Life Experience as a Path to Augustinian Contemplation

The Experience of Displeasure

Editors Note: This post was adapted from a retreat given by Fr. Allan Fitzgerald, OSA on Augustine’s Routes to Contemplation.

Let’s start of in Book Two of the Confessions, where Augustine describes himself at the age of 16.

My one delight was to love and be loved. But in this I did not keep the measure of mind to mind, which is the luminous line of friendship; but from the muddy concupiscence of the flesh and the hot imagination of puberty mists steamed up to becloud and darken my heart, so that I could not distinguish the white light of love from the fog of lust. Both love and lust boiled within me, and swept my youthful immaturity over the precipice of evil desires to leave me half drowned in a whirlpool of abominable sins. Your wrath had grown mighty against me and I knew it not. I had grown deaf from the clanking of the chain of my mortality, the punishment for the pride of my soul: and I departed further from you, and you left me to myself. And I was tossed about and wasted and poured out and boiling over in my fornications: and you were silent.

Saint Augustine (Confessions II, 2).

This is a great description of a young adolescent’s experience and struggles with affectivity and identity. Some of the phrases that jump up at us are: “the mists that steamed up to becloud and darken my heart”, “the clanking of the chain of my mortality,” “wasted,” “tossed about”, “boiling over” and, most of all, “and you were silent”.

Augustine goes on to say that the sensual pleasures he found at that time had an unexpected effect on him. They also brought displeasure, which ruined everything. He experienced disgust along with delight:

Nor did I escape your scourges. No mortal can. You were always by me, mercifully hard upon me, and besprinkling all my illicit pleasures with certain elements of bitterness, to draw me on to seek for pleasures in which no bitterness should be. And where was I to find such pleasures save in you, O Lord, You who use sorrow to teach, and wound us to heal, and kill us lest we die to you. (Conf. II, 4)

Saint Augustine (Confessions, II, 4)

Earlier he had said to God: “And you were silent.” But we can ask: was God really silent? It seems he was speaking quite loudly here. 

In this passage we find a sign of divine providence as Augustine saw it: “You who use sorrow to teach, and wound us to heal, and kill us lest we die to you.” Let us call it NEGATIVE PROVIDENCE. Augustine never used such a term, but he certainly illustrated what it meant throughout the Confessions.

In this kind of Providence, God does not allow a person to remain in the delights of sin. Sin brings on its own punishment. It always carries with it disappointment and causes him/her to seek further for happiness, whether they know it or not. For people with their eyes open, sin defeats itself by its own negative effects. It’s like throwing ashes on your favorite soup; the soup no longer tastes any good.

Augustine experienced displeasure along with the pleasure.

Displeasure Leads to Further Seeking

Now let’s go to Book Three, where he is at his studies, now at Carthage. Carthage was the capital of North Africa, a university town, and an important seaport:

I was in love with love, and from the very depth of my need hated myself for not more keenly feeling the need. I sought some object to love, since I was thus in love with loving; and I hated security and a life with no snares for my feet. 

Saint Augustine (Confessions, III).

This is the Augustine we have come to know in his university days at Carthage: in love with loving, fascinated by new adventures, and heedless of risk. But then he goes further:

For within I was hungry, all for the want of that spiritual food which is yourself, my God: yet though I was hungry for want of it, I did not hunger for it. I had no desire whatever for incorruptible food, not

Saint Augustine (Confessions, III, 1,1).

He says: “Within I was hungry”. What was he hungry for? “That spiritual food which is yourself, my God”, he answers. For Augustine, everyone has a hunger for God, even a young African immersed in the “cauldron of illicit loves” of university life. 

Like many other young men, Augustine says, “though I was hungry for want of it, I did not hunger for it.” I prefer a freer translation: “I was hungry for it, but at the time I had no appetite”. That would mean that, as young university student, he was completely unaware of having this hunger for God because he was taken up by so many of the things a young man of 18 is taken up with.

