Friday, April 29, 2005

Spiritual voice (4): from St. Augustine's Confessions (part 2)

[This excerpt is a continuation of the selection posted three days ago from St. Augustine's "Confessions." This is one of the most powerful scenes in Augustine's autobiography as it describes the event which marked the beginning point of his conversion.]

This was the nature of my sickness. I was in torment, reproaching myself more bitterly than ever as I twisted and turned in my chain. I hoped that my chain might be broken once and for all, because it was only a small thing that held me now. All the same it held me. And you, O Lord, never ceased to watch over my secret heart. In your stern mercy you lashed me with the twin scourge of fear and shame in case I should give way once more and the worn and slender chain should not be broken but gain new strength and bind me all the faster.

In my heart I kept saying, "Let it be now, let is be now!" and merely by saying this I was on the point of making the resolution. I was on the point of making it, but I did not succeed. Yet I did not fall back into my old state. I stood on the brink of the resolution, waiting to take fresh breath. I tried again and came a little nearer to my goad, and then a little nearer still, so that I could almost reach out and grasp it.

But I did not reach it. I could not reach out to grasp it, because I held back from the step by which I should die to death and become alive to life. My lower instincts, which had taken hold of me, were stronger than the higher, which were untried. And the closer I came to the moment which was to mark the great change in me, the more I shrank from it in horror. But it did not drive me back or turn me from my purpose: it merely left me hanging in suspense.

I was held back by all my old attachments. They plucked at my garment of flesh and whispered, "Are you going to dismiss us? From this moment we shall never be with you again, for ever and ever. From this moment on you will never again be allowed to do this thing of that." What was it, my God, when they whispered "this thing or that"? Things so sordid and shameful that I beg you in your mercy to keep the soul of your servant free from them!

These voices, as I heard them, seemed less than half as loud as they had been before. They no longer barred my way, but their mutterings seemed to reach me from behind, trying to make me turn my head when I wanted to go forward. Yet, in my state of indecision, they kept me from tearing myself away, from shaking myself free of them and leaping across the barrier to the other side where you were calling me. Habit was too strong for me when it asked, "Do you think you can live without these things?"

But by now the voice of habit was very faint. I had turned my eyes elsewhere, and while I stood trembling at the barrier, on the other side I could see the chaste beauty of Continence in all her serene, unsullied joy, as she modestly beckoned me to cross over and to hesitate no more. She stretched out loving hands to welcome and embrace me, holding up a host of good examples to my sight.

She smiled at me to give me courage, as though she were saying, "Can you not do what these men and women do? Do you think they find the strength to do it in themselves and not in the Lord their God? It was the Lord their God who gave me to them. Why do you try to stand in your own strength and fail? Cast yourself upon him without fear, for he will welcome you and cure you of your ills."

I was overcome with shame, because I will still listening to the futile mutterings of my lower self and I was still hanging in suspense. And again Continence seemed to say, "Close your ears to the unclean whispers of your body, so that it may be mortified. It tells you of things that delight you, but not such things as the law of the Lord your God has to tell."

I probed the hidden depths of my soul and wrung its painful secrets from it, and when I mustered them all before the eyes of my heart, a great storm broke within me. Somehow I flung myself down beneath a fig tree and gave way to the tears which now streamed from my eyes. For I felt that I was still the captive of my sins, and in misery I kept crying, "How long shall I go on saying, 'Tomorrow, tomorrow?' Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?"

I was asking myself these question, weeping all the while with the most bitter sorrow in my heart, when all at once I heard the singing of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain, "Take it and read, take it and read" [tolle lege, tolle lege]. At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before.

I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall. So I hurried back to the place where I had put down the book containing Paul's epistles. I seized it and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell: "Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature's appetites" (Romans 13:13,14).

I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled. I marked the place with my finger and closed the book. You converted me to yourself, so that I no longer placed any hope in this world but stood firmly upon the rule of faith.

[Questions to think about:

*Augustine writes about the whispers of his old habits, and how they tried to persuade him until, in time, their voices grew faint. Which voices of habit would cry out the loudest if you were to try and break that habit?

*Augustine asks himself, "How long shall I go on saying, 'Tomorrow, tomorrow'? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?" How would you answer his question?]

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