Confessions: More Thoroughly Drained than Before
Yet it wasn’t your works of the spirit but you yourself… for which I was starved and parched. But on and on, those platters were set in front of me, heaped with flashy apparitions, and it would actually have been better for me to be in love with that sun of ours… than to be in love with those lies, and to have my mind hoodwinked by my eyes. And yet, since I thought that what I was getting was you, I ate it… but I didn’t draw any nourishment from it; instead, I was more thoroughly drained than before.—Saint Augustine, Confessions 3.10
Augustine was in the company of two kinds of people: Christians and philosophers. The Christians spoke of the Godhead and would constantly say, “truth, truth” but the truth wasn’t in them. According to Augustine, God was all they ever spoke about yet “their hearts were hollow.” They didn’t understand God, therefore “They discoursed in lies” about God and the world. The philosophers on the other hand actually spoke about truth but they lacked the highest good: God. They fed him intellectually with speeches and large collections of books. Unlike the Christians, they understood nature, specifically, the sun and the moon and the beauty of nature. Yet, “those were so many trays on which, as I sat starving for you.”
In short, the Christians had the highest good, but no truth. And the philosophers had truth, but not the highest good.
In the next paragraph, Augustine states our selected reading for the day. Augustine’s words come in the context of the intellectual pursuit of truth, beauty, and the highest good. Both the Christians the philosophers had fallen short. Both fed him trays of ‘food’ but left him hungry. Both gave him ‘drink’ but left him thirsty. Why? Because truth, beauty, and the highest good cannot be spoken apart from the One who is true, beautiful, and good.
In speaking and meditating on these things he thought he was feeding on God, but he was not. And that is why he was more “thoroughly drained than before.” Having God, and living in loving communion with Him, is not tiresome, but starting with the wrong set of presuppositions is. For example, having a relationship with my wife is easy and comforting. But If I start believing that simply talking and thinking about her is going to make me feel loved by her I will quickly become disillusioned and tired.
There is a difference when I talk about my wife as opposed to being with her, it’s so simple and obvious I feel ridiculous articulating it. But it is not as obvious when it comes to God. I am sure this is why many give up on God. When Augustine was feeding on the faith of his contemporaries he says that he did not feed ‘gluttonously’ because “I didn’t taste you in my mouth the way you really are.” In other words, he meditated on God out of duty but never became passionate because it didn’t feel meaningful.
Anything that is not meaningful to us will become tiresome to maintain. And like Augustine, “we will feel more thoroughly drained than before.” The Poet of Ecclesiastes, although on a different journey than Augustine, had the same experience when trying to find something to satisfy the longings of his heart. After self-indulgence, education, and manual labor failed, his conclusion was, “all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun” (Ecc 2:11b KJV).
If we are tired, because we don’t taste God in what we are doing, maybe it is time to consider whether we are merely speaking of truth, beauty, and goodness. Take this moment to be quiet and simply be. Invite the one who is true, beautiful, and good to embody all those thoughts you have.
Taste and see that the Lord is good;
blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.
High King, nourish my soul with your truth, beauty, and goodness.
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.