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.