What makes the Confessions of St. Augustine so famous is the depth of their understanding of the mercy of God. Written thirteen years after his conversion, they represent the mature thought of one of the world's greatest minds praising God for His boundless goodness to a great sinner.
No writer outside the Scriptures has spoken more eloquently about man's hunger for happiness. Augustine knew from experience the folly of seeking satisfaction in sin, and the wisdom of looking for true joy only in the Creator. The opening paragraph of the Confessions is also its opening profession of faith.
You are great, O Lord, and greatly to be praised: great is your power and to your wisdom there is no limit. And man, who is a part of your creation, wishes to praise you, man who bears about within himself his mortality, who bears within himself testimony to his sin and testimony that you resist the proud. Yet man, this part of your creation, wishes to praise you.
You arouse him to take joy in praising you for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.
We shall soon examine more closely the book of the Confessions. But first let us look briefly at St. Augustine the writer, and see something of the historical context in which he produced his great writings.
Importance of St. Augustine
St. Augustine's place in Catholic literature is unrivaled. The titles of his published writings read like a catalogue listing in a library. They cover all the areas of theology and philosophy, morality and spirituality that have become standard in the Catholic Church due in large measure to his prolific genius.
We may say there are especially three reasons for Augustine's greatness as a writer: his unqualified orthodoxy, his deep insight into the meaning of revealed mysteries, and his extraordinary beauty and clearness of expression.
Orthodoxy. In many aspects of Catholic theology St. Augustine has become a standard of orthodoxy. There is no single author whose writings have been quoted more frequently by the Church's teaching authority than those of St. Augustine. He died in 430 A.D. Within one year of his death. Pope St. Celestine I declared him "among the outstanding teachers" of sacred doctrine. One pope and general council after another have relied on his authority to explain or defend the deposit of faith. The Second Vatican Council quotes or refers to some writing of St. Augustine over forty times, more than any other doctrinal source below the papacy.
Deep Understanding. St. Augustine had a remarkable intellect. Even during his years of sinful estrangement from God, his reason kept asking the deepest questions of human existence. Once converted, he devoted his superb mind to penetrating into the meaning of the revealed mysteries. And the mysteries he discovered are still nourishing the faith of millions. His commentaries on Scripture, treatises on the spiritual life, and homilies to the people are the most extensive of any saintly writer in the readings of the Liturgy of the Hours.
Beauty and Clarity. His years of teaching rhetoric before Baptism had prepared him to write with a clearness of expression and a beauty of style that are almost unparalleled.
In later years, he would blame himself for vanity and striving for effect in what he wrote. But the Church's judgment is otherwise. His vocabulary has become part of the Church's language and many of his statements are now proverbs of Christianity.
In the providence of God, Augustine lived during one of the most turbulent periods in Christian history. Three devastating errors plagued the Church in his day, namely, Manichaeism, Donatism and Pelagianism.
In the Manichaean system, all the evil in the world comes from outside of man. An evil god is the cause of all the sin and suffering; and a good god is the source of all virtue and happiness. Having been a Manichaean himself for nine years, Augustine spent a lifetime refuting these errors. Once he discovered that he, Augustine, willfully resisted the will of God, he became the Church's greatest champion of human freedom.
According to the Donatists, only good people belong to the Church. St. Augustine knew his own human nature too well to agree with the Donatists. There were, as Christ had foretold, both good and bad people in the Church. Yet, as he explained, God allows the wicked to live so they can sanctify others by the sufferings they cause those against whom they sin, and so that sinners can repent and thus glorify the Lord who forgives them.
The Pelagians drew out of Augustine whole volumes of defense of God's grace. The followers of Pelagius claimed that we can reach heaven by the strength of our own mind and will. Augustine knew better from his hopeless struggle with passion, until he humbly acknowledged his absolute need of divine help. It was the Pelagians, too, who evoked from Augustine some of the deepest insights into the meaning and necessity of prayer. We must pray because we need grace, which God will give us provided we ask and keep asking for His aid.
The Focus of This Lesson
There are some great Catholic books that no one can afford to ignore. The Confessions of St. Augustine is such a book. As the most widely read autobiography in world literature, the Confessions should not only be read but studied and meditated on by anyone who wants to understand Christianity.
What Augustine brings out in his Confessions is the mercy of Christ in a sinful world. What the Savior had done during His visible stay in Palestine, He continues doing now as the Good Shepherd who goes out in search of the stray sheep until He finds it.
In spite of the title, the Confessions is not so much an avowal of guilt as a praise of the goodness of God who took back His prodigal son and embraced him with open arms.
The pages quoted in The Treasury of Catholic Wisdom are the last two books (8 and 9) of part one of the Confessions, treating of Augustine's conversion to the true faith and his experience as a new Catholic. They are, therefore, the heart of this Christian classic which is unsurpassed in world biography.
In reading these two books of the Confessions, look especially to see how Augustine finally made the break with his former life of sin, and how his new-found faith affected his whole outlook on life.
1. On the first level, it is clear that Augustine would never have broken with his sinful past except for the persuasive words and powerful example of his friends. For the rest of his life, Augustine, &qout;The Doctor of Grace," never tired insisting that in God's ordinary providence He uses other human beings as the channels of His grace in our lives.
Also in describing his conversion, Augustine shows the close relationship that exists between the human mind and free will. Unless the mind is humble enough to submit to God's revealed truth, the will is going to be enslaved by its unruly passions.
2. After his conversion, Augustine decided to go the whole way in following Christ. From a life of self-indulgence, he would make reparation by living a life of self-denial.
Just as others were the instruments of God's grace to bring Augustine back to God, so Augustine was joined by others in following him not only into the Church but into religious life.
This social dimension of Christian sanctity later became one of the basic themes of Augustine's writings on the spiritual life.
As indicated before, the questions you will answer are based on the two chapters from St. Augustine's Confessions. But they are not all, or mainly, questions of fact. They are also questions that are raised by what Augustine says about his conversion, and about his first experiences as a Catholic.