The OF Blog: Leatherbound Classics: St. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine

Monday, February 21, 2011

Leatherbound Classics: St. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine

Great art Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and of Thy wisdom there is no end.  And man, being a part of Thy creation, desires to praise Thee, - man, who bears about with him his mortality, the witness of his sin, even the witness that Thou 'resistest the proud,' - yet man, this part of Thy creation, desires to praise Thee.  Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.  Lord, teach me to know and understand which of these should be first, to call on Thee, or to praise Thee; and likewise to know Thee, or to call upon Thee.  But who is there that calls upon Thee without knowing Thee?  For he that knows Thee may not call upon Thee as other than Thou art.  Or perhaps we call on Thee that we may know Thee.  But how shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed?  or how shall they believe without a preacher?  And those who seek the Lord shall praise Him.  For those who seek shall find Him, and those who find Him shall praise him.  Let me seek Thee, Lord, in calling on Thee, and call on Thee in believing in Thee; for Thou hast been preached unto us.  O Lord, my faith calls on Thee, - that faith which Thou hast imparted to me, which Thou hast breathed into me through the incarnation of Thy Son, through the ministry of Thy preacher.

For most people, the word "confession" contains the connotation of a criminal act being admitted to by the criminal responsible for such an act.  There is certainly that element present in the fifth century The Confessions of St. Augustine, but there is a deeper, more spiritual aspect to this word which better suits what St. Augustine accomplishes in this work.  Practicing Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and some Oriental Orthodox are quite familiar with the theological confession; Catholics are enjoined to make at least one Confession a year.  These religious Confessions are much more than an admission of culpability, although this certain lies at the core of this Sacrament.  Rather, Confessions are also professions of faith, faith in the justice as well as the mercy of a divine, omnipotent God.  They are also means by which miscreant humans are reconciled with God through his mercy.  St. Augustine's Confessions is more readily understood when such concepts are kept in mind.

As befits the title, The Confessions of St. Augustine is a combination of his admission of sinning through his own faults, in both words and deeds, and his later reconciliation with God and how this reconciliation has impacted his life and the Western Church whose direction he largely changed with treatises such as The City of God.  St. Augustine's Confessions are of great value to readers for they reveal not just the religious journey and detours taken during his youth, but also his conceptions of sin, particularly Mortal Sin (until his time not considered to be an essential part of Christian doctrine), and the ways humans sought to praise God even as they rejected and scorned him.

The Confessions of St. Augustine is divided into four books in this Easton Press edition.  Roughly chronological in order, they trace his development from a youth in the Roman province of Numidia through his dalliance with the Manichean heresy to his later conversion to orthodox Christianity by the time he was 33, around 387 AD.  It is a mixture of personal confessions, such as his wanton theft and waste of pears from a local orchard, and religious thought, expounding upon the introductory paragraph quoted above.  It is this combination of personal reflection and self-condemnation and religious philosophy which makes this book so fascinating to consider.

However, The Confessions of St. Augustine is not an easy read.  Although this difficulty is compounded whenever older, more ornate translations such as this 19th century translation I quoted above from the Easton Press edition are used, one needs at least some grounding in Catholic theology to grasp the fullness of his arguments presented throughout this book.  St. Augustine's frequent self-abasement can be confusing at times, especially if these moments are not considered as being but one side of the coin of reconciliation with the Triune God, but if one focuses carefully and neither ignores nor concentrates overmuch on both the confessional and the praising aspects of this book, she might be rewarded greatly for this effort.  "Rewarding" perhaps is the best adjective I can think of to describe this work; I certainly would not use "enjoyable," or at least not in the sense that most would associate with that word.  The Confessions of St. Augustine is not a work that should be read casually, but rather is a tome whose text should be considered and whose merits should be praised or dismissed after careful thought.  For those readers who are willing to do this, I would recommend this crowning achievement in late Patristic Christian thought.


Gerard said...

I started this book a while ago, but treating it as a novel was not a good ground for finishing.

I might try it again in the period of Lent this year (together with Thomas á Kempis and Ratzinger's Jesus of Nazareth)

Hélène said...

Difficult, yes, but beautiful language. I gave it a try with the latin/french edition to get the "taste" of the text.

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