Many years ago, I first read St. Augustine’s Confessions, and it had a profound impact on me (I’ll get to why in a moment). I’ve since read it a few times, even listening to it in audiobook format. For anyone interested in the Christian faith, I recommend reading it. Before I get into why, let me first summarize St. Augustine’s life and this book.
St. Augustine lived in the late fourth century AD and into the early fifth century (November 12, 354 to August 28, 430). He was born in Tagaste, a town in the Roman province of Numidia. He is best known for serving as the Christian bishop of Hippo, also in North Africa. However, he was not always a bishop, nor was he always a Christian. His book Confessions tells his story of how he was brought to the Christian faith.
Augustine wrote this book in the form of an extended conversation (monologue, actually) with God. It is basically Augustine’s life story as told by him to God. He casts his life, though, within the context of his struggle with God. Beginning with his birth, he recounts his whole life and how he has struggled to come to terms with who God is and what plans He has in store for him.
As a child, Augustine’s mother was a Christian, but his father was not. I expect that this is a similar situation for many in our own time, where one or both parents are not a believer; this trend is likely to continue, at least in the United States and Europe. Augustine took after his father and did not become a Christian, to the anguish of his mother. Instead, he studied philosophy and then became a teacher of rhetoric. These were profitable fields to enter in his day.
Augustine eventually fell in with a group called the Manichees. This was a religion that had its origins in the East and postulated the existence of a good god and an evil god locked in combat. The good God was the creator of the spiritual world, while the evil god was the creator of the material world. The basic belief of the Manichees was that a person had to transcend the material world in order to reach spiritual enlightenment. It was basically a Gnostic type of religion, because it was based on securing some sort of secret “knowledge” in order to be “saved” from the material world by becoming more “spiritual.”
Augustine followed the teachings of the Manichees for a time, until he met one of their leaders, Faustus by name. Faustus was supposed to be the most pre-eminent and intelligent among the sect. However, Augustine was disappointed when he met him. He found that the man had none of the answers to Augustine’s questions and was simply a talker, spouting off vain sayings.
In connection with his disappointment with the Manichees, Augustine writes what I consider to be one of the best passages of the Confessions. He says:
From now on I began to prefer the Catholic teaching. The Church demanded that certain things should be believed even though they could not be proved, for if they could be proved, not all men could understand the proof, and some could not be proved at all. I thought that the Church was entirely honest in this and far less pretentious than the Manichees, who laughed at people who took things on faith, made rash promises of scientific knowledge, and then put forward a whole system of preposterous inventions which they expected their followers to believed on trust because they could not be proved (Confessions VI:5).
I think that every age has its own “Manichees” who ridicule the faith of a Christian and then put forward a system of belief (their own faith) that they say is based on science and yet is based on blind trust in man’s reason.
Augustine says that he began to prefer the “Catholic teaching,” but he was not yet a Christian. It wasn’t until he went to Milan, Italy to each rhetoric that he began going to church. St. Ambrose was the bishop in Milan, and Augustine first started attending church in an effort to refute the things Ambrose was saying. As time went on, though, he found himself being drawn into the faith.
He struggled with his budding faith, partly because he felt that, as a Christian, he could no longer teach rhetoric or engage in the behaviors in which he had delighted. One day, while in a particular fit of agony, he went into the garden area behind the house in which he was staying in Milan. While sitting in the garden in the midst of his internal struggles, he heard a voice singing, “Take it and read, take it and read.” He thought the voice was odd, since he couldn’t remember any children’s game where this phrase would be used. So, he picked up the book of Paul’s epistles that he had been reading. He opened it again and read the first passage that he saw. It was from Romans 13:13-14. In Confessions, Augustine quotes part of these verses as follows: “Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites” (Confessions VIII:12).
Augustine took this to heart as a sign that he should abandon his former ways. His internal torment was now gone, and he felt that God had shown him the way. Augustine told his mother of his new-found conviction in the Christian faith, and she was overjoyed, believing it to be an answer to her lifetime of prayer for Augustine’s soul.
The rest, as they say, is history. Augustine was catechized and baptized and eventually became bishop of Hippo. He began life as a pagan, believing in the lies told by those who varnished their myths with science. He died as a Christian, believing in the eternal truth as revealed by God through Jesus Christ. His Confessions tells the story how the one man became the other.
This then, is the reason that this book had such a profound impact on me and why I recommend reading it. Augustine’s story is the story of many of our lives. The particular names and places may be different, and we may not have the “take it and read” experience of Augustine, and yet we are all united in the fact that “You cannot escape the will of God,” as Tolstoy famously said. We must come to terms with our existence and the existence of God. In attempting to do so, we seek meaning and understanding in life, and it is always helpful to see how others have engaged in this struggle. In reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, I’m sure that you’ll find a bit of yourself in the pages, as did I. It is truly timeless, applicable as much today as it was in Augustine’s day.
(Image: St. Augustine of Hippo, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=210883 ; Original source: Hundred Greatest Men, The. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1885.)