success stories

Posted July 23, 2003

Letting Go

From the Book: The Saints’ Guide to Happiness
Already cited on web page. This book will not be for sale until October 2003

by Robert Ellsberg

Restless Hearts

The question remains: If attachments and desires make us anxious and out of sorts, why then do we cling to them? Many have pondered this question, though none more deeply than St. Augustine of Hippo. As one of the great architects of Christian thought Augustine left his mark on virtually every aspect of doctrine. But to the complex interplay among the self, the things of this world, and the pursuit of happiness, he devoted some of his most personal and poignant reflections. Augustine believed that the yearning for happiness is one of the defining characteristics of the human person: "Everyone, whatever his condition, desires to be happy. There is no one who does not desire this, and each one desires it with such earnestness that it is preferred to all other things; whoever, in fact, desires other things, desires them for this end alone . . ."

According to Augustine, everything we do — even what is wrong and harmful — has happiness as its object. But we are misguided about how to obtain it; we seek for created things more than they can supply. The result is sadness, frustration, and anxiety. As he put it to God, "You made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."

His reflections on this subject emerged from his own experience, a story recounted in the Confessions. In this autobiographical work Augustine presented himself, the future bishop of Hippo, as a youth of exceptional promise yet a prisoner of his own unruly passions. His brilliance and ambition led him to a career as a professor of rhetoric, first in Carthage and later in Milan, at the time the seat of the Roman Empire. At the same time his quest for the meaning of life led him to explore the various philosophical and religious movements of his day. But none of them, he found, could adequately resolve his questions, least of all the mysteries of his own heart.

Augustine identified the major problems of his life as the contradiction between his longing for happiness and a sense of helpless bondage to compulsive desires and feelings that brought suffering to himself and those around him. Though he alluded frequently to the "brambles of lust," the problem ran deeper than unregulated sexuality. In one famous episode, treated at considerable length, he analyzed his role in a boyhood raid on a neighbor’s pear tree, a bit of mischief inspired not by hunger or need but by sheer willfulness. It is a story that deliberately calls to mind the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. For Augustine it served the same function, as the paradigmatic expression of human sin. He termed it concupiscence, a debilitating grasping desire that holds our will as its prisoner.

The signs of this concupiscence were visible to Augustine in every corner of his life, from the selfishness of his infancy and his later theft from his parents’s larder to the first stirring of adolescent lust and his desperate search for some "object of love." These were not pleasant experiences; they brought only pain, confusion, and error."

Augustine was largely responsible for defining the doctrine of original sin, an idea of greater subtlety than is usually supposed. He understood the expression of this sin as a disorder of our affections — not that we love too much but that we love inordinately; we fail to love things according to their true value. This, according to Augustine, is the basic condition of fallen humanity. It is not simply "lust" that leads us astray. Imagining ourselves the centers of our own little universes, we are misguided even in our desire for good things — for live, for beauty, for truth. Our selfishness turns hunger to gluttony, love to lust, attraction into greedy possessiveness.

These insights reflected his own painful journey. After years of searching, and the tearful prayers of his mother, Monica, he had come to the point of accepting the claims of Christianity. The scriptural account of creation and the fall, he had concluded, made sense of his own experience, explaining not only his restless unhappiness and the anxiety that soured his pleasures but also his growing apprehension of a truth and beauty beneath the surface of this world. Yet he continued to hold back, his will still bound, if only by a thread. "Give me chastity and continence," he prayed, "but not yet."

Augustine’s tension reached a crisis as he walked one day in the garden. In the Confessions he presented it as a call to surrender, a kind of letting go. It was attachments that bound him — not to persons or things but to his own sins" "I was held back by mere trifles, the most paltry inanities, all my old attachments. They plucked at my garment of flesh and whispered, ‘Are you going to dismiss us? From this moment we shall never be with you again, forever and ever."

As he wrestled with this conflict, he heard what seemed to be a voice of a child, saying, "Take and read." A Bible lay at hand. Opening it at random, he found the Pauline text "Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites." In coming to the end of that sentence, he suddenly felt as if "the light of confidence flooded into my heart, and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled."

Augustine’s breakthrough did not entail renouncing property, other people, or even "the world." It was his old self, the ravening maw of his own ego, that he had to let go. Only in this way could he see and love the beautiful things of this world — not simply as objects to possess, control, or consume but in terms of their true value. In loving God above all else, he was released from the coil of his inordinate affections. The world was no longer a snare. Instead all creation echoed his hymn of praise and thanksgiving: "Happiness is to rejoice in You and for You, and because of You. This is true happiness and there is not other."