A Short Comment on Augustine’s “Confessions”

 

Florence Leung梁彩霞

(指導老師郭鴻標 博士)

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As I read through the pages of the book, I have enjoyed and enriched myself going with the author in his life journey of personal growth, in his quest for truth, in search for knowledge about self and God.  I have also come to deeper understanding of related topics like the reader’s reception, reason and faith, memory, time and eternity.

 

The occasion for writing this book is disputed with two possible purposes. One is to describe Augustine’s conversion from Manicheism to Catholic Christianity in light of Donatist accusations that he remained a crypto-Manichean. Another is to recount the very beginnings of African monasticism. [1]

 

There have been various ways of structuring the book. One simple way for convenience for analysis is as follows. Books 1-9 deal with Augustine’s past life from his infancy to thirty-two. Book 10 deals with his present life, at the time of writing’ he shares with us the elements of the examined life. Books 11-13 offer a commentary on Genesis 1: 1-31; inquiries are made about time and creation, and praise is sung to God at the end. [2]

         

          Whether the book is a unified whole has also been disputed. It may be a unified whole, as it is the story of the journey towards conversion, the return of the soul to God, which is a common theme in ancient literature. [3] One way of unifying the book is to utilize the various meanings of “Confessiones”—the confession of sin which predominates in the first 9 books, confession as witness to present state in Book 10, and confession of belief in Books 11-13. [4]

 

Another way of unifying the book is the prayer right at the beginning of the book, in Book 1 when he declared: “You have made us to be toward Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” [5] He declares creation to be a call to union with God, and especially for the human soul to return to Godlikeness or the primary state of graced perfection. [6] That is a re-formation of the image of the Trinity through the gifts of faith and love, not only to intimacy with themselves but to Christian community as well. [7]

 

          The reader goes through the various stages with the author, not only reading but also undergoing renewal as the author acts as a spiritual guide or director in the quest for the truth about human life. By presenting his experiences and recollections, he calls on us to look into our own stories, our hearts, because both he and we are after all, human, of the same kind in Creation, facing the same kinds of struggles and challenges. I appreciate his sincere inquiries to God and especially his genuine repentance of his sexual sins. Such courage spurs us on to face our innermost self and opt for renewal in God. Even more important is our common need to relate to or to be exact, to reconcile with our Creator, for only in Him could we all find ultimate rest and true meaning: “His interest in autobiography extends only to the point that his life illustrates a theological anthropology (or an anthropological theology): human life is the product of free decisions guided by God’s grace to its proper conclusion.” [8]

Apart from the need for meaning – restoration with God, the reader is easily involved and even indulged in the inner journey with the form of writing -- his careful rhetorical presentation: “[…] the life of this particular act of 'confession', the writing of this text by a man self-consciously turning from youth to middle age, is as present to us on the page as our own lives--indeed, becomes as we read it a part of our own lives. It is that fragment of the 'life' of Augustine that is most accessible to us.[9]  The frequent use of monologue, soliloquies and prayers have pushed and pulled us to play the role of the author—the main character of the journey. Minimal detachment from the story is ensured, especially with the prayers, as they are imbued with strong feeling and intense reasoning. One prominent instance is:

“But how shall I call upon my God, my God and Lord? For when I call on him, I ask him to come into myself. And what room is there in me, where my God can come – God who made heaven and earth? Is there anything in me, O Lord my God, that can contain you? Indeed, do heaven and earth which you have made, and in which you made me, contain you?”[10]

 He expresses his heart’s desire to know God and stretches his mind to find out more about Him. Yet one may question the timing of the prayers. Are they said at the times of those events happening or at the time of writing? Both are possible, as he may retrieve from his memory particular happenings, thinkings and feelings, and also he may interpret and reflect on his own history from remembrance. Memory can bring man closer to God by enabling him to ascend beyond the force of perception to “the fields and spacious palaces of memory, where lie the treasures of innumerable images of all kinds of things brought in by the senses”, and to draw near to the Light above, to God who transcends the memory. [11] In fact, what is recollected and expressed in words from memory straddle past, present and future, not easily distinguishable or are just blurred in terms of time, as we can see from below:

“There [memory] also I meet with myself, and recall myself—what, when and where I did a thing, and what my feelings were when I did it. All that I remember is there, either personal experiences or what I was told by others. Out of the same store I continuously combine with the past, fresh images of things experienced, or what I have believed from what I have experienced. From these I can project future actions, events and hopes, and I can reflect on all these again in the present.”[12]

