St. Augustine’s Confessions, part 1
Augustine’s Confessions is heralded as a classic text by both sacred and secular standards. It is considered the first autobiography of the ancient world. Augustine’s use of beautiful but accessible language is unparalleled. The text is rich in theology and philosophy and secures his position in the intellectual tradition of Western civilization. Providentially, Augustine lived through the pivotal time of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Both Reformed and Roman Catholic traditions look to Augustine’s work and claim it as their “own.” Full disclaimer: I will be reading, reflecting, and writing on Confessions from within the Reformed tradition.
First, a bit of biographical background (most of which I learned from the outstanding book that should be on every literary Christian’s shelf, Invitation to the Classics). Augustine was born to a Christian mother and a pagan father in the year 354. He grew up and was converted in Italy, but later moved to North Africa to minister and to become Bishop of Hippo, his ecclesiastical position when he died at the age of 75. He wrote Confessions from 397-401 and wrote his other magesterial work, The City of God, from 413-426.
Confessions is part autobiography, part philosophical reflection, and part theology. It takes a bit of reading to get the hang of his style (which also depends on the translation you own), but the treasures you will find scattered throughout the pages make the intellectual lifting more than worth your while. My goal is to read all 13 books of Confessions, common-place my way through each book, then share those nuggets and reflections here.
My first encounter with the thoughts of Augustine, as I recall, came about eight years ago, when my Bible Study Fellowship teaching leader cited this famous quote, which also happens to serves as a primary theme for the entire book:
You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.
Augustine threads throughout his work the complex relationship between faith and reason:
Calling upon you is an act of believing in you.
One of the beautiful (and repeated) themes of Book 1 is the paradoxes present in our eternal and omnipresent Lord. I could read through these types of passages over and over again:
Who then are you, my God?….deeply hidden yet most intimately present, perfection of both beauty and strength, stable and incomprehensible, immutable and yet changing all things, never new, never old, making everything new and leading the proud to be old without their knowledge; always active, always in repose, gathering to yourself but not in need, supporting and filling and protecting, creating and nurturing and bringing to maturity, searching even though to you nothing is lacking; you love without burning; you are jealous in a way that is free of anxiety, you ‘repent’ without the pain of regret, you are wrathful and remain tranquil. You will a change without any change in your design. You recover what you find, yet have never lost. Never in any need, you rejoice in your gains…
Once again, Augustine brings the reader back to the question of where rest can be found:
Who will enable me to find rest in you? Who will grant me that you come to my heart and intoxicate it, so that I forget my evils and embrace my one and only good, yourself?
Augustine reminds us of the absolute sovereignty of God, who reigns over and ordains all that comes to pass:
You are God and Lord of all you have created. In you are the constant causes of inconstant things.
One of the most intriguing parts of Book 1 is Augustine’s recollection of the education of his youth. He highlights God’s sovereignty over that process — the unfair schoolmasters, the discipline he was subject to, his aptitude for learning virtually any subject except for the religious:
I had no love for reading books and hated being forced to study them. Yet pressure was put on me and was good for me. No one is doing right if he is acting against his will, even when what he is doing is good. Those who put compulsion on me were not doing right either; the good was done to me by you, my God. They gave no consideration to the use that I might make of the things they forced me to learn. The objective they had in view was merely to satisfy the appetite for wealth and for glory, though the appetite is insatiable, the wealth is in reality destitution of spirit, and the glory something to be ashamed of. But you, by whom the hairs on our head are numbered, used the error of all who pressed me to learn to turn out to my advantage. And my reluctance to learn you used for a punishment which I well deserved: so tiny a child, so great a sinner. So by making use of those who were failing to do anything morally right you did good to me, and from me in my sin you exacted a just retribution. For you have imposed order, and so it is that the punishment of every disordered mind is its own disorder.
I am reminded that my own (generally terrible) K-12 education was ordained by God and that he is even today redeeming those years eaten by the locusts. I learned nothing about the Lord during all those years of (at best) tepid education, and was given a flawed and inconsistent worldview. And yet my work ethic was established during those years, along with my voracious appetite for reading and writing. Though I would not be redeemed until the age of 27, God was preparing my mind all the way along for the work he would call me to do.
Augustine confesses a great deal about his appetite for immoral living, wicked humor, and illicit friendships. He then turns those confessions into a pray of dedication to the Lord:
May I dedicate to your service my power to speak and write and read and count; for when I learnt vanities, you imposed discipline on me and have forgiven me the sin of desiring pleasure from those vanities. For in them I learnt many useful words, but these words can also be learnt through things that are not vain, and that is the safe way along which children should walk.
And at the conclusion of Book 1, he continues this stream of thought — that God has redeemed the illicit desires, habits, and actions of his youth:
My sin consisted in this, that I sought pleasure, sublimity, and truth not in God but in his creatures, in myself and other created beings. So it was that I plunged into miseries, confusions, and errors. My God, I give thanks to you, my source of sweet delight, and my glory and my confidence. I thank you for your gifts. Keep them for me, for in this way you will keep me. The talents you have given will increase and be perfected, and I will be with you since it was your gift to me that I exist.
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