps such prayers are more crucial to our journey than we tend to believe. For to pray these prayers is to remind ourselves that we are in need of forgiveness at all times and in all places. This, by the way, is not being morbid, it is being realistic.
This prayer reminds us of our need to come to God in humility and penitence. It is to remind us that we do not walk the Christian life in our own strength, but in his. It is to be reminded of our utter dependence upon Him, and not our own efforts. It is also intended to shut the door to a self-righteous attitude that judges others, but lets ourselves off way too easily.
May I close this article with a prayer that was prayed by St. Augustine 1600 years ago?
Narrow is the mansion of my soul,
enlarge it so that you may enter in.
It is ruinous. Please repair it.
Our lives have that within them,
which must offend your eyes,
We confess it and seek to know it.
But who can cleanse of such things?
You alone, O God.
Lord cleanse us each from hidden faults,
and spare each of us from the power of the foe.
May I also share with you a prayer of confession published in Christian Century on Aug 17, 2012 and written by Brian Doyle. It may give us guidance in our own prayers.
I, Brian, a sinner, a most simple suburbanite, a generally decent sort but subject to fits of unrelieved selfishness, do here wish to confess and be shriven, in such a manner that speaking of that which I have not done well will provoke me to do better; this slight daily improvement being exactly the work we are asked to do by the Shining One. So then:
I missed my cousin’s funeral because I had weekend plans with a girlfriend that I was not man enough to break; and this beloved cousin was a nun, and to this day, nearly 30 years after I casually blew off her funeral, I am haunted by the story of my sister, also now a nun, leaving a small bowl of white flowers on the altar after the mass, because she and our cousin loved small white flowers, which they felt were overlooked in the world, but which often arrived first and smelled best.
Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas, I beg to be forgiven.
Also I was for many years sneering and dismissive and vulgar and rude to my mother and father, never once even seeing the pain I inflicted, never once thinking of them as human beings, never once thinking how they would feel to have raised and coddled a child with such a serpent’s tongue; and not until I was 19 did I feel the lash of remorse, and pick up the telephone, and apologize profusely, and ask their forgiveness for years of surly lip.
I beg to be forgiven
Also I did for years actually take my lovely bride for granted, more than a little; I did think that being married meant that she would never leave me and I could drift into a gentle selfishness that she would have to endure because she had sworn in public in a church before many witnesses to be true in good times and bad, in sickness and health, to love and honor you all the days of my life; I carry those words in my wallet, but I did not look at them enough and contemplate them and mull them over and take them deep into my salty heart and consider what they asked me to do and be, and there came dark years, and I was in no small part responsible for their bleakness and pain.
I beg to be forgiven
Also I have roared at my children, and snarled at them, and insulted them, and made cutting remarks, and teased and razzed them past the point of gentle humor, and I have belittled their ideas and accomplishments, and failed to listen to what they were saying beneath the words they were using, and failed to contemplate their dreams, especially when their dreams were far from the dreams I had for them, and I set lofty expectations and standards and behavioral bars, all this having more to do with what I wanted than with what they wanted and who they wished to be, and a thousand thousand times I have spoken to them sternly of what they have not done rather than sweetly of what they have done, and left unsaid that which I feel most certainly in my heart, this being a love so oceanic and electric that I cannot find words for it, though I would happily die for them anytime anyhow anywhere, and if that is so, as I know it to be so, why can I not be more gentle to them, instead of snarling about the failed test?
I beg to be forgiven
Also I have gossiped and committed calumny and made snide remarks about friends and acquaintances, and made snap judgments based on appearance, and held people to higher standards than I could meet myself, and jumped to conclusions based on no evidence at all, not even ephemeral and circumstantial; and offered scurrilous insults freely; and while hiding behind humor actually flicked words like whips and chains upon those who deserved nothing of the sort; and I have amused myself with dark remarks; and I have often amused myself at the expense of others, under the guise of laughter; and I have done this so very much, I realize, because it is so very uncomfortable to say this aloud here on the naked page.
I beg to be forgiven
Also I have taken seats on the bus reserved for the elderly and weary when I was neither; and I have sat mute on the bus while old women stood awkwardly, their heavy bags battering their thin shoulders; and I have stolen shampoo and notepads and pens from hotels and motels; and I have even stolen a Gideon Bible from a motel; and I have stolen vast ranks of teas from conferences and seminars; and I have stolen towels from pools and gyms; and I have stolen much else under the aegis of borrowing, knowing full well that I would never return nor attempt to return the contraband; and I have even in this way stolen obscure paperback books from the shelves of friends; another confession that makes me so uncomfortable that it must be true.
I beg to be forgiven
There are many more things under heaven that I could here confess, but I am going to use the lovely excuse that time grows short and the end of the page draws near, so I beseech the reader to ascribe many more sins large and small to me, and leave them nameless except to him who knows every feather of every sparrow, and assume my guilt and shame and apologia, and join me as we say, in a small voice but with a wild heart.
I beg to be forgiven. Amen.