It is presumptuous, perhaps, for a layman to talk about Augustine—the saint, the genius, the magnificent writer, “the greatest of the doctors of the Church.” About his theology a layman will be silent: that is a matter for theologians.
But his Confessions speak to Everyman. For here are answers to the questions that every man must ask himself some time or other: the questions, Who am I? What am I here for? What is the meaning of it all?
MIRROR OF THE SOUL
The Confessions are a spiritual autobiography. In some of the greatest prose passages ever written Augustine describes the search of a soul for God. There are only two poles around which his thought centers: God and the soul. Actually there is only one pole: God. Augustine says:
I wish to know God and the soul. Nothing more? Nothing more whatever.
Autobiographies are by nature unique and personal. One feels, however, that the Confessions are not so much the life of another man as they are the story of one’s own soul. Another saint, Theresa of Avila, has said, “When I began to read the Confessions of Saint Augustine I saw myself there described.” Men of every age have felt this. Fulton J. Sheen says:
Long before the world heard of Heidegger and Kierkegaard who wrote philosophy born out of catastrophe, Saint Augustine, with greater crystalline purity and with more diamond like brilliance, wrote in his Confessions the poignant inner experience of the soul catastrophe in a catastrophic world.
A PAEON OF PRAISE
The Confessions read like one long prayer. Confession, repentance, adoration—these are the elements of true prayer. These are the elements with which Augustine deals and combines in a hundred different ways to form one long paeon of praise to God for His manifold mercies. Here are the opening sentences:
Great are Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and Thy wisdom infinite. And Thee would man praise; man, but a particle of Thy creation; man, that bears about him his mortality, the witness of his sin, the witness that Thou resistest the proud: yet would man praise Thee; he, but a particle of Thy creation. Thou awakest us to delight in Thy praise; for Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.
Augustine wrote the Confessions, he says, at the suggestion of friends, that they might share his sorrow over his past sins and give thanks to God for his deliverance.
For the confession of my past sins, … when read and heard, stir up the heart, that it sleep not in despair and say “I cannot,” but awake in the love of Thy mercy and the sweetness of Thy grace, whereby whoso is weak, is strong, when by it he becomes conscious of his own weakness. And the good delight to hear of the past evils of such as are now freed from them, not because they are evils, but because they have been and are not.
Augustine did not delve into the lurid details of his shameful past to give his readers a vicarious thrill, as so many writers do nowadays. Augustine related his experiences in an effort to arouse men to purge themselves of their vicious passions and come to repentance.
To whom tell I this? not to Thee, my God; but before Thee to mine own kind, even to that small portion of mankind as may light upon these writings of mine. And to what purpose? that whosoever reads this, may think out of what depths we are to cry unto Thee.
Augustine speaks to every man because he knew so well man’s defects and weakness, because he had felt on his own pulse man’s frustration and despair.
THE NATURE OF SIN
Augustine searches every experience to try and discover its motive and its meaning. The story of the theft of the pears is not just an account of a boyish prank: it is a probing analysis into the nature of evil.
For I stole that, of which I had enough, and much better. Nor cared I to enjoy what I stole, but joyed in the theft and sin itself.… Now, behold let my heart tell Thee what it sought there, that I should be gratuitously evil, having no temptation to ill, but to the ill itself. It was foul, and I loved it; I loved to perish, I loved mine own fault, not that for which I was faulty, but my fault itself.
Souls in their sins, he says, seek but a sort of likeness of God, in a proud and perverted and slavish freedom.
What then did I love in that theft? and wherein did I even corruptly and pervertedly imitate my Lord? Did I wish even by stealth to do contrary to Thy law, because by power I could not, so that being a prisoner, I might mimic a maimed liberty by doing with impunity things unpermitted me, a darkened likeness of Thy Omnipotency? Behold, Thy servant, fleeing from his Lord, and obtaining a shadow. O rottenness, O monstrousness of life and depth of depth! could I like what I might not, only because I might not?
Here is a thoroughgoing analysis of sin that our contemporary sociologists, with their easy explanations of “environment,” might well read.
Augustine has given an anatomy of grief, in the account of the death of his friend, that is unsurpassed.
At this grief my heart was utterly darkened; and whatever I beheld was death. My native country was a torment to me, and my father’s house a strange unhappiness; and whatever I had shared with him, wanting him, became a distracting torture. Mine eyes sought him everywhere, but he was not granted them; and I hated all places, for that they had not him; nor could they now tell me, “he is coming,” as when he was alive and absent. I became a great riddle to myself, and I asked my soul, why she was so sad, and why she disquieted me sorely: but she knew not what to answer me. And if I said trust in God, she very rightly obeyed me not; because that most dear friend, whom she had lost, was, being man, both truer and better than that phantasm she was bid to trust in.… For I wondered that others, subject to death, did live, since he whom I loved, as if he should never die, was dead; and I wondered yet more that myself, who was to him a second self, could live, he being dead.
THE POWER OF GOD
The Confessions tell a story of frustration and despair that should interest any modern psychologist. Can anyone doubt, after reading the famous tolle lege scene that there is a power outside oneself capable of transforming a man’s life?
