Tuesday, May 18, 2004


Stealing Fruit

St. Augustine describes a youthful transgression in his Confessions 2.4.9 (tr. E.B. Pusey):
A pear tree there was near our vineyard, laden with fruit, tempting neither for colour nor taste. To shake and rob this, some lewd young fellows of us went, late one night (having according to our pestilent custom prolonged our sports in the streets till then), and took huge loads, not for our eating, but to fling to the very hogs, having only tasted them. And this, but to do what we liked only, because it was misliked. Behold my heart, O God, behold my heart, which Thou hadst pity upon in the bottom of the bottomless pit. Now, behold, let my heart tell Thee what it sought there, that I should be gratuitously evil, having no temptation to ill, but the ill itself. It was foul, and I loved it; I loved to perish, I loved mine own fault, not that for which I was faulty, but my fault itself. Foul soul, falling from Thy firmament to utter destruction; not seeking aught through the shame, but the shame itself!
Nietzsche makes fun of Augustine's compunction in a letter to Franz Overbeck (March 31, 1885):
I just read during my vacation the Confessions of St. Augustine, with great regret that you weren't with me. Oh that old rhetorician! How false and eye-rolling! How I laughed! (e.g. about the theft in his youth).
There is a similar story in Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, tr. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1984), p. 136 (= Macarius, Apophthegma 37):
Abba Paphnutius, the disciple of Abba Macarius, repeated this saying of the old man, 'When I was small with the other children, I used to eat bilberries and they used to go and steal the little figs. As they were running away, they dropped one of the figs, and I picked it up and ate it. Every time I remember this, I sit down and weep.
The following verses by Scottish poet James Thomson (1834-1882) come to mind whenever I hear someone giving a "personal testimony" and bewailing his sins:
Once in a saintly passion
  I cried with desperate grief,
"O Lord, my heart is black with guile,
  Of sinners I am chief."
Then stooped my guardian angel
  And whispered from behind,
"Vanity, my little man,
  You're nothing of the kind."
The Catholic tradition of auricular confession has at least this advantage -- it is both private and anonymous. One needn't expose one's iniquities to the ridicule of the whole wide world.

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