Adventures With St. Augustine – Part 1

St. Augustine Confessions

Chadwick, Henry. (2008) Saint Augustine Confessions: A New Translation by Henry Chadwick. Oxford University Press.

Years ago, my husband inherited my late father-in-law’s worn copy of The Confessions of St. Augustine. We stuck it high up on a bookshelf and left it there.  A couple of years ago, I took it off the bookshelf and attempted to read it – and promptly put it back.  I found the book to be beyond my comprehension and became resigned to the idea that Confessions was too difficult for me to understand.  When I learned that a seminar course on the book was being offered, I thought I should try again.  The advantage of setting my own work schedule is that I can block off the every-other-Wednesday afternoon time slot that the course is running.  It was as if God, and perhaps St. Augustine himself, were saying:  C’mon.  You can do this.  What have you got to lose?  So, I’m doing it – and loving it.

I’m finding the book a very challenging read.  I think he writes in circles whereas I prefer a more direct, no frills approach.  Many times, I have to re-read a passage to get the gist of what he’s saying and in a few sections I’ve just scrawled a big question mark in the margin.  Fortunately, the priest giving the course is a scholarly, experienced teacher and is, in my perhaps slightly biased opinion, almost as brilliant as our good Saint.  Earlier in the course, Father advised the motley group of students to not let the more difficult sections discourage us.  Good advice, Father.   So far, we have covered the first four books/chapters.

It seems to me that the recurring theme in the books we have read is pride.  The young St. Augustine, brilliant but lost, was full of it – pride, I mean.  His pride, as I can well relate, governed his bad decisions and questionable ideas.

He became involved with the Manichees, a cult if ever there was one, because their beliefs appealed to his ego.  He thought they were enlightened and better than everyone else so he wanted to be just like them.  His life, as influenced by Manichaean philosophy and over-all immorality,  caused him to sink into “the deep mire.”  He was, in his own words, “puffed up with pride” and considered himself to be like a god, “I asserted myself to be by nature what You are.”   In retrospect, he realizes that God “resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (2 Pet. 5:5)  Many years later, he comes to understand that God let him sink further and further into darkness because he wasn’t ready for the Truth.  God “pushed (him) away so that (he) could taste death,” because “he had not been brought to humility.”  He was still vainly seeking “the happy life in the region of death.”

As St. Augustine shows us,  pride is the biggest sin against God.  When I decide that my ways are better than God’s ways, He allows me to sink into my self-inflicted mire.  He is ever watchful as I flail around trying to dig myself out. “He is very close to the heart; but the heart has wandered from Him.”  It is only when, of my free will, I finally admit that I am nothing and confess my  hardness of heart, that He draws me close to Himself, hence the saying attributed to St. Augustine:  God who made you without your help cannot save you without your help.

A great consolation in reading this book is that St. Augustine was not sugar-coated, ethereal, or too good to be true.  He was real.  As a young man, he was awful.  No wonder Monica, his poor sainted mom, was always crying and praying for him.  He proves that no one is beyond salvation.  No one is beyond holiness, beyond sanctity.  That’s very hopeful for the rest of us.

Deo Gratias

Linking this up at Catholic Bloggers Network December Round-up

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18 Responses to Adventures With St. Augustine – Part 1

  1. Biltrix says:

    Ah! The Great Saint Augustine! Wonderful synopsis of The Confessions here, Terry.

    You are very privileged to have a wise and scholarly instructor as a guide to reading St Augustine. I agree that the style can be daunting at times. His advice not to let the more difficult sections discourage you takes the words right out of my own mouth. That said…

    A good read by Saint Augustine after The Confessions is De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine). He wrote this as a guide to priests and catechists for interpreting and preaching Sacred Scripture. I have to advise the reader to follow your instructor’s advice with this work as well: Don’t let the more difficult sections discourage you. Once you get through those parts the you are rewarded with some of the most powerful Christological insights in print and a deep vision into mankind’s relation to God within the whole structure of the cosmos, summarized in one word: Love.

    I could go on and on. But I wanted to say this because once you have read a work of St Augustine you can reap the fruit of another great work of his. As you say, pride is a predominant them in the Confessions. You will find when reading DDC that his vision is of man’s fallen nature in need of God is the leitmotif of all his works. Each work adresses the issue from a different angle. It is like looking into a diamond through different facets.

    Sorry for going on and on. I’ll end with this. My favorite quote of all time:

    Now it is surely a miserable slavery of the soul to take signs for things, and to be unable to lift the eye of the mind above what is corporeal and created, that it may drink in eternal light. (De Doctrina Christiana III, 5)

    Thanks for this post!

    • James, there’s no need to apologize. I appreciate your comments and insights, especially given your theological background. You’re absolutely right – I’m planning on reading more of his works after Confessions. Thanks for the recommendation re: DDC. I’ll have to get my hands on a copy.

  2. It really helps to have a good English translation. St. Augustine’s Latin is pretty florid — he strives to emulate the classical style — and older English translators, who tended to be pretty florid to begin with, wrote painfully florid and inaccessible translations. I haven’t read Chadwick’s yet but I expect it is good. Oxford University Press does good work. I am glad you are enjoying Augustine. I really need to pick him up again. Ah, thesis, you stifle me.

    • Yes. The priest giving the seminar chose Chadwick because his translation is good. One day, soon I hope, you’ll be finished with your thesis and just settle back and read for sheer enjoyment of St. Augustine’s wisdom. Hang in there!

  3. Me says:

    I have been wanting to read that. His dear mother is the saint I chose when I converted. I was a new mother then and I read snippets of many saints. Her story appealed to me, she was strong and faithful, no matter what Augustine or her husband put her through. All of her tears and praying weren’t in vain. 🙂

    • Oh I know! I think every wife and mother ought to get to know St. Monica and emulate her faithfulness and strength. What that poor woman went through! If you decide to read Confessions, use the Oxford University Press edition. It’s definitely a better translation than one we inherited from my father-in-law.

  4. I think of pride in terms of my wanting to ‘steer the bus’ instead of following “every word that proceedeth from the Father’s lips”. That’s me trying to be God. As if I knew what was right, as if I knew how to make things right.

    Pride, along with selfishness and judgmentalism are the things I attempt to relinquish when I pray to repent (which is pretty much what I always pray for.)


  5. Mr. V. says:

    St. Augustine’s writing is something I plan to read someday, when I really have the time to devote to reading it carefully and thoughtfully. Thanks for this post!

    On a different note, I just posted the first Christmas carol with me singing to my blog, as I brought up a few weeks ago. I now lay the gauntlet down to you and all the other bloggers who said they would do likewise.

    Looking forward to listening to y’all singing!

  6. alcuinofyork says:

    I love The Confessions, too! I’m so glad you’re getting the chance to read it! I’ve had to read it (at least the autobiographical chapters) for classes about three or four times. The first time I read it, I was so excited to discover that someone else writes to God and not just about Him (I think I was 17 or 18, so I knew very little at the time). I was also so moved to meet another passionate soul with an inquiring mind. St Augustine may have lived 1600 years ago (crap! is it really that long? I’m used to counting relative to the 1200s), but he is entirely relatable as a human being — proof that our nature remains the same!

  7. Pingback: Adventures With St. Augustine, Part 2 | 8 Kids And A Business

  8. Pingback: Adventures with St. Augustine – Part 3 | 8 Kids And A Business

  9. Pingback: Adventures with St. Augustine – Part 4 | 8 Kids And A Business

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