Why You Should Read Augustine's Confessions
A Neglected Masterpiece
Augustine's famous aphorism about our souls being restless until they rest in God is part of our cultural heritage. I first encountered it as a freshman in college. But I did not read Augustine's Confessions in its entirety until recently. My reading of this classic was long overdue.
All classics yield their treasures more fully if someone with experience takes us under wing and serves as a tour guide, but this is more crucial with Augustine's Confessions than with most other classics. I believe that Augustine's masterpiece is a largely unread book because people approach it with the wrong expectations, quickly become frustrated, and leave the book unfinished.
What the Confessions Is Not
The Confessions is usually classified as an autobiography, and this inaccurate labeling is the root of most readers' difficulty. Augustine's masterpiece is autobiographical, but it is not an autobiography. In its structure, it resembles entries in a personal journal more than an autobiography.
This is not to deny that the book has features that make it like an autobiography. For example, it is a first-person account of Augustine's life. Moreover, in its overall organization the material is arranged according to the chronology of Augustine's life from infancy to the age of thirty-three (with his famous conversion coming at age thirty-two).
But autobiographies are a narrative of events, and if we go to Augustine's book expecting a narrative flow, we will be thwarted at every turn. Additionally, much of the Confessions does not deal with Augustine's life at all.
What the Confessions Is
Although the genre of memoir is rarely applied to the Confessions, it is the right label. A memoir is a collection of remembrances accompanied by analysis. It is much more selective and piecemeal than an autobiography, being gleanings from a life that are brought together and analyzed by the author later in life. A memoir is how the author remembers and understands his or her life, while an autobiography is a documentary history that assembles the facts of a life.
The Confessions is primarily a retrospective analysis and assessment of what was happening to the author at various points in his life. The format is heavily reflective, with paragraphs often resembling entries in a journal. In the process, Augustine tells the history of his heart and soul. He began to write the book a decade after the last events that he records, perhaps to allay fears about a famous sinner having become Bishop of Hippo.
The Mixed-Genre Format
Calling the Confessions a memoir is only the start of identifying the Confessions. The thing that makes Augustine's masterpiece simultaneously difficult and exciting is its mixed-genre format. I find it helpful to remind myself that Old Testament prophetic books like Isaiah and Jeremiah are also mixed-genre books, as are the Gospels.
The starting point for negotiating a mixed-genre book (which literary scholars also call an encyclopedic form) is to regard it as a mosaic of diverse parts. We can also look upon such books as anthologies of separate genres and selections. If we know from the start that the book will be a kaleidoscopic collection of diverse genres instead of a smooth-flowing narrative, we will not be frustrated and will find the variety entertaining (even though the Confessions is a book that we go to in the first place for edification).
The Narrative Element
I have no desire to excise the story aspect from the book. Like the book of Ecclesiastes, the Confessions uses narrative snatches, journalistic entries, and reflective pieces to tell an overarching story. The book is not organized like a story, but it tells a story.
I do not for a moment deny that Augustine is a master storyteller. In the Confessions, he gives us a memorable gallery of characters, including his mother Monica. By the time we end the book, we feel that we are part of a network of acquaintances. There are also momentous events told in a riveting way.
The primary story that Augustine tells is not the story of the external events in his life. Instead he tells three more profound stories, all at the same time. One is the story of his flight away from God. For thirty-two years, Augustine led a dissolute life of self-seeking careerism and sexual immorality. He was a latter-day Jonah, engaged in a futile quest to run away from God.
But interspersed passages, climaxing in the story of Augustine's conversion, add a second story to the mix. It is the story of Augustine's quest to find God. The mature author looks back at his seeming flight from God and interprets that flight as an attempt to find God. Paradox is at the heart of the Confessions. Running from God is actually searching for God.
But then Augustine puts a third layer on top of the foregoing two stories. Other interspersed passages show that Augustine believes that the real story was God's pursuit of him. Today we call this the hound of heaven motif, based on a poem by that title authored by Victorian poet Francis Thompson (a poem obviously influenced by Augustine's Confessions).
Augustine orchestrates his book in such a way that we can clearly see all three threads of action, but only if we are looking for them.
A Book of Prayers
The aspect of the Confessions that I like best is the prayers that make up a large portion of the book. At any point, Augustine is capable of addressing God directly in prayer. It is impossible not to read the Confessions devotionally. The prayers lend a conversational quality to the book, as though Augustine and God are engaged in continuous dialogue. This dialogue quality is enhanced by the pervasive biblical quotations and allusions, which come to seem like God speaking to Augustine.
I encourage readers to choose an edition of the book that identifies Bible references right in the text, and that encloses direct quotations from the Bible in quotation marks. Augustine's frequent weaving of biblical phrases and verses into the texture of his book makes the Confessions an early-day Pilgrim's Progress (in terms of how the author incorporates the Bible).
Why Read the Confessions?
Although relatively few people have read the entire Confessions, the most famous parts of it are part of cultural awareness, especially among Christians. I will end by noting two high points of the book, along with a stylistic quality, with the hope that my readers will resolve not to miss the opportunity to read the Confessions. A missed opportunity is a terrible waste.
The opening of the book is one of the most famous openings in all of literature: "Can any praise be worthy of the Lord's majesty? . . . The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they rest in you." Who would not want to read the book that follows that lead-in?
The climax of the whole book comes with Augustine's conversion as narrated in Book 8. After thirty-two years of vain and dissolute life, Augustine came to the verge of a breakdown. While visiting an estate with a friend, Augustine was walking in a garden in total agitation and "in the bitter agony of my heart." By God's providence, Augustine thought he heard a child's voice repeatedly chanting (as if in a child's game), "Pick up and read. Pick up and read."
Augustine interpreted it "solely as a divine command to me to open the [Bible] and read the first chapter I might find." So he hurried to the place where his friend had remained, opened the Bible, "and in silence read the first passage on which my eyes lit." The passage was Romans 13:13-14: "Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies; not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts" (Augustine's translation).
Augustine tells us that he "neither wished nor needed to read further. At once, with the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled." Augustine's addiction to sex vanished immediately, and he "had no ambition for success in this world."
It is hard to top that, but I want to entice my readers with one additional incentive to "pick up and read" Augustine's classic. Augustine had the aphoristic flair for composing concise memorable statements. He had a way with words, as we say. The following aphorism leaped out at me when I read it, and I have had no scarcity of occasions to quote it to my students: "Matters are so arranged at your [God's] command that every disordered life is its own punishment" (translations vary).
Pick up and read. Pick up and read.