For Augustine the term "confess" has a twofold range of meaning. On the one hand, it obviously refers to the free acknowledgment before God of the truth that one knows about oneself. For Augustine, this meant the admitting of personal evil.
Yes, his Confessions is the act of confessio (a Latin word for "admitting") that Augustine uses to explain his need to become an orthodox Christian, and then to write about it for all to read. This act is thus the spiritual rooting out of the pride that caused the fall of his soul in the first place. But, at the same time and more importantly, the Latin word, confiteri means to acknowledge to God, the truth one knows about God. To confess, then, also means to praise and glorify God.
It is an exercise in knowing oneself, and showing a true humility in an atmosphere of grace and reconciliation. In every age and every nation of the Western world since the death of Augustine some fifteen hundred years ago, the Confessions has been acknowledged as one of the great literary treasures of the Western world.
The Confessions is easily the book by Augustine that is most read. It reveals that it was not solely by intellectual achievement that Augustine found God and sanctity. It reveals a soul entrapped by bad habits. It shows a soul struggling to free itself from sin while at the same time being stirred by the silent voice of God. The Confessions constitutes perhaps the most moving diary ever recorded of the journey of a soul towards God.
A significant interpretative commentary upon the Confessions is the masterful work in three volumes by Professor James J. O'Donnell. Published in 1992, this impressive work of scholarship has in many ways shown earlier translations of the Confessions to be inaccurate and suspect. His close readings of the text and its problems provides a new starting point for all future Augustinian studies, especially for the Confessions.
The contents of the Confessions
One does not have to read very far to encounter the central theme of the Confessions. It is stated in the opening paragraph: "You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you." (Confessions 1:1) This work expresses three main concerns. One is the frank and detailed acknowledgment by Augustine of his personal sin and the power he came to recognise as the grace of God.
He came to see that this grace (in Latin, gratia) had in fact been present, protective, creative and effective in every moment of his life. Secondly, he also wrote in order to confess his own Christian faith and to clearly repudiate any supposed lingering connections with Manichaeism that remained within him. Thirdly, the Confessions are a sincere prayer of praise and thanks to God. This extraordinary book is a formidable act of memory by which Augustine selectively reveals the personal deeds, events, individual people and ideas that formed the texture of his life.
The first ten books of the work relate the story of the childhood of Augustine in Numidia; his restless youth and early adulthood in Carthage, Rome, and Milan; his continuous struggle with evil; his attempts to find an anchor for his faith among the Manicheans and the Neo-Platonists; the constant efforts of his mother, Saint Monica, to save him from destroying himself; and his ultimate acceptance of the Christian faith at the age of thirty two years. Ever the trained rhetorician, Augustine builds his successive climaxes so skilfully that his acceptance of the Christian faith in Confessions Book Eight is a vivid and credible convergence of influences that are reconstructed and positioned in the pages of the Confessions with great dramatic skill.
The last three books of the Confessions are unrelated to its previous account of the early life of Augustine. They are an allegorical explanation of the Mosaic account of Creation. Throughout the work, the narrative addressed to God. It is interspersed with prayers, meditations, and instructions, many of which today are to be found in the liturgies of many different parts of the Christian Church.
The Confessions contains over a thousand quotes from the Bible. Many are from the Psalms, which often expressed the way that Augustine felt because of his past behaviour. (Confessions continued on the next page.)AN2139