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Saint Augustine’s “Confessions”: An Introduction

Saint Augustine's "Confessions": An Introduction

Augustine is accessible and relevant as a result of he’s one among us. He suffers from the identical temptations and succumbs to these temptations. He falls and doesn’t all the time rise up once more, preferring to wallow within the gutter together with his lusts and his illicit appetites. And but, like us, he’s stressed till he rests within the fact, which may solely be present in Christ and the Church He based…

If any single guide can declare to be the quintessential Christian basic it have to be St. Augustine’s Confessions. There are different claimants to the accolade, to make certain. One thinks maybe of Augustine’s different masterpiece, The Metropolis of God, or the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, or probably, if one is in search of lighter fare, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis or St. Francis de Gross sales’ Introduction to the Religious Life. And if we’re to incorporate works of literature, in addition to works of non-fiction, we’d recommend The Divine Comedy, The Pilgrim’s Progress and even, at a heterodox stretch, Paradise Misplaced. And what of recent Christian classics, corresponding to Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and The Eternal Man, or C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters? All of those books can declare to be Christian classics (although Milton’s non-Trinitarian theology stretches the definition of “Christianity” to breaking level), and they’re all eminently value taking the time to learn. And but if we might solely learn one in every of these books, or if we have been allowed to take simply considered one of them with us to the proverbial desert island, might we actually bear to half with The Confessions? Might we ponder being aside from it? Might we actually see ourselves departing to the place of solitude with out it?

Aside from being a purely Christian basic, there isn’t any doubt that The Confessions is likely one of the Nice Books, these seminal tomes, each Christian and non-Christian, which type the very basis of the western canon and which symbolize, collectively, the illustrissimi and eminenti of all revealed works. It sits comfortably beside the works of Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas. It’s of their firm. And but there’s one thing about The Confessions that places it in a category of its personal, even in such an elite firm. The Confessions is exclusive. It’s in contrast to all the opposite Nice Books. It accommodates philosophy, and but it’s in contrast to another philosophical work. It grapples with questions of theology however not in the identical means that theologians usually do their grappling. It’s autobiographical however it isn’t merely an autobiography; it’s, fairly, the very archetype of all autobiography, the primary and the most effective of the style, the usual by which all autobiography is measured. Moreover, and that is maybe the last word check, it’s sublimely accessible and perennially relevant. It speaks to our age, because it spoke to Augustine’s personal age, as a result of it speaks to all ages. It cuts by way of the cant of all of the mental fads and fashions, these accidents of historical past (philosophically talking) which don’t partake of these truths that are really important to our understanding of ourselves, of one another, and of our place within the cosmos. Augustine is accessible and relevant as a result of he’s one among us. He suffers from the identical temptations and succumbs to these temptations. He falls and doesn’t all the time rise up once more, preferring to wallow within the gutter together with his lusts and his illicit appetites. And but, like us, he’s stressed till he rests within the fact, which may solely be present in Christ and the Church He based.

In contrast to the opposite nice philosophers, Augustine doesn’t search in The Confessions to point out us the reality purely objectively, by setting out the summary ideas and proving his level with dispassionate and logical reasoning. He seeks to point out us the target fact by way of his subjective engagement with it and by the results of his failure to interact with it. And but this subjective strategy has goal energy as a result of, in placing himself in his personal footwear, he’s placing himself in our footwear additionally. In describing himself, he’s concurrently describing us. He and we’re one. We share the identical humanity with all that it entails. In seeing him and his struggles, we see ourselves and our personal struggles, and the struggles of one another.

The perennial applicability of The Confessions was illustrated potently by Fr. David Meconi in his whimsical composition of a letter which he imagines the seventeen-year-old Augustine may need written to his long-suffering mom (St. Monica) from school. “Mom, I wish you could meet my new girlfriend,” Augustine writes. “We may have come from very different places, but we have taught each other some important lessons. We have been staying together for a year or so now, and want you to know that you are soon going to meet your grandson!” In presenting the autobiographical information of Augustine’s life within the twenty-first century idiom, Fr. Meconi permits us to see one thing of putting up with relevance within the life Augustine lived and the life-lessons he discovered, albeit that he lived his life sixteen hundred years in the past. Maybe we have been the school scholar who determined to “shack-up” with a girlfriend. Maybe we received a girlfriend pregnant. Or maybe we have been the mom whose college-age son or daughter dropped the bombshell about their way of life decisions. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même selected! The extra issues change, the extra they continue to be the identical.

In the identical letter, Fr. Meconi imagines Augustine telling his mom that he intends to modify majors from regulation to philosophy as a result of he’d learn some good books and wonders whether or not maybe there’s something or somebody that draws and strikes individuals in the direction of the reality. “But I don’t know,” he provides, “living without insisting on truth is a lot easier.” For the younger Augustine within the fourth century as for the younger school scholar within the twenty-first century, relativism is a practical selection, a path of least mental resistance which allows him to indulge his decrease appetites with out asking too many awkward ethical questions. Plus ça change….

The subsequent bombshell that Fr. Meconi imagines the teenage Augustine dropping on his religious Catholic mom can also be all too acquainted. He informs her that he has stopped going to the Catholic Church and is now a follower of a brand new age dualistic sect, which in his day was often known as Manichaeism however in our day goes by different names. Plus ça change….

