Earlier this semester, Hope Nisly, one of our librarians, ask me to contribute to the library’s series on books that have shaped our lives. Here is my piece. Thank you to Hope and the Library staff for finding ways to reach students in personal ways.
The Confessions, St. Augustine
It might seem like I am just playing the liberal arts game here. “See, one of those old books we assign really can be meaningful to you personally, and to prove it I am going to write like it was special to me.” Well, it’s no game.
From the first time I read it, I was captivated by several things all at once. I was struck by how easily and organically Augustine wove together the best philosophical reflection of his day with the words of scripture. I was struck by the way his own story, his autobiography, was the structure for this attempt at understanding. I was caught up in the descriptions of those whom he loved, why, how, sometimes with joy and sometimes with anguish. I was struck by what seemed to be a transparency that he could not seem to hide, and the complex ways he seemed to draw out the meaning of the events of his life, and how they intertwined with those of others, sometimes family members, sometimes the intellectual and institutional leaders of his day.
Two other features I have come to appreciate over time as I have re-read and taught The Confessions. First, Augustine is often attacked for his positions on a number of things, his doctrine of sin for instance, and his teaching about sexuality. I have heard and read these attacks from the time I was in college—I am sure they will go on. And there are a number of things that he can be criticized for. In fact by speaking of himself he opens himself up for it. However, The Confessions were written at the time that scholars speak of as the most balanced portion of his career, after the enthusiasm of his conversion, and before the sometimes extremes of later theological controversies. It continues to defend itself.
Second, this North-African thinker was not afraid to learn. The whole of the story is about learning to live in faith, to grasp philosophical truth, about his weaknesses and misunderstanding, his mixed motives, the gifts of knowing and loving others. It is about the growth from arrogance to humility, and from the desire for the esteem of others to the desire for the love of God. Sometimes this is painful to him, but it is ultimately joyful. I came to realize that if St. Augustine, one of the great intellects and spirits of all times, could struggle so, perhaps there was hope for me! I could see what he learned and how, and what it cost him. His “Confession” became greater as he learned and grew. He “confessed” his sin and weakness, and he “confessed” his growing and deepening faith and knowledge.
It seems to me that we grow into great books. If we want to re-read, if they come back to us at times of meditation or perhaps crisis, if they live with us, we know their greatness. It takes time and experience to grasp them, to see the way they do their work. And sometimes the words themselves are such that they move beyond the writer’s intent and understanding. Since I first read it 40 years ago, I have been growing into The Confessions, and I would guess I am not done.