Thursday, May 22, 2008

An Exemplary Paper on Augustine

I got a very nice paper yesterday from Lydia Murdy, 10th grade, and got her permission to share it here. Note that she makes good use of the chronological progression of his life story, showing how his faith developed over time--she uses each episode to comment on the characteristics of the kind of belief he had at each time. Enjoy! (Posted as it was originally received.)

Augustine: A Restored Soul
1,128 words

Augustine of Hippo is arguably the most important man in Western Civilization and his books the most valuable. They have been read countless times in the past 1,600 years, and each reader gleans important truths from them every time he reads them. One of the most poignant books is Confessions where Augustine recounts the struggles he suffered before finding peace in Jesus Christ. Augustine’s story is not a tale of triumph after triumph, as we might expect from so great a man, but instead trial after trial. Augustine had many objections to the Christian faith that needed to be overcome before he was saved. To read about and understand this struggle is comforting to Christians because we can see how God took a man just as sinful and weak as us and made him into a pious giant in the Christian faith.

This great man, when he first read the Scriptures as a pagan searching for truth, thought them course because of their simple style. He had started his search for truth when he read in Cicero’s Hortensius that man should look for truth no matter where it might be found. But though Cicero’s words pushed him onto the path of questioning that would eventually lead him to God, Cicero’s grand and masterful style also hindered him. The Bible, compared to Cicero’s work, seemed lowly and simple, so Augustine despised it and sought truth among other pagan works of philosophy. But as the years passed and his search became more desperate, he came under the teaching of Ambrose in Milan, and he reevaluated the Scriptures. He saw the simplicity of the Scriptures as their beauty, for hidden beneath the ordinary surface are the precious jewels of the mysteries of God’s love and his intricate plan for our salvation.

Augustine’s previous beliefs in Manichaeism, a Gnostic heresy, also led to many objections to Christianity. As a Manichaean, Augustine imagined God as a vast physical being that permeated the whole of his creation. But taking that premise to its conclusion, God’s residence in any place was limited by its size. Because God was physical, a smaller part of him would reside in a room and a larger in the sky. But Augustine eventually forsook the ideas of the Manichaeans in Milan and turned to the books of the Platonists who showed him that God is a spiritual being. His presence is not defined by the matter he created. As much of him can be contained in a nutshell as can be contained in the whole universe. God could even reside in a human being. Thus, with the Platonists, God mercifully crushed one more obstacle in Augustine’s path.

The more Augustine heard, the more convinced he became of the error of the Manichaean beliefs he had been following. But this did not cause him to accept immediately the doctrines of Christianity. He was like a man who, having been under the hands of a bad doctor, was not ready to entrust himself to a good one. (VI, 4) Augustine objected to the habit of Christians of believing many doctrines without having proof or without completely understanding the proof. They trusted faith greatly. But after a time Augustine realized that it was not only the Christians who relied greatly on faith, but also himself and everyone around him. He believed the Battle of Marathon took place simply because it was recorded in Herodotus, not because he had fought in the battle himself. He also took for granted the existence of many towns and countries that he had never actually seen himself; he just had faith in the words of his friends that these places existed. Augustine realized that he believed facts daily simply because of the faith he had in friends or books and that if he didn’t have this faith he would have to live a life of complete cynicism. Augustine could no longer rail against the Christians for their faith in many unproven things because he himself lived a life of faith.

All of the aforementioned obstacles Augustine faced because of his personal background and previous Manichaean beliefs. But the last obstacle is one we all face. Augustine knew only the shadowy joys of his life of sin, and he feared the pain of giving them up. One by one many boulders had been thrust from his path, but this final great boulder still remained. With all his questions answered, Augustine wanted desperately the pure Christian life, but it meant losing the sinful life he knew so well. He saw the beautiful image of chastity and purity beckoning to him from peaceful green meadows of faith, but he also desired the cheap sensual pleasure he had enjoyed for so long. Many of us, I am sure, know this kind of pain. We know that health, wholeness, and happiness wait for us with Jesus Christ, but the nearness of our own sin and its familiarity restrain us. We and Augustine are like a drug addict who knows that an addiction free life is better that the broken hallucinations of happiness given by a drug, but he is too scared of the pain of losing the hallucinations to choose the better life. Augustine dealt with this feeling for a long time until finally he came to a pit of despair thinking never would he have the full joy that he truly desired. Finally, at the command from a child singing in a game, “Tolle, lege,” “take it up; read it,” he picked up Paul’s letter to the Romans and read chapter 13, verses 13 and 14: “not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” This was the final push for Augustine, and he took a headlong plunge into the dark cavern of faith, not caring anymore if it hurt to give up his sin. But he found the cavern to be an entrance to glorious, holy, cleansing, healing light and a home of everlasting peace with Jesus Christ.

This is the pain and the suffering Augustine went through. This is the questioning that tore his soul into shreds before it was made whole in Jesus Christ. Augustine, the great man of Western Civilization, was made of a lump of clay just like us and struggled just as we do. So, let us remember Augustine when we want to give up and hold on to the illusions of our sin. Let us remember that the peace, joy, and love that Augustine received resolved every question and answered every desire that Augustine ever had before he was saved.

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