And a Saint in a Pear Tree . . . ?

It was the kind of common mischief Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn found irresistible—a group of teenaged boys making a midnight raid on a neighbor’s pear tree. But the incident has become uncommon because one of these boys was Augustine: saint, philosopher, and father-of-the-church-to-be.

Augustine recounts the pear tree incident is the second volume of his Confessions, where he discusses in detail how he and his fellow mischief-makers stole bushels of pears from a neighbor’s vineyard. “We took away an enormous quantity of pears,” Augustine recalls—and “not to eat them ourselves, but simply to throw them to the pigs.”

A Grievous Episode

For many, this youthful episode might evoke only mild amusement. But for the adult Augustine, as he makes evident in his Confessions, it held momentous significance. As the older and wiser bishop of Hippo, he looks back at these antics with a severely critical eye.

However, the mature Augustine is not so much concerned with the mere act of stealing pears. His real concern is with what was happening inwardly. As if prosecuting his adolescent self in a spiritual court of law, he proceeds in the Confessions to establish a motive for the crime. “Perhaps we ate some of them, but our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden.”

What emerges from his musings is that there was no excuse for the sin committed. The theft was not prompted by need, nor by coercion, nor by anything other than a perverse love of sin. In phrases ringing with disgust, Augustine confesses, “The evil in me was foul, but I loved it.”

How, we might ask, could such a seemingly minor prank evoke such heart-rending cries? Had Augustine’s years and burdens of ministry brought on an overly morbid scrutiny of his youth? What brought on this torrent of critical self-chidings?

Well, his conversion and years of studying the Scriptures had enabled him to see his sin with different eyes. As he reflected on this adventure, he realized that hiding beneath a supposedly innocuous childhood prank was a dark and pernicious sin nature inherited from Adam.

Despite what his Pelagian opponent, Julian of Eclanum, charged, Augustine did not invent the doctrine of original sin. But he did give it classical formulation and a central place in his thought. Original sin for Augustine was both hereditary disease and crime. All men sinned in Adam, he believed, and so all share in Adam’s guilt and punishment. Adam’s fall recast the whole human race as a “mass or perdition.”

Adam, in Augustine’s conception, did not commit his offense in isolation from the rest of humanity. Not only was his human nature “transformed for the worse,” but his progeny inherited the same sinful predisposition. Before the Fall, Adam lived in a state of freedom and was posse non peccare (able to avoid sin). After the Fall, Adam and his offspring were non posse non peccare (able only to sin).

Augustine went beyond his theological peers to insist that all humanity actually participated in Adam’s fall. He asserted that “all men were . . . seminally in the loins of Adam when he was condemned.” For this reason, no one is exempt from a sin nature, neither new-born infants nor mischievous 16-year-olds. His belief that every man actually participated in Adam’s fall provided the theological backdrop for Augustine’s distressed recollections of the pear tree incident.

Everyman’s Pear Tree

Augustine apparently could have recounted any number of adolescent sins in the Confessions. But he seems to have chosen the pear tree incident by design.

For Augustine, the pear tree was his parallel to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was his personal reenactment of the Fall. His conviction that all humanity participates in Adam’s sin found validation in his own experience. His orchard was Adam’s garden; his peer pressure was Eve’s seduction; his theft from a slumbering neighbor was Adam’s disobedience while God was hidden from view. His stolen pears were the forbidden fruit. His guilt was Adams’s guilt.

The heart-searching honesty Augustine demonstrates about the pear tree incident is only characteristic of the honesty seen throughout the Confessions. Even in the sections about the times after his conversion and ordination as a bishop, he is still open about struggling with sin. In volume 10 he writes:

“I cry out in joy, confessing your glory, like a man exultant at a feast. But my soul is still sad because it falls back again and becomes an abyss, or rather, that it is still a deep abyss.”

Augustine was no ivory tower theologian. He spoke as a sinner to other sinners. From adolescent pear-stealing to occasional adult abyss, his intent was to strip away the smiling facade of sin and penetrate to the naked essence of sinful man standing alone and unmasked before the piercing gaze of almighty God.

By Frank A. James III

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #15 in 1987]

Next articles

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Introduction to this issue on Augustine of Hippo.

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Fascinating facts about Augustine and his times.

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Fighting Isms and Schisms

Augustine battled a succession of “isms” or schisms: first Manichacism, then Donatism, then Pelagiariism.

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