Part Three: The Value of Augustine’s “Confessions” for Christian Apologetics

Conversion-of-St-Augustine-by-Fra-Angelico

Fra Angelico’s “Conversion of St. Augustine”

“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you.”

“Now I had read many works of the philosophers and retained a great deal in my memory, and … What the philosophers taught seemed to me the more probable, though their power was limited to making judgment of this world and they could not pierce through to its Lord.”[1]  Augustine writes this as he looked back on the process of trying to find God in philosophy. Yet the wiser convert could see the pride at the heart of his search.  He writes, “The proud cannot find You, not even if they have skill beyond the natural to number the stars and the grains of sand, and measure out the places of the constellations and plot the courses of the planets.”[2] He laments that it was the pride of the intellect and vainglory of learning. He writes that “surely a man is unhappy even if he knows all these things but does not know You; and that man is happy who knows You even though he knows nothing of them.”[3]

Nevertheless, God was gracious to use philosophy to draw Augustine towards Himself.  Through several divine appointments, with first the Bishop Ambrose and then the philosophy of Plato, the mists began to dispel, and he settled into a healthier skepticism and awareness of the limits of reason and logic.  For him, “the things in the Scriptures which used to seem absurd are no longer absurd.”[4]  Yet even then, over a decade after his first encounter with Cicero, he realized he was “still sticking in the same mire, greedy for the enjoyment of things present … at every moment saying: ‘Tomorrow I shall find it: it will be all quite clear and I shall grasp it.’”[5] “Time was passing,” yet he “delayed to turn to the Lord.”[6]

In the end, he could see that though he was “in love with the idea of happiness,” he feared finding it in Christianity.[7]  He writes, “The plain truth is that I thought I should be impossibly miserable if I had to forego the embraces of a woman: and I did not think of Your mercy as a healing medicine for that weakness, because I had never tried it.”[8] He would come to know that though “the weight of concupiscence” that dragged us “down that steep abyss” towards nonexistence, God’s charity … lifts us up by [His] Spirit, who moved over the waters.”[9] Indeed, God did rescue him from his sexual lust, and more than rescued him.  It is evident from the Confessions themselves that Augustine’s passionate longing was transformed into a burning desire to love and obey his Creator.

The path towards Augustine’s final confession of Christ as Lord and King was “hard and laborious.” [10]  More could be written with regards to his Confessions, including how God used key individuals in his life, both believers and nonbelievers, to spur him towards Himself.  His mother Monica and her faithful, tear-filled prayers for his salvation cannot be overlooked in a more complete analysis.  Suffice it to say that though conversion is a complicated and precarious process, God has a diverse range of tools within which he works to bring His children home.  On a more profound level, we see that as difficult as the path was for Augustine, God would eventually use his various divergent and disordered loves for His glory – from his extensive studies in philosophy and rhetoric to his passionate longing for relationships.

The apologist can learn that many of the barriers to belief for Augustine apply to us today. Intellectually, his paganism was not unlike today’s materialism, with its refusal to look beyond the created order to the Creator.  In the volitional realm, sexual temptations abound and seem to be increasing. We can learn from Augustine how these can create a hardness of heart towards Christian ethics and a sort of intellectual blindness to its reasonableness.  Finally, through Augustine’s incorporation of Scripture, we see how the truths of God’s word are timeless and applicable on a personal level, not just in the grand narrative of human history.  Indeed, this is a parallel that Augustine might accept, namely, God’s working in the microcosm of individual conversion being a reflection of His work in human history at large.

Augustine himself gives us an answer to the value and function of his ‘spiritual autobiography.’ He hopes that when his confessions are read and heard, they “stir up the heart” of the listener, keeping it “from sinking into the sleep of despair and saying ‘It is beyond my power’” to change.[11] By looking back upon his life in the light of the holy scriptures, he could see that God was never far from him as he “travelled through the external world” of his senses to the unseen world of his soul to find its source and its resting place.[12]  He hopes that his fellow pilgrims will be drawn closer to this truth, as well. Augustine’s conversion teaches us that the process of finding God involves not only looking at His revelation and His creation, but looking along our lives to experience His moment by moment sustaining and guidance towards Himself. “And even if I would not confess to You,” Augustine writes, “what could be hidden in me, O Lord, from You to whose eyes the deepest depth of man’s conscience lies bare? I should only be hiding You from myself, not myself from You.”[13]

 

SANDRO BOTTICELLI

St. Augustine in His Study, by Botticelli

 

[1] Ibid., 5.3.3.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 5.4.7.

[4] Ibid., 6.11.18.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 6.11.20.

[7] Augustine, Confessions, 2nd ed., trans. F.J. Sheed, ed. Michael P. Foley, 6.11.20

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 13.7.8.

[10] Ibid., 4.12.18.

[11] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 10.3.4.

[12] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, 10.40.65.

[13] Augustine, Confessions, 2nd ed., trans. F.J. Sheed, ed. Michael P. Foley, 10.2.2.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s