By Benedict Augustine
“Do not love the world or the things of the world.
If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
For all that is in the world,
sensual lust, enticement for the eyes, and a pretentious life,
is not from the Father but is from the world.
Yet the world and its enticement are passing away.
But whoever does the will of God remains forever.”
John’s writings, his gospel, letters, and revelation, make more sense spoken or sung than read to oneself. He writes in parallel syntax and often repeats certain expressions to give his writing the feeling of a spiral—which can sometimes make a reader dizzy. Like a song or speech, his message has a definite shape guiding the reader towards a certain conclusion, or in this case, around a central idea, seeing it in all dimensions. The point is that the audience will remember the contrasts John makes of light and dark, sin and salvation and sin, truth and falsehood, Heaven and the world.
The one who only reads—that is, most modern Christians—this might find John’s writings, particularly his letters, rather repetitive and abstract. Instead of the spiral that changes ever so gradually, readers today prefer some concrete development that one can read over and imagine to reinforce an understanding of an argument. What does John mean by “truth,” or “the world,” or even “the Father”? How does one fill in these loaded words and ideas that stir the emotions but frustrate the mind?
John answers this rather simply: Repent of your sins through a contrite confession, ask forgiveness, and avoid sin afterward. To illuminate the mind on matters of the spirit, one must cleanse his heart. For John and many of the early Christians, understanding comes through moral living and spiritual discipline. Whereas most Christians today, Catholics and Protestant alike, might recommend some books (starting with the Bible or Catechism) or talks by Christian speakers, Christians of the first few centuries after Christ’s birth lived in an oral/auditory world where memory would combine with habit and reflection to enable understanding.
In other words, one had to continually ponder and live out the truth to even understand it. John, the other apostles (with the exception of Paul), and Jesus Himself, do not resort to ethics or theology to explain the Christian faith. They live their faith—and later die for it—and pray constantly, encouragingtheir listeners to do the same. There may be those who want an explanation of the mechanics or logic behind matters of faith and morals, and they may read St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Bonaventure for that. The writers of the New Testament do not condemn this group, but urge such inquirers to not stop at theories of truth but engage in experience of truth. Ultimately, this is the only way.
Such experience does not mean that a true Christian must go and sin to know that it is bad. The darkness of sin is self-evident, and all human beings inherit this from their birth with original sin. People may deny the good in their lives, but only a delusional person would deny the bad, with the certainty of death looming before him and the certainty of temptation resting within.
Nevertheless, it is never a waste of time to learn from the mistakes of others to better understand this reality. This particular section of John’s first epistle had a special significance for the great doctor of the Church, St. Augustine of Hippo. He knew firsthand how sin clouds judgment and actuallypatterns the first 9 books of his Confessions on John’s three sins: lust, vanity, and pretentiousness.
Augustine’s moral decline in the first three decades of his life fit this description quite well. Blessed with a supreme intellect and a charming personality, he has an easy time satisfying his desires. In his late teens he has concubine for his lusts; soon afterward, he adopts a fashionable heresy that satisfies his ego; and later when he hits his stride in his career, he finds a prestigious position in Milan as a rhetorician and pretends that what he does (making phony speeches and teaching others to do the same) actually has meaning.
The irony of the Confessions is that Augustine suffers the worst kind of depression at the apparent apex of life. He recounts how he even envies the beggar offering prayers for a few coins. Augustine’s charm and good looks leave him feeling cold and alone. His intelligence and great learning leaves him utterly mystified and somewhat delusional at times. His good fortune leaves him ashamed and jaded.
Although he will later credit St. Ambrose’s sermons for helping him with his conversion, Augustinepraises his mother St. Monica even more. Dealing with Augustine’s pretention and vanity, Ambrose exposes the phoniness and stupidity of all the heresies while demonstrating the transcendent logic of Christianity. However, the problem of lust required the steadfast patience and constant prayers of his mother who comes to live with him. She convinces him to dismiss the concubine, seek a normal marriage, and become Christian. After so many relapses, which Monica no doubt made difficult and awkward, Augustine eventually feels the call to chastity at the same time that he hears the call to conversion.
Clarity comes to Augustine as soon as he steps out the darkness of the world, not just moral clarity but intellectual clarity. Soon after his conversion he goes on to combat the heresies, knowing their source of sin in intimate detail. He later writes important works of theology and philosophy, not least the Confessions but also The City of God, On the Trinity, and On Christian Teaching, finally knowing their source of goodness in intimate detail. Thus, in St. Augustine’s life and works, John’s first letterinterestingly finds a comprehensive and thorough embodiment.