What Sort of Book is Confessions?

[Link to the rest of this series.]

For the next 13 weeks, Sacra Pagina is hosting a discussion of Augustine’s Confessions. In anticipation of this project, I thought it would be profitable to inspect what sort of book Confessions is. Many people who have not read it might assume, with some justification, that it is an autobiography. Glancing at the title, they may further presume that it recounts Augustine’s sordid acts and secret transgressions. In both cases, they would be partly correct but somewhat mislead. The best way to explain Confessions is to examine its title and opening paragraph:

You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised: great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable. Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being bearing his mortality with him, carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you resist the proud. Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you. (Chadwick translation with the editorially added Scripture references removed)

The title in Latin is “thirteen books of confessions,” but the nature of these confessions is illuminated by this first paragraph. The opening words, “You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised” signify that the confessions are not primarily about Augustine at all, but about God. They are acknowledgements of his worthiness of praise. In addressing this work to God, he insists that God is his primary audience. If it is a prayer, though, why should Augustine publish it and share it with others? It is because “man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you.”  Augustine invites us to join with him in these confessions.

There is an obstacle, however, to our praising God. We have a twofold inadequacy: “the witness of his sin” and the “witness that you resist the proud.” Man is a sinner, and in his pride — for Augustine the sin par excellence — he is not accepted by God. The repeated word “witness” is in the Latin a near synonym to confession, revealing to us that the crux of Augustine’s thought is how to reconcile God, who is worthy of praise, and us, who are unworthy to offer it.

Indeed, the last sentence of the quote above hints to us the resolution of this problem and the burden of the remaining 78,000 words. As the absolute antithesis of contrived religion stands,”You stir man.” God initiates the solution. But why? “You made us for yourself, and our heart is restless.” Not only is man a sinner, but as long as he stands outside relationship with God, he is tormented, out of alignment with his own nature. God, our loving creator, pursues our reconciliation. What will be the outcome when God resolves our deepest dilemma for us? Our heart “rests in you.”

Confessions, then, is both an autobiography and an exemplar of godly reflection. It is the story of a man who, despite “bearing his mortality with him” and being storm-tossed by pride, nevertheless comes to rest and gratitude through divine grace. Or, rather, it is one snapshot in the story of a God who accomplishes this for his children. So, Augustine scutinizes every period and aspect of life, squeezing out of them the confessions of praise that he owes God. In so doing, he implores us to undertake the same meditation on and interpretation of our own lives. He teaches us to find in every memory our “you are great, Lord.”

Published in: on September 20, 2010 at 11:16 am  Comments (2)  

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  1. […] Armed only with these two resources, I believe a reader could gain significant insight into Augustine’s life, thought, and significance for Christianity. I suspect, though, that after reading these two books, many will be eager to devour Augustine’s own words. Perhaps they might start with Confessions? […]

  2. […] Confessions. The discussion is hosted at SacraPagina (Sacred Page).  You can read an introduction to the work there, and if you interested in being involved in the discussion, just leave a comment in the […]

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