St. Augustine and the Birdlime

In the Confessions,:”(Unless otherwise noted, all citations in this paper are from the Confessions of Saint Augustine, trans., Rex Warner [New York: Penguin Books, 2001].)”: St. Augustine paints a beautifully Christianized Neoplatonic portrait of the soul’s relationship to God. The soul ascends from lower things to higher, dissatisfied with each stage, until at last it reaches God, in whom alone may be found rest and peace (I.1). In what follows, I will examine this ascent by focusing on St. Augustine’s own metaphor for it: that of a bird escaping from birdlime.

The Theme of Ascent in Augustine’s Confessions

Elsewhere, St. Augustine tells us that he finds much truth in the books of the Platonists, but that he desires to make use only of whatever does not contradict Scripture. As a cautious despoiler of Platonic categories, he sees “earthly” things constituting a hindrance to the ascent of the soul to God. He speaks of “deadly pleasures in the enjoyment of which we become separated from you” (I.14), of “the foggy exhalations which proceed from the muddy cravings of the flesh” (II.2), of the “goods of the lowest order” which, if we follow them excessively, distract us from the “goods which are better and higher” (II.5).

Against these, the goal of one seeking the truth, is to have “every vain hope” become worthless and to be “on fire to leave earthly things behind and fly back to you” (III.4). The soul must find “a beauty that is embraced for its own sake, which is invisible to the eye of flesh and can only be seen by the inner soul” (VI.16). The soul must, in seeing that it is blind, come to see “an unchangeable light shining above this eye of [the] soul and above [the] mind” (VII.10).

But from what must one fly? St. Augustine is a Christian, not a Gnostic. He knows that in both the creation and the incarnation of the Word God declared the material creation “very good.” When he speaks of flying from “the lowest order” to the “better and higher” one, what does he mean? Here we meet a recurrent theme in the Confessions, the theme of “false loves” which encumber a soul and prevent its upward flight to God. These false loves include love of the creature instead of the Creator (I.20, II.3), love of sin (II.4), love of love itself (III.1), love of wisdom without God (III.4), love of inordinate attachment to family (V.8), love of the fleeting world (V.12), love of illicit lovers (VI.14), love of unspiritual friendships (VI.16), and love of the happy life (VII.7).

These false loves – and the false ascents which each of them entails – may be summed up as loving the creature more than the Creator, and also as a “darkness of affection” which constitutes “the real distance from your face” (I.18). What is this “darkness of affection”? St. Augustine uses a metaphor to describe it, “birdlime,” and it is to that metaphor that we now turn.

The Theme of “Birdlime” in Augustine’s Confessions

St. Augustine several times uses the metaphor of “birdlime” to describe the encumbrances which hindered his spiritual ascent. I will focus on three varieties of this “birdlime”: heresy, death, and concupiscence.

The birdlime of heresy refers to his years as a Manichee (see III.6). As he puts it, he fell in with people “in whose words were the snares of the devil and a kind of birdlime compounded out of a mixture of the syllables of your name and that of the Lord Jesus Christ and of the Holy Ghost, the Comforter.” In this phase of his life, he was unable to gain profit from his reading of the Scriptures, which he considered beneath his grown-up eloquence and philosophical vision. Earlier he had described his spirit as being “draggled shamefully on the ground among these empty trifles, a prey to the birds of the air” (I.17). Throughout his years as a Manichee, he “wallowed in the mud of the pit and in the darkness of falsehood, often trying to rise and then being plunged back again all the more violently” (III.11). Ensnared by the birdlime of heresy, St. Augustine’s mind could not escape and properly consider the things of God.

Second is the birdlime of death, described in Book VI.6. “And let my soul cling to you now that you have freed it from that gripping birdlime of death.” What is the “death” of which St. Augustine speaks? Appropriately enough, given that heresy contributes to the death of the soul, St. Augustine considered his Manichaean days to be a kind of death (V.7). Even those of his pursuits aimed at making a living and engaging in basic social relationships, all tended toward death. Panting after the false loves of honors, money, and marriage (VI.6), he found himself driven by his desires, dragging unhappiness behind, “eaten up with anxieties,” and “seeking for an empty bubble of praise” (ibid.). Unlike his peers, who “have had the weight taken from their backs and been given wings to fly,” St. Augustine’s soul “feared like death to be restrained from the flux of a habit by which it was melting away into death” (VIII.8).

Third is the birdlime of concupiscence (X.30). Concupiscence, which is the soul’s twisted and irrational desire for a thing which is itself good, seems well described as “birdlime.” Few places in the Confessions better describe the bondage produced by concupiscence than the story of the stolen pears (II.4). This becomes a paradigm in St. Augustine’s mind, a universal portrait of him loving his sin, loving to destroy himself, “making a show of a kind of truncated liberty…producing a darkened image of omnipotence,” and making himself into a “wasteland” (II.4, 6, 10). As he himself outlines, Augustine’s biggest struggle with concupiscence took place in the realm of his sexual passions. Thinking “that I should be unbearably unhappy if I were deprived of the embraces of a woman” (VI.11), he urges the Lord to “Make me chaste and continent, but not yet” (VIII.7). Stuck in “the glue [birdlime?] of this kind of pleasure” (VI.12), he implores the Lord to “cure all the sicknesses of my soul and…to quench even the lustful impulses of my sleep” (X.30).

But the birdlime of concupiscence also takes the form of what Scripture calls “the lust of the eyes” (1 John 2:16), and St. Augustine eloquently outlines this trap for us as well. The lessons of sense experience, which we also call by the names of “science” and “learning,” constitutes a “lust to find out and to know” and a “disease of curiosity.” In the grip of this form of birdlime, men seek to probe “the workings of nature which is beyond our ken,” and all so that they may understand by “perverted science” without reference to God. This form of birdlime insidiously takes many forms: scientific inquiry, dabblings in magic, listening to gossip, going to the Games, and even casual observation of lizards and flies. From all these earthly things one must “rise up toward [God],” but this can only happen by His gracious admonishment (X.35).

Indeed, as we shall now see, the radical grace of God toward helpless sinners is St. Augustine’s solution to entrapment in birdlime.

Conclusion

Throughout the Confessions, St. Augustine portrays himself with such descriptions as having been “swept away into vanities” (I.18), as “wallow[ing] in mire” (II.3), as being “the vile slave of evil desires” (IV.16), as having an “abominable youth” and a “gross mind” (VII.1). As his life proceeds, he increasingly comes to despise his sins, to long for God, and to struggle mightily to get free of the birdlime which holds him back. Yet for all these attempts, all these pathetic flappings, St. Augustine is just like a bird: he cannot free himself. Only someone outside of him, someone who takes inestimable pity upon his condition and graciously frees him, can end his captivity.

It is in this connection that he speaks of those apart from Christ who cannot “descend from themselves to Him, and by Him ascend to Him” (V.3). All we can do in our pitiable condition is to know that God is near, ready to drag us out of the mud (birdlime?) and wash us (VI.16). Intriguingly, St. Augustine supplies what is missing in Plato’s story of the cave: God, the motive force which causes the prisoner to rise from his bonds and to begin his ascent. It is God who raises him up so that he may see that there is something to see (VII.10). It is God who raises up those only who are subdued and not swollen with pride (VII.18). It is God who overcomes the law of sin and death in a man’s members and causes him to delight in His own law (VII.21).

In the last analysis, it is God who ascends a man, and not a man who ascends to God. Neoplatonic categories have been neatly co-opted and transformed. The message of St. Augustine’s Confessions is that for those trapped in birdlime, only by descending into humility can they escape their bondage to false loves and ascend to true love.


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