Augustine’s Confessions Book II, Chapters 4-5
“But our ambition to obtain all these things must not lead us astray from You, O Lord, nor must we depart from what Your law allows.” Confessions II.5
Moving has a way of forcing a person to evaluate his or her priorities. As I packed my belongings at the seminary in preparation for my language immersion trip to Mexico and my Pastoral Internship during the next academic year, I realized that I had a lot of stuff to weed out. Some of it were things that I no longer used, or old clothes, or items that I didn’t really need in the first place. Packing gave me a chance to focus on what should be my priority, namely, my formation and preparation for the priesthood, and so I was able to divest myself of quite a few belongings. Many items I kept too, such as those relating to what I consider “central” hobbies or interests in my life: theology, astronomy, or writing (and, of course, Star Trek and Star Wars). All in all, it was a very freeing experience, being able to take stock of everything and discern whether or not it was truly necessary in my life.
All of that said, I must say this: attachment to material things is no small obstacle to overcome!
In this week’s selection, Saint Augustine shows us the danger of attachment to material things. He relates what I consider to be one of the most jarring stories in Book II of the Confessions: when he and several friends stole an enormous amount of pears from a local orchard. This tale may not seem like much, but when one takes into account Augustine’s motivations, the reader can see just how dangerous material covetousness can be. He uses this moment to show how we can be attached to the material world for its own sake, and even more diabolically, how we can even be attached to sin for the mere feeling that it provides. Augustine even admits that he “had no wish to enjoy the things I [he] coveted by stealing, but only to enjoy the theft itself and the sin” (II.4).
We must remember, however, that material objects in and of themselves are not sinful. One does not sin by owning the best computer or the fanciest boat. Sin enters the picture when these items are loved for their own sake, rather than for the end of true joy in glorifying God and building up oneself and others in a positive way. After all, as Augustine notes, “The life we live on Earth has its own attractions as well, because it has a certain beauty of its own in harmony with the world’s beauty” (II.5). The beauty of God and creation as seen through material things cannot be denied! But what happens when we move into excess? Is the fanciest boat or best computer really that necessary?
The danger comes when we attach too much importance to material items, and again, Augustine leads the way in this thinking: “They are of the lower order of good, and if we are too much tempted by them we abandon those higher and better things, Your truth, Your law, and You Yourself, O Lord our God” (II.5). In other words, when we attach an importance to an item, a feeling, or even a person, that is outside of this proper order of things, then we lose our focus and we fall back in on ourselves, leading eventually to sin; we follow Augustine’s footsteps directly into the pear orchard.
The pear orchard, however, is not an endless trap! We must work to reexamine our lives, and place everything where it belongs. We do not sin by possessing material items, but I do believe that it adds a greater burden on our lives, for after all, Jesus Christ tells us that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19.24). So let’s take a moment to examine our lives, our attachments, and discern where we can use a bit of spring cleaning.
Just don’t take away my books. Anything but the books!
Questions for reflection:
- Do I place inordinate attachment to anything in my life, outside of its proper order, whether that be a person, an object, or even an idea or emotion?
- How can I better re-order the priorities in my life so that my material possessions can help me become a better person, in terms of how I treat myself, how I interact with others, and how I relate to and worship God?
Up next time: Confessions II.6-10
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.