Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Spiritual voice (4): from St. Augustine's Confessions (part 1)

[St. Augustine (354-430), bishop of Hippo, was the great doctor of the Latin (Western) Catholic Church. He came under the influence of the philosophy of neo-Platonism as well as the heresy of Manicheanism. Then he came upon St. Ambrose whose homily electrified him. After a long inner struggle he renounced his earlier philosophical beliefs and embraced the Christian faith. For 34 years he lived a monastic life, but he wrote vast numbers of books and became known for his eloquence, logic, and spiritual passion. These combined to make St. Augustine one of the most important thinkers in the history of the Church. This excerpt from his "Confessions," his autobiography, sheds light on the eternal struggle of the will and its surrender to Christ by retelling his own conversion. I warn you, this selection is a tad philosophical, but very worth reading. Because of the length of this excerpt, I will divide this into two parts. Here is part one.]

My inner self was a house divided against itself. Why does this strange phenomenon occur? The mind gives an order to the body and is at once obeyed, but when it gives an order to itself, it is resisted. What causes it? The mind commands the hand to move and is so readily obeyed that the order can scarcely be distinguished from its execution. Yet the mind is mind and the hand is part of the body. But when the mind commands the mind to make an act of will, these two are one and the same and yet the order is not obeyed.

Why does this happen? The mind orders itself to make an act of will, and it would not give this order unless it willed to do so; yet it does not carry out its own command. But it does not fully will to do this thing and therefore its orders are not fully given. It gives the order only insofar as it will, and insofar as it does not will, the order is not carried out.

For the will commands that an act of will should be made, and it gives this command to itself, not to some other will. The reason, then, why the command is not obeyed is that it is not given with the full will. For if the will were full, it would not command itself to be full, since it would be so already.

It is therefore no strange phenomenon partly to will to do something and partly not to will to do it. It is a disease of the mind which does not wholly rise to the heights where it is lifted by the truth, because it is weighed down by habit. So there are two wills in us, because neither by itself is the whole will, and each possesses what the other lacks.

When I was trying to reach a decision about serving the Lord my God, as I had long intended to do, it was I who willed to take this course and again it was I who willed not to take it. It was I and I alone. But I neither willed to do it nor refused to do it with my full will. So I was at odds with myself. I was throwing myself into confusion. All this happened to me although I did not want it, but it did prove that there was some second mind in me besides my own. It only meant that my mind was being punished. My action did not come from me but from the sinful principle that dwells in me (Romans 7:17). It was part of the punishment of a sin freely committed by Adam, my first father.

When we try to make a decision, we have one soul which is torn between conflicting wills. Some say that there are two opposing minds within us, one good and the other bad, and that they are in conflict because they spring from two opposing substances or principles.

For you, O God of truth, prove that they are utterly wrong. You demolish their arguments and confound them completely. It may be that both of the wills are bad. For instance, a person may be trying to decide whether to spend his money extravagantly or hoard it like a miser, or, whether to commit murder or adultery--or even a third, whether to commit theft instead. Since he cannot do all at once, his mind is torn between these wills which cannot be reconciled.

It is just the same when the wills are good. If I am trying to decide between reading one of St. Paul's epistles or one of the Psalms--or perhaps one of the gospels--some will say that in each case the will is good. Supposing, then, that a person finds all these things equally attractive and the chance to do all of them occurs at the same time, is it not true that as long as he cannot make up his mind which of them he most wants to do, his heart is torn between several different desires? All these different desires are good, yet they are in conflict with each other until he chooses a single course to which the will may apply itself to a single whole, so that it is no longer split into several different wills.

The same is true when the higher part of our nature aspires after eternal bliss while our lower self is held back by the love of temporal pleasure. It is the same soul that wills both, but it wills neither of them with the full force of the will. So it is wrenched in two and suffers great trials because while truth teaches it to prefer one course, habit prevents it from relinquishing the other.

[Questions to think about:

*Augustine says that he felt like "a house divided," torn between two opposing desires. Ever had that experience?

*The force of habit works against our spiritual goals, Augustine would say. What role have habits played in your own struggle of commitment to God?

*In Romans 7:19, St. Paul confesses that he is unable to do what he wants to do--that which is right and good. Instead, he finds himself doing that which he does not want to do--that which is bad and evil. How is Jesus Christ the solution to this?]

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