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The confessions of Saint Augustine is an autobiography and one of the most innovative and influential spirituality books. It was written when Saint Augustine was in his early forties and his first years as a bishop. He taps from his life’s experiences; someone like Saul (Saint Paul) repents from his sinful life to echo the Greatness of God, who remains merciful even to people like him.
One thing that sets St. Augustine apart is that he was never so saintly. This down to earth character may explain why his confessions are still popular and resonate with our everyday life. The book presents the picture of a man determined to speak out his mind and not just create some kind of perception of him.
He is not afraid to proclaim his full belief in God. Augustine says that no one can tell him the truth except God. He goes on to acknowledge without any regrets that when he was still young, his mind was corrupt.
The North African bishop combines spiritual fervor and self-analysis to write one of the most interesting books to read. He recounts his past sins and the process of embracing Christianity. This is a strategy that makes the book so compelling, 16 centuries since it was written.
Augustine’s Confessions is a diverse blend of autobiography, philosophy, theology, and critical exegesis of the Christian Bible. The first nine books (or chapters) of the work trace the story of Augustine’s life, from his birth (354 A.D.) up to the events that took place just after his conversion to Catholicism (386 A.D.). Augustine treats this autobiography as much more than an opportunity to recount his life, however, and there is hardly an event mentioned that does not have an accompanying religious or philosophical explication. The events that Augustine chooses to recount are selected mainly with a view to these larger issues.
Born and raised in Thagaste, in eastern Algeria (then part of the Roman empire), Augustine enters a social world that he now sees as sinful to the point of utter folly. Grade school teaches questionable pursuits with misguided aims, and everywhere boys like Augustine are trained to devote themselves to transient, material pursuits rather than to the pursuit of God. As a student in Thagaste and then Carthage, Augustine runs amok in sexual adventures and false philosophies (most notably Manicheism). He sees this period of his life primarily as a lesson in how immersion in the material world is its punishment of disorder, confusion, and grief.
The young Augustine does, however, catch a passion for the pursuit of Philosophical truth, learning the doctrines of Manicheism, skepticism, and Neoplatonism. This last philosophy will have a profound influence on him– the Confessions are perhaps the most masterful expression of his intricate fusion of Catholic theology with Neoplatonic ideas.
Moving back to Thagaste, then back to Carthage again, and on to Rome and Milan, Augustine continues to wrestle with his doubts about what he has learned and with his budding interest in Catholicism, the faith of his mother, Monica. He also continues to pursue his career as a teacher of rhetoric (an occupation he later frowns upon as the salesmanship of empty words) and his habits of indulgence in sex and other pleasures of the sensual world. Things change in Milan, where Augustine finally decides that Catholicism holds the only real truth. Convinced of this but lacking the will to leap into a fully devoted life (including baptism and sexual abstinence), Augustine has a famous conversion experience in his Milan garden and becomes a devoted and chaste Catholic.
The last four Books of the Confessions depart from autobiography altogether, focusing directly on religious and philosophical issues of memory (Book X), time and eternity (Book XI), and the interpretation of the Book of Genesis (Books XII and XIII). Despite this apparent sudden shift in content, however, the Confessions are remarkably coherent as a whole; in making his autobiography a profoundly reflective one, Augustine has already introduced many of the same ideas and themes that receive a direct treatment in the last four Books. The unifying theme that emerges throughout the entire work is that of redemption: Augustine sees his painful process of returning to God as an instance of the return of the entire creation to God.
The form of the work corresponds closely to its aim and its content; the work is about the return of creation to God. It aims to inspire others to actively seek this return, and it takes the highly original form of a direct address to God from one being in his creation. In this context, it is also noteworthy that, for Augustine, “confession” carried the dual meanings of an admission of guilt and an act of praise.
The greatness of God, the consequences of idleness, the pursuit for wisdom, and lust are some of the themes that literary critics have mainstreamed from St Augustine’s Confession.
Greatness of God
“Great art Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; Great is Thy power, and Thy wisdom infinite.” These are the starting remarks of the first book. Quoted directly from Psalms 145:3, they demonstrate the author’s belief and amusement in God’s power. What we see is that God is great in that He is everywhere all the time and that He even surpasses the limitations of His creation. There is nothing that He is unable to do.
Saint Augustine acknowledges the fact that all creatures depend on God. They are unable to go far away from Him; neither are they able to prevent Him from executing what He has set out to perform.
