Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Book I, Additional Comments

Even though I've gone on and read the first half of Book II, I find myself thinking about, ruminating over and re-reading sections of Book I. The Confessions are about the love of God. It is about God's love for Augustine and Augustine's love in return. It is the story of Augustine's relationship with God. His confession of of sin is a lamentation and a repentence for all of the times he failed to love. Remember, one of the catechetical answers to the question, "What is sin?" is that it is a failure to love. When Augustine talks about fornicating against God, it is a very bracing statement. When he uses the term fornication as a metaphor for other sins, it is even more powerful language. How many of us, in examination of conscience or repentence think of ourselves as fornication against God? How many of us, in examination of conscience, feel or think of ouselves as having betrayed God? In Book II, Augustine says of himself when he was 16, "...I was unable to distinguish between the clear calm of love and the swirling mists of lust." By extension, the same applies to all of our drives, impulses, neurotic behavior, anger, rage, greed and so forth.

As difficult as it can be to get one's mind completely around the Confessions intellectually, I find myself drawn into the text.

"When I pray to Him I call Him into myself." (Book I, Chapter 2)

When I prayed this Psalm this morning, it was so full of meaning:

I will praise you. O Lord, will all my heart;
I will tell of all your wonders.
I will be glad and rejoice in you;
I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.

-Psalm 9.1-2

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Book I, Concluding Comments

Augustine's passionate love, awe, and respect for God is clear. His attitude and relationship to God are profoundly reverential. Augustine also expresses a "metaphysics" of God which is an integral part of his relationship to Him. However, I personally feel that in his expression of his love of God above all else, there are some overtones of arrogance and contempt towards humankind. For some readers that are of a certain dispostion, the attitude Augustine had toward himself as a child and of himself as a sinner, as well as his negative attitudes towards others (some teachers, for example), by extension, could lead to an attitude of condemnation.

From prior readings of the Confessions, although it seems that he explicitly rejected certain Manichaean beliefs, I believe that are were some Manichaean beliefs, attitudes and assumptions that he carried into his Christian writings.

I've been deliberately hard on Augustine for his attitudes towards women and of himself as a child. Augustine had been a Manichaean hearer/auditor for nine years prior to his conversion. Manichaeism considered all matter, but especially flesh, to be an abomination. All flesh was considered evil if it was begotten by copulation. Women were considered forces of evil, binding men to the flesh.

However, in a review of the second edition of Peter Brown’s biography of Augustine, in the magazine First Things, Robert Louis Wilken says:

"And Brown reminds modern interpreters, particularly on the matter of sexuality, that Augustine was the defender of marriage against the extreme asceticism of his contemporaries. “We must never read Augustine as if he were contemporary with ourselves.” He was the contemporary of Jerome and Gregory of Nyssa and Ambrose, and Christian tradition would have taken a quite different direction, I am sure, if Augustine did not stand between us and them. His is a voice of moderation. As Brown notes, “He wished for a greater recognition of the physical, sexual components of human nature, and was prepared to defend their legitimate expression (if in a disciplined manner) in marriage.”

Augustine's attitudes towards himself as a child are certainly not that of Jesus's towards children. But remember Augustine only speaks of himself here. I will concede that he has the right to be as hard on himself as he wants. In the revised edition of Peter Brown's biography, at the end of the original text, there are a number of letters appended, which were written by Augustine. These letters were only discovered since the first edition was written. In one of the letters, I was very touched by an incident where Augustine, by then an aged Bishop, tried to seek the freedom of a 12 year old girl that had been taken into slavery.

Augustine wrote The Confessions near the beginning of his very long career as a Christian. Bare in mind, that when he wrote it, he was very much a "young turk" in the leadership of the church, in the sphere of religion, and in the intellectual world of the Roman Empire. In the course of his career some of his ideas hardened and others softened within him. Augustine had been known by many in the communities of North Africa, Rome and Milan, from prior to his conversion. He was known as a teacher of rhetoric to the sons of the nobility, but he had also been well known as a Manichaean, and I'm sure for the "whoring" and bachanalia of his student days in Carthage. His purpose in writing The Confessions was to make a statement of renunciation to the world for his past.

Book I, Chap. 14-20

Augustine continues with the description of his boyhood, the sins of his boyhood,
and praising God. In the final chapter, we get a sense of the Augustinian emphasis on the love of God over love of one another. Of course, in Christianity, love of God must come first. What kind of religon would it be if love of humankind came first? It's just that with statements of the Augustinian love of God to the exclusion of all else, at times, it seems to be stated with hostility towards the else.

