Books two and three of Augustine’s Confessions cover his teenage years up to his nineteenth year. Of course, these being confessions, he writes about sin, but his teenage years discuss the kinds of sin and the wages of those sins.
Much of Book II is dominated by Augustine’s description of how he stole some pears from a tree. He makes mention of how he “boiled over in his fornications” and as a youth was distracted by the desire to be satiated in “things below.” But the focal confession revolves around how he and some friends stole fruit from a pear tree near his vineyard that was laden with fruit. He writes that the fruit wasn’t all that great and that he threw most of it to the hogs. So, why did he take it? He took it because he enjoyed the sin itself.
But it was not just the sin, but also that he had company and he wanted to be like his friends. The excitement of each fed the others so they were led to the sin. So off they went to steal pears to feel bold in their shamelessness and as part of egging each other on to it.
He says the same motives led him to ignore his mother’s advice “‘not to commit fornication; but especially not to defile another’s wife’ These seemed to me womanish advices which I should blush to obey. But they were Thine [God’s], and I new it not: and I thought Thou wert silent, and that it was she who spake; by whom Thou wert not silent unto me….”
In this way Augustine teaches us about the kinds of sin: sin for its own sake, sin of pride, sociable sin. But through this he reveals to us several other points.
First, God is not silent at this time. He does try to speak to us through various earthly means, including our own mothers. Whether we choose to listen is up to us. Though one wonders whether a hormonally raging teenager is ready to hear anything like that.
Second, he tells us about the wages of the sin. “I sank away from Thee, and I wandered, O my God, too much astray from Thee my stay, in these days of my youth, and I became to myself a barren land.”
This idea of the wages of sin being harm that we do to ourselves comes through more strongly in book III. Here Augustine is a little older and has gone off to school, college maybe, and become immersed in watching plays and studying philosophy. While he likes these things and he seems to have moved away from the sins of youth, he is still off track.
Perhaps his most vivid description of this is as follows. “These things I being ignorant of, scoffed at those Thy holy servants and prophets. And what gained I by scoffing at them, but to be scoffed at by Thee, being insensibly and step by step drawn on to those follies, as to beleive that a fig-tree wept when it was plucked, and the tree, its mother, shed milky tears?….And I, miserable, believed that more mercy was to be shewn to the fruits of the eart, than men, for whom they were created.”
Agustine tell sus that even though he began to study philosophy and was searching for an ultimate truth, he did not find it until he found God. He says the men get confused and begin to try to judge true righteoousness by temporary human conditions, “petty havuts, the moral habits of the whole human race,” and this is how prophets such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Moses were judged to be unrighteousby other men.
Yet in this confusion, and in other sins such as robbery and violence and violations of the Ten Commandments, men do not hurt God, but themselves, Augustine says.
“They Ten Commandments, O God, most high, and most sweet. But what foul offences can there be against Thee, Who canst not be defiled? or what acts of violence against Thee, Who canst not be harmed. But Thou avengest what men commit against themselves, seeing also when they sin against Thee, they do wickedly against their own souls, and inquity gives itself the lie, by corrupting and perverting their nature….”
We only hurt ourselves by pursuing things which we know are wrong and when we don’t listen to the words of God as they are spoken on earth, Augustine tells us.
My thought on this is that this is an excellent description of human nature. How many times do we see people who do things that are bad for themselves even when they know it is bad? How many things do we do that are bad for ourselves? And why do we do them? Sometimes, like Augustine because we can do it, we know it is bad, and we can get away with it. We can steal the pears. Sometimes it is that we aren’t listening to angels of our better nature, to borrow a phrase, in whatever form they may appear.
I will say, though, the part about the fruits of the earth has me thinking tonight. I read about and saw some video of a man who was abusing dairy cattle. The violence was sickening. I also had an unrelated conversation today with a fried abotu sociopaths. What it makes me think about in this context is whether there is a point where someone can give up their humanity.
Augustine says that a fruit tree should not be given more mercy than a man. But watching that footage of a man hitting a caged cow with a metal pipe and stomping on a calf’s head made me angry because it was unwarranted cruelty. It was cruelty for cruelty’s sake — a sin perhaps that Augustine would recognize. Still, though, is there a point where one surrenders humanity? What is that point and what do we do about it. Or is it true, to steal a couple lines from John Hiatt, that “there’s no man so wicked he cannot come home/ or so good, he passes each test”?
I think Agustine would agree with Hiatt, in sentiment at least. Me, I am not so sure.
Next Time: Augustine: All Grown Up and Still Sinning