I finished reading Augustine’s Confessions this past week. A couple months ago, I saw it on a list of books that every undergrad ought to read, and realized that my schooling had never required the book, thus I’d never read it. I wanted to compose some thoughts on the book sooner, but extensive edits on my current novel pushed any chance to write on the book (in a coherent form — I’ve already journaled in a rather incoherent form) to today.
First, if you haven’t read Confessions, stop reading this blog and go read one of the enduring works of Western Literature.
For those of you who either disregarded my advice or have read Confessions, I begin with the universal: the book has had a profound influence on our culture and literature as anything short of the Bible itself. Petrarch — the Italian poet who helped start the Renaissance — picked up the book and read:
Men go forth to marvel at the heights of the mountains and the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, the vastness of the ocean, the orbits of the stars, and yet they neglect to marvel at themselves. 10.8.15
Petrarch turned his eye upon himself and began dripping with literature. Combine that with Italy’s position between East (Byzantine) and West, and new expressions of creativity sprung forth. Humanity became a subject to examine, to study.
Beyond this, those interested in the human condition continued to study Augustine. Augustine’s “emphasis on subjectivity and one’s personal relationship with God inspired Martin Luther and John Calvin” (Mark Vessey). The book stands as a bridge between the ancient epic poem and modern self reflection.
Yet, closer than universally, I was affected personally. Augustine’s honest and unblinking eye first gave significance and voice to my own life. His account of the pear tree shows the significance of our smallest actions, and that there is no middle ground with God: we either move toward the Almighty or away. Throughout, his reflective nature gives voice to the myriad ways that we fall short of God, of the mark of holiness our Creator has set for us:
Let me devote myself solely to the search for truth. This life is unhappy, death uncertain…Why, therefore, do I delay in abandoning my hopes of this world and giving myself wholly to seek after goad and the blessed life? But wait a moment. This life also is pleasant, and it has a sweetness of its own…See now, it is important to gain some post of honor. 6.11.19
How often we do this — how often I do this — abandon the search for Truth to soak in the pleasantness and honor of this life. How often we build storage barns in a land that is not ours. Through the first eight books, as Augustine struggles against himself, I saw in his writing myself again and again: the pride and stubbornness that comes from deep within. I saw my cowardice, my desire to take the comfortable course.
Through this I came to understand God in a new perspective. By nature, I am a bit suspecting of Calvinist doctrine and tend a bit more toward what I would call a spiritual humanism: an odd articulation of my need followed by a redoubling of my own efforts. I think many of us are in this place. Augustine, with his great emphasis on God’s work, on God’s work, on God’s work, offers freedom. I saw more clearly the need to rely on God, to pray about and bring my faults to the Creator, and to rely on God to change me more than I can change myself. While I could articulate this — I could have articulated it years ago — I saw it more clearly in Augustine due to his writing (due also, no doubt, to a certain readiness in my self and my station) than I have in many, many years.
And here is part of Augustine’s beauty. Not only does he turn his eye upon the soul — an entirely new literary form in the Roman world — but he brings a flexible and strong theology. While constantly relying on God, while constantly giving credit to God, while constantly glorifying God, he offers various interpretations on the book of Genesis and exhorts Christ followers to heed the commands that Christ actually gave us: Love God and love others. No other debate regarding interpretations can rise above this first command, as has so often happened. In doing so, Augustine values various ways of interpreting the text (especially Genesis 1), while also holding tightly to the central beliefs of Christianity.
Above all, take a look (or a second look) at Augustine. His truthful account ought to act as both a theological framework and connection with the saints before us. I close with an anecdote that I shared with the teaching staff where I work: Augustine wanted to leave Carthage (where he was teaching) because too many students burst into the room and interrupted the teacher with whatever happened to be on their minds. How many times we have wondered about how to control such unruly students, and how often we have felt isolated in our battles. Yet, here is Augustine, complaining about the same issues. The more things change, the more people do not. Find your own thoughts in the thoughts and stories of a true saint.