Augustine hated Greek literature, which he was forced to study. He concludes that free curiosity is a more powerful aid to the learning of languages than a forced discipline. He continues to talk of the Greek stories of the gods and of the lust and adultery contained within them. Though Augustine considers these stories and actions sinful, he acknowleges that he did learn some good from his studies in teh form of vocabulary, grammar, and I would assume, critical thinking skills. After a while, Augustine is considered a promising student, though he was still potentially liable for beatings if he did poorly. Augustine praises God for his intelligence, but confesses to devoting too much time to stupidities. Augustine considers himself as having been cast out into a foul abyss. He says that in God's eyes he was disgusting. He confesses to petty thievery, cheating, gluttony and pride.

He seems to sum up his childhood sinning as:

"For my sin was in this--that I looked for pleasures, exaltations, truths not in God Himself but in his creatures (myself and the rest), and so I fell straight into sorrows, confusions, and mistakes. I thank you my sweetness and my glory and my confidence, my God, I thank you for your gifts."

Throught the last section Augustine praises God, praises him for His gifts, and prays that they continue and be perfected in him. He finished Book I with, "...for my very being is your gift."

If only every Christian would know that the being of each is a gift from God. If only every Christian would consciously and actively know that every human being is a gift of God, from the moment of conception until death.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Book I, Chapter 13

Here Augustine mentions fornication for the first time. From prior readings, I know that he mentions fornication throughout and often uses fornication as a (powerfull) metaphor for other sins. Given the curent context and approximate age of Augustine, it comes up unexpectedly in the text at this point. But I guess it relates to the Aeneas/Dido example.

(addressing God...)
"You I did not love. Against you I committed fornication, and in my fornication I heard all around me the words: Well done! Well done! For the love of this world is fornication against thee and when one hears these words: "Well done! Well done!" they have the effect of making one ashamed not to be that sort of person."

He starts off meaning fornication, literally, but in his statement, "For the love of this world is fornication against thee," it seems like he might be approaching any love of this world as being comparable to fornication. I wonder.

This chapter contains a number of contrasts. Earthly life and death. Spiritual life and death. Earthly love and love of the Divine. Augustine hates learning Greek but is fond of Latin. Usefull studies and Empty studies. Dido dies for love and leaves the audience in tears; yet, Augustine with dry eyes was dying far away from God. "What indeed can be more pitiful than a wretch with no pity for himself, weeping at the death of Dido, which was caused by love for Aeneas, and not weeping at his own death, caused by lack of love for you, God, light of my heart, bread of the inner mouth of my soul, strength of my mind, and quickness of my thoughts." With "His own Death," I believe Augustines is referring to a spiritual death, meaning hell/damnation--having lost the opportunity for eternal life.

Note the imagery of, "...bread of the inner mouth of my soul." Spaced throughout the Confession Augustine uses many powerful images. These image contribute significantly to the power of the text.

I imagine that this chaper in Latin must be wonderfully literary.

Book 1, Chapter 12

In being forced to apply himself to his studies, Augustine admits that it was for his own good. Yet he says that his teachers did not act good. Augustine attributes the good that was done to him, to God alone. The reason he does not credit his teachers is because their intent was for him to use his education for worldly and un-Godly purposes. Augustine claims that God used the errors of others for his good as well as the punishments from his teachers from his own errors, for his own good.
He again describes himself as a having been a great sinner as a small boy.

It is intersting that he gives no real credit to his teachers. His view of his teachers is as dismal as his view of himself. Wouldn't it have been nice if he would have had an inspirational or memorable teacher in his youth? In contrast, as an adult, during his conversion process, he expresses the highest respect and admiration for those who taught and led him along the way--Ambrose and Simplicianus, to name two.

He ends with the famous sounding line, "...every inordinate affection should be its own punishment."

My entries are getting tedious (and boring!) with plot summary and rote paraphrasing.
I don't have much else to say for many entries. I wish I had more to say in the way of insight or criticism. Writing the summary stuff does helps me to digest the material better though. This is a journal!

Monday, February 14, 2005

Book I, 11

It seems that all Christian society had an awesome dread of the penalty for sin. The general attitude was to become baptized later in life. Baptism washed away all sin committed previously, no matter how grave. Sins commited after Baptism were considered especially horrific precisely because the sinner was Baptized--had committed themselves to Christ. The attitude was to sin first then get Baptized later rather than to get Baptized, sin afterwards and not be eligible again for that once in a lifetime opportunity for the absolution of sin. I assume they hoped by old age, the lust for sex, violence, money, drunkeness, and so on, would have died down and that one has developed more self control, perhaps perspective, and perhaps a motivational sense of one's mortality as one ages.

