“Believe that others are better than you in the depths of their souls, although outwardly you may appear better than they.”
– St Augustine
St Augustine – Feast: 28th August
“Lord, give me chastity and continence, but not yet!” This infamous prayer of the young Augustine of Hippo (354-430) reflects the inner conflict of any soul who recognises the virtuous thing to do, yet fears the demanding struggle against human urges and passions. In his Confessions, St Augustine was not afraid to admit his utter powerlessness in the face of sexual temptation. As a young man, he had given in to the attraction of sexual pleasure and took a lover whom he would never marry but who bore him his only son, Adeodatus. He was brutally honest about why he chose to live with this woman: “I had chosen her for no special reason but that my restless passions had alighted on her”. He was faithful to her throughout their years together, yet he could see that his love for her, marked by lust, was very different from the love he would expect in a proper marriage. This difference was most apparent in the attitude to children. Whereas marriage is contracted for the purpose of being open to new life, his irregular union was “a bargain struck for lust, in which the birth of children is begrudged, though, if they come, we cannot help but love them”.
When Augustine abandoned the Catholic faith of his youth, much to the anxiety and dismay of his mother, St Monica, he never ceased to search for truth, even if his search led him down a few blind alleys. This search was hampered not just by his lack of understanding but by the power of the favourite sin which blinded him. His conversion was delayed because his sin enslaved him and prevented him from surrendering to the truth of the Catholic faith which would, in turn, have meant the abandonment of his old sinful lifestyle. He wrote: “I was bound down by this disease of the flesh. Its deadly pleasures were a chain that I dragged along with me, yet I was afraid to be freed from it”. His friend, the chaste Alypius, tried to talk good sense into Augustine. However, vice is contagious, and curiosity together with Augustine’s ideas began to lead Alypius astray: “For my part, I was a prisoner of habit, suffering cruel torments through trying to satisfy a lust that could never be sated: while Alypius was being led by curiosity into a like state of captivity”.
The Power of a Mother’s Tears
The power of sin enchained Augustine and used him as a net to ensnare others, but a far greater power was already at work. His saintly mother, Monica, had been praying for him for years with such weeping and longing that her local bishop reassured her: “Go in peace. It cannot be that the son of these tears should be lost.” Monica followed him to Milan, intensifying the outpouring of her tears and prayers. She could see that the good influence of St Ambrose’s teaching was weakening her son’s resistance but that he still had a great crisis to pass through before he would be converted. She tried to organise a marriage for Augustine to a suitably Catholic lady and so managed to get him to leave his lover. This attempt at virtue only revealed how weak and vice-ridden Augustine really was. He later recalled:
Meanwhile I was sinning more and more. The woman with whom I had been living was torn from my side as an obstacle to my marriage and this was a blow which crushed my heart to bleeding, because I loved her dearly. She went back to Africa, vowing never to give herself to any other man … But I was too unhappy and too weak to imitate this example set me by a woman. I was impatient at the delay of two years that had to pass before the girl I had asked to marry became my wife, and because I was more a slave of lust than a true lover of marriage, I took another mistress, without the sanction of wedlock. This meant that the disease of my soul would continue unabated, in fact it would persist into the state of marriage.
His fiancée had a lucky escape, being spared marriage to this immature, sex-obsessed cheat. Monica’s prayers, the influence of Ambrose and his spiritual father Simplicianus, and the designs of God’s providence intervened to convert the sinner into a saint. Augustine was already being swayed to embrace the truth of the Catholic faith, yet his mind was being held back by the sinful habits that bound his will. He knew the truth, but he could not pay the price for this great treasure, that is, the renunciation of his sins, especially sexual immorality. He admitted:
I was quite sure that it was better for me to give myself up to your love than to surrender to my own lust. But while I wanted to follow the first course and was convinced that it was right, I was still a slave to the pleasures of the second.
The Brink of Resolution
Liberation came as suddenly as it was unexpected. One day, a senior official from the imperial court came to visit Augustine and chatted to him about the wonderful life of St Antony of Egypt, saying it had convinced him that it was far better to be a friend of God than of the Emperor. These words struck a chord with Augustine. Suddenly, he could see himself as he really was: sordid and miserable. He could no longer turn a blind eye to the sin he knew all too well. His conscience gnawed at him and he was overcome with shame. At this point, Augustine grew unsettled, frantic, like a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Grace and nature were at war within him and he could take no more! He knew that only a small chain held him back from converting. By his own willpower he tried to break it, repeating “Let it be now, let it be now!” St Augustine’s words may well strike a chord with all those who struggle to make that last, definitive, break with their past:
I was on the point of making it but I did not succeed. … I stood on the brink of resolution, waiting to take fresh breath. I tried again and came a little nearer to my goal, and then a little nearer still, so that I could almost reach out and grasp it. But I did not reach it … My lower instincts, which had taken firm hold of me, were stronger than the higher.
In his mind, Augustine saw the beauty of Chastity approaching, beckoning him. She seemed to say: “Why do you try to stand in your own strength and fail? Cast yourself upon God and have no fear. He will not shrink away and let you fall … he will welcome you and cure you of your ills.” He retreated to the garden in tears, seeking to hide from his friends, when he heard a child’s voice say, “Take it and read”. So he took up the Bible beside him and opened it at random. His eyes immediately fell upon these words of St Paul: “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh” (Rm 13:13-14). In an instant, his heart was flooded with light and he was filled with faith and love for God. He no longer desired a wife or any earthly pleasure.
Transformed and Uplifted by Grace
Augustine received baptism from St Ambrose and eventually became a priest and bishop. Although he never relapsed into his former ways, the struggle for chastity never fully left him. In Confessions, he admitted to the impure thoughts and temptations that still assailed him in later life: “The load of habit is a force to be reckoned with”. When a man converts, he is never fully changed. Some of his old nature stays with him. This is the price that grace demands, for grace builds upon nature, and if some aspects of our nature still incline us to sin, these same aspects, transformed and uplifted by grace, can also become instruments of God’s good work. While Augustine’s nature was still strong enough to make him struggle for purity, even requiring him to ban all visits of women from his monastery and never be alone with them, that same nature was used by God to sing of his praises and preach his word with all the untamed passion of a lover! His passion never changed, only its direction.
The power that enabled St Augustine, St Francis and so many other saints to undergo such a radical conversion from sexual impurity to chastity is the only power that can help any of us overcome the temptations that are part and parcel of our human nature: the power of God’s grace. St Paul told the Galatians that we are set free from sin by Christ through the power of his Holy Spirit dwelling within us. Without the Holy Spirit, we are as helpless in the battle for chastity as Augustine was.