Confessions Book 9

[For links to the rest of this series, click here.]

Book 9 closes the narrative portion of Confessions. Yet, four books remain. The relationship between the first nine books and the last four is a matter of perpetual dispute, and Chadwick offers his thoughts in the introduction (xxiii-xxv). I find it noteworthy that the shift appears to follow one of the themes in Book 9, the return of the soul from dissipation and time to unity and eternity: “I had no desire for earthly goods to be multiplied, nor to devour time and to be devoured by it. For in the simplicity of eternity I had another kind of corn and wine and oil” (iv.10). The narrative ends, and we find ourselves in books 10-13 in the eternal realm of ideas.

Most of the themes present in Confessions find resolution here, or at least partial resolution. As Augustine began by expressing mystery concerning who God is and who he is, he asks it again, though somewhat more rhetorically this time: “Who am I and what am I? What was not evil in my deeds or, if not deeds, in my words or, if not words, in my intention? Your right hand had regard to the depth of my dead condition, and from the bottom of my heart had drawn out a trough of correction. The nub of the problem was to reject my own will and to desire yours” (i.1). Although all mysteries have not been solved, the crucial thing for us to know is our depravity and God’s mercy. These two concepts would inspire John Calvin over a millennium later to begin his Institutes of the Christian Religion with a discussion of the twofold knowledge of God and man.

The power of testimony, perhaps the primary impetus behind Confessions, is reinforced. “The examples given by your servants whom you had transformed from black to shining white and from death to life, crowded in upon my thoughts. They burnt away and destroyed my heavy sluggishness, preventing me from being dragged down to low things” (ii.3). Indeed, the testimony of Augustine’s conversion quickly influenced Verecundus and Nebridius (iii.5-6), and led to the baptism of Alypius and Augustine’s son (vi.14).

For all the stress on baptism in early church theology, and in Augustine’s particularly, the event is dispensed with rather summarily. The only sentence is, “We were baptized, and disquiet about our past life vanished from us.” Even the chanting hymns receives more attention than this. Compared with the conversion scene in Book 8, the baptism is more than a little understated. It is easy to see how the Protestant reformers, while drinking deeply from Augustine’s anthropology and soteriology, nevertheless felt the liberty to shift regeneration to the moment of conversion. They obeyed Augustine’s story more than his doctrine.

Book 9 closes the life not of Augustine, but of Monica. Augustine’s mini-biography of her is tender, certainly sympathetic, but not entirely blind to her faults. She models repentance: convicted of alcoholism, she repents; she releases her “vain” desire to be buried by her husband. She models the winsome wife as well, though her advice for handling violent husbands and remarks relating wifehood to servanthood raise modern eyebrows. She wins the affection even of her mother-in-law (an achievement we moderns still respect)! In the end, she wins her husband and son for God. In their last days together they spurred each other on to profound spiritual rapture: “With the mouth of the heart wide open, we drank in the waters flowing from your spring on high” (x.23) Augustine’s description of the mystical staircase and the fleeting brush with the eternal “by a moment of total concentration of the heart” has inspired Christian mystics ever since.

Readers are gripped by Augustine’s reaction to the passing of his mother. His struggle with tears, his obvious emotional disorientation, his conflict between propriety and inner turmoil mirror our own experiences with mortality. For a few paragraphs, we see not a historical figure, orator, or bishop, but a human like ourselves, perhaps more like us than we expected. “With much feeling in her love, she recalled that she had never heard me speak a harsh or bitter word to her. And yet, my God our maker, what comparison can there be between the respect whit which I deferred to her and the service she rendered to me? Now that I had lost the immense support she gave, my soul was wounded, and my life as it were torn to pieces, since my life and hers had become a single thing” (xii.30).

Was Confessions born from the need to tell not merely Augustine’s story, but Monica’s? The ending of Book 9 points convincingly in that direction:

As the day of her deliverance approached, she did not think of having her body sumptuously wrapped or embalmed with perfumes or given a choice monument. Nor did she care if she had a tomb in her homeland. On that she gave us no instruction; she desired only that she might be remembered at your altar which she had attended every day without fail, where she knew that what is distributed is the holy victim who abolished the account of debts which was reckoned against us…. My Lord, my God, inspire your servants, my brothers, your sons, my masters, to whose service I dedicate my heart, voice, and writings, that all who read this book may remember at your altar Monica your servant and Patrick her late husband, through whose physical bond you brought me into this life without my knowing how.* May they remember with devout affection my parents in this transient light, my kith and kin under you, our Father, in our mother the Catholic Church, and my fellow citizens in the eternal Jerusalem. For this city your pilgrim people yearn, from thier leaving it to their return. So as a result of these confessions of mine may my mother’s request receive a richer response through the prayers which many offer and not only those which come from me. (xiii.36-37)

As usual, Monica’s request was granted.

* When Augustine writes that he does not know how his parents brought him into the world, he is not admitting an ignorance of biology or sexuality. Rather, he refused to take sides in the debate regarding how the soul is produced and “attached” to the body. Traducians (Latin traduco, I pass along) believe that the soul is passed down from the parents in procreation somewhat analogously to the body, whereas creationists hold that God creates and attaches the soul when physical procreation occurs.

Published in: on December 14, 2010 at 3:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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