Augustine, Happiness, and a Birthday Cake

Characteristically for Augustine, the cake prompted a three-day discussion. The subject was happiness – one of his favorite themes – a universal instinct which is meant to lead us to true happiness in God. The treatise De Beata Vita(On the Blessed Life) was the happy result. For Augustine, happiness is enjoying God forever.

 

If Augustine of Hippo was with us today, he might spend his birthday as he did shortly after his conversion, when he lived in Cassiciago, 25 miles north of Milan, Italy.  “After a meal light enough as not to hinder mental work,” he wrote, “I invited to the public baths all the people who lived with me (not just visitors for the day). It was a secluded place, fit for the occasion.”[1]

Who were these people? His mother Monica, his brother Navigius, his friend Alypius, his cousins Lastidianus and Rusticus, his disciples Trigetius and Licentius, and his son Aeodatus, who was still young but had “a mind which, if my love doesn’t cause me to err, promises great things.”[2] Verecundus, the man who had lent the happy brigade his country villa, might have been there.

There was, of course, a cake – a healthy delight made with spelt flour, almonds, and honey. Augustine was concerned about his brother, who was supposed to avoid sweets because of liver problems, but Navigius was not about to miss the treat. “On the contrary, it will be good for me,” he said, because the honey in the cake, coming from the Greek region of Imetto, was bitter-sweet and didn’t cause constipation.

Characteristically for Augustine, the cake prompted a three-day discussion. The subject was happiness – one of his favorite themes – a universal instinct which is meant to lead us to true happiness in God. The treatise De Beata Vita(On the Blessed Life) was the happy result. For Augustine, happiness is enjoying God forever.

Augustine’s Life

It had taken Augustine a long time to arrive to that conclusion. Too long, he thought. “Late I have loved you, beauty so ancient and so new, late I have loved you,” he wrote in his Confessions. His mother Monica would have agreed. She spent years praying for his conversion and crying so hard that a priest had to assure her, “A son of such tears cannot be lost.”

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