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Confessions of Saint Augustine *
for yourself, O man; search for your true self. He who seeks
shall find himself in God."
The Confessions, Saint Augustine addressed himself
eloquently and passionately to the enduring spiritual questions
that have stirred the minds and hearts of thoughtful men
since time began. Written A.D. 397, The Confessions
are a history of the young Augustine's fierce struggle to
overcome his profligate ways and achieve a life of spiritual
The first ten books of the work relate the story of Augustine's
childhood in Numidia; his licentious and riotous youth and
early manhood in Carthage, Rome, and Milan; his continuous
struggle with evil; his attempts to find an anchor for his
faith among the Manicheans and the Neoplatonists; the untiring
efforts of his mother, Saint Monnica, to save him from self-destruction;
and his ultimate conversion to the Christian faith at the
age of thirty-two.
The last three books of The Confessions, unrelated
to the preceding account of Saint Augustine's early life,
are an allegorical explanation of the Mosaic account of
Creation. Throughout the work, the narrative, addressed
to God, is interspersed with prayers, meditations, and instructions,
many of which today are to be found in the liturgies of
all sects of the Christian Church.
Confessions constitutes perhaps the most moving diary
ever recorded of of a soul's journey to grace. Appearing
midway in Saint Augustine's prodigious body of theological
writings, they stand among the most persuasive works of
the sinner-turned-priest who was to exercise a greater influence
on Christian thought than any of the other Church fathers.
Augustine's Testimony Concerning
In God's searching presence, Augustine undertakes to
plumb the depths of his memory to trace the mysterious
pilgrimage of grace which his life has been--and to
praise God for his constant and omnipotent grace. In
a mood of sustained prayer, he recalls what he can of
his infancy, his learning to speak, and his childhood
experiences in school. He concludes with a paean of
grateful praise to God.
He concentrates here on his sixteenth year, a year of
idleness, lust, and adolescent mischief. The memory
of stealing some pears prompts a deep probing of the
motives and aims of sinful acts. "I became to myself
The story of his student days in Carthage, his discovery
of Cicero's Hortensius, the enkindling of his
philosophical interest, his infatuation with the Manichean
heresy, and his mother's dream which foretold his eventual
return to the true faith and to God.
This is the story of his years among the Manicheans.
It includes the account of his teaching at Tagaste,
his taking a mistress, the attractions of astrology,
the poignant loss of a friend which leads to a searching
analysis of grief and transience. He reports on his
first book, De pulchro et apto, and his introduction
to Aristotle's Categories and other books of
philosophy and theology, which he mastered with great
ease and little profit.
A year of decision. Faustus comes to Carthage and Augustine
is disenchanted in his hope for solid demonstration
of the truth of Manichean doctrine. He decides to flee
from his known troubles at Carthage to troubles yet
unknown at Rome. His experiences at Rome prove disappointing
and he applies for a teaching post at Milan. Here he
meets Ambrose, who confronts him as an impressive witness
for Catholic Christianity and opens out the possibilities
of the allegorical interpretation of Scripture. Augustine
decides to become a Christian catechumen.
Turmoil in the twenties. Monica follows Augustine to
Milan and finds him a catechumen in the Catholic Church.
Both admire Ambrose but Augustine gets no help from
him on his personal problems. Ambition spurs and Alypius
and Nebridius join him in a confused quest for the happy
life. Augustine becomes engaged, dismisses his first
mistress, takes another, and continues his fruitless
search for truth.
The conversion to Neoplatonism. Augustine traces his
growing disenchantment with the Manichean conceptions
of God and evil and the dawning understanding of God's
incorruptibility. But his thought is still bound by
his materialistic notions of reality. He rejects astrology
and turns to the stud of Neoplatonism. There follows
an analysis of the differences between Platonism and
Christianity and a remarkable account of his appropriation
of Plotinian wisdom and his experience of a Plotinian
ecstasy. From this, he comes finally to the diligent
study of the Bible, especially the writings of the apostle
Paul. His pilgrimage is drawing toward its goal, as
he begins to know Jesus Christ and to be drawn to him
in hesitant faith.