Further down in Book Three he reminds us of what we are calling negative providence, but he makes it more concrete:

O my God, my mercy, with how much bitterness did you in your goodness sprinkle the delights of that time! I was loved, and our came to the bond of consummation. I wore my chains with bliss but with torment too. For I was scourged with the red hot rods of jealousy, with suspicions and fears and tempers and quarrels. (Conf. III, 1)

Saint Augustine (Confessions, III, 1)

This reminds me of soap operas on tv. They usually involve illicit loves that end up in jealousy, with suspicions and fears and tempers and quarrels as their byproducts. Nothing new under the sun!

This is one form of the negative providence God has for us and one route to eventual contemplation.

The disappointment and sourness that sin brings with it and make us seek further and to keep seeking.

Experiencing God in Grief

We now go to Book Four, where Augustine speaks at length about the death of a very dear friend, a new and painful experience for a young man twenty years old. This is another example of what we have called negative providence, God’s caring for us and bringing us to him by means of a negative experience. Let us read about it:

During the period in which I first began to teach in the town of my birth, I found a very dear friend, who was pursuing similar studies. He was about my own age, and was now coming, as I was, to the very flowering-time of young manhood. He had indeed grown up with me as a child and we had gone to school together and played together.

Saint Augustine (Confessions, IV, 4)

Then death intervened:

But you are ever close upon the heels of those who flee from you, for you are at once God of vengeance and Fount of mercy, and you turn us to yourself by ways most wonderful (miris modis). You took this man from the life of earth when he had completed scarcely a year in a friendship that had grown sweeter to me than all the sweetness of the life I knew.

Saint Augustine (Confessions, IV, 4)

“Miris modis”, “by ways most wonderful”: this is a way Augustine had of expressing how God works in our lives. He will use it elsewhere in the Confessions. Miris modis” means that God leads us to himself by the most unexpected of ways at definite moments during our lives. We don’t realize it at the time, but something happens that would never have happened otherwise. Here the experience was the death of a deeply loved friend.

How this death became providence for him Augustine tells us a little further on. He was deeply shaken by the experience and sensed a profound emptiness:

My heart was black with grief. Whatever I looked upon had the air of death. My native place was a prison house and my home a strange unhappiness. The things we had done together became sheer torment without him. My eyes were restless looking for him, but he was not there. I hated all places because he was not in them. They could not say “He will come soon”, as they would in his life when he was absent. I became a great enigma (magna quaestio) to myself and I was forever asking my soul why it was sad and why it disquieted me so sorely. And my soul knew not what to answer me.

Saint Augustine (Confessions, IV, 4)

An initial effect of the pain from the death of his friend was that Augustine began to question himself. Why this state of total destruction in my soul? Why am I pouring my soul into the sand? Why have I become a foreign land to myself? What has happened in me? He says he became an enigma (magna questio) to himself and for the first time in is life began to ask real existential questions.

Further on in Book Four we also find still another form of this negative providence. It consisted in the boredom he felt with the ability of his own superior talents to bring him happiness:

And what did it profit me that when I was barely twenty years old there came into my hands, and I read and understood, the book of Aristotle’s Ten Categories … And what did it profit me that I read and understood for myself all the books of what are called the Liberal Arts that I was able to get a hold of … Of what use to me then was my intelligence, swift to run clear through those sciences, of what use were all those knotty books I unravelled without the aid of any human teacher, when in the doctrine of love of you I erred so far and so foully and so sacrilegiously?

Saint Augustine (Confessions, IV, 16)

The Search for God

To pursue this theme of negative providence, let’s go to Book Five and the famous encounter Augustine had with Faustus of the Manichees that will end in disappointment, disillusion and disenchantment. Augustine began to be dissatisfied with the teachings of the Manichees. He had made the “mistake” of doing too much outside reading and asking too many questions:

Now I had read many works of the philosophers and retained a great deal in my memory, and I compared certain of these things with the long winded fables of the Manichees. What the philosophers taught seemed to me the more probable though their power was limited to making judgement of this world and they could not pierce through to its Lord.  I compared all this with what Manes had said, for he wrote at great length about such matters and quite wildly. But I did not find in him any explanation of the solstices or the equinoxes or the eclipses of the sun and moon, nor of any such things as I had read in the books of worldly philosophy. (Conf. V, 3)

Saint Augustine (Confessions, V, 3)

