The Life of Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis (354-430 A.D.)
MIHI QUAESTIO FACTUS SUM.
I have become a problem to myself.
— St. Augustine
The realization that he was his own worst enemy is one that changed his experience of life and we would all do well to emulate St. Augustine, up to a point that is. The author of one of the West’s most famous memoirs was right, the only problem any of us have is our “self,” our false self, that is. Fortunately, St. Augustine was able to engage in the process of transformation and reduced his false-self reactions. He did not, however, transcend the illusions that kept him from entering “heaven on earth.”
This essay is written to support all those who sense that transformation is possible for them. Since St. Augustine’s memoir has never gone out of print in its 1500 years, it must have a compelling message for those of us who are fellow truth-seekers. That message is a meditation on the nature of reality, an autobiography from a person who was finally able to look back on his life and truthfully reveal what he understood to be universal truths about what it means to be human. His insights are uncommon but his journey was not completed.
Confessions, as his title implies, is overall an expiation of guilt over what he understood to be his sinful nature as a young man, and his redemption upon being baptized as a Roman Catholic. Many of us are engaged in a similar process today in our search for truth and beauty and can relate to his travails and victories.
One initial insight was his realization of the existence of his false self and his unconscious behavior. Why was he so often in reaction and behaving in such a self-destructive way? He would call his behavior evil and sinful. “I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself.” He was a part of the Manichaen sect for nine years relating to Mani’s worldview of life as a struggle between forces of light and darkness. His early searching was philosophical, relying on his intellect, a direction many of us have learned is a dead-end path.
Psychologist Seymour Epstein notes what Augustine would soon learn. “It is no accident that the Bible, probably the most influential Western book of all time, teaches through parables and stories and not through philosophical discourse.” To begin the process of changing his unsatisfying behaviors Augustine would need to learn to listen to his inner wisdom and stop relying on his formidable intellect.
Enter St. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, who helped Augustine understand the Bible as allegory not as a story to be understood literally. This removed the principal barriers to his acceptance of Christianity. He was, however, not yet ready to give up his false-self survival strategy finding the pursuit of plenty, power and in particular pleasure too attractive. He prayed to God: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”
Eventually we must find the courage to objectively look at our own behaviors and then we often find the motivation necessary to choose a new identity. We are all tempted to entertain change but often succumb to procrastination—“I’m gonna do it—tomorrow.” If we are lucky, we will become so exhausted by the treadmill of chasing plenty, pleasure and power that we finally surrender. Augustine reached that “Point of Power” and chose not to put off the inevitable. “At that moment an inner muscle grasping his old life relaxed and he could finally let God in. And a new life began.”
The heart of Augustine’s transformation was his ability to grasp two essential elements central to awakening into the present moment. First, that we all have two conflicting identities, similar to but not quite resembling the True self and a false self. Secondly, that we have a choice to make as to which identity we will give our energy to. “Augustine hit upon an idea that would shape Western consciousness for centuries: the notion that human beings have two wills within, a defiant one that wants autonomy and a chastened one that wants to serve God. The only way to achieve happiness, Augustine believed, was to subordinate the former to the latter.”
Simple Reality teaches that the only process that works in “subordinating the former to the latter” is to consistently choose response over reaction thereby depriving the “defiant one” of the energy whereby it is perpetuated. Christianity will have us live in a worldview where we are naturally sinful and must then rely on our will and the Church as intermediary on our way to our reward in the afterlife. St. Augustine’s church was unable to let go of using guilt, shame and regret associated with one’s past and anxiety about one’s future as tools of politically inspired control depriving its constituents of the joy of transcending the false self. “Confessions” are not enough.
The reward has already been given and we only have to accept our perfection and the perfection of Creation. Compassion revealed by a vigilant refusal to react to our past conditioning is all that is required to receive the benefits promised by the Gospel. Love thy neighbor as they self and thy God (Creation) with all thy body, mind and soul. The Carpenter’s son from Nazareth also has a memoir but it is “heartfelt” and philsophers find its message obscured by their overactive intellects.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in books by Roy Charles Henry.