411 AD Confessions

by Augustine of Hippo c. 400
6 September 2009

St. Augustine wrote this book as if he were writing a letter to God, and in consequence is almost startlingly open.  He does not spare himself at all as he walks through the thoughts, feelings, and choices of his life.  And yet through all his harsh criticism of himself, the reader cannot help but feel respect for him.

One of my favorite parts was his seeking to reconcile science and religion, which is obviously still a challenge today.  One of the very influential religions at the time was Manichaeism.  Augustine was a follower of their faith for about nine years, though he had some serious questions about their views, specifically regarding astronomy.  Major scientific discoveries at the time dealt with figuring out the mathematical formulas to chart the course of the earth and moon.  So they could predict, years in advance, when eclipses of the sun or moon would happen and what type of eclipse it would be (full or partial).  Manichaeism held that eclipses happened when the sun or moon was hiding its eyes from evil on earth.  Obviously if the eclipses could be accurately predicted, this does not make much sense.  Augustine, being a highly educated man and having many connections, was able to talk with some of the ‘upper crust’ of Manichaeism.  But each time he started asking his hard questions, his sources would either say they didn’t know (which he admired) or try and win him over with flowery speech (which he did not particularly like).  Being a professor of rhetoric himself, he could tell when people were spouting flowers and not much else.

This book is deeply personal and intimate, though it is far from just an autobiography.  Augustine includes his thoughts and musings on many different subjects, from accountability to priorities in life, from relationships to education.  Here are several of my favorite quotes:

“Your wrath was heavy upon me and I was unaware of it.  I had become deafened by the clanking chain of my mortal condition, the penalty of my pride.  I traveled very far from you, and you did not stop me.  I was tossed about and spilt, scattered and boiled dry in my fornications.  And you were silent.  How slow I was to find my joy!  At that time you said nothing, and I travelled much further away from you into more and more sterile things productive of unhappiness, proud in my self-pity, incapable of rest in my exhaustion.” pg 24-25

“No one who considers his frailty would dare to attribute to his own strength his chastity and innocence, so that he has less cause to love you–as if he had less need of your mercy by which you forgive the sins of those converted to you.  If man is called by you, follows your voice, and has avoided doing those acts which I am recalling and avowing in my life, he should not mock the healing of a sick man by the Physician, whose help has kept him from falling sick, or at least enabled him to be less gravely ill.”  pg 32-33

“Then little by little, Lord, with a most gentle and merciful hand you touched and calmed my heart.”  pg 95

“These were my reflections and you were present to me.  I sighed and you heard me.  I wavered and you steadied me.  I traveled along the broad way of the world, but you did not desert me.”  pg 96

“But I did not possess the strength to keep my vision fixed.  My weakness reasserted itself, and I returned to my customary condition.  I carried with me only a loving memory and a desire for that of which I had the aroma but which I had not yet the capacity to eat.”  pg 127

“And now I had discovered the good pearl.  To buy it I had to sell all that I had; and I hesitated.” pg 134

“Vain trifles and the triviality of the empty-headed, my old loves, held me back.  They tugged at the garment of my flesh and whispered: ‘Are you getting rid of us?’….I was listening to them with much less than half my attention.  They were not frankly confronting me face to face on the road, but as it were whispering behind my back, as if they were furtively tugging at me as I was going away, trying to persuade me to look back.  Nevertheless they held me back.  I hesitated to detatch myself, to be rid of them, to make the leap to where I was being called.  Meanwhile the overwhelming force of habit was saying to me: ‘Do you think you can live without them?’” pg 151

“Why are you relying on yourself, only to find yourself unreliable?  Cast yourself upon him, do not be afraid.  He will not withdraw himself so that you fall.  Make the leap without anxiety; he will catch you and heal you.” pg 151

“Thereby I submitted my neck to your easy yoke and my shoulders to your light burden, O Jesus Christ, my helper and redeemer.  Suddenly it had become sweet to me to be without the sweets of folly.  What I once feared to lose was now a delight to dismiss.  You turned them out and entered to take their place…Already my mind was free of the ‘biting cares’ of place-seeking, of desire for gain, of wallowing in self-indulgence, of scratching the itch of lust.  And now I was talking with you, Lord my God, my radiance, my wealth, and my salvation.”  pg 155

This book was hard to read, but easy at the same time.  I could not put it down, but I had to read it slowly and carefully.  It will go on my ‘favorites’ list, and it will, without a doubt, be required reading for my future high-schoolers.