The Manichees had promised a certain Faustus who would answer all his questions and doubts. So he waited:

looked forward with unbounded desire to the coming of this Faustus. For the ones whom I had met, when they failed to find answers to the questions of this sort I posed, promised me Faustus. On his arrival and by conference with him these things would be most lucidly explained, together with any more important questions I would ask. (Conf. V, 6, 10)

Saint Augustine (Confessions Book V, 6, 10)

Augustine finally met him and, you guessed it, was disappointed:

At last I was able to find opportunity, and with some of my friends I sought his attention at a time when we could properly exchange ideas. I mentioned certain questions that concerned me and I found at once that the man was not learned even in that. He had read some of Cicero’s speeches and a very few books of Seneca, some of the poets and such writings of his own sect as had been written in Latin and were not difficult. (Conf. V, 6, 11)

Saint Augustine (Confessions Book V, 6, 11)

He specifically states that for him this disenchantment was providential. For it freed him from having any further interest in the sect. Even if he didn’t leave it probably because most his friends were Manichees, he eventually would. In fact, he uses the word “providence” twice in the next three paragraphs:

Is it not thus as I remember it, Lord my God, judge of my conscience? My heart and my memory are open before you, who were then acting in me by the hidden secrets of your providence, and bringing my shameful errors before my face, that I may see them and hate them.

Saint Augustine (Confessions, V, 6, 11)

He found that Faustus could not answer his questions and felt a great disillusion:

For when I realized that he was unlearned in those matters in which I had thought he excelled, I began to despair of his being able to clarify and solve for me the questions that troubled me. (Conf. V, 7, 12)

Saint Augustine (Confessions, V, 7, 12)

So he decided to distance himself a little from the sect of the Manichees and he uses the word, “providence” once again:

But all my effort and determination to make progress in the sect simply fell away through my coming to know this man. Not that I separated myself from them entirely; but simply, not finding anything better than the course upon which I had somehow or other stumbled, I decided to look no further for the time unless something more desirable should chance to appear. Thus Faustus, who had been a snare that brought death to many, did without his knowledge or will begin to unbind the snare that held me. For your hand, O my God, in the secret of your providence did not desert my soul.

Saint Augustine (Confessions, V, 7, 13)

Right after that he adds: “You acted with me in marvelous ways (miris modis) and it was you who did it”. Here we find miris modis again, the same expression he used for the providence that happened upon the death of his friend. This disenchantment with Faustus was another one of the unexpected routes to eventual contemplation, another important moment that set him searching again.

We already met Augustine on the street of Milan when he ran into the drunken beggar and began to reflect:

I was all hot for honors, money, marriage, and you made mock of my hotness. … I was preparing an oration in praise of the Emperor in which I was to utter any number of lies to win the applause of people who knew they were lies. My heart was much wrought upon by the shame of this and inflamed with the fever of the thoughts that consumed it. Passing along a certain street in Milan I noticed a beggar. He was jesting and laughing and, I imagine, more than a little drunk. … I fell into gloom and spoke to the friends who were with me about the endless sorrows that our own insanity brings us. For here was I striving away, dragging the load of my unhappiness under the spurring of my desires, and making it worse by dragging it. And with all our striving our one aim was to arrive at some sort of happiness without care. The beggar had reached the same goal before us, and we might quite well never reach it at all. (Conf. VI, 6)

Saint Augustine (Confessions, VI, 6)

In this case it was the stress involved in his vain and anxious task of lauding the emperor in public that was the pain that eventually taught him to look further for happiness.

What we find in common among all these instances of Augustine’s story is an important process that went on as he moved toward conversion.  Disappointment, disillusion, disenchantment and boredom in life are unpleasant negative experiences, but they are not without positive fruit if they are allowed to teach.

For Augustine the displeasure amid the pleasures of his youth kept him away from finding any permanent meaning in them.

The death of his friend was a moment of truth that set him questioning and he would never be the same again. The unmasking of Faustus was something almost all of us go through when we come to learn  more and our heroes fall. The boredom he experienced with the achievements of his mind at a young age and the envy in others showed him how empty all that can be if something more is not found. The immediate, though temporary, happiness of the beggar taught him of the vanity and the fatigue of his hopes. All these were moments of truth that forced him to search on.