It is somewhat like the idea of "sowing one's wild oats" before settling down in life. I suppose there is some merit to this. It also allows for a person to gain some wisdom through life experiences before making such a big decision. And the decision for Jesus Christ is a BIG decison. The waiting also allows for a free and full consent of the will. Of course, the wait doesn't do any good in the case of accidental or sudden death! It also precludes the person from ful participation in the other Sacraments, and the full life and Spirit of the church.

Monica seems not only faith-filled with complete confidence in God, but very wise as well. A most wonderfull human being!

Book 1, Section 9-10

Augustine describes the misery he experienced in childhood from the beatings that resulted from his not working hard enough in his studies. He says that he had no idea why he was expected to apply himself to his studies. Now whose fault is that!

He describes the merriment and laughter of those who witnessed his beatings. Although he described them as wishing no evil at all, on the contrary, I find their attitude sadistic. It is the laughter of people who are relieved that it is someone else being beaten rather than themselves. No doubt the parents themselves were beaten when they were children, and no doubt, the society was probably one where all children were beaten and, slaves, I'm sure, even more.

Augustine is somewhat ambiguous, almost contradictory, about the experience. He suggests that he deserved the beatings for not studying well. Yet he also says that he cannot understand how others, including his parents, could be amused at the propect of someone else--him--being beaten. Augustine admits to his desire to want to play games, as opposed to studying, and rightfully sees that the "business" of adults is playing as well; moreover, their "business" is even less becoming as well. He sees the hypocrocy in punshing children for playing, barely, but doesn't go further.

An important point is that Augustine say that he sinned in doing less school work than was demanded of him. He is very hard on himself.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Book I, Section 8

Augustine describes his aquisition of language. As dismal as Augustine continues to be in his decription of childhood, considering that this was written in 400 A.D., his observations of human psychological development are acute and still accurate.

Book 1, section 7

Here Augustine describes the self-centered drives and impulses of infancy as sinful. Of course, the notion seems preposterous today. A modern person should praise God for implanting these behaviors into infants, as the effect of these behaviors is to signal adults to tend to our needs and wants, without which babies would suffer and die. Of course, in the time of Augustine there was no such thing as developmental psychology.

The following quote that Augustine takes from Psalm 51:5, is the most damning, most pessimistic of all:

"But I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me."

So, according to Augustine's literal interpretation of the Psalm, the very next infinitessimal moment after conception, a zygote is guilty of sin.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Book I, Chap. 6

Augustine probes his development of consciousness and memory since his birth and ends with a statement of the changelessness of God.

So much of his language is precise, touching and acute. He touchingly addresses God as you Mercy, as he does in several places in Book I. And it is in such contrast to his reference to man as his mocker in the very next phrase.

In referring to those who breast fed him, he says, "Their feelings were so ordered that they wanted to give me something of that abundance which they received from you." My attention is drawn to the word, "Ordered." Lately, I have been getting the impression that in traditional (Medieval?) Catholic theology, all drives, desires, and behaviors that strictly for the self are classified as, "Disordered," meaning inherently sinful, unless used in a limited, well defined context. An example would be sex which is moral only in the context of marriage. And to kill is only moral in self-defense. It is easy to see fom this mind-set how someone or a whole theology can develop an overwrought sense of man's depravity and sinfullness. This is all speculation on my part. I am not taking a position! I suspect that in church and theological Latin the words Ordered and Disordered have a specific technical meaning. The sense of those two words may be somewhat different in Latin than English as well. Remember, that when most of the church's theology was developed, even through modern times, the writing was all in Latin. Note that in this quoted example of Augustine's use of the word ordered, that the women are being lifegiving and selfless. But characteristic of Augustine, he backs off from giving them credit and says the good really came from God and that his nursemaids were only the means.

Likewise, I don't like the following:

"I was welcomed then with the comfort of women's milk; but neither my mother nor my nurses filled their own breasts with milk; it was you who, through them, gave me the food of my infancy, according to your own ordinance and according to the way in which your riches are spread throughout the length and depth of things."

Of course, God is ultimately responsible and deserves praise for our human development, and all of the good, that occurs to us. However, A gives no credit or appreciation, not even a sentimental or emotional fondness, to those who nursed him as an infant, not even to his mother.

Then there is this:

"Indeed I acknowledge you, Lord of heaven and earth, and I give praise you for my first beginnings and for that infancy of mine which I do not remember, for on this subject you have granted man to guess from others about himself and to believe many things about himself merely on the evidence of weak women."

In both of teh above statements, in his zeal to love, honor and praise God, A comes across as misogynistic and arrogant.

The best A can say about children is that they are ignorant.

At the end of the section, when Augustine (quite elegantly) describes the changelessness of God, he says, "What does it matter to me if someone finds this incomprehensible? And goes on, "Yes this is the way I should like him to rejoice, preferring to find you in his uncertainty rather than in his certainty to miss you."