Augustine is “a perennial figure,” writes Fr. Meconi, “no different from most young people of each age.”[1] Like younger individuals of all ages Augustine has a “restless heart”, in search of pleasure in all of the fallacious locations. He’s totally different from some, although mercifully not all, in that he lastly discovered relaxation and actual happiness in the one place it may really be discovered, within the Presence of God.

Like Fr. Meconi, I’ve additionally perceived a hanging similarity between my very own “restless heart”, as a younger man, and the stressed coronary heart of Augustine, a similarity which is mentioned in my very own conversion story, my very own “confessions”, Race with the Satan: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love (Saint Benedict Press, 2013). I’ll quote the entire passage that connects my very own twentieth century childhood with Augustine’s childhood sixteen hundred years earlier as a result of it serves as an evocative instance of the accessibility and applicability of The Confessions:

Summer time and autumn was scrumping season, throughout which we descended like a band of brigands or pirates on the neighbouring orchards, pillaging plums, pears, apples and strawberries as every fruit ripened, or typically earlier than they ripened. The following abdomen aches have been attributed by my mom to the gluttonous amount of fruit that we had consumed or the truth that it was not but ripe, however I fancy that it might even have been because of the ingestion of the noxious chemical compounds that farmers by the 1960s have been starting to spray on their crops. For sure, we ate as we plucked and by no means considered washing the fruit earlier than consuming it.

It’s odd that we gained such pleasure from this theft of the farmers’ crops. There was a thrill available in climbing the fence into the orchard, in trespassing on another person’s property, within the danger of being caught, within the plucking of the forbidden fruit, within the consuming of it. I’m reminded in maturity of St. Augustine’s conscience-driven reminiscence, recounted in his Confessions, of his personal scrumping expedition as a toddler. He recollects “a pear tree laden with fruit” close to his childhood residence and the night-time raids that he and his pals made upon it. “We took enormous quantities, not to feast on ourselves but perhaps to throw to the pigs; we did eat a few, but that was not our motive: we derived pleasure from the deed simply because it was forbidden.”[2]

St. Augustine’s well timed and timeless musings on the presence of concupiscence within the coronary heart of youth serves to remind us that the innocence of childhood isn’t synonymous with the absence of sin. The arcadia by which we resided was not Eden. Though we lived in blissful ignorance of the character and magnitude of the grownup sins that surrounded us, we might bask in our personal infantile types of them and did so with devilish delight. As sons of Adam we have been prepared apprentices within the antediluvian artwork of sin and have become more proficient in our apply of it as we received older however no wiser. It is because of this that fairytales play such a wholesome half in childhood. It’s crucial for youngsters to know that fairyland incorporates dragons, giants and depraved witches as a result of the actual world incorporates grown-up variations of those evil creatures of which youngsters have to have no less than an inkling.

Aside from the parallels between my very own “restless” journey by means of the darkish wooden of sin and error, and that of Augustine, I’m conscious that my very own telling of the story is in some senses a re-telling of the story that he had already advised so a lot better. All such “confessions”, all such conversion tales, are merely varieties of Augustine’s archetype. Even Newman’s Apologia professional Vita Sua, maybe the best autobiographical conversion memoir ever written, apart from The Confessions itself, is however a proper reflection of Augustine’s unique “apologia”. The eminent Victorian’s apology for his life merely follows in Augustine’s venerable footsteps and the confessional path he had already blazed. The identical might be stated of R. H. Benson’s Confessions of a Convert and Monsignor Ronald Knox’s A Religious Aeneid. All nice confessional literature and all nice conversion tales take their lead and their cue from Augustine’s magisterial unique. Plus ça change….

This considerably rambling preamble to Augustine’s Confessions has barely scratched the floor of all that The Confessions has to supply. It has not mentioned Augustine’s philosophical and theological engagement with the Neoplatonists, or with the Manichaeans; nor has it mentioned his rational and psychological grappling with grief and the which means of mortality; nor has it a lot as talked about Augustine’s relationship together with his mentor, St. Ambrose, a neglectful reality which is actually a sin of omission. And but, when all is claimed and accomplished, probably the most potent and essential cause for anybody studying The Confessions is the insights it provides into one of many biggest minds in historical past. Why would we not need to spend time within the firm of one of many biggest males who ever lived and within the presence of one of many biggest minds that God has ever beloved?

All the multifarious features of The Confessions that haven’t been mentioned on this briefest of introductions might be revealed within the fantastic confessions that comply with. What will probably be revealed is actually a revelation within the fullest epiphanous understanding of the phrase. It’s nothing lower than a shining forth of a thoughts baptized within the blessedness of religion and purpose, and a coronary heart basking within the love of God, not stressed as a result of it’s resting in Him.

This essay was first revealed because the Introduction to the just lately revealed Our Sunday Customer version of Augustine’s Confessions.

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1. All quotations from Fr. Meconi are taken from his introduction to the Ignatius Crucial Version of The Confessions: St. Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012).

2. Saint Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions, op. cit., p. 41

Editor’s Notice: The featured picture above is “Saint Augustine in His Study” (c.1480) by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510),courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

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