Thus, memory is not tied to the past, as normally considered. Rather, it is bound to the present from where we can reflect or project ourselves by looking back to the past and looking forward to the future.  This is well said, as the ordinary man can readily tell us that how his memories have been shaping his mind and life from day to day. Besides, one just can notice how so often in the Bible man is called on to make a decision or an act of will at a “moment of truth” which is here-and-now. How one responds in face of the situation indicates clearly one’s ethical reality.  In fact, this characteristic of the human memory also points to the eternity of God as stated in Book 11. The similarity of the two is probably a clear sign of the creature resembling the Creator in His image. From the Book of Ecclesiastes, we know that He has put eternity in our hearts. Augustine defines God’s eternity as below:

“But you(God) precede all times past by the excellency of an ever-present eternity, and you outlast all future times, because they are future, and when they have come, they shall be past. […] Your today is eternity. Therefore you begat the Co-eternal, to whom you said, This day have I begotten you. You have made all time, and you are before all time, and there was never a time when time was not.”[13]

His eternity overshadows all time, past or future, for His eternity is today, the here-and-now, the very present. This way, Augustine shows to us that eternity is not the very distant or abstract thing we normally think. This important essence of God is closely relevant to us in our daily life. Actually, in the Old Testament, God is often addressed as “Eternal God” especially in the expressive words of the psalmist.  Not only do ascertain God’s eternal nature but we also assert the status of the second person of the Triune God by highlighting His divinity, for the Son is begotten in eternity and so is co-eternal with the Father.

          Apart from the use of memory, Augustine contends that man is to be filled with God Himself by self-restraint or continence. That is to empty oneself of excess of things other than God, so that maximal space is reserved for God’s fullness to infiltrate in us:

“For by self-restraint, verily, we are bound up and brought back together into wholeness, whereas we had been splintered in many ways. For he loves you too little who loves anything else with you which he does not love for you. […] O Charity, my God! Enkindle me. You command continence; give me what you command and command what you will.”[14]

He then goes on to put forward how each of the sense perceptions is to be controlled and trained. Interestingly, he argues that we should train ourselves to take food as medicine, because “the snare of lust” waits to trap us when we pass from emptiness to fullness. We should then eat and drink for health only, but not for enjoyment. This recalls me to the purgative way of the Three Ways (together with the subsequent illumination and union). Yet Augustine may be going too far partly due to his indulgence in sensuality in the past and partly because of the conventional practice of his days (like the monastic way). It is said in the Proverbs we are to enjoy the fruit of our labour – food and drinks as the gifts of God.  Of course, boundaries have to be set for us to distinguish between enjoyment and indulgence. The point is that we have to grant proper value to the needs and pleasure due to the body, so that we maintain wholeness of the human person. Otherwise, we are prone to the setbacks of the dualism of body and soul.

     The role of the mind or reason in the search for the truth is an important

concern in the book, as well. In fact, in Books 1-7, he searches for how God is to be understood as everywhere and yet as not in the world. He comes to an answer in Book 7; he acquires an understanding of God as immaterial spirit, transcendent to the whole and hence as omnipresent by not being in any place.[15] However, this resolution creates another problem of Books 7-13; he wonders how such a transcendent God who cannot appear in the world can act within the world, can speak audibly to us and call us to himself.  The answer is that God is not in the world and so cannot be encountered anywhere in space. He can be found only in the noetic realm as the light above the mind. [16]

 

Though Augustine admits that the Platonists advance true metaphysical propositions, about the existence of the immaterial world, he expresses in Book 7 that he was fortunate to meet the Platonism of Plotinus before converting to Christianity. Otherwise, he would have failed to recognize that difference between presumption and “confession”. [17] He realizes the limitations of reasoning and the role of faith as expressed by confession is needed for us to come to better and fuller understanding of the truth. This dialogue between the author and God is a clear expression of faith:

 

“And I said, ‘Is Truth, then, nothing at all, since it is not spread out through finite or infinite space?’ And you cried to me from afar, ‘Yes, truly I AM THAT I AM.’ And I heard, as the heart hears and had no room to doubt I would rather have doubted that I was alive than that Truth is, which is clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.” [18]

 

The man is encouraged to believe and he does believe, not only from the guidance of that “Unchangeable Light” beyond his mind, but also from the creation about the Creator. “I AM” is from Genesis where Moses encounters YHWH. Apart from the nature – general revelation, the Scriptures – special revelation is to be the stepping-stone to faith for greater understanding of the truth.

