"You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you." (Confessions 1:1)
The book, Confessions, of Augustine is considered one of the literary masterpieces of the Western world - indeed, one of the classics of Western civilisation. In it are profound and moving prayers which reveal the passion of Augustine for life, his thirst for God, his compassion on his neighbour, and, above all, his love for humanity in God.
Although at first glance the Confessions might seem to be a fairly straightforward account of the life and conversion of Augustine, the work, in fact, is quite complex. In this tapestry of a great soul are woven the great concerns of every human soul: the psychological impulses that trap us into being centred on oneself, the ethical conflict between good and evil, the religious quest for the love of God.
The Confessions is not the autobiography of Augustine. It is, instead, a deliberate effort, in the nurture offered by the presence of God, to recall those crucial episodes and events in which he can now see and celebrate the actions of the divine providence and grace (in Latin, gratia). In preparing his Confessions, Augustine had no models before him, for such earlier writings as the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and the autobiographical sections in Hilary of Poitiers and Cyprian of Carthage have only to be compared with the Confessions to see how different they are.
VIDEO: St Augustine's Confessions Published on 5 Apr 2012. The Early Middle Ages, 284--1000 (HIST 210) professor Freedman of Yale University U.S.A. begins the lecture by considering the ways historians read the Confessions. In this work, St. Augustine gives unique insights. (46 minutes)
According to a plan that was clear in the mind and intention of Augustine, in the Confessions he follows the windings of his memory.It recalls the upheavals of his youth and the stages of his disorderly quest for wisdom. Peter Brown, a twentieth-century scholar of Augustine, has stated that Augustine is close to us less in what he believed than in what preoccupied him, especially in the relationship between the inner and outer life of a person. Brown sees Confessions constructed around this reality. Augustine had a great curiosity about life, e.g., the jealousy in an infant, the nature of time, and why he cried while watching theatre. Augustine found amazement in everything, and in his restlessness and seeking was striving to understand it.
The Confessions by Augustine would have to be in the 'top 10' books that every literate Christian should read, yet are greatly different from what a modern newspaper or a popular program on television calls "confessions." The journalism of today gives us stories of narcissism, moral ambiguity and triviality. And they are told in a sensationalist manner. It is easy to be dismayed at the emptiness of this "confessing" of the present era. In contrast, consider the Confessions of Augustine. He finally comes to know that the world does not centre upon himself. His Confessions are in fact a profession of his love for God. This love is constant, rich, even lyrical. When Augustine loves his God, he tells us, he loves "a light of a certain kind, a voice, a perfume, a food, an embrace."
When his soul is bathed in the light that comes from the one true God, "it listens to sound that never dies away." It "breathes fragrance that is not borne away on the wind." His soul "tastes food that is never consumed by the eating." This love frames other loves. The love of God is a love that draws us out of ourselves towards others rather than imprisoning us in a cage of self-enclosed identity. When a person loves only himself or herself, love turns into selfishness. The Confessions are a story of the claims of others on the self. It is also a story of doubt, an account of a human being becoming "a question to myself" and struggling with that question. The understanding that is finally achieved is never perfect, and can never be perfect in this life. The Confessions record a dialogue with God in which the first word comes always from the other side.
There may be a lesson in this for our own personal plans for the reform of self – plans which all too often assume the form of a "project" of our own devising. Augustine uses his own life as an example for the life of all human beings. In his genius, he frequently presents rather difficult ideas of philosophy and theology in deceptively simple language and in examples of familiar life experiences.
"You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you." (Confessions 1:1) His very first line in these Confessions announces his theological world view and his anthropology to all who read his words. His restlessness (spiritual unease) is a motion or dynamism towards God which characterises human life. (Confessions continued on the next page.)AN2137