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  • Writer's pictureChristian I. Patin

The Confessions: A Review of Books 1-3

Foreword: For this book report, the aim is to recount what St. Augustine writes in his Confessions, a 13-book volume detailing his spiritual journey to God, along with some treatment of memory, time, and creation itself. Alas, the events in my personal life for the past 4 weeks have made it close to impossible to read this masterpiece, much less in its entirety. Thus, for what it is worth, I will report on the first three books, which, perhaps serendipitously, have produced great comfort in me during this difficult time.

This work is submitted as an assignment for Holy Apostles College and Seminary, Spring 2022, CHH 300: Church History.

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was a North African theologian and philosopher of the 4th and 5th centuries who contributed massive volumes of work dedicated to furthering the mission of Christ’s Church during his life. He is universally recognized as one of the most important—if not the most important—patristic fathers of the early Catholic Church. So influential is he, that every major Christian Church (i.e., Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, etc.) reveres him, cites him, and equips his work for their theological (and philosophical) endeavors. His treatment of Manicheism, is work on Plato, and his famous De Trinitate on the Trinity have nestled him comfortable into the pride of place in Patristic Church History.

Part of what sets Augustine apart from other thinkers of his time, however, is not merely that he as an uncommon specimen (he was!), but that his journey to Christianity, his struggle with sin, and his defiance against his mother and his God, are all aspects of the human condition we can all relate to. For this reason, The Confessions has remained on of the most well-read, well-loved, and most moving autobiographies ever written (and arguably one of the first). In it, Augustine pours out his heart in a moving invocation and, as the name implies, confession made to God by Augustine. The result is a masterful retelling Augustine’s life as he journeys from sin and worldliness toward Almighty God. The book works toward his later years, starting with his infancy, which further enables the reader to relate and follow him as he empties himself humbly onto these rich pages.

The edition of the Confessions that I have been using is translated by Sister Maria Boulding. This second edition was published by New City Press in 2015.

The first book of Augustine opens with a prayer. In latin: “Magnus es, domine,”[1]or, “Great are you, O Lord.” Here already, Augustine sets the tone for the whole of his work. That is, here, we recognize that The Confessions are written not only for us, but are addressing God directly, to whom alone Augustine is accountable. Book I opens upon an infant Augustine, and deals primarily with the nature of infancy: that we do not remember it, that we are subject to it and our parents, and that our fallen nature applies even to the least of us, that is, the smallest of us. Augustine explores the idea of knowing God in the context of infancy, and he seems to be drawing on the idea that, for all of us, even spiritually, we must begin as infants.

But understanding the beginning of our lives—both our physical and spiritual lives—answers very few questions. As Augustine continues to explore his infancy, he really begins to ask about the nature of God, as if to suggest that new life, new spiritual life, necessarily leads to a deep desire to know truth, to include truths that are never fully attainable. Thus, upon exploring the manifold mysteries one might wonder about in experiencing creation for the first time (again, spiritually and physically), in the fourth part of Book 1, Augustine asks, “what are you, then, my God? What are you, I ask, but the Lord God?”[2] It is Augustine’s initial surrender to Divine Mystery.

Book I continues into Augustine’s infancy, and he describes his behavior—typical behavior of a baby: crying, screaming, thrashing about, in order to get whatever it is that is desired. He notes, however, that this behavior, childish as it is, clearly says nothing of the reasonableness of the thing desired. Thus, Augustine says, “Often I did not get my way, either because people did not understand or because what I demanded might have harmed me…”[3] But Augustine recognizes that this behavior is something he does not remember in himself, that it had to be observed in another for him to recognize that he himself was in fact the very same way. So, he takes this as an opportunity glorify God for the grace that was necessary for Augustine to be so present of mind as to recognize in himself what he saw in others.

As a child of great promise, Augustine makes his way through early infanthood and begins his school training. Here we discover a little bit about the expectations that Augustine would have held to: to obey his superiors, to be respectful, and to pursue repute by way of mastering academic skill. We begin to see Augustine’s retrospective regret with regard to his studies, since he was made to focus on study rather than to play childish, fun games. He recognizes, however, that these lessons, however unpleasant, ultimately taught him important skills with which he can navigate his life: “I did sin at that time…by disobeying the instructions of my parents and teachers, for I was later able to make good use of the lessons my relatives wanted me to learn…”[4]

Finally, we learn of St. Monica—not yet a saint—Augustine’s mother, who prayed fervently for his conversion, pushed for his baptism, and who endured virtuously a marriage with a man who did not as of yet believe. At this point in Augustine’s life—still in boyhood—he comes close to baptism. The custom for baptism being such as it was, however, he ultimately did not get it. Here, some of his earliest intentional sins: he lied to his parents, he stole from them, and he wasted his time, “gawking” at shows and plays.

