MARCH POST: LORD MAKE ME CHASTE, BUT NOT YET

I have a big love for Augustine’s “Confessions,” which is often referred to as the world’s first autobiography. From the opening pages, when Augustine talks about observing infants in order to better know who he was as an infant, it mightily impresses me that this book was written in the 300’s A.D.? It took the birth of depth psychology some 1500 years later (Freud, Jung, Adler, et al) before mankind began to take infancy as seriously as he did.

The infant’s will Augustine finds particularly fascinating. “My will grew in me to make my wants known to those who might satisfy them; … I would fling my arms and legs about and utter sounds, making the few gestures in my power,… And when I did not get what I wanted, I was in a rage with my parents as though I had a right to their submission, and I took my revenge in screams.”

When he writes about childhood, he now has memories to work with. His strong will, not squashed in infancy, has obviously grown apace with his body. He has trouble doing what he’s supposed to do in school, and is sometimes humiliated and physically punished. As a little person in a world run by big persons, he finds ways to get by, to make that world work for him, to not surrender who he is to bullies, including teachers.

Though he says he hates studying Greek, surely Socrates made a rock solid impression on him. “Confessions” resonates with “know thyself” throughout. He reveals the “bad” along with the good. He talks at great length about his habit of stealing apples, and concludes that he enjoys stealing because stealing is wrong. In the apples themselves, he has no interest at all. He has better apples on his home trees. In short, echoing the Garden of Eden story, he is saying that the strong will in his rebellious child was at best a mixed blessing. There would be some shaping required.

Augustine transitions from his apple-stealing childhood into reflections on his sexy adolescence, where the forbidden fruit is now pretty young women. For the longest time, this eventual Bishop of Hippo, a man destined to be one of the most powerful forces in early Christianity, was what we would call today a cock-hound.

As luck would have it, side by side with his carnal desires were his “corrective” spiritual aptitudes and interests, mightily urged on by his mother, Monica (eventually Saint Monica), who pushes him to become a Christian. (Or, to bring a little psychoanalysis into the picture, to make damn well sure he doesn’t turn out to be like his father, who was unfaithful to her.)

Augustine loved his mother deeply, and was sensitive to her point of view. But really, how does a young lusty man give up sex, if such luscious forbidden fruit is available to him. And by all indications it amply was, well into his 30’s. “Lord make me chaste, but not yet,” is one of the funniest lines ever written.

Sitting in the Clatter Coffee House in Frostburg, Maryland, rereading selections from “Confessions,” which I’ll be teaching tomorrow in my World lit class, I look over the top of my book now and then to observe the myriad of couples who also frequent the place on a Sunday morning. Since Frostburg is a university town, most are young couples, relatively new to each other, or so it would seem from the intensity of their engagement — a look, a smile, a touch.

One suspects that the majority of them just got out of bed together. Inspired by Augustine, I observe their youth as an window into my own youth, now almost another life ago, and as if another man had lived it…. Not that my youth is dead within me. Far from it. As William Faulkner famously said, “the past is never dead; it’s not even the past.” Every stage is formative of the next and the next and the next.

In youth (from my perspective now), say from 15 to 55, resides the center of our human passions. On a cellular level, those will never be forgotten. And that would including passion’s secondary meaning: suffering.

First, yes, there are the numerous repetitions of the same sweet nothings with different partners along youth’s way, the seeking, the finding, the exciting resistances, the breaking through, the joining. Then, of course, the suffering. Even more memorable. Like in the pop songs of old. Like that year of suffering that followed two weeks of kissing Sharon Hoffman in the back row of the Penn Theatre in Plymouth, Michigan.

Looking around the Clatter tables, I also see a sprinkling of more established young couples (younger than I am), who now appear to have become habitual to each other. I can remember my younger self also wearing those shoes and walking down that other side of the hill: the growing familiarity, the eventual discontent, the barely repressed desire (at least in the case of the more secure partner) for the new, the forbidden, the new hill to climb lest one’s emotional/ sexual elan vital begins to wither on the vine.

Once sex and the emotions around sex are engaged, the suffering’s going to follow, one way or another. You can’t lock a relationship in, thinking that’ll keep it safe. One tries, but it rarely works, if ever. First comes the elation and the joy; then, at some point, the deflation and the suffering. With enough experience, one becomes philosophical about it. That’s where philosophy begins. Disappointment. Pain.

But, first, for as long as we can, since we are pleasure seeking/pain avoiding animals, we’ll do everything possible to deny the inevitable down side in our love relationships. One way we fend off decline is to rationalize it away. After the dead places between love partners start to show up, we might hear ourselves saying that this is the deeper love that follows romantic love. This is what romantic love matures into. This is realistic love. I remember in one of my more longstanding romances, my partner trying to convince me of that. And I wanted to be convinced. It bought us a couple of more years. But not happy years.

In another relationship, back in the 70’s, in the spirit of the times, my partner and I experimented in finding the early side of our passion again by letting each other go as possessions; by backtracking into the two separate “I’s” in whom we originally had found each other so adorable and adoring, instead of sinking further into this ever-more-disappointing “us.”

But that didn’t take either. In the end we just weren’t up to it. It was a horrible feeling to know that we were done for. I remember carrying that pit in my belly for the longest time, the slowly growing recognition that what we were hungry for would require finding someone new — after first going through a long, hellish break-up, to be sure.

Because what I didn’t know yet was that the suffering, at least in terms of “knowing thyself,” was the more promising part. You’ve got to survive the break-up, of course. Not everybody does. But if you do, well, Nietzsche was right: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

In the mid-1900’s, the intense suffering entailed in a failing love relationship came to be seen, for the first time really (at least in a large way), as the fertile ground for personal growth. Suddenly there was help available to wade through the shit, to battle through the suffering, rather than repress it or just continue on in the same relationship as if it weren’t failing. This new and explosively powerful insight got off the ground rather quickly in the late 60’s/early 70’s. Suddenly on the scene, and corresponding to my own coming of age, was the idea that the worst thing you could do in an intimate relationship is live a lie. Living a lie became, almost overnight, a far greater sin than breaking a vow. Suffering through a broken, unfixable relationship became the crucible for personal development. For both parties.

Little to nothing of this kind of thinking went on in my parents’ or grandparents’ generations. Growing up in rural Michigan, I knew of no divorced persons. Not one. I never once thought of the possibility of my mother and father separating. It was incomprehensible.

Then, in a flash, more than a few of us were suddenly pondering suffering as opportunity. Working with it. it was the zeitgeist of the 60’s: suffering as opportunity.

If that sounds a little strange to the youth of today, I confess that it sounds a little strange to me, too, it has become so out-of-fashion, and at odds with the zeitgeist of today…. Which is …

I don’t know what. Maybe nothing.

1 Comment

  1. Eden

    I find it very interesting that when hearing Take up and read Augustine felt compeled to read the New Testament. And from that point, there was an internal spark to read more and philosophically analyze Pauls letters to the Romans etc. And from reading he was able to grasp God s grace and took it upon himself to preach his beliefs. His initial prayers – but not yet resembles a lot of prayers that are prayed in present day and shows that throughout time, humans feel inclined to get the things they deserve before they ask for God s grace because they feel that his love and mercy are not as fulfilling as earthly things. Very inspiring quote. Thanks.

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