I’ve turned during this season of pandemic-induced hysteria to Saint Augustine for solace. His Confessions is one of the greatest books ever written. Augustine understood sin; he experienced the transforming power of grace; and, he wrote of his relationship with God in terms at once vivid and vivifying. “[O]ur heart is restless until it rests in you,” he writes, and of course, he is right.
Herewith the first in a series of brief pieces on the Confessions and our time.
(First a word on translations. Unless you read Latin with ease, which I do not, you will need to read Augustine in translation. I’ve read the work more times than I can recall. This time, I am reading a wonderful translation by Sarah Ruden, who, as luck would have It, lives, according to the dust jacket on the 2017 Modern Library edition, in Hamden, CT, a hop, skip and a jump from my home. Read this translation. It is graceful; her introduction explains certain choices she made in rendering Latin cognates into idiomatic English.)
Written during 397 and 400 A.D., Augustine’s Confessions are an introspective, and at times speculative, look at the course of his life, a life that saw him travel from North Africa to Rome and then to Hippo – a part of modern day Algeria, where he became Bishop of the Catholic Church. He writes directly to God in prose that are at times sensuous. He wrote as if God were there to listen, as, indeed, Augustine believed He was.
“You are mighty, Master, and to be praised with a powerful voice: great is your goodness, and of your wisdom there can be no reckoning,” the book begins. The work is divided into 13 parts, or books. The earlier books are autobiographical. At the outset, Augustine acknowledges mystery. We come into a world beyond our ken and make our way in it haltingly, stumbling often against idols of our own making. But for grace we would be forever trapped in the hells of our own making.
Autobiographies are a species of memoire. We take on trust the ground beneath us. Who can give an account of their origins without trust?
Consider the following: What is your birthday?
We’ve all memorized a date given to us by others, but of the exact date not one of us has a real memory. Yet when asked, we give a date, a date provided to us that we regard as trustworthy enough for day-to-day purposes.
My date of birth Is September 21, 1955. Of that date, I have no memory. None. My parents taught me that date.
But how do I know I can trust my parents? My father is shrouded in mystery. He disappeared from my life when I was seven. When I next saw him, 40 years later, he told me wild stories about his youth. Candidly, I don’t know what I believe.
And as to my mother, she stood by to house, clothe and feed me, but generally lost interest in the parenting project about the time I became a teenager. I’ve been on my own forever, a fact confirmed by her last will and testament, identifying her as the loving wife of a new husband who despised me, and the bequeathal of her estate to her brother. Mom and dad are words I don’t use with affection when it comes to my parents.
Not so, Augustine. His father was a pagan. His mother, Monica, a fierce Christian, who agonized over her son’s spiritual welfare throughout her life. The parents united to educate Augustine as a rhetorician, a man skilled with words and the arts of persuasion. Yet swaddled, as he was, in this love, affection and attention, he, too, knew nothing of his origins. How could he?
“What is it, after all, that I want to say, Master, except that I don’t know where I came from to this place, into this – do I call it a deathly life or a living death?”
Yet he knew this much: The child within never died. Beneath the veneer of the civilized men was the savagery, the tyranny, of the infant. He knew this by inference. He watched the behavior of infants and could see the traces of what moved them in himself.
“[W]hen compliance [with my will or desire] was not forthcoming, either because people did not understand me or wouldn’t do something to my advantage, I was wrathful that my elders wouldn’t submit themselves to me, and that free people wouldn’t be my slaves, and I wreaked vengeance on them – by crying.”
Far from a period of blissful innocence, infancy is the birth of desire, and of learning to manipulate the world to satisfy those desires. There are tears of rage and anger. Infants weep them. Only as adults do we dress these tears in theories, ideologies and slogans.
I watch the wrathful proclamations of today’s social justice warriors and see the angry face of an infant, screaming to be heard, demanding satisfaction immediately, or promising destruction now. We desecrate churches in the name of justice. A dangerous new idolatry, that of the boundless and idiosyncratic self, is loose upon the land. Augustine would have understood. We are pots screaming at the potter, why makest me thus?
We’re so busy now – some of us, at least, the woke among us – trying to remake the world in our image we’ve forgotten the simple truth Augustine conveys: “Will anyone emerge as the craftsman who makes himself?” This great display of righteous indignation, the tearing down of statues, the virtue signaling, cancel culture: “The inanity of adults is called ‘business,’ but when boys behave like that, adults punish them, and no one has compassion for the boys – or for the adults, when it comes to that.”
Sin is love of the wrong things, Augustine teaches. Love of self is the essence of sin. “[E]very mind not conforming to your law is its own punishment,” Augustine confesses to God.
I watch the tragic wheel of history turn in our time and wonder where it will end. The descendants of yesteryear’s slaves seek today a new mastery of their own, consigning others to the damnation of “privilege.” We are as sheep, led astray again and again.
So preach to me, Augustine. Preach to us all. Tell us about the wages of sin and the glory of the City of God.
A choice tonight. CNN and the endless, breathless recitation of hysteria -- the urgent hovering over the void at the center of our world, or an evening with Augustine?
“My sin was that I sought not God in himself, but in things he created – in myself and the rest of his creation – delights, heights, and perceptions of what was true and right, and in this way I collapsed into sufferings, embarrassments, and erring ways.”
There is the truth, if you can hear it.
Augustine it is tonight, and the night thereafter and thereafter.
I choose life.
You should, too.