Augustine’s Lizards: On Temptation

I had every intention of doing something different with my reading on this last retreat–something more mystical or pastoral or maybe consoling than my usual diet of high-stakes existential Christian literature. Then I brought along Augustine’s Confessions and Kierkegaard’s Works of Love. You are who you are, even at the monastery.

I was at St. Augustine’s House in Oxford, Michigan, a Lutheran community living under the rule of St. Benedict. This double idiosyncrasy drew me there for the first time in 2006, back before marriage, children, ordination, smartphones, or even social media. I returned in 2011 and 2012, then not until February of this year. Each successive visit requires more deliberate separation from the world outside. The first time my crappy phone didn’t even get reception in most of the grounds. This time I had to stay off the retreat house wi-fi.

But inside the retreat cocoon, however artificially constructed, I’ve come back to the same things over and over again. I tried to read Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, which started out very moving and sometimes profound but got bogged down in a surprisingly trite moralism toward the middle. I laid it aside and focused exclusively on Augustine, who started me down this path in the first place.

I don’t know what I expected, but I found Confessions every bit as engrossing as I ever did. The first time I read it, the speculative books at the end, after the narrative proper ends, were baffling and tedious to me. More recently I’ve found them beautiful. Good books change with you, and as I’ve gone from being a young inquirer and convert to a middle-aged man, I’ve come to especially appreciate his present-time spiritual inventory in Book X. He looks at the ways in which the world does and does not still bind him. If I ever shared Augustine’s view of the relationship between love of God and love of created things, I don’t any more. But his psychology remains poignant to me–maybe more than ever. He talks about the mild but lingering place of sexual desire, the difficulty he has in distinguishing eating for necessity and eating for sterile pleasure, and the attractions aesthetic beauty still holds for him. There he feels he’s made considerable progress, though the line between appreciating the world in a godly manner and appreciating it in itself is hard to draw.

He goes on to talk about “futile curiosity,”–the propensity to gawk at a mangled corpse, at the “freaks and prodigies” on display at the theatre, or even the pointless knowledge sought out by science. He has surrendered his interest in astrology, theatre, or any kind of sorcery. But he indulges foolish tales and watches lizards catching flies when he feels he should be occupied with serious thoughts.

Finally he addresses the temptation to vainglory. He wants to be well regarded and influential. And in the infinite regress of human self-consciousness, there can be “temptation in the very process of self-reproach, for often, by priding himself on his contempt for vainglory, a man is guilty of even emptier pride.” [“Quite a pickle there, Augie,” I write in my journal after copying out that passage].

It occurred to me as I read this passage again that the categories of temptation Augustine diagnoses in himself correspond roughly to the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness: bodily need and comfort (bread), curiosity and wonder (being cast down from the temple), and prominence before others (all the kingdoms of the world). In Luke’s Gospel, which we hear this year, the order is different–the curiosity comes after the vainglory, which is an interesting choice in itself. I haven’t read any in-depth scholarly studies on this book and have no idea if this parallel was intended. But there’s something primal about these kinds of temptations. They are addressed to our ordinary animal needs and our most serious social and spiritual desires.

And honestly, at first blush I was not sympathetic to Augustine’s self-reproach for watching the lizards and the flies. Let yourself watch the animals, my dude. But as my week away from home and church drew to a close, and I thought about that narrow gate through which I had allowed any diversion to come and how eagerly I wanted to go find those diversions anyway, however pointless or even annoying they might be, I started to understand him better. Text someone. Check email. Post a thought. Check the MailChimp message going out for church that morning. Any of it may be harmless or defensible or even good on its own terms, but all of it a search to fill the void that must otherwise give rise to real thoughts. It’s not an accident that I watched the only twenty minutes of Jeopardy I’ve seen in ten years while I was there, arrested by the chance to exercise some knowledge when I was just going to pass through the common room.

A hit, a very palpable hit. So it has always gone with Augustine and me. Men go out and “gaze in astonishment” at the mountains, the ocean, the stars. “But they pay no attention to themselves.” By the fourth time one reads this book one should not be taken by surprise at the words, but they are infinitely suppressible. Thus a new Lenten discipline for me: a restriction on “curiosity.” This is a broad category so I narrowed it to something more manageable, namely, “no TV shows about murders.” I’m still not a theatre hawk like Augustine, but he had a point. A world full of corpses–humans and insects, real and cinematic–will not exhaust the need for fascination itself.

These shelters, whether Lenten or monastic, are only provisional. The more Augustine advances, the more conscious of his inability to advance he becomes. “Only in you do I find a safe haven for my mind, a gathering place for my scattered parts, where no portion of me can depart from you,” Augustine observes:

And sometimes you allow me to experience a feeling quite unlike my normal state, an inward sense of delight which, if were to reach perfection in me would be something not encountered in this life, though what it is I cannot tell. But my heavy burden of distress drags me down again to earth.

Confessions, X.40

Right there with you, brother. For all of it.

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