Recently, in a class discussion on the Confessions of St. Augustine, part of the discussion touched on aspects of Augustine’s life before his dramatic conversion. One aspect of his life that we dealt with was Augustine’s sexual life. In the discussion, some of us wondered if Augustine might have over-emphasized his former desire for “the bed” as part of his pastoral mission. For instance, he may have used experiences from his pre-Christian life to draw people who had similar experiences to the church.
Obviously, it is difficult to discern his reasons for emphasizing important aspects of his life. Moreover, it is impossible to have a complete understanding of Augustine’s psychological and emotional state throughout his adolescence and early adulthood. However, Augustine did indicate that he was sexually active from his youth to near the time of his conversion. Although he indicated that he was faithful throughout the years with the mother of his son, he said that when she left, a painful permanent separation, he found another sexual companion, an interim mistress, to be with before his proposed marriage. His statement, “God give me chastity and continence, but not yet,” and the above might indicate that his desire for sex had some control in his life. In addition, Augustine confessed that his sexual activity along with other things, pride for instance, had burdened him and brought him pain.
This last thought brings to mind two incidents. One occurred when I worked in jail. An inmate with whom I worked and I conversed about addictions. He admitted to both sexual and heroin addiction. I asked him to compare the two. His response was that sexual addiction was “worse.” It is common knowledge that heroin addiction can be very painful. Thus, his admission that sexual addition was worse than heroin addiction focuses light on the powerful negative effects that sexual relations can have. The second incident occurred a few years later when I was in conversation with a woman with whom I worked, a friend. I told her what the inmate had said and without explanation or hesitation, she affirmed his response by simply saying, “he’s right,” or words to that effect. Her words were so matter-of-fact, yet intense that I assume that she had been painfully sexually addicted.
In sharing these memories, I am not trying to intimate that Augustine was sexually addicted. What I am trying to convey is that at times sexual activity, albeit a part of a passing phase in a person’s life, could be so powerfully painful and even compulsive that one might, as Augustine did spiritually, beg for release.