Here me, O God! Alas for the sin of mankind! We speak this way and You have compassion on us, for You made us, but You did not make sin in us. Who reminds me of the sins of my infancy? For in Your sight, no one is free from sin, not even the infant whose life is but a day upon the earth.
Who reminds me? Does not each little infant in whom I see what I do not remember about myself? What was my sin then? Is it that I cried for the breast? For if I should cry that way now for food suitable to my present age, I should be laughed at and rebuked. What I did then deserved rebuke, but since I could not understand reproof, custom and reason forbade my being rebuked. For as we grow, we root out and cast away such habits.
No no man, though he prunes, wittingly throws away what is good. Or was it good then, even for a time, to cry for what, if given, would be hurtful – to bitterly resent that those free persons, elders – even my own parents who gave me birth – did not serve me? That many others besides, wiser than I, did not obey the beckoning of my good pleasure? That I did my best to strike and hurt because my commands were not obeyed, which could only have been to my hurt if carried out? Then in the weakness of infant limbs, not its will, lies its innocence.
I myself have seen and known an infant to be jealous, even though it could not speak. It turned pale and looked bitterly at its foster-brother. Who does not know this to be true? Mothers and nurses tell you that they appease these things by all kinds of remedies. Is that innocence when the fountain of milk is flowing in rich abundance, not to allow one to share it, though it needs the nourishment to sustain its life? We look leniently on all this, not because we fail to recognize the presence and degree of the evils, but because they will disappear as age increases. For although they are allowed in infancy, the very same tempers are utterly intolerable when they appear in an older person.
O Lord my God, who gave life to my infancy, furnishing the body You gave with senses, knitting its limbs together, shaping its proportions and implanting in me all the impulses necessary to the maintenance of the integrity and safety of a living being – You command me to praise you in these things, to give thanks unto the Lord and to sing to Your name, O Most High. For You are God, almighty and good, even if You had done nothing but these things which no one but You could do. You alone made all things, O most Fair, and You make all things fair; and by Your law You order all things.
This period of my life, then, Lord, of which I have no remembrance, which I take on others’ word and which I guess from observing other infants – true though the guess may be – I do not care to reckon as a part of my life which I live in this world. For it is hidden from me in the shadows of forgetfulness no less than that which I spent in my mother’s womb. But if I was shaped in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me, where, I pray, O my God, where, Lord, or when, was I, Your servant, innocent? But I pass that period by. What do I now have to do with that, the memories of which I cannot recall?
As Augustine is reflecting on his infancy, he seems to be considering all the things that are very normal for children, but would be completely unacceptable later in life. It reminds me of the passage, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” (1 Cor 13:11)
We all have stories from our childhood – some we remember, some our family is fond of telling us! – in which we wonder what we were thinking or why we would do such things or behave in such a way. And then we have children and they go through stages and do irrational things. Like when your two year old wants a muffin. You break one in half and give it to her, but she begins to cry because she wants it whole. So, you offer her a new muffin, but she doesn’t want that one; she wants the first one, but she wants it whole again. She is inconsolable and may even strike out at you with her little fists. You can try to reason with her and try to explain, but you know it won’t do any good. Do you punish her? Of course not. Even though that behavior would be completely out of line in an adult, or even an older child, for the toddler, her little world has completely fallen apart and you are the cause of it’s destruction. But we know all too well, soon enough her reasoning ability improves, the tantrums stop, and she grows into a beautiful, sensible person.
“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13:11-13)
Deo Juvante, Jen