Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Understanding the Confessions of Saint Augustine

Augustine is resented for many reasons, most prominent among them, his emphasis on chastity. Indeed, to read the Confessions is to experience a very bracing moral boot camp. However, I think that many Catholics who resent Augustine overlook the fact that the Confessions are primarily about Augustine’s relationship to God. This is so pervasive that it is easy to overlook, like not seeing the forest for the trees.

The Confessions are Augustine's testimony of his conversion and redemption. Many of us Catholics, especially us older ones who were raised in the faith from birth often do not think of our religion firstly in terms of a relationship with God. We tend to focus on morality primarily, sometimes even exclusively. With Augustine, as with all true religion, worship--the relationship to God--comes first. With Augustine, morality is derived from his worship and relationship with God, as ours should be also (emphasized by Fr. John Oldfield O.A.R.).

When many Catholics read the Confessions, they hear the moral strictures loud and clear, but either fail to appreciate, or are uncomfortable with, the personal witnessing. They are less able to relate Augustine’s story to their own lives and experiences.

We all know that Augustine is one of the intellectual giants of Western Civilization. Unfortunately however, that makes it easy to overlook the fact that it was always the prompting of Augustine’s heart which drove him. My impression of Catholic teaching, preaching, and liturgical life in the Unites States is that too little of it reaches the heart, although I think that has been changing too. Without the heart, it is much more difficult to have a relationship or any deep relationship at all. Worship and liturgy become a mere going through the motions. I think that it is this failure to touch the heart is one of the causes of so many shallow, fallen-away and lukewarm Catholics.

To illustrate some of these points, look at the Gospel passage where Jesus is questioned by a wealthy official, in Luke 18:18-27:

An official asked him this question, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus answered him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother.'"

And he replied, "All of these I have observed from my youth."

When Jesus heard this he said to him, "There is still one thing left for you: sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." But when he heard this he became quite sad, for he was very rich.

Jesus looked at him (now sad) and said, "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God."

Those who heard this said, "Then who can be saved?"

And he said, "What is impossible for human beings is possible for God."


Jesus had read the man’s heart and saw that he was attached to his wealth. The moral of the story is not that we should get rid of all that we own, but, rather, that we get rid of our attachments, that is, whatever which gets in the way of loving others (this insight is from Fr. John Oldfield O.A.R.). The official had not given his heart to God.

(Note Jesus' clever rhetorical method. Almost non-chalantly, he first walked the man through the Judaic moral strictures, seeming to be leading to an easy conclusion that the man will indeed have eternal life. The effect was to dramatically highight the reversal of attitude in the man's response to Jesus' final, climactic question.)

The preceding section of Luke 18, ending in verse 17, brings the issue into further relief:

“Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it." Unlike the rich official who approached God and the law like an accountant keeping a set of books, God wants us to approach him with the heart of a child.

In the case of Augustine, he understood that his unwholesome attachment to sex was what prevented him from loving God and his fellow human beings fully. Especially note the end of the above gospel passage, “What is impossible for human beings is possible for God.” In Luke, this is emphasized further by the very next section of chapter 18 where Jesus, after healing a blind man who had called out to him in desperation but in belief, said, "Have sight; your faith has saved you." In the Confessions, man’s complete dependence on God’s grace is one of the major themes.

In trying to cultivate my own relationship with God, I must search my heart and ask myself what is it that prevents me from loving God and my fellow human beings? I must confess my sinful condition, my unholy loves and attachments, and ask for God’s grace.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Barbara said...

I agree. The Confessions are not so much a biography as an exploration of one man's search for TRUTH and the resulting relationship with God. It must be read with an open heart as much as a receptive mind.

5:57 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I think you are hitting one of the issues that many born-again Christians have with Catholics. A lot of RC Catholics claim to believe, and yet because they have never been tested and broken by God they do not really have the born-again spirit, and therefore it is difficult for them to percieve God as more than thier Lord. We are not merely His servant, but also His friend, and His Child.
In addition to this lack of a relationship with God, is that many people do not want to depend upon God for everything in thier life. American society favors the individual, not only in the American Dream, but there is much stigma for anyone who cannot make it on thier own. That is what welfare is so stigmatized, so is begging and other methods of survival that are contingent on the aid of others. Therefore, within our society, we have Catholics who feed into this ideal of individualism, of making it on thier own; which is opposite of God, and kind of makes man a god, because of the idea that man alone can do it. But being dependent on God for your Life is a great thing. When you get to the point that you can trust God, and become dependent on Him, the release is so great.

Thanks for commenting on my Xanga. I have a blogspot, as you can see.

12:25 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I have to read Lolita for my Forensic Psychology class, and TCF is short for Trojan Christian Fellowship aka InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. We threw in the Trojan for school pride.

As for today's post Monkey refers to my sister, that's my nickname for her.

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What does everyone think about the concept of God and how it changed with Saint Augustine?

12:42 AM  
Blogger kabloona said...

Response to Anonymous above:

Could you expand on that? In what ways do you think Augustine changed our perception or image of God?

5:36 PM  

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