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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 ...

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