Augustine's Confessions

This work is just beautiful. If you haven't read it, do. It was a part of my conversion to the Church. Sadly, we got behind and didn't finish it; we only read through book 9, and parts of 10. The same thing happened in another class I took where we read Confessions. Books 10-13 are fascinating, but much neglected.

Here is the beautiful opening to the work:
“Great art thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is thy power, and infinite is thy wisdom.”And man desires to praise thee, for he is a part of thy creation; he bears his mortality about with him and carries the evidence of his sin and the proof that thou dost resist the proud. Still he desires to praise thee, this man who is only a small part of thy creation. Thou hast prompted him, that he should delight to praise thee, for thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee. Grant me, O Lord, to know and understand whether first to invoke thee or to praise thee; whether first to know thee or call upon thee. But who can invoke thee, knowing thee not? For he who knows thee not may invoke thee as another than thou art. It may be that we should invoke thee in order that we may come to know thee. But “how shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? Or how shall they believe without a preacher?” Now, “they shall praise the Lord who seek him,” for “those who seek shall find him,” and, finding him, shall praise him. I will seek thee, O Lord, and call upon thee. I call upon thee, O Lord, in my faith which thou hast given me, which thou hast inspired in me through the humanity of thy Son, and through the ministry of thy preacher.
The whole work opens with a beautiful chapter praising God for his greatness and glory in and of themselves, not just for what he has done for us. It shows us that the work is basically about man's search for God that he might praise him; it is Augustine's attempt to praise God, his Magnificat. Who we are is lessened, if we do not praise God. Confessions defines the fundamental relationship between God and man: that of Creator and creature.

Who shall bring me to rest in thee? Who will send thee into my heart so to overwhelm it that my sins shall be blotted out and I may embrace thee, my only good? What art thou to me? Have mercy that I may speak. What am I to thee that thou shouldst command me to love thee, and if I do it not, art angry and threatenest vast misery? Is it, then, a trifling sorrow not to love thee? It is not so to me. Tell me, by thy mercy, O Lord, my God, what thou art to me. “Say to my soul, I am your salvation.” So speak that I may hear. Behold, the ears of my heart are before thee, O Lord; open them and “say to my soul, I am your salvation.” I will hasten after that voice, and I will lay hold upon thee. Hide not thy face from me. Even if I die, let me see thy face lest I die.

The house of my soul is too narrow for thee to come in to me; let it be enlarged by thee. It is in ruins; do thou restore it. There is much about it which must offend thy eyes; I confess and know it. But who will cleanse it? Or, to whom shall I cry but to thee? “Cleanse thou me from my secret faults,” O Lord, “and keep back thy servant from strange sins.” “I believe, and therefore do I speak.” But thou, O Lord, thou knowest. Have I not confessed my transgressions unto thee, O my God; and hast thou not put away the iniquity of my heart? I do not contend in judgment with thee, who art truth itself; and I would not deceive myself, lest my iniquity lie even to itself. I do not, therefore, contend in judgment with thee, for “if thou, Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?”
Here (book 1, chapter 5) Augustine shows us that the spiritual life is mostly God searching us out, seeking to dwell in us. We're afraid to let the Lord into our heart because if he sees it, he won't love us; but the joke is on us, because he already knows. And he knowing, he already loves.

Much of the Confessions covers the time in Augustine's life when he was caught in sexual sin. This saps our confidence, makes us feel alone, enslaved; we feel that we can't master it. Sin has this effect on you, but it is totally irrational. God will always give us the grace to stay out of mortal sin. And the battle for chastity is won in prayer; we must rely on Christ--it will not be won by white-knuckling it.

Augustine's 'tolle, lege' experience in 8,12 shows how conversion happens. He examined himself and wept; then he recognized the voice of the Lord, speaking through the child, telling him to "take, and read"; and he obeyed it immediately. He had the works of St Paul near him, and read what he first opened to. On doing this, he received a great sense of relief, melting away all his anxiety. Augustine's story shows us that we need the passions to get out of our sinful state; until you experience the movement of compunction (tears for sin--Jesus weeping over you), you can't change.

His experience following his mother's death (9,12) shows us how to deal with death. Without Christian faith and hope, funerals have inconsolable grief; Catholic wakes have a real mixture of joy and sorrow. We need to pray for the deceased, but also have thankfulness to God for their life.

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