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Confessions: Hunting for Happiness

Those who wrecked my peace of mind were blinded by a revolting mania, and those who urged me toward something else had a taste for earthly things, which was the taste of earth in my mouth, whereas I, who loathed true misery here, went on the hunt there for happiness that didn’t exist anywhere.—Saint Augustine, Confessions 5.14

Augustine was unhappy with how rowdy his students were in Carthage. In Carthage students were allowed “to charge, at random and without the slightest restraint” (5.14.2) into any classroom and left the classes they were enrolled in without the teacher's permission. Rome promised greater earning power and greater prestige but what really attracted him to Rome was that he “kept hearing that there the young men pursued their education more peacefully and were kept in check by a better regulated, more restrictive mode of instruction” (5.14.2).

Ironically, he found his students altogether too reminiscent of himself when he was a student. The order that he wanted in his classroom, he would have rejected when he was a student. I find this rather funny considering how I have felt this same way as of late. In worship, I desire quiet, liturgy, repetition, and hymns. As a youngster, I would have hated this. When I was younger, I wanted the teacher to lead discussions and waste time. Now I resent when teachers waste time on useless discussions. There is a maturing that is happening in Augustine that we all (hopefully) experience.

People urged Augustine to take his talents to Rome where they would be better utilized. Augustine then departed Carthage for Rome. But before diving into his experience in Rome, Augustine writes the quote above. His peace of mind, or happiness, had been taken away by his crazy students. His friends urged him to go to Rome to find happiness. But those who urged him to go had “a taste for earthly things.” Meaning, they found happiness in the material and in career success. Augustine listened to them because he had the same taste in his mouth.

Augustine wanted happiness, but what did happiness mean for Augustine? As with all people, happiness was for self-esteem, self-worth, and contentment. But he was looking for these in his work, in his success, and in the praise of people. Looking back Augustine says that he “went on the hunt there for happiness that didn’t exist anywhere.” In a sober reflection, he realizes that he would never find self-esteem, self-worth, and contentment in his work, success, or in the praise of people.

We have referred to Augustine’s opening line many times along this journey already, and we will continue to do so as we continue reading; that “our heart is restless until it rests in [God].” This is the theme of Augustine's work, man’s searching for happiness. I believe this has always been the invitation of the Gospel. To find meaning in eternal things, not temporary things. Not in things that end, change and we manufacture but in things that we were created for. Mainly, relationship with the eternal God.

A few years ago, I wrote a prayer in a place where I have seen it almost every day since: “Oh to be completely satisfied in Christ alone. Then, and only then, will I truly rest and have peace.” I hope that this can be your prayer today.

As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.—Psalm 17:5 ESV

Living Word, make me completely satisfied in Christ alone. That I may find rest, peace, and happiness.

 Note: These are my daily reflections as I go through Saint Agustine's Confessions. Unless otherwise noted, I am using Sarah Ruden's translation of the original text, and the NIV.


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