Book II deals with his adolescence and recounts some of the more famous details of the Confessions. As Augustine recounts his crimes against God and creation, they increase in gravity. The opening to Book II, then, describes his “sexual awakening,” especially in the context of sins of the flesh. Here, it becomes evident that the lack of attention by his elders (as his mother was likely not with him at school) enables Augustine to behave promiscuously, having no one to correct him or suggest marriage to him. “No one took thought to arrange a marriage for me,” he says, “so that my pursuit of fleeting beauties through most ignoble experience might be diverted into useful channels.”[5]

Augustine eventually arrives home again from his studies so that his father can save up for an ever better school to send him to. His father, it becomes clear, remains more interested in the pursuits of status and prestige for his son, than for virtually anything else. It seems, however, that this time at home did nothing good for Augustine’s already-problematic sexual deviancy. Thus, in his sixteenth year, he behavior got worse—due in no small part to his father’s indifference on the matter. Augustine revisits this often throughout the second book, and spends much time investigating his shame and God’s mercy with regard to his sexual indecency.

His famous pear tree robbery also makes its appearance in Book II. Augustine recounts his story of the pears, and the fact that he and some friends had robbed some poor fellow of his pears for the joy of the act itself. Thus, and perhaps as the most interesting portion of this book, Augustine spends considerable time reflecting the act itself. He vividly clarifies his understanding of what he had done, for the pears he stole were “not enticing, either in appearance of in flavor.”[6] He did it simply to do harm: the thrill of the sin itself. Practically the rest of Book II is spent dissecting his decision to do this, his disgrace and shame in doing it, and his thanks to God for his grace and mercy. The takeaway, though, seems simple enough: the greater sin among any amount of sin, is the sin done for the sake of sin itself. To derive pleasure from evil acts is filthier and more disgraceful than that sin committed to fulfill one’s need.

Finally, Book III explores Augustine’s time at Carthage—the superior school that his father so desired for him to attend. Now in his seventeenth year, his sexual appetite and addiction to shows and plays are in full swing: he notes immediately that “the din of scandalous love-affairs raged cauldron-like around me.”[7] He admits later that he “was held spellbound by theatrical shows full of images that mirrored my own wretched plight and further fueled the fire within me.”[8] All too familiar imagery for our own current age!

The portion of the book is teeming with gratitude and love for God, who “springled bitter gall over [Augustine’s] sweet pursuits.”[9] Perhaps more importantly, however, it details the fallen nature of man, who becomes entranced and entangled in the vile, backward promises of sin: pleasure in exchange for decency and dignity.

As Augustine continues growing during this phase of his life, he recognizes also that his station in life is different for all of the education that he is and will be doing. Thus he surrounds himself with people who will further his career, he fancies himself as more intellectual than others—a hallmark of pride—but he begins to recognize in himself an innate, intellectual hunger for truth. His initial rejection, or rather “distaste” for Scripture is here admitted in part 9: “when I studied the bible and compared it with Cicero’s dignified prose, it seemed to me unworthy.”[10] This is perhaps due in part to the fact that Augustine was reading a translation that predated St. Jerome’s superior Vulgate. It nonetheless opened the door for Augustine to be influence by the Manichees, a religious group that recognized not an almighty God, but two powerful forces: good and evil; it recognized a dualism of these forces and rejected God’s omnipotence. But it proved remarkably convincing for Augustine, who sought an answer for the existence of evil.

Ultimately, the questions that Augustine was exposed to in joining this group led him to question further. Questions about God’s physical disposition and whether he had “hair and nails,” questions regarding the nature and cause of evil, and even questions about whether those who lived like pagans were righteous; all of these perturbed Augustine’s mind, and this would eventually, in later books, cause him to confront a Manichean bishop, which would finally disenchant Augustine from the Manichees.

These first three books set an important stage for the remaining 7 books of his life, which will feed into his three additional books on Genesis—the creation story and about time and heaven and earth. Augustine works hard, even in these first three books, to establish that his upbringing, his education, indeed his whole life of experiences, were necessary, if not unfortunate, means by which he would come to understand the truth of Christ’s Church.

[1] St. Augustine, The Confessions, trans. Sister Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2015), 36. [2] St. Augustine, The Confessions, 41. [3] St. Augustine, The Confessions, 44. [4] St. Augustine, The Confessions, 49-50. [5] St. Augustine, The Confessions, 63. [6] St. Augustine, The Confessions, 67. [7] St. Augustine, The Confessions, 75. [8] St. Augustine, The Confessions, 76. [9] St. Augustine, The Confessions, 75. [10] St. Augustine, The Confessions, 80.

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