Again A refers to the inability to comprehend completely who and what God is and the need for a leap of faith in the uncertainty.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Book I, Chapters 1-5

I love the way Augustine talks about God here. He speaks in ordinary language and concepts, with keen intelligence and common sense. He never thinks to attempt to prove that God exists, or not. It is simply not an issue for him. As in Old Testament Hebrew thought, Augustine assumes that God exists, and like a good Greek philosopher, he asks the right questions. In addition, Augustine brings very significant life experiences, described later in the Confessions, in his approach to God. From this broad base of wisdom, Augustine explores the concept of God.

It seems that throughout history, every school of philosophy or theology has its own, almost self-contained, concepts and language (metaphysics?) for talking about, and proving or disproving, the existence of God. Their theories all ultimately fail, of course, because, as Augustine shows, God cannot be completely defined, analyzed, or explained by any purely intellectual human method or knowledge. Augustine implicitly subverts all self-enclosed proofs of God's existence, past and present. But, Augustine doesn't dispose of his own intellect. Rather, he uses all of his human faculties, including his intellect and experiences, to sense, imagine, appreciate, and comprehend the totally otherness of God.

In this journal, I am only reacting to the text as I read it. For a succinct, objective, comprehensive overview of Augustine and proof of the existence of God see:
The Existence of God inthe Philosophy of St. Augustine

Augustine's approach to God blends seamlessly into Father Luigi Giussanni's writings on the religious imagination of man:

Abstract, logical processes take us only us only so
far. If carried to an extreme, systems of thought
lose a connection to reality and become
self-confirming. We live in the rarified realm of
pure thought. We deny that some things are evident
and that they make themselves known to use: there is
a presence "one must admit."

- above quote from the preface of The Religious Sense, by Fr. Luigi Giussani.

We see Augustine's emphasis on interiority. He says that God has stimulated man to praise him. He says that God is within us. He talks about our hearts being restless. He says that when he prays, he calls God into himself. He says, "Oh that you would come into my heart and so inebriate it that I would forget my own evils and embrace my one and only good which is you!"

Though Augustine starts off talking about the infinite power and wisdom of God, love of God is implied throughout and spoken of explicitly in section 4, which is a beautiful passage that I can only imagine is even more beautiful and poetic in the original latin.

Augustine says that we should praise God. One area that I do not fully understand is the praising of God. I am not sure why, since God shouldn't need man's praise. I read, in Thomas Merton's book on the Psalms, I think, that we should praise God in order for us to cultivate an appreciation of God's love for us. I'm not sure if that makes sense or works. As far as being stimulated to praise God, I know that I spontaneously praise God were when I am expecting something bad to happen to me, and I am unexpectedly delivered from it! Occasionally, I will praise God when something good happens, irregardless. I do realize that in expressing spontaneous praise of God, I am expressing an acknowledgment of our complete dependence on God.

At first thought, Augustine does seem to have a pessimistic view of human nature. He says that man goes about carrying his own mortality, evidence of his own sin, and evidence that God resists the proud. An optimist might have said that the good news is that man has abundant Grace and eternal life available to him by the blood of Christ. However, on balance, and based on my experiences with other people, I am inclined to say that Augustine's view is realistic.

The overall subject of this section is Augustine's experience of the infinite and unconditional power, wisdom, and love of God who is present everywhere, both inside of us and outside of us, without bound. What I most appreciate is Augustine's attempt, using ordinary language, to try and imagine God. And what he imagines is in agreement with what I imagine. I have difficulty with the issue of praise. And unfortunately, to be honest, I do not share or experience the magnitude or broad, emotional depth of Augustine's love for God.

Thursday, February 10, 2005


The purpose of this blog is to publish my own reactions, reflections, and criticisms of The Confessions of St. Augustine. My initial hypothesis is that St. Augustine has something of value to say to modern man/woman. My perspective is that of an ordinary Catholic reading the text in English, in 2005. I am using the Rex Warner translation from Mentor. The hyperlinks point to the Pusey translation, only because that one is available on the Internet.

For a scholarly treatment of The Confessions, go to http://www.stoa.org/hippo/frame_entry.html If you go to the parent link,
http://www.stoa.org/hippo, there is a link to some beautiful digitized images of frescos, from Benozzo Gozzoli, depicting incidents in the life of St. Augustine

For an Internet introduction to St. Augustine, see:

I owe my inspiration for undertaking this project to Father John Oldfield, Order of Augustinian Recollects (O.A.R.)

All opinions and errors are entirely my own. Remember, this is only a journal. I have no academic background in theology, philosophy, the classics, history, Latin, or anything else related. Any and all comments are invited and welcome.

I just hope I can see this project through to the end!