Augustine’s Confessions I.5-6
No one can part You from the things that You love, and safety is assured nowhere but in You.
What motivates our actions? I think it is safe to say that in almost all cases, human beings are driven to act by that which they see as good, that which will lead to happiness. Aristotle says “happiness depends on ourselves” and in a sense, I suppose that is true. In order to be happy, we must act, we must seek that which makes us happy. And what makes us happy? The good, true, and beautiful.
I remember when I first listened to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. It was at the recommendation of a dear friend and mentor, Fr. Paschal, God rest his soul. He gave me this advice before listening to it: “Don’t worry about anything else for an hour! Get a nice glass of wine, turn the music on, and just experience it!” Despite my busy academic schedule at the time, I did what he suggested, and it became a pivotal moment: the music moved me in a way that had never happened before. In that moment, I felt truly happy, allowing myself to be caught up in the movement of the work, to escape the worries of life, even if only for an hour. To borrow a literature term, it was truly a pastoral moment.
I was experiencing something that many of us encounter in our lives, in some fashion: there are things on this earth that make us truly happy and bring joy to our hearts. But while they make us happy, we must remember that the good, true, and beautiful leads to something else, something higher. Augustine reminds us of this deep truth of human existence: we can find goodness in so many things of this world, such as beautiful objects, material things, friendship. For Aristotle, this quest for happiness was a quest for “eudaimonia“, pursuing health, wealth, and excellence to achieve the ultimate in human flourishing. Augustine, on the other hand, goes further: our quest for happiness must move to a much deeper, a much higher. level or we risk twisting even the good things in our lives into something that will bring us to ruin, rather than fulfillment.
What happens when this quest for happiness, or perhaps we can say now fulfillment, becomes twisted? This is where confusion and sin enter the picture. Sin, a turning in on oneself and away from God, is the disordered seeking of that which we think is good but in reality is not, or even seeking a good but through means that fracture our relationship with God and those around us. After all, even the worst atrocities in human history have been committed by people who thought they were doing good. We are wronged, so we commit revenge. We are envious, so we commit murder. We are lustful, so we commit adultery. At the center of these actions is a disordered desire to seek fulfillment: whether it is achieving some sort of excellence, wanting to battle what we perceive as an injustice, or seeking a relationship to fill an inner need to connect on an intimate level with another. In each of these situations, the individual is searching for what he or she thinks is good, but in the end, comes up empty.
In Augustine’s case, it was even worse! He steals a measly pear not because he needed it, or he thought it was better than the fruit he had. He stole it simply for the sheer desire of the sin:
For no sooner had I picked them than I threw them away, and tasted nothing in them but my own sin, which I relished and enjoyed. If any part of one of those pears passed my lips, it was the sin that gave its flavor.
Makes you feel a bit better, doesn’t it, knowing that even a Church Father, one of the greatest theologians and leaders in human history, was a lowly sinful person like the rest of us, huh?
St. Augustine was, in reality, seeking happiness, even if it was in a disordered way. This does not excuse the action, of course, don’t get me wrong, but he comes to the realization, praise God to the benefit of Western Civilization, that while the “soul defiles itself with unchaste love when it turns away” from God, it finds a true love “that is pure and unsullied” available only by returning back to the Lord.
We fall, we sin, we seek happiness in all the wrong places. As Augustine shows us, however, true happiness resides in keeping Him at the center of our lives, living the full meaning of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful; we just need to respond to His prompting and take that first step towards true happiness and lasting joy. Praise God, when we fall, His love still waits for us, ready to meet us, and draw us into something greater than we can possibly imagine, for even in the darkest moments, “there is no place whatever where man may hide away” from God and His love.
- How do you seek happiness?
- Does the way in which you seek happiness lead you towards, or away, from God?
Up Next Wednesday: Confessions I.7-12