On the Journey: Bad Grades and Prideful Students

Augustine’s Confessions: Book I, Chapters 13-15

(I will provide a link to an online translation next week; my usual source seems to be down at the moment. Although for my personal use and for these reflections, I am using this translation.)

“O God, You are the Light of my heart, the Bread of my inmost soul, and the Power that weds my mind and the thoughts of my inmost heart.” (I.13)

I've always had my head buried in a book. Especially these books...

I’ve always had my head buried in a book. Especially these books…

When I was in high school, I was a horrible student. OK, in elementary and middle school too… But I just was not interested in the subjects being taught! Instead of learning my multiplication tables, I wanted to study the stars. Instead of learning how to tell the difference between passive and active sentences, I wanted to read Sherlock Holmes. Instead of studying the rise and fall of the Roman Empire from a textbook, I wanted to read first-hand accounts of the people who were there.

How prideful of me!

But as one who used to teach in a classroom, it prepared me for encountering the same difficulties in my own students, and I can certainly identify with the struggles that St. Augustine expresses in this week’s reading: he preferred the great stories over learning the basics of reading, writing, and math. He thought he knew what was best for his education, rather than defer to the wisdom of those who had gone before him.

How often do we think we know what is best without deferring to the such wisdom? I wonder how often that happens when we struggle against God, trying to make manifest our own will instead of his?! Again, there’s that ugly pride popping up again…

This picture says it all. We must get back to basics! Painting by Caravaggio - "Saint Jerome" Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

This picture says it all. We must get back to basics!
Painting by Caravaggio – “Saint Jerome” Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

We are sometimes given tasks that we don’t want to do, especially when we are young. We want to venture out into the world, and yet we forget that we have barely left our front yard. In all things, however, we need to start of with the basics. Whether mathematics, English, science, or history, we have to build upon a firm foundation. This reality is no less true for the spiritual life. We must build a firm foundation first. Even though we may “prefer more empty romances to more valuable studies” (Confessions I.13), that does not mean we can eschew these studies, for even though we may prefer quantum mechanics to 1+1, 1+1 has in itself its own mysteries, and is vital for us in the pursuit of knowledge.

I think, however, that there is a deeper truth that Augustine is trying to express here, namely that we must begin with God first, for He must be our foundation. Whether we are budding astronomers, intrepid historians, or the next great American novelist, all that we do is naught without Him, for it is through Him that we receive our foundation, our bearing, and our purpose. Before all else, we need to focus on our relationship with Him, then everything will fall into place.

In other words, we need to focus on our multiplication facts before moving on to differential calculus.

I think it is best to end with this prayer from the conclusion of Confessions I.15:

“Grant my prayer, O Lord, and do not allow my soul to wilt under the discipline which you prescribe. Let me not tire of thanking you for your mercy in rescuing me from all my wicked ways, so that you may be sweeter to me than all the joys which used to tempt me; so that I may love you most intensely and clasp your hand with all the power of my devotion; so that you may save me from all temptation until the end of my days.”

Amen.

Questions for reflection:

  • Who or what is the foundation in my life? Is it God or is it someone/something else?
  • What can I do to better learn about the Lord and His action in my life?

This is part of a continuing series, Companions on the Journey, which travels along with a particular companion in the spiritual life, one of the great saints, in order discover how some of their writings might be applicable to our everyday lives. Currently, we are traveling with Augustine of Hippo through his work, Confessions. You can take a look at previous posts in the series or read the introduction.

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