|The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, 1863
by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Walter Art Museum, Baltimore, MD
The story of Alypius’ addiction to gladiatorial games in the waning years of the Roman Empire has me thinking about human susceptibility to addiction in general.
When I lived in Boston, I was the Home Teacher of a man that became addicted to crack cocaine. Eddie was not the kind of guy you think of when you say ‘crackhead’. He was smart, sophisticated and wealthy. He lived in a luxury high-rise apartment downtown. He had worked for years as an auditor for multinational accounting firm. When he found the church he was all in; he was totally passionate about the gospel. On one visit I could tell there had been a significant change in Eddie. Over the next few months he opened up to me about his problems with drugs. He told me that he tried crack cocaine once, and knew immediately that he was hopelessly addicted (I remember feeling the same way the first time I caught a trout on a dry fly). His love for God and the gospel took a back seat. I watched on rather helplessly as he gradually withered. Though I tried to keep in touch after I moved to Nevada, he wasn’t interested. Ultimately he died angry and bitter.
You cannot become addicted to cocaine without trying it first; you can’t become a slave of the Colosseum without going to watch the games. Alypius’ problems didn’t begin with a decision to go see Christians be covered in pitch, crucified and then set ablaze, or sewn into animal hides and left to be torn to pieces by starving lions. Eddie’s fight to the death with drugs began when he threw caution to the wind and allowed another addict to talk him into buying the drugs they could then share. What Eddie and Alypius had in common on day one of their individual battles with addiction was an arrogance that made them feel invulnerable to something they knew was wrong.
Augustine said that Alipius’ soul “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.” The line that separates being valiant from being audacious is sometimes pretty thin. To be valiant is to show courage, determination and excellence. Audaciousness is a willingness to take bold risks, usually while showing impudent lack of respect to custom or prevailing wisdom. Alypius confidently proclaimed: “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.” But this valiant exterior was just the facade of an audacious young man that had too much confidence in himself, and too little respect for Satan.
If audaciousness and excessive self-confidence sets the stage for our addictions, then it is supplemented by forgetting the we aren’t supposed to face these challenges alone:
“[The Lord] knows the mistakes we can so easily make: to underestimate the forces working for us and to rely too much on our human powers. And so He offers us the covenant to “always remember Him” and the warning to “pray always” so that we will place our reliance on Him, our only safety.” Elder Henry B. Eyring, Always, CES Fireside (Oct Ensign 1999)
In Augstine’s account of the addiction of Alypius, he also highlighted the way of out the nightmare in which Alypius was trapped. It seems that Augustine scooped every 12-step program ever published by pointing out that the Lord rescued Alypius and taught him “not to rest his confidence in himself but in thee”. As he did so, Alypius walked away from one master into the arms of Another.