Thursday, July 13, 2017

St. Augustine & the Single Life

"Ball and chain." That is the term we use to describe the wife in marriage these days. Before tying the knot we call the process "settling down." Contemporary society holds marriage in derision, and not without good reason. What was once a promise before God to care for the other and to provide souls for the Church is now a nod of recognition to preceding love, or lust, between two people with the option to leave at any time; children are optional. No wonder modern Christians are unable to contest the pseudo-unions of homosexuals. Today the single life reigns supreme. Even those in relationships treat them as expensive, voluntary associations: I will share the bed with you and split the bills till death do us part, or till something better comes along. It was not always like this for the married, and certainly not for the single. A clerk in a cigar store summed up the modern prescription when he advised me, "Don't get married, dude. Just get some and make money."

From ancient times until a century ago marriage meant many things: the promise between two people, the maturity and responsibility of the two, the man and woman coming into their independence, the creation of a family unit with its associated trappings of home and business, and the union of two other families. Marriage was the natural end to which a grown man aspired. To forfeit marriage was an unusual, even extraordinary act. And yet this is what St. Augustine did.

Augustine worked in Rome and Milan, then capital of the Western Roman Empire, as court orator primarily, while also taking students who wished to imitate his rhetoric and segue into political life. Augustine kept a concubine (today called a live-in girlfriend) and recalled his fidelity to her bed as God's way of showing him what a genuine marital union is not. His relationship bore him a son, a bright young boy named Adeodatus ("given by God). Still, Augustine's saintly mother, Monica, was embarrassed and sent the concubine back to Carthage after arranging a marriage with a woman of good repute.

Augustine declared himself a catechumen in the Church and intellectually assented to the Church's teachings, albeit with difficulty towards the understanding of evil, yet he could not accept Baptism while he "was in both the flesh and the spirit." More self-aware than the hedonists of today, pagan Augustine found himself a slave to sex and none the happier for it. "But it was my own doing," he wrote, "that habit gripped me so fiercely."

He founds some solace in the friendship of Alypius, another pagan of some natural virtue who, like young friends today, joined Augustine in becoming mutual bad influences on each other. Alypius and Augustine shared a villa outside of Milan where they made conversation and contemplated philosophical questions after working hours. It was in this villa that a local named Ponticianus brought St. Athansius' Life of Saint Anthony and read it aloud to them, as was the custom before St. Ambrose popularized sub-sonic reading.
"But as Ponticianus told his story, the more ardent the love I felt for those men who, as I was hearing, had been moved to such a wholesome frame of mind, in that they had entrusted themselves wholly to you for their healing, the more I loathed and execrated myself in comparison with them. Many years—perhaps twelve—had flowed away (and my life with them) since in my nineteenth I had read Cicero's Hortensius and been stirred up to a zeal for wisdom, and all that time I had postponed the decision to despise earthly happiness and leave myself free to hunt for wisdom instead."
Grief and regret overtook Augustine. He and Alypius sauntered through the villa garden until he had to be alone. It was in this solitary, twisting, gnarly moment that Augustine heard a child singing in a neighboring house "Tolle, lege." The African expatriate took the child's song to have a spiritual meaning; he looked down and found a binding of the Pauline epistles, he opened it at random and read, "Not in riotousness and drunkenness, not in lewdness and wantonness, not in strife and rivalry; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh and its lusts" (Romans 13:13-14). As would happen with the Angelic Doctor eight centuries later, in this moment God released Augustine from his fleshly temptations and enamored him with a life detached from all worldly cares, even those of the family.
"For, from the direction in which i had set my face, and towards which I hesitated to go, Continence was now revealed to me in all her chaste beauty. Serene she was, not full of dissolute mirth, and nor was there anything dishonorable in her alluring voice as she bade me to come and not to doubt, and her pious hands, as she stretched them out to welcome me and fold me to herself, were full of sheep of your flock, good examples for me. There were many boys and girls, men and women newly come to adulthood and of every age, grave widows and aged virgins; and in not one of them was Continence barren, but a mother of children."
It was precisely in this context—a lament over sexual sin and the prospect of a marriage for the sake of getting on with it—that Augustine took the book and read St. Paul's words. Augustine resolved to receive Baptism, which he did, along with Alypius and Adeodatus, from the hand of bishop Ambrose in Milan at the Paschal vigil in 386. Augustine brought the Italian phenomenon of continent men, ordained or lay, living in community back to Carthage and Hippo when he returned there. What had been the way of hermits and monks now became a common bond between men who wished to live singularly for God in an age still weaning off paganism and slowly embracing a Christianized outlook on family life. Augustine and his community lived apart from the world in plain sight.

How St. Augustine's liberation from sensual bondage and resolve to live for God contrasts with our modern view of the celibate parish priest as a limp-wristed eunuch! Before the 20th century, the continent life was viewed an nigh impossible, save for men with remarkable self control. The joke had been that "Father is a man and must be seeing someone in the rectory." Even Hitler perverted celibacy to his own end, hiding Eva Braun and presenting himself as a man whose sole purpose in life was the betterment of Germany.

Christian society has enough ground to make up merely in sanctifying the institution of marriage again that consideration of holy bachelorhood seems frivolous, but is it? A man or woman who has not castrated himself from family life, but rather who has found the world wanting and instead embraced the friendship of God is a sermon unto itself. A habited nun looks enough like a walking prayer to give pause. What of a man who does the same? What a contrast to the wisdom of the age... and to the clerk in the cigar shop....