The book remains adamant that we are not able to go where God is not and that we cannot live even for a moment unless God gives us life. At the time of its writing, the ideals of atheism had not begun. This had to wait until the 16th century to happen. Thus, St. Augustine wrote the book completely with no knowledge that there will come a time when humanity will doubt the existence of God. Somewhere, his writings still call upon us to reject anything that says God does not exist. If St. Augustine’s words are anything to go by, we stand to lose when we fail to appreciate God’s greatness and might.
Ills of idleness – Theft
Can you believe that Saint Augustine was once a thief? Well, he tells it all in the second book. In this book, the author discusses the evils of society, which can easily drive one into doing that which they never thought of.
Augustine bitterly reflects on his wicked past so that God may have mercy on him. “For love of Thy love I do it; reviewing my most wicked ways in the very bitterness of my remembrance, that Thou mayest grow sweet unto me.” He talks of how God’s wrath had surrounded him, yet he was not aware of it. He continued to stray from God and dived deeper into the unholy desires as he boiled over his fornications. These are not the kinds of confessions that you would expect a saint to make, but he does nonetheless.
The author traces the root of his unpleasant past to the fact that he had an idle life back then. He says that in his sixteenth year, he resorted to live with his parents and did not care about school. This was his season of idleness and one which was motivated by his wealthy parents. “The briers of unclean desires grew rank over my head, and there was no hand to root them out.”
As it is always said, an idle mind is the root of all evils. Probably, if St. Augustine had been fully engaged with studies or something else, he would never have a reason to participate in the ills that he got involved in. He even acknowledges that the Law has strict punishment for theft and that this law is written in the hearts of men.
Humanity’s pursuit of wisdom
St. Augustine’s love for reading could not permit him to finish his writings without finding time to reflect on the power of studying and an endless pursuit of wisdom. The love for wisdom is demonstrated when you get information and turn it to knowledge. According to Aristotle, philosophy gives you the perfect chance to exploit a particular kind of wisdom. In Greek, three different languages can be used to understand wisdom. (1) Technical wisdom which centers on know-how. (2) Practical wisdom is focused on living life well. (3) The wisdom that brings people closer to divine rationality. This kind of wisdom is all about the ethics or function of a state.
The Bishop of Hippo has a completely different perspective on wisdom compared to Aristotle’s. He holds that in order to find wisdom, you must, first of all, have the fear of God, which would motivate us to seek the knowledge of His will. To a greater extent, this position holds because one cannot find wisdom unless they are humble. Augustine makes sure that we understand it is the holy fear which would thrust us towards the attainment of humanity’s biggest desire.
He also talks of piety as a key element in the journey towards becoming wise. By piety or faithfulness, the author essentially says that we ought to properly honor and respect God. The Bible is living and exposes our sins. Our response to the Word of God should be one that is characterized by the willingness to let it change our lives.
Augustine, known to avidly quote the Bible, tops his insistence on the need for humanity to seek wisdom by reflecting on the Psalmist’s words. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” He asserts that the person who eventually achieves this goal is on the right path to experiencing peace and tranquility.
Lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride
Lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride are the three most common sins that humans commit most of the time. Quoting from 1 John 2:16, Augustine acknowledges that every man in the world has been tempted by any of these sins. This is quite a powerful confession coming from a man held in high regard by society. It is vital that we understand these three areas of temptation and the sin committed preceded by any of the temptations.
The lust of the flesh is the desire to get physical satisfaction from the sinful activity. That is, one’s aim here is to do something that satisfies the flesh. This kind of temptation could come in various forms, including gossip, sexual sins, drug use, physical violence, and more. Apostle Paul gives a better breakdown of this in Galatians 5:19-21.
The lust of the eyes is all about desiring to look upon things that we ought not to look at. Simply stated, it is about looking at something for pleasure despite clear instructions from God that we should not look at these things. St. Augustine writes “covetousness of more, by loving more our own private good than Thee.”
The confessions of St. Augustine, which combines a series of ten books, encourages one to reflect upon his or her life and pursuit wisdom. By the time you come towards the end of the tenth book, you will have encountered some intriguing suggestions. A quick take away from this book is humanity’s desire to pursue wisdom. You will find the tips that the author shares to achieve this to be quite helpful.
In an era where we are quick to judge, Augustine’s Confessions provide us with the chance to refresh and ask the deeper questions touching on human nature. As you read this book, you will need regular pauses and reflect upon the brilliant questions that Augustine asks. As you read Augustine’s confessions, you will be filled with conviction, encouragement, and hope.