Thursday, February 16, 2012

On reading The Confessions of Saint Augustine

The Confessions of Saint Augustine,
Translated by Rex Warner, Signet Classic, 2001, 352pp. 

It has long been my habit to leave a book in the car for occasions when I know I'm going to be kept waiting around. A visit to the doctor, or dentist etc. For the last year or so The Confessions of Saint Augustine has served that purpose. Maybe reading this spiritual classic in short, sporadic bursts isn't the best way to go about it, but there we are. I finished reading the Confessions  the other week when taking my daughter to an orthodontist appointment. While she was getting all braced up, I concluded Book XIII, Augustine's somewhat mind-bending reflections on Genesis 1. 

This isn't a review of the Confessions (despite what it says in the link below), so much as an attempt to urge those who haven't yet read this work to give it a go. Rex Warner's translation in the edition I read is wonderfully vivid, crisp and clear. 

In a sense, the Confessions is Augustine's autobiography, 'a work of unique self-revelation, in which he becomes something more than his own Boswell'. (B. B. Warfield, Augustine and His "Confessions" in Calvin and Augustine, P&P, 1980). But it is an autobiography with a difference. The work's title is not incidental, for the Confessions takes the form of an  elongated confession to God. While others are invited to eavesdrop on Augustine's confession, it is primarily directed at God himself. The work opens with a note of praise, citing Psalm 145:3. Augustine asks for permission to pursue God, "Let me seek you, Lord, by praying to you and let me pray believing in you; since to us you have been preached." This element of dialogue with God continues throughout the Confessions, "Oh that I might find rest and peace in you!", "My God let me remember with thanks and let me confess to you your mercies done to me.", "Command what you will and give what you command.", "I have heard you, Lord my God, and I sucked a drop of sweetness from your truth and I understood." 

Augustine charts the course of his life from his birth to the time of writing his confession. He tells of how he was delivered from the error of Manichaeism to embrace the truth of the Catholic faith. He details his conversion experience, when, famously he heard a child in a neighbouring garden calling out, "Toll lege", "Take and read." He took and read Romans 13:11-14 and was never the same again. Augustine wrote out of a deep sense of the sovereign grace of God by which he was saved from sin. He us utterly entranced by the beauty of  the Lord, 
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
This was the triune God who revealed himself to Augustine in his Son and by his Spirit, "The Trinity, my God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Creator of all creation." 

In prayerful dialogue with God, Augustine reflects on love and desire, friendship and bereavement, memory and time (see here), faith and reason. It really is remarkable stuff. For good reason Augustine's Confessions is regarded as one of the great works of Christian theology. Time spent with the Confessions is time well spent. Better if you find yourself waiting around to listen in to Augustine's conversation with God than read the standard waiting room fare. Will it be for you, Hello! magazine, a leaflet on root canal treatment, playing Angry Birds on your phone, or The Confessions of Saint Augustine? As the voice said,  Toll lege.  

My current "time redeeming" read is Letters of John Newton. Mine is a second hand copy of the Banner of Truth 1965 edition, original price 4s6d. I had to interrupt this post for a family visit to the dentist (it's all teeth, teeth, teeth with us). While waiting for my six monthly check (yea, no fillings this time!), I read Letter I, Grace in the Blade and very good it was too. 

1 comment:

Ben said...

Thank you. I haven't taken up and read that for too long and am grateful for the reminder. I am as it happens also reading some of Newton's Letters at the moment.

Signet Classics, rather than Singet.