St. Augustine, freedom from the slavery of the flesh

Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.

~ St Augustine of Hippo.

Now, I’m going to expose a bit of my weakness here. Some of you may be more familiar with the story behind St. Augustine’s early life and his latter conversion into Catholicism than I am. For those who aren’t he was one of the foundational saints of Catholic theology. Arguably, he’s one of the most foundational and important figures in modern western Christianity short of Sts. Peter and Paul.

It is known that he led an incredibly hedonistic lifestyle. In fact, the prayer above is connected to his activities early in his life. It is said that he was given a “divine command” from God to take up and read. In the process, he realized the folly of his ways and the source of much of his unhappiness; Self-centered hedonism isn’t a goal worth striving for. He said that Romans 13:13-14 guided him in this enlightenment.

13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

~ NSRV Romans 13:13-14

It is essentially, the prodigal son story with St. Augustine, his debauched/licentious lifestyle during his 20s and his full conversion. His realization of greater things than just consumerism and individualism. This revelation leads to further spiritual growth and creation that many people today could learn strongly from.

I feel though that the lesson is 3-fold.

  • Satisfying the flesh will never satisfy the soul.
    Perhaps this message should be broadcast loudly, if only to overcome the MTV, ET Tonight, and regular commercial drone that the hedonistic excess is the only way to find any happiness is to feed that hedonistic urge.
  • You can always come back from any extreme.
    Who can blame people for trying out things they are told is wrong. I know when I was a toddler I stuck a hanger in an outlet, knocked over a dresser nearly onto myself, and did some other serious damage. All of which were actions I completed after being told not to. Sometimes though, that is how you learn. It is easy to justify terrible actions especially when those actions feel good.
  • You can be a slave to the flesh as much as you can be a slave to another person.
    Freedom from slavery includes freedom from the slavery of the flesh. Addictions, habits and consumerist drives are all fully capable of making us slaves to ourselves. Talk to a drug addict who has learned this and it becomes a lot easier to question whether you find true happiness in something or whether you are just succumbing to physical urges.

That physical urge is the problem. It leads to the hedonistic treadmill. Once you get a little, you simply want more and more, ironically leading to a little more happiness in the short term, but far less happiness in the long.  My generation was taught that it’s all ok, go with the physical urges, you were born that way, it’s “natural”, it doesn’t hurt anyone. Yet, that just feeds this treadmill. We cannot mature and start to nurture the next generation or the future until we get over it.

There isn’t any big picture when there is no reason to believe in anything more than extreme individualism. When there is no big picture, there’s no way to accomplish anything that matches the big picture, and there’s no way to better yourself since much becomes “I was born this way.”

We can all work together to build this new world, but first we need to stop concentrating on the little pieces and start putting together some big ideas. Something enough of us can get behind to be willing to sacrifice the individualistic hedonism in order to support creation.

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