I grasped the book, opened it, and in silence read that paragraph on which my eyes first fell—“Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.” No further would I read, nor did I need; for instantly, as the sentence ended—by a light, as it were, of serenity infused into my heart—all the gloom of doubt vanished away.
One sees the rebellion and despair of a passionate man, wallowing in the slough of sensuality, transformed into the ecstasy of a mystic in union with God. There is a complete change of motive and spirit, powerful enough to enable a man to break with his evil habits and embark upon a new life.
Though his mother was dearest of all to him, Augustine’s account of his grief at her death is quite different from the description of his grief for his friend which he described earlier. He sorrowed, and sorrowed deeply, but now it was not as those “which have no hope.”
And behold, the corpse was carried to the burial; we went and returned without tears … yet was I the whole day in secret heavily sad, and with troubled mind prayed Thee, as I could, to heal my sorrow, yet Thou didst not; impressing, I believe upon my memory, by this one instance, how strong is the bond of all habit, even upon a soul, which now feeds upon no deceiving Word.… And then by little and little I recovered my former thoughts of Thy handmaid, her holy conversation towards Thee, her holy tenderness and observance toward us, whereof I was suddenly deprived: and I was minded to weep in Thy sight, for her and for myself, in her behalf and in my own. And I gave way to the tears which I before restrained, to overflow as much as they desired; reposing my heart upon them; and it found rest in them, for it was in Thy ears, not in those of man, who would have scornfully interpreted my weeping.
Augustine found consolation for even his deepest grief.
The whole purpose of the Confessions is to reveal the answer, to disclose the truth that Augustine found. It was not enough for Augustine simply to search. “Augustine does not, as no rational being should, glorify the search above the goal,” says Harold Gardiner. “Our life is not a treadmill, but a journey, and we should be sometimes arriving,” Henry Zylstra wrote (Testament of Vision, Eerdmans, 1958). Augustine “arrived.” He says:
Seek for yourself, O man; search for your true self. He who seeks shall find—but, marvel and joy, he will not find himself, but he will find God, or, if he find himself, he will find himself in God.
Augustine’s message, says Harold Gardiner, is this:
If man is truly to find himself, he must penetrate to his self’s center. There he will find, strangely yet inevitably, that it is not he who will be found, but He Who is the center of all life and love, God.
Augustine sought and found: he knocked and the door was opened. It was no easy search. The road was tortuous and long. Like Job who exclaimed “Oh that I knew where I might find him!” Augustine cried:
Oh! that I might repose on Thee! Oh, that Thou wouldst enter into my heart, and inebriate it, that I may forget my ills, and embrace Thee, my sole good! What art Thou to me? In Thy pity, teach me to utter it. Or what am I to Thee that Thou demandest my love, and, if I give it not, art wroth with me, and threatenest me with grievous woes? Is it then a slight woe to love Thee not? Oh! for Thy mercies’ sake, tell me, O Lord my God, what Thou art unto me. Say unto my soul, I am thy salvation. So speak, that I may hear. Behold, Lord, my heart is before Thee; open Thou the ears thereof, and say unto my soul, I am thy salvation. After this voice let me haste, and take hold on Thee. Hide not Thy face from me. Let me die—lest I die—only let me see Thy face.
Augustine found God. And when he found God, he found himself. Then he found his life’s work. Then he found peace. If, as he says, he found God “too late,” he knew and loved him so well that he more than made up for the lateness.
Too late loved I Thee, O Thou Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! too late I loved Thee! And Behold, Thou wert within, and I abroad, and there I searched for Thee; deformed I, plunging amid those fair forms which Thou hadst made, Thou wert with me, but I was not with Thee. Things held me far from Thee, which, unless they were in Thee, were not at all. Thou callest, and shoutest and burstest my deafness. Thou flashedst, shonest and scatteredst my blindness. Thou did touch me, and I burned for Thy peace.
This is magnificent prose. It has the ring of absolute sincerity. One is certain that Augustine had personal acquaintance with divine grace and that he experienced the presence of God. He knew grace experientially; he proved it upon his pulses.
What was this God whom he loved to Augustine?
But what do I love, when I love Thee? not beauty of bodies, nor the fair harmony of time, nor the brightness of the light, so gladsome to our eyes, nor sweet melodies of varied songs, nor the fragrant smell of flowers, and ointments, and spices, not manna and honey, not limbs acceptable to embracements of flesh. None of these I love, when I love my God; and yet I love a kind of light, and melody, and fragrance, and meat, and embracement when I love my God, the light, melody, fragrance, meat, embracement of my inner man: where there shineth unto my soul what space cannot contain, and there soundeth what time beareth not away, and there smelleth what breathing disperseth not, and there tasteth what eating diminisheth not, and there clingeth what satiety divorceth not. This is it which I love when I love my God.
This is Augustine’s message to Everyman: Seek this God, O man, and you shall find rest for your troubled soul, He speaks to every man,
… for Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless until it repose in Thee.
Reading the Confessions I felt that Leon Bloy was right when he said, “The only tragedy in all the world is the tragedy of not being a saint.”
Jacob J. Vellenga served on the National Board of Administration of the United Presbyterian Church from 1948–54. Since 1958 he has served the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as Associate Executive. He holds the A.B. degree from Monmouth College, the B.D. from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and D.D. from Monmouth College, Illinois.
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