A Reflection on Augustine’s Confessions, Book 2

I recently caught up with a friend to discuss chapter 2 of Augustine’s confessions together. It started smooth but we derailed towards the end of the chapter when Augustine began talking about the story of his disordered loves. Like many good stories it all started with a piece of forbidden fruit.

As a young man, Augustine took a pear from a farm. But to be more precise, he stole it. And as he reflected back on his life, he was puzzled at why he would do such a thing. It’s one thing for a man to steal a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. But Augustine realized that he had done it for no reason at all. There was nothing attractive about the pear other than the sheer pleasure of stealing itself and the joy of doing it in company.

We were both confused. Not just because Augustine had previously described the human condition as a case of loving the wrong things. But now he was pointing out that there was something wrong about our love itself. It sounded much worse than what we had originally thought about people’s motivations. Can you imagine forgiving someone who admits to hitting your car not because he was in a rush but simply for fun? The sympathy we feel towards those who wrong us often come from seeing them as noble people with misplaced intentions.

But Augustine is honest about you, me and himself. I can see what he means. There’s a certain mystique that draws you in to sin. It’s alluring. Lustrous. Forbidden. Scandalous. Just look at a Tim Tam ad. Remember the old msn status? ‘If loving you is wrong then I don’t ever wanna be right.’ There’s also the sweet, sweet feeling of vengeance – that feeling of being gloriously right and no apology will ever be good enough for you. We don’t just love badly but we love the bad.

I think Augustine provides some hints to help us understand the difference between the 2. When we sacrifice our lives for money we show how desperately we want security. When we sacrifice children for the sake of our jobs we show how much success matters to us. We’re enslaved by whatever we sacrifice ourselves for. That’s worship, the ‘for God’ part. And as Bob Dylan says, ‘everyone’s gotta worship something.’ And though our hearts are restless seekers until they find God, they’re also restless imitators of God. Even perversity doesn’t stop us imitating the one we were made for. We enjoy the freedom that comes with exercising autonomy and control over what we want, when we want, how we want, where we want. McDonald’s all day, everyday. Children when I want and how I want. So we become like gods.

This unlimited freedom we’re exercising is simply a superficial imitation of the one who is truly free. This cheap copy of God is what Augustine had in mind when he stole the pear. And I think this role of playing god is probably more destructive because by doing it makes its doers accountable to no one else. But as I spoke to my friend over the burnt raisin toast of a late night McDonald’s, I was reminded that God’s work is not so much to make us what we’re not but to remake us into who we truly are. We are what we love after all and we love best when we love what is true, good and beautiful.

Disordered Loves

Unlikely Loves

Everyone loves love. Everyone desires love. The anticipation of its fulfillment in its object, the intense longing, the momentary feeling that all is right in the world in its presence, the sharp stabbing feeling of having and of losing, the intimacy of being known and knowing another, like there was no other person who were privy to the knowledge that you had received, the assurance of one’s commitment, the certainty of its endurance and the safety of its acceptance. Yes, all of it. But the object of our love is found in all sorts of strange things. A man ‘marries’ his phone. Narcissus falls in love with his reflection. We also find in our hearts, competing loves. That is, competing desires. The moment I wake up I face the desire to write competing with my love of sleep at 6 am.

The War of Loves

In the light of eternity, our whole lives is a war between loves. In our pursuit of happiness, fulfillment and transcendence, succumbing to some of these loves lead to fatal consequences while others to benefit. Will one choose their long term health or their appetite, and succumb to fatal heart disease? The struggles lies in the painstaking difficulty of giving up a good desire to one that is better. It is an inescapable reality of our lives. Every moment demands a choice. Every choice fulfills one desire and rejects another. Every desire fulfilled is the loss of another and what could have been. To be human is to love and to lose.

But if life is a war of our loves then we are losing it. How do we know the better loves then? Do we accept what society deems lovable or decide for ourselves? Caught in the midst of an affair, the bewildered husband utters “it just happened.” The high school girl, infatuated with the longing for one particular boy is encouraged to do what makes her happy. After all, love is love. Underneath the pining of our culture is an assumption that almost any love is a good one to be pursued. The news is filled with story after story of people giving in to their love all day long. Love is portrayed like cupid’s arrow, an enslaving, all consuming fiery passion that leaves no one outside its grasp. “It just happened.”

Though we know intuitively that love is only good through its appropriate expression and proportions, we are unable to tear ourselves away from certain desires. The love between a man and his wife can never be expressed in the same way to his daughter. Nor any other woman for that matter. Yet “it just happened”. These desires enslave us. they are our masters. At other times, we do not know which desires to follow and which to suppress if at all possible. Do I listen to my heart and break up with my girlfriend to pursue this girl? Is she the one? Blind to reality, we just have to “follow our hearts” and hope for the best.

Why We Don’t Love What We Should and Love What We Shouldn’t

Why do we do such things? Because the end of love’s pursuit is to deny what it knows is coming. The final defeat of death. Death envelops it all. There is no love that endures, no song that remains to be sung through the ages. If we live long enough the love we feel for another becomes bitter like wormwood. if we live short enough, we see death cruelly taking love before it has blossomed, leaving only broken hearts to ask what could have been. The good die young and the bad live long. Love is torn apart by untimely deaths, by broken hearts, by grief, tragedy and despair itself. Death destroys all knowledge of love and love itself. Love is subsumed into the void never to be remembered or lived again.

Deep down we know it to be true. And because we dread this, our “existential angst” leads us to spend our lives giving in to the wrong loves, indulging in our natural desires. Because the wrong loves are also the easiest loves. And if the right loves cease to matter then why waste precious labor to pursue what you will never have.

“What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor. 15:32)

What we call love is used to fill the chasm of our hearts caused by facing the reality that we will never find fulfillment in our lifetime. It is a fleeting glimpse, a momentary ecstasy. Like a flower it rises up today only to be gone tomorrow. Try as we might the desire for our transcendence never dies even in the face of the absurd. Even death laughs at our futile attempts to enjoy what we can never have.

The Message of Despair

In the midst of our struggle with our existence, we miss the message it sends. Whispering in our empty success, shouting in our pain. It says, “you were never made for this world”. No, the love in this world is merely a signpost to a greater one. One that is enduring and eternal. One that overcomes death. To love love is to completely miss the point. Love is love? Who strives to be happy for happiness’ sake?

We ought to strive to be happy in the object that it is found. But we do not think the same with love. We seek love on its own, without its object, in what we believe will bring it to us. Follow it however and you end up more disappointed than when you started. The love we glimpse in our life amidst our relationships were designed as images of a better one. To seek to find love outside off its narrow road is to be lost, never to find the way again unless by some miracle you stumble upon it.

We will never find love until we give up trying to find it in this life and find it in God. To face the absurd we must give up what we hope will deliver us and seek what we can have no hope of in this life. Yet this seems more absurd). If you consider this too difficult, ask: “is it worth it if it is true?”. We must face facts. We only have two choices. We must choose which loves to pursue. To decide to follow our heart desires death. To desire God is to desire life.

A Call to Trust

The war of loves then is a call to trust. Our hearts were never meant to lead but be led. Do we know which loves will make us happy or does the one who made us? The only reason why giving up our loves is unbearable is if we like children are so preoccupied playing with our mud pies that we have become blind to the sandcastle right next to us. Consider therefore whether you’re seeking love for its own sake or the God who is love.