into the Mirror with Augustine:
A Reflection on his Confessions
By Halley Low
Augustine of Hippo lived in the 4th century during a time of great change within the church and the society at large. These days it is popular to bash Augustine, and though I may not agree with all his conclusions, nevertheless he remains one of the most important theologians in the history of the church, and there is both great beauty and wisdom in his “Confessions”. If you have never read “Confessions”, do yourself a favor and read it. The translation I used for this essay is by Maria Boulding, O.S.B., published in 1977 by New City Press. All quotes are from this translation with appropriate page notations. I recommend this translation because it is very user-friendly and beautiful.
For Augustine the central theme of human life is the quest for the “happy life”, defined as living in “joy in the truth” (pg. 259). Though Augustine claims this to be a universal human desire, he is quick to acknowledge that the living out of that desire is fundamentally flawed. This occurs when the purpose of our lives become our own affair separated from God’s purpose for us. Human happiness is found in obedience to God’s will, and not in the pursuits of worldly values or personal compulsions. In short happiness is found in so far as we surrender our will to God’s will, which according to Augustine is to praise God and to find God in all things, including ourselves, and to be mindful of our complete dependence on God. Yet this is not our daily experience. Augustine methodically demonstrates that our lived experience is at great odds with our intended life goal. He explains this reality as resultant of our will and its perverse nature, meaning its natural tendency towards self-centered desires. Augustine does not definitively state the reason the human will is so fundamentally self-centered, since it was originally created in God’s image and for God’s purpose. He suggests that this tendency is an inherent aspect of our fallen nature because, “the ancient sinner seduced our will to imitate his perverse will” (pg. 184). I understand this to mean that we are living in error, a lie from the father of lies, and that error has confused and twisted our will. (Perhaps this is a reason why Augustine, and others, expressed such concern about error in doctrine.) Though he may not fully explain the origin of our sinful nature, nevertheless, he clearly demonstrates its reality and its result within the individual soul and society. “Every disordered soul is its own punishment.” (pg. 58) It’s an odd dialectic that what is good, when divorced from its purpose (to give glory to God), can lead us into such error as to become a torture instead of a delight.
Augustine believes the essential nature of being human is “mind-memory-self”, later he expresses this same concept in the terms “knowledge-being-will”, which he defines in terms of action as “I am, and I know, and I will”. (I find his use of triads an interesting motif for reflecting all things back to the triune nature of God.) Thus from the moment of conception we “be”, we think (however infantile that process may be), and we will. Augustine gives expression of this understanding in the crying of a young child demanding, in her own way, what she desires. This is not only evidence of the ability of a baby to have a will and to express it, but is indicative of the self-centered perversity of the human will from our earliest moments of life. It is fascinating to watch as Augustine dissects, in minute detail, how our will can take either what is obviously good or obviously bad, twist them one way or another to suit our personal need or desire, and make the good bad and the bad worse. He is ruthless in his mode of investigation, examining even what may appear as an innocence childhood prank, and exposing the root of darkness that misleads something good into something unwholesome, in this case the bonding of friends.
Augustine believes this to be the universal human condition. None of us, no matter how spiritually advanced, have been able, on our own, to break this chain. Though Augustine has obvious affection for his mother, and sees her as a paragon of Christian virtue, (to the point of modeling the concept of “continence” as a woman reflecting virtues that he recognized in Monica), yet still recognizes her need for salvation and speaks of her faults as well, however few and light they may be. The same is true when he makes reference to Paul, who obviously has had a good deal of influence on his thinking, and whom he holds in high regard (referring to Paul) - “the man who made that claim was a soldier of the heavenly army, not mere dust as we are.” (pg.267) What unbelievably high acclaim, tempered greatly by his statement a couple of lines down – “I love Paul for saying what he did in response to the breath of your Spirit, but not even he could have spoken so by his own powers, for he was made of the same dust”. Thus for Augustine all of us are weak and corrupt by nature, and only by the love, mercy, and power of God can we be transformed into new beings.
This transformation, impossible for us to realize by our own power and will (which are equal and thus equally flawed), is nevertheless possible, and not just possible but already in process. Augustine asserts that the proof of God’s mercy is in the fact that this inward change has begun. Though it can be said that Augustine has a negative view of human nature, and a sense of the heavy burden of sin and innate weakness of the human soul, nevertheless I think that Augustine is primarily positive in his recognition of the human condition. Positive because in accepting our inherent weakness and propensity toward sin, he affirms God’s goodness and His steadfast love for creation. Creation itself is an act of God’s “abundant goodness” (pg.343). It is in the reality of God’s goodness that Augustine finds hope, which he repeatedly offers to us, and not just hope but “solid hope” (pg. 283). Grieving his saintly mother’s death he expresses comfort in the reality of hope and mercy when he quotes from the letter of James “mercy triumphs over judgment”. (pg. 234) Is it negative to recognize the underlying truth of our being, with its weakness and divided will? Or is that the first positive step we can take along the road to recovery? Is it negative to see our complete dependence on God’s grace for healing and growth? Or is it the most positive wonder of life that God “who is supereminent Love” (pg. 346) is constantly present to us offering help? And is it not a positive thing that we, as fractured as we are, nevertheless can will, however feebly, to respond to that Love with the cry – “Give me yourself, O my God,…I cannot gauge my love, nor know how far it fails…This alone I know, that without you all to me is misery…and all wealth but penury, if it is not my God.” (pg.347)
2007 Halley Low
Detail of “St. Augustine and Monica” by Ary Scheffer, The National Gallery, London.
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