Conversion to Christ. Augustine is deeply impressed
by Simplicianus' story of the conversion to Christ of
the famous orator and philosopher, Marius Victorinus.
He is stirred to emulate him, but finds himself still
enchained by his incontinence and preoccupation with
worldly affairs. He is then visited by a court official,
Ponticianus, who tells him and Alypius the stories of
the conversion of Anthony and also of two imperial "secret
service agents." These stories throw him into a violent
turmoil, in which his divided will struggles against
himself. He almost succeeds in making the decision for
continence, but is still held back. Finally, a child's
song, overheard by chance, sends him to the Bible; a
text from Paul resolves the crisis; the conversion is
a fact. Alypius also makes his decision, and the two
inform the rejoicing Monica.
The end of the autobiography. Augustine tells of his
resigning from his professorship and of the days at
Cassiciacum in preparation for baptism. He is baptized
together with Adeodatus and Alypius. Shortly thereafter,
they start back for Africa. Augustine recalls the ecstasy
he and his mother shared in Ostia and then reports her
death and burial and his grief. The book closes with
a moving prayer for the souls of Monica, Patricius,
and all his fellow citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem.
From autobiography to self-analysis. Augustine turns
from his memories of the past to the inner mysteries
of memory itself. In doing so, he reviews his motives
for these written "confessions," and seeks to chart
the path by which men come to God. But this brings him
into the intricate analysis of memory and its relation
to the self and its powers. This done, he explores the
meaning and mode of true prayer. In conclusion, he undertakes
a detailed analysis of appetite and the temptations
to which the flesh and the soul are heirs, and comes
finally to see how necessary and right it was for the
Mediator between God and man to have been the God-Man.
The eternal Creator and the Creation in time. Augustine
ties together his memory of his past life, his present
experience, and his ardent desire to comprehend the
mystery of creation. This leads him to the questions
of the mode and time of creation. He ponders the mode
of creation and shows that it was de nihilo and
involved no alteration in the being of God. He then
considers the question of the beginning of the world
and time and shows that time and creation are cotemporal.
But what is time? To this Augustine devotes a brilliant
analysis of the subjectivity of time and the relation
of all temporal process to the abiding eternity of God.
From this, he prepares to turn to a detailed interpretation
of Gen. 1:1, 2.
mode of creation and the truth of Scripture. Augustine
explores the relation of the visible and formed matter
of heaven and earth to the prior matrix from which it
was formed. This leads to an intricate analysis of "unformed
matter" and the primal "possibility" from which God
created, itself created de nihilo. He finds a
reference to this in the misconstrued Scriptural phrase
"the heaven of heavens." Realizing that his interpretation
of Gen. 1:1, 2, is not self-evidently the only possibility,
Augustine turns to an elaborate discussion of the multiplicity
of perspectives in hermeneutics and, in the course of
this, reviews the various possibilities of true interpretation
of his Scripture text. He emphasizes the importance
of tolerance where there are plural options, and confidence
where basic Christian faith is concerned.
mysteries and allegories of the days of creation. Augustine
undertakes to interpret Gen. 1:2-31 in a mystical and
allegorical fashion so as to exhibit the profundities
of God's power and wisdom and love. He is also interested
in developing his theories of hermeneutics on his favorite
topic: creation. He finds the Trinity in the account
of creation and he ponders the work of the Spirit moving
over the waters. In the firmament he finds the allegory
of Holy Scripture and in the dry land and bitter sea
he finds the division between the people of God and
the conspiracy of the unfaithful. He develops the theme
of man's being made in the image and likeness of God.
He brings his survey to a climax and his confessions
to an end with a meditation on the goodness of all creation
and the promised rest and blessedness of the eternal
Sabbath, on which God, who is eternal rest, "rested."
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