  1. ""Ball and chain." That is the term we use to describe the wife in marriage these days."
    Rare is a Christian woman who will look for a man who wishes to become holy with her. She ultimately wants a man who is merely nominally Christian but who is a typical strongman, and even a bully, so he can Stockholm her into loving him.

    So when a man with saintly aspirations has a girlfriend who also seems pious, he will find himself stranded sooner or later.
    It is a rare occurrence that one can be a good husband and make his wife happy, and at the same time, make progress in virtue.

    It takes strength and an extraordinary charism to give up marriage. Man feels lonely and unaccomplished, and fears that the feeling will only intensify with passage of time and especially in the mid-life crisis.

    But one who wants to be perfect realizes that marriage is ordinarily full of hurdles to sanctity, hurdles of womanly whimsy demands. One who wants to be perfect also wants to love and not hurt anyone. But oftentimes it seems that demands of marriage make one choose between God and his spouse, even daily. He wants to love his wife, make her happy and also perfectly love God, but he knows that the wife will demand that he be not "too holy", to "loosen up a little bit", or to be of a more adventurous spirit.

    A woman who wants to be holy in marriage is off to a better start. She needs to find a bully, love him, try to change him, and die never even accomplishing such a goal whilst suffering greatly at his hand in the process. She will be regarded as a martyr.

    But a man, as i said, has greater burden on his back, for he has to lead. He is expected to lead into heaven, but most women don't want that. Their ovaries make command over them more than they know, and the ovaries want the "best and the strongest" of the gene pool.

    So a man who wants to be perfect is a fool not to take the path of holy continence and asceticism.

    One could ask: "Isn't a victory greater if a battle was harder?". Sure it is. But there are some vices and passions which aren't conquered by our hardening to them when exposed to them. Such is the passion of sexual lust. One is constant exposition to it when in ordinary marriage. But we read of many unbaptized who had children, and who after baptism chose to lead a life of continence. They knew they wouldn't succeed otherwise.
    So to intentionally put oneself into jeopardy of loss, is almost as losing before the battle itself has begun.

    Ordinary marriage for a man has hurdles of such nature that they make him regress in sanctity. One fits in better, the more "middle of the road" one is. "Extremes" are frowned upon. A bully and a violator will not be regarded as a saint, naturally. But also, a saint will not be regarded as a good husband, for he surely "must've disregarded his wife".

    But hardships and demands of the holy coenobium are such that they constantly push a man to be more perfect. One needs to become more perfect in order to successfully live in such a community.

    1. "Who shall find a valiant woman? far and from the uttermost coasts is the price of her."

      Just to corroborate this all.

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  2. Long, long, long ago, ABS and The Bride were on holiday on Mykonos when they rented a 4 X 4 and drove to Ano Mera to visit the Monastery of Panagia Tourliani (Protectress of Mykonos) and when we exited the gorgeous Church, we saw a Monk vested in a Schema and who was telling his beads serenely.

    There was not once second of foolishness by tourists or locals within his sight owing to his sacred public presence.

    To this very day, ABS can vividly remember the details of that pacific space outside the Church. Who does not think that were Priests to begin again to appear in public wearing, say, a soutane, that behavior would not contribute to reChristianising the local area?

    In the Piemonte section of Vermont were ABS was born, the local Priests always wore their soutanes in public and it clearly did have an effect on the behavior of the kids, especially the males.

  3. If someone is married to the wrong man or woman,life can be full of suffering for multiple decades.
    Not all marriages are good or even tolerable yet the couple must stay together.
    This is why so many people have resentment towards marriage.
    Marko's comments are spot on and insightful.

  4. Moreover i'd like add that at the 5th (and last) year of my theological college we had lectures of sexual morality, the famous Sexta lectures. When we came to the subject of NFP guys were very reserved and leaned more towards not even using this right, while girls were more for it. Somehow, an idea was planted into their minds, that if a husband and wife abstain, that means that they don't love each other. They tended to say: "I'm not gonna live like a nun in marriage.". Somehow they presupposed that they wouldn't be able to withstand the abstinence.

    Mind you, this was a Catholic Theological Faculty, recognized by the Apostolic See, most conservative and most difficult in the region, with the archbishop as the high chancellor, and a priest as a dean. It is a proper Catholic Theological Faculty where priests are trained. Those girls are all at Mass every day, and ever Thursday they go to adoration, and yet, they're so obsessed with sex.

    Whatever happened to men being the hyper-sexual ones...

    1. Men seem more open to permanent or longer periods of contience. NFP is much more temporary...& thus can be problematic.

    2. I'm just interested in why are men more open to permanent or longer periods of continence/abstinence. Men's libidos are stronger and i would assume they would need more onanistic copulation to quiet the concupiscence... But my assumptions are wrong, obviously.

    3. Feminism has turned society and nature on its head.
      MGTOW movement is proof we are heading into an even more deranged socio-political future.

  5. Correct me if I'm wrong, but in medieval society lust was seen very much as a woman's problem. Even a later, secular work like Don Quijote presents not a few women as lascivious creatures. The idea that women do not have a libido and no interest in sex is, I think a fairly recent idea.

    1. That would explain quite a few things. Although i think that an image of a woman as a temptress wouldn't contradict but complement the view you've described. IOW, woman is lustful, so she tempts for her own gain.

    2. God gave woman a mysterious power over man.
      Being a temptress is one of woman's talents.