 

Reason has helped him in search of the truth, but cannot guarantee further progress, as he cannot see how to fit his new beliefs with his old beliefs to formulate a coherent view of God and God’s place in the world; instead by faith, he makes a breakthrough : “With all my heart I believed you to be incorruptible, inviolable, and immutable, although I did not know why and how.”[19] What leads him to this important knowledge about God is not reasoning but faith. [20]

 

Faith helps settle his questions and doubts about self and God, thus facilitating one to love God with all one’s soul, heart and mind.  In Book 10, he expresses that he needs greater personal unity or wholeheartedness in loving God, to reflect the ultimate Exemplar – the Triune God, which could be granted only from God: “Only in You, when my scattered parts are gathered, do I find a stable place for my mind.”[21]

 

          At the beginning of the book, the author expresses his hope of finding rest for his heart, in God his Creator. Interestingly, towards the end of the book, he puts the idea the other way round: “ For you (God) shall rest in us then, as you work in us now And your rest shall be through us, just as your works are now done through us. But you, Lord, ever work and are ever at rest.”[22] Unlike us, for Him, work and rest take place at the same time. Yet amazingly this has to do with us. Probably because we are the most important part of his Creation – created in His Image, and the most beloved of His, who is to enter into loving union with Him. Out of his eternity, He has brought into being time and creation, especially humankind. Thus, he has set up the rhythm of work and rest for man to follow and live in His Likeness.

 

          We are to keep searching directly from God, not man or angels, so that we could have rest: “We must ask it of you, seek for it in you, knock for it at your gate. Only so, even so shall we receive; so shall we find; so it shall be opened to us. Amen.”[23] This is a sensible open ending by which reader is motivated to go further in the journey and believe that He will show the way and reveal more. After all, everyone’s journey is different from the other. One is responsible for one’s own search. One is to interact and come to terms with the Creator, who is unfathomable, infinite fullness. That is to be a life-long process until one rests from this life. The end of the book is thanksgiving to God: “Deo Gratis”, thus attributing his discoveries and all honour to God, the ultimate main character of the Story.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Clark, Mary T. Augustine of Hippo: Selected Writings. New York, Paulist Press, c1984.

Crosson, Frederick J. “Structure and Meaning in St. Augustine’s Confessions”. The Augustinian Tradition. Edited by Gareth Matthews. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1999.

Fitzgerald, Allan & John C. Cavadini. Augustine Through the Ages: an Encyclopedia. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., c1999.

 

MacDonald, Scott. “The Divine Nature”. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine. Edited by Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

 

O’Donnell, James J, “An Introduction to Augustine’s Confessions” http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/augustine/introconf.html (accessed on May 3, 2009).

Rist, John. “Faith and Reason”. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine. Edited by Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

 

St. Augustine. The Confessions. Translated by Hal M. Helms. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 1986.

 



[1] Allan Fitzgerald & John C. Cavadini,  Augustine Through the Ages: an Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., c1999), 227.

 

[2] Allan Fitzgerald & John C. Cavadini,  Augustine Through the Ages: an Encyclopedia, 226.

 

[3] Allan Fitzgerald & John C. Cavadini,  Augustine Through the Ages: an Encyclopedia, 228.

 

[4] Allan Fitzgerald & John C. Cavadini,  Augustine Through the Ages: an Encyclopedia, 228.

 

[5] Mary T. Clark, Augustine of Hippo: Selected Writings (New York, Paulist Press, c1984), 7.

 

[6] Mary T. Clark, Augustine of Hippo: Selected Writings, 7-8.

 

[7] Mary T. Clark, Augustine of Hippo: Selected Writings, 10.

 

[8] Allan Fitzgerald & John C. Cavadini,  Augustine Through the Ages: an Encyclopedia, 228.

[9] James J O’Donnell, “An Introduction to Augustine’s Confessions” http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/augustine/introconf.html (accessed on May 3, 2009).

[10] St. Augustine. The Confessions. Translated by Hal M. Helms (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 1986), 2.

 

[11]  Mary T. Clark, Augustine of Hippo: Selected Writings, 11.

 

[12] St. Augustine. The Confessions. Translated by Hal M. Helms, 187.

 

[13] St. Augustine. The Confessions. Translated by Hal M. Helms, 233-234.

[14]St. Augustine. The Confessions. Translated by Hal M. Helms, 204.

[15] Frederick J. Crosson,“Structure and Meaning in St. Augustine’s Confessions”. The Augustinian Tradition. Edited by Gareth Matthews (Berkeley: University of California Press, c1999), 35.

[16] Frederick J. Crosson,“Structure and Meaning in St. Augustine’s Confessions”. The Augustinian Tradition. Edited by Gareth, 35.

[17] John Rist. “Faith and Reason”. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine. Edited by Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 31.

 

[18] St. Augustine. The Confessions. Translated by Hal M. Helms, 123.

 

[19] Scott. MacDonald. “The Divine Nature”. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine. Edited by Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 83.

 

[20] Mary T. Clark, Augustine of Hippo: Selected Writings, 12.

 

[21] Mary T. Clark, Augustine of Hippo: Selected Writings, 12.

 

[22]  St. Augustine. The Confessions. Translated by Hal M. Helms, 123.

 

[23] St. Augustine. The Confessions. Translated by Hal M. Helms, 315.