Augustine: Patron saint of identity crisis
August 27, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — August 28 is the feast of one of the greatest Western Doctors of the Church, St. Augustine, who spent the final years of his life as Bishop of Hippo Regius in North Africa. It has been said with ample reason that, of all Christian writers, St. Augustine’s impact has been second only to that of St. Paul.
Augustine did not start off as a bishop or a theologian, or a faithful Catholic, or even a believer. He began his adult career as a vain rhetorician who seethed with lust and satisfied it habitually. His ideas of God and the world were, for a long spell, contaminated with Manichaeism and Neoplatonism, which, though differing greatly in coherence and truth, agreed in holding the material world in contempt and rejecting the Incarnation. The Platonists glimpsed profound truths while the Manichees dallied in absurdities; both fell far short of the truth of Divine Revelation.
St. Augustine could be called the patron saint of identity crises. When God struck him with the grace of repentance, his entire self-image was shattered — his idea of who he was, what he was supposed to be doing, where he was going, what was worth living for. All of us will have, at some point in our lives and to a greater or lesser extent, an “identity crisis” in which our call to follow Christ is either discovered or rediscovered. For many “cradle Catholics,” this takes place in adolescence or young adulthood, when a person awakens to the need for making the Faith his own personal possession.
Most people who have reached a certain age and have lived through pain, disappointment, loneliness, ennui, know what it is like to feel oneself somehow “missing.” I do not know who I am, and I do not expect to find an easy answer. In fact, I have to renounce the futile quest for “inner certainty” and begin doing, or loving, something or someone else in earnest, since there is a cavernous gap in the place where I once thought I found myself as the bedrock or benchmark of reality.
Jean Hyppolite writes: “Self-consciousness is subjectivity constituted as truth, and this subjectivity must discover its own inadequacy and experience the pain of the self that fails to reach unity with itself.” Yet it is really this failure that causes the human subject pain? One should rather say: the failure to reach unity with God, who is Truth and Love — this is my inadequacy and my anguish, the wounded condition of my being. He is the One, the only One, who can give us what we truly are, can give us the power and humility to begin to be a self instead of a scattered and confused mass of phenomena.
Man’s distinctive trait is his openness to, and hunger for, the infinite. If the infinite does not invade and pervade him, he cannot attain self-unity. “My thoughts, the intimate life of my soul, are torn this way and that in the havoc of change,” prays St. Augustine, “and so it will be until I am purified and melted by the fire of your love and fused into one with you” (Confessions 11.29). “I shudder to feel how different I am from it,” says Augustine of God’s Word, “yet in so far as I am like it, I am aglow with its fire” (ibid., 11.9).
The Confessions as a whole show how Augustine comes to be a coherent person. He becomes one who is able to understand himself and receive happiness from God to the extent that the fragments of selfhood by which he had tried unsuccessfully to define himself now coalesce in prayer around the singular reality of the ever-present God. If God does not give myself to me — that is to say, if I am not looking to Him for identity — I do not exist. Something exists, a rational animal, a center of consciousness, a living, breathing entity, but where is the self, if not from and for God?
A basic law of life is shadowed forth: identity comes to me in proportion to my surrender to something outside myself. I learn, sooner or later, if I am fortunate, that the crisis is not resolved, but exasperated by turning to a creature to find the answer to the question my very self is posing to me — even should I turn to another man or woman deeply (perhaps desperately) loved, who is similarly ill equipped to be a center of gravity around which the crumbling elements of my mind can gather and solidify. It takes a certain degree of self-knowledge to realize that clinging to a creature, however exciting or enriching in finite terms — be it a lover, riches and an elegant life; a healthy body; fine art; natural beauty; or something more subtle like dedication to scholarship, social work, or political affairs — is not going to make one happy, and cannot do so. One has to make an effort to close one’s eyes to the world without, in order to become aware of a darksome world within, much vaster, and thirsty for light. Dom Pius de Hemptienne brings this out: “The more determinedly I close my eyes to the thousand nothings that surround me, the more I feel that Jesus Christ, the divine Light, supersedes the light-in-darkness of mere creatures, which no longer can illuminate the depths of my interior.”
There is a kind of inward sensitivity that is as necessary for the possibility of a fully human life as food is for the possibility of ongoing animal life. If a person never becomes sharply aware of a longing for totality, of a profound need for love on the basis of truth, and of a frustration with fragmentation and finitude, he is blind to what is most basic in the human condition. But if and when that awareness arrives, a person now has access to the raw materials of prayer and unselfish love.
It must not be thought that either the proper starting point or the desired goal of this process of losing one’s self in order to gain it is an attitude of self-contempt. Self-contempt already involves having constructed an ego, which is then pitilessly battered, a kind of scapegoat. It is well known that self-contempt is frequently allied with pride, for both are heightened forms of self-indulgence, a wallowing in one’s accumulated wealth of accomplishments or failures. What is needed, instead, is repentance.
Repentance is the awareness that I — in my fragmentary, imperfect, struggling self — am not fully what God in His love has called me to be, and therefore that the appropriate attitude before Him is that of humility, contrition, sorrow for my sins. The very term contritio refers to the breaking of the heart. The heart’s hardness or capacity for resistance meets with a contrary resistance that wears it down, just as pulverizing a hard stone turns it eventually into a soft powder.
St. Augustine learns in his pilgrimage that throwing oneself down exhausted before the cross of Christ is not a reckless last resort when safer options fail. It is the way, because we do suffer from a mortal disease (in Gabriel Marcel’s words, “the wound I bear within me, which is my ego”). There is only one cure:
From the clay of which we are made, He [the Son of God] built for Himself a lowly house in this world below, so that by this means He might cause those who were to be made subject to Him to abandon themselves and come over to His side. He would cure them of the pride that swelled up in their hearts and would nurture love in its place, so that they should no longer stride ahead confident in themselves, but might realize their own weakness when at their feet they saw God Himself, enfeebled by sharing this garment of our mortality. And at last, from weariness, they would cast themselves down upon His humanity, and when it rose, they too would rise. (Confessions 7.18)