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Why you should read St Augustine’s Confessions this year

Augustine

Students still find the work deeply personal and contemporary because Augustine speaks from heart to heart

The eminent historian Peter Brown notes that in the fourth century there were many elite men writing “another kind of letter” about their lives. Men who might become Manichaeans, or Skeptics, or Stoics, or Platonists were called “men of the spirit,” elite Roman men who would have otherwise enjoyed stable imperial careers were now traversing a cultural period of great upheaval and change.

Christianity had only been a licit religio for 84 years when Augustine started writing his Confessions in 397 A.D. It had only been three decades since Emperor Julian the Apostate had restored animal sacrifices in the pagan temples, and revoked all the privileges that Constantine had bestowed upon the Catholic Church. It is a century like our own, caught between Christian and pagan worlds, and there are many men who documented their own search for higher ground. Yet none of these letters written in pursuit of happiness and perfection of life in a tumultuous world match St Augustine’s Confessions.

I am teaching the whole work this semester, and I am struck by the question of why Augustine’s Confessions tower above us still. The work still remains required reading at Columbia University. Even if they too are caught between pagan and Christian worlds, students still find the work is deeply personal and contemporary. Perhaps it is because Augustine speaks from the heart to the heart. I tend to think that it’s the way that he joins the heart to sacrifice in a way that rings true. He sometimes writes of “the sacrifice of my confessions,” as he does in the fifth book, or he’ll refer to the work as his “sacrificial confession,” as he does in book twelve.

Augustine lives in a world which is perfectly familiar with seeing animal sacrifices made at temple. It is a world suffused with sacrifice. The memory of the martyrs sits adjacent to temples recently destroyed by Emperor Theodosius. And so Augustine authors a confession which has a sacrificial depth grammar, and so resonates not simply as a subjective confession of the heart, but as itself a sacrifice to behold.

From the outset, Augustine walks the streets of Babylon stealing pears, and senses the disintegrating power of sin. Yet he also confesses that the heart is restless until it rests in God who is the unchangeable cause of the goodness of all that exists. And Augustine calls both of these confessions “sacrifices.”

We might appreciate why he thinks about confession of sin as a sacrifice. How many dread the thought of facing their sins, recounting them to another? Yet to pagans it must have been both a familiar and a strange concept all at once. Familiar in that contact with what was sacred required sacrifice, strange in that the sacrifice was not something material but something immaterial, a “sacrifice of the heart.” As he recounts the way in which the stream of all his friendships were clouded by base desires and boundless vanity in the early books, he asks “where does it all flow?” Is there a kind of polluted altar upon which he was offering all his evil deeds in sacrifice? Recounting the way his sins were disintegrating his life leads him to an extraordinary image. He imagines his evil deeds as sacrifices offered to demons dragging him down into the depths of the abyss. Reflecting upon the Manichaean religion to which he was bound for nine years, he confesses that he was deceived, his heart caught up into the liturgy of pride, “puffed up with the novelty of my heresy.” And Monnica wept for her son.

It may shock us to think of our sins as food for the demons. But this is precisely how Augustine thinks about the question of “where it all flows.” Our sins are part of a liturgy of pride that puffs us up with error, and drags us down into perversion. He insists that he wants to turn back, but does not know the way. The fifth book begins by begging God, “accept the sacrifice of my confessions.” The spell of Manichaeism, he thinks, was loosened because of his mother’s tears. In almost Marian terms, he sees in her intercessions a kind of vicarious sacrifice, “the sacrifice of her heart’s blood…offered to you day after day, night after night, for my welfare.” Augustine is quick to add that her sacrifice “was efficacious not because she made such an offering, but because you [Lord] were present.” Twice a day, morning and evening, Monnica brought her sacrifice of tears to the sacrament of the altar.

Augustine becomes Imperial Rhetor in Milan in 384 A.D. and immediately comes under the influence of the great Bishop Ambrose whom he finds intellectually serious, compelling, kind, and holy. Monnica joins him in Milan the next year. And Augustine will speak of this period as a time in which error was being poured out. He reads the Platonists during this period and sees clearly that they teach what is true about the Eternal Word of God. He makes the Platonic ascent, transcending his own mind, and glimpses the One, saying that he had “caught the fragrance but could not feast.” The Platonists lack one thing, he decides: the Word made Flesh whose sacrifice alone can unite them to God eternally. Something is operating upon Augustine in the outer courts of the Church in Milan, and by the end of the seventh book he tells the reader about a new sacrifice: “the sacrifice of an anguished spirit offered to [God] from a contrite and humbled heart.” He says that “the cup of ransom” strikes deep roots within him.

While the eighth book begins with “the sacrifice of praise” to God for moving his heart, Augustine’s struggle remains one of pride. He wants to be the mover of his own conversion. “I was saying to myself: Now is the moment, let it be now.” Turn! In a much-neglected passage, he records a kind of contemplative vision of “Continence” who appears to him as “the fruitful mother of children conceived in joy from you her Bridegroom.” He writes that Lady Continence smiled at him with the most challenging smile: “Why try to stand by yourself, only to lose your footing? Cast yourself on him and not be afraid: he will not step back and let you fall. Cast yourself upon him trustfully, he will support and heal you.” It’s a striking, Marian vision which immediately precedes his conversion as the grace which is always running ahead of us, preparing our will, not to convert ourselves, but to be converted. This very Marian image of Continence implores him “to close your ears against those unclean parts of you,” and he begins to weep uncontrollably. Rivers of tears flow from his eyes, and he calls them “an acceptable sacrifice.”

It’s under the mantle of this vision of Continence that Augustine suddenly hears a child singing “tolle lege.” He opens the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans and reads that he should make no provisions for the flesh but rather “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Unite your life to His life, your will to His will, your memory to His memory, offer your sacrifice upon the altar of His perfect sacrifice. Augustine writes, “the light of certainty flooded my heart and all dark shades of doubt fled away.” He had wanted to convert himself, but concluded that the only thing he could do was to fall prostrate before God. In this, Augustine concluded before God, “You had converted me to yourself.”

The ninth book begins with “the sacrifice of praise,” as he enters the Ambrosian basilica to be baptised at Easter in 387 A.D. Singing hymns, experiencing a miraculous healing, touching the relics of martyrs, breathing in the fragrance of the Eucharist, he knows that the altar of his heart has been turned around by God. He knows that it is only God who can draw together all the scattered and fragmented elements of our lives, but we must offer all of ourselves to be forged in the fires of divine charity. “O Love, ever burning, never extinguished, O Charity, my God, set me on fire!”

And by the end of the tenth book, he is writing as the Bishop of Hippo: “I am mindful of my ransom. I eat it, I drink it, I dispense it to others, and as a poor man I long to be filled with it.” This is the mendicant, the beggar, the thief’s confession. It is a sacrificial confession. He concludes what must be the most intensely personal autobiographical confession in history not with himself, but with the purifying and real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of the altar.

As we start a new year, I recommend reading Augustine’s Confessions. There are many good translations, but I must commend the Benedictine Sr. Maria Boulding whose New City Press translation is exquisitely attentive to the sacrificial dimensions of Augustine’s theology. By seeing the whole work in terms of sacrifice, we are also more inclined to see our own lives this way too. For we remember who we really are not online, but by offering ourselves at the altar of the Lord.