Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Coliseum and the Seduction of Sin (or: Alypius and Us)

“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.' When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”
Luke 11:24-26 

In his book Confessions, St. Augustine tells the story of his friend, Alypius, who later became a Church bishop in Africa. Alypus, a young man drawn and enticed by the blood-lust of the gladiator games in Rome, had quickly become addicted to the violent sights and sounds and smells of the coliseum. Augustine, although not yet a Christian, was against the gladiator games, but he did not wish to challenge his young friend in the matter for fear of straining their relationship. However, through some impromptu remarks in a lecture, God used Augustine to convict the young Alypus of his error and turn him away from the games, resolute to forsake them at once and for all. 

The alarming part of this story is what comes next. The lure of the blood sport had not entirely left poor Alypius. Augustine recalls in his confession to God:

"He had gone on to Rome before me to study law - which was the worldly way which his parents were forever urging him to pursue - and there he was carried away again with an incredible passion for the gladiatorial shows. For, although he had been utterly opposed to such spectacles and detested them, one day he met by chance a company of his acquiantances and fellow students returning from dinner; and, with a friendly violence, they drew him, resisting and objecting vehemently, into the amphitheater, on a day of those cruel and murderous shows. He protested to them: 'Though you drag my body to that place and set me down there, you cannot force me to give my mind or lend my eyes to these shows. Thus I will be absent while present, and so overcome both you and them.' 

When they heard this, they dragged him on in, probably interested to see whether he could do as he said. When they got into the arena, and had taken what seats they could get, the whole place became a tumult of inhuman frenzy. But Alypus kept his eyes closed and forbade his mind to roam abroad after such wickedness. Would that he had shut his ears also! For when one of the combatants fell in the fight, a mighty cry from the whole audience stirred him so strongly that, overcome by curiosity and still prepared (as he thought) to despise and rise superior to it no matter what it was, he opened his eyes and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the victim whom he desired to see had been in his body. 

Thus he fell more miserably than the one whose fall had raised that mighty clamor which had entered through his ears and unlocked his eyes to make way for the wounding and beating down of his soul, which was more audacious than truly valiant - also it was weaker because it presumed on its own strength when it ought to have depended on Thee. For, as soon as he saw the blood, he drank in with it a savage temper, and he did not turn away, but fixed his eyes on the bloody pastime, unwittingly drinking in the madness - delighted with the wicked contest and drunk with blood lust. He was now no longer the same man who came in, but was one of the mob he came into, a true companion of those who had brought him thither. 

Why need I say more? He looked, he shouted, he was excited, and he took away with him the madness that would stimulate him to come again: not only with those who first enticed him, but even without them; indeed, dragging in others besides. And yet from all this, with a most powerful and most merciful hand, Thou didst pluck him and taught him not to rest his confidence in himself but in Thee - but not till long after."

What is startling about the account of Alypius' return to the coliseum is that this isn't just the story of Alypius. It could be my story. It could be our story. There is a warning here. Let us not doubt the seductive power of sin. Let us not trust in the purity of our own hearts or the strength of our own wills to preserve us in temptation - these will utterly fail us.

But there is also hope in this story. God did not forget Alypius or forsake him to the coliseum. Likewise, let us not forget our hope in God. Rather, let us trust in God alone and in His power not only to save us from sin but to keep us from sin. 

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. O Lord, do not delay.

Augustine (2002). The confessions of St. Augustine. Mineola: Dover Publications.

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