Confessions Book 10

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

Book 9 closes the narrative portion of Confessions. Because of this, some readers have viewed books 10-13 as merely appendices. Confessions, however, is more than biography, and books 10-13 reveal the depth of Augustine’s thought. This section both recapitulates and progresses.

The opening lines of book 10 reflect book 1. “May I know you, who know me,” and “Power of my soul, enter into it and fit it for yourself” (i.1) connect this book to the quest announced in book 1, that he would know this God that fills the universe yet condescends to dwell in the human soul (1.iv.4-1.v.6). He acknowledges that God knows him, and that revelation is a one-way street: “Indeed, Lord, to your eyes, the abyss of human consciousness is naked. What could be hidden within me, even if I were unwilling to confess it to you? I would be hiding you from myself, not myself from you.” (ii.2)

His discussion of the word confessiones is another tie back to book 1. He acknowledges that the confession is of God’s grace: “When I am evil, making confession to you is simply to be displeased with myself. When I am good, making confession to you is simply to make no claim on my own behalf, for you, Lord, ‘confer blessing on the righteous’ but only after you have first ‘justified the ungodly.’” (ii.2)

Why should Augustine write these confessions? How does he intend to edify others? “Stir up the heart when people read and hear the confessions of my past wickednesses, which you have forgiven and covered up to grant me happiness in yourself, transforming my soul by faith and your sacrament. Prevent their heart from sinking into the sleep of despair and saying ‘It is beyond my power.’ On the contrary, the heart is aroused in the love of your mercy and the sweetness of your grace, by which every weak person is given power, while dependence on grace produces awareness of one’s own weaknesses.” (iii.4)

Yet, book 10 is not a completely new start. In book 9, Augustine learned the secret to a clearer knowledge of God. The story of his mystic experience with his mother in Ostia (9.x.23-25) is not a random memory or a unique moment. It becomes the project for Augustine’s mystical ascent to God in book 10. Here, Augustine is reenacting the ascent and teaching the reader how to join in.

Augustine begins his search by asking, “When I love you, what do I love?” (vi.8). Although physical sensations reverberate the beauty of God, they are not him. Augustine must seek elsewhere. So, he comes to consider himself. “I see in myself a body and a soul, one external, the other internal. Which of these should I have questioned about my God, for whom I had already searched through the physical order of things from earth to heaven, as far as I could send the rays of my eyes as messengers? What is inward is superior. All physical evidence is reported to the mind which presides and judges of the responses of heaven and earth and all things in them, as they say ‘We are not God’ and “He made us’. The inner man knows this—I, I the mind through the sense-perception of my body.” (vi.9) It is clear already that soul or mind is the weightier member of the soul/body pair.

Turning within, Augustine fixates on memory. His reflection on memory may seem excessive to the reader, but it demonstrates the mental concentration involved in the mystical ascent. At the end of the exposition, though, Augustine still has not found God in his memory (xxiv.35). In fact, God is not found in any of the powers of the mind (xxv.36).

The impediment is a moral one. The vision of God is sharpened as the soul is purified from sin (xxvi.37-xxix.42). The soul is hindered by temptation. The first temptation is the lust of the flesh. Here we see Augustine’s ascetic orientation. Sex is allowable for some, but chastity is better (xxx.41). Food should be taken like medicine, not for pleasure (xxxi.44). Now, Augustine is not a dualist. He acknowledges that “all your creation is good,” (xxxi.46) but that doesn’t stop him from embracing it rather fearfully. There does seem to be some tension between his Christian affirmation of creation and his neo-Platonic predilection for the non-sensual.

Augustine continues his account of temptation by showing how each of the five senses, though good, contains snares. Their pleasures can distract the soul from pursuing God. After the senses, Augustine speaks about the lust of the eyes. Surprisingly, he identifies this with curiosity, the striving after vain knowledge. He says this because sight is the primary sense used in acquiring knowledge (xxxv.54). Similar to his attitude toward sensual delights, Augustine derides knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Curiosity presents not opportunities to fulfill the cultural mandate, but an “immense jungle full of traps and dangers” (xxxv.56). The Christian Church would have to wait another millennium before it made a virtue of scientific inquiry.

Finally, Augustine comes to the third temptation, the “ambition of the secular world” (“pride of life” in our King James). “The temptation is to wish to be feared or loved by people for no reason other than the joy derived from such power, which is no joy at all. It is a wretched life, and vanity is repulsive” (xxxvi.59). This is an unavoidable temptation, because if we do good things, we will naturally receive praise from good people. Augustine trusts God’s help, for “in temptations of a different sort I have some capacity for self-exploration, but in this matter almost none” (xxxvii.60).

The reader who has come this far will notice that Augustine has been speaking of these temptations throughout Confessions. James O’Donnell, one of Augustine’s most insightful commentators, suggests that the three forms of temptation are central to the whole of Confessions. Augustine opposes them to three main virtues. “Ambitio saeculi … defeats humility, the virtue of the self as created being, counterpart of God as creator; concupiscentia oculorum seeks illicit knowledge to the detriment of sapientia, the authentic knowledge that marks in us the illumination of the divine Word; and concupiscentia carnis runs amok in love of created things without reference to God and thus destroys the caritas that comes of the Spirit. Thus even in sin, we reflect the image and likeness of God.”

How then can we come to the vision of God? There is a “true Mediator” sent from God (xliii.68). He was God, and added to himself humanity. He died that we might live. “For you will cure all my diseases through him who sits at your right hand and intercedes with you for us. Otherwise I would be in despair. Many and great are those diseases, many and great indeed. But your medicine is still more potent” (xliii.69).

Published in: on January 18, 2011 at 8:16 am  Leave a Comment  
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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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