It is a kind of dislodging process, an uprooting and discarding of what really doesn’t count and keeps away you from your true self. The result can be despair. But  it can also be a search. For Augustine it brought about a search.

To get an idea of this search, let us go back to Book Four. After describing to us the loss of his friend and the loss of his peace, he begins a meditation that will go around like a spiral and rise higher and higher.

First he reflects on the cause of his pain when his friend died:

O madness that knows not how to love men as men! O foolish man to bear the lot of man so rebelliously! I had both the madness and the folly. I raged and sighed and wept and was in torment, unable to rest, unable to think. I bore my soul all broken and bleeding and loathing to be borne by me; and I could find nowhere to set it down to rest.

Saint Augustine (Confessions, Book IV, 7, 12)

His regret is that he loved his friend as if he was never going to die, as if he had no human limits. And so he suffered an unbearable loss. However, for the person who joins his or her love for others to the love for God, nothing is ever lost:

Blessed is the man that loves you, O God, and his friend in you, and his enemy for you. For he alone loses no one who is dear to him, if all are dear in God, who is never lost. And who is that God but our God, the God who made heaven and earth, who fills them because it is by filling them with himself that he has made them? No man loses you, unless he goes from you.

Saint Augustine (Confessions IV, 9, 14)

He then reflects on the transitoriness of people and things:

Convert us, O God of hosts, and show us your face and we shall be saved. Wherever the soul of man turns, unless towards God, it cleaves to sorrow, even though the things outside God and outside itself to which it cleaves may be things of beauty. For these lovely things would be nothing at all unless they were from him. They rise and set. In their rising they begin to be, and they grow towards perfection, and once come to perfection they grow old, and they die. Not all grow old, but all die.

Saint Augustine (Confessions, IV, 10, 15)

He goes on to say that human loves are good. They are not to be dismissed. But it is the love of God that gives a person a base to enjoy them and creates their proper proportion and balance. For example, he chooses not to turn his back on the world: 

If material things please you, then praise God for them, but turn back your love upon him who made them, lest in the things that please you displease him.

Nor are we to turn our back on people:

 If souls please you then love them in God because they are mutable in themselves but in him firmly established: without him they would pass and perish. Love them, I say, in him and draw as many souls with you to him and you can. (Conf. IV, 12, 18)

Saint Augustine (Confessions, IV, 12, 18)

As hard as the death of his friend was for the young Augustine, years later the author of the Confessions recognized it was a saving event in his life. For one thing, the event disquieted him even more than he had been up until then. He found himself forced to search further for a source of happiness. He continues:

Let us love him: he made this world and is not far from it. For he did not simply make it and leave it; but as it is from him, so it is in him. See where he is, wherever there is a savor of truth: he is in the most secret place of the heart. Yet the heart has strayed from him. O sinners, return to your own heart and abide in him that made you. Stand with him and you shall stand, rest in him and you shall be at peace. 

Saint Augustine (Confessions)

This exhortation is very well known: “Return to your heart,” It is the classical expression of Augustinian interiority. It is the route of the search for God. A few lines later Augustine, speaking of Christ’s ascension, repeats it: 

He withdrew from our eyes, that we might return to our own heart and find him. (Conf. IV, 12, 18)

In this long reflection Augustine has reached the presence of God in our hearts, the classic Augustinian expression of interiority. It began with the death of his friend and passed through the pain, the self-examining, the further searching until it attained the heights of what we have just read. 

There is a pattern here. The discovery of one’s true hungers, one’s deepest desires and their relation to real happiness comes about naturally enough through daily life with its chain of joys and sorrows, fulfillment and disappointment, success and failure, love and loss, just like it did for Augustine. Though he has put it all in a dramatic form, Augustine is really saying that this is basic life and life has to be lived consciously. It has the possibility of detaching a person from attitudes, blindness, self satisfaction and setting him on a search. The best advice is: let it all happen and be open to what it means. Rightly understood, this vital process becomes a preamble to contemplative prayer.

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Joseph Visci
1 year ago

St. Augustine hits the mark and is completely relatable. This post is a wonderful explanation lending to more conscious understanding of what we may already found in our hearts