There is nothing inevitable in the outcome of an honest search for God. The Lord leaves us free, with all the risks of such freedom. There is nothing inevitable, except that His grace is always present to help us. Yet it remains up to us whether we accept it or not.
If there is any text in the long history of Christian autobiographies that illustrates this theme, it is Augustine’s Confessions.1 Written between 397 and 401 when Augustine was already Bishop of Hippo, the book comes some ten years after the moment of his conversion. It gives witness both to the power of divine grace and to the reality of human freedom. In its appreciation for God’s relentless pursuit of his heart and in the joy that came with giving himself to God, the book makes clear that God never forced his hand but was always present, even when Augustine was not yet mindful of that presence.
The better to appreciate a lengthy classic like this, it may be helpful to understand its general structure. The autobiographical part of it is to be found in the first nine of its thirteen books. The pattern used for this part of the Confessions has provided a model that many a later spiritual autobiography uses. It is one that we may think of as a journey outward and a return. These journeys begin with some early recognition of a goal and record the many missteps that the protagonist takes before discovering a successful way to reach that goal.
While the pathways involved in autobiographical journeys are thus in a sense circular, they are rarely simple. Often there are false starts, wrong turns, and downward spirals before the pilgrim gets a bead on the true path and climbs upward. In the fourteenth century Dante’s Divine Comedy quite deliberately imitates the pattern of Augustine’s model,2 as does Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain in the twentieth century.3 Even the act of writing the autobiography seems to be part of finding the way home, for it is not infrequently the case that the authors have to make more than one effort before succeeding. Augustine, for instance, wrote his Soliloquies in the form of an inner dialogue near the time of his baptism at Easter in 387. But for all the insights of that volume, it has nothing near the level of insight that ten further years of reflection would bring in the conjoined format of narrative and prayer that he uses in the Confessions. The same, I think, could be said of Dante’s La vita nuova4 of 1295. Dissatisfied with certain gaps and silences in his initial work, Merton returns to the genre of autobiography in his 1953 The Sign of Jonas and other works that were only published posthumously.5
Let us turn now to a more detailed consideration of the structure of the Confessions. In tracing his own childhood and youth, Augustine raises various questions in books one to five that receive answers (in reverse order) in books six to nine. Already in the first book we find the emergence of certain fundamental images that indicate the direction of a life-long search: the young Augustine’s desire for maternal love and the young boy’s quest for language and communication. In fact, even before recounting his birth and infancy, the forty–plus-year old author devotes the first four paragraphs of this book to the paradoxes of trying to speak about the ineffable God and about wanting to love what is greater than anything he can conceive.
In the second book the central episode shows us a mean-spirited teenager joining with other boys to rob a neighbor’s pear-tree, only to waste the fruit rather than to eat or sell it. The story raises the important question of how to explain the wickedness of some of the choices that human beings make. This book also records the dissatisfaction of the forty-year-old author with his pagan father Patricius for having shown more concern for his son’s sexual development than for his eternal salvation. The third book portrays, first, the disordered loves that overwhelm Augustine during his days as a student in Carthage, and then his naive fascination with the gnostic charms of Manichean dualism.
With its report of how Augustine took a mistress, the fourth book recounts the increasing agitation of a young man of powerful intellect but undisciplined passions. Book five is clearly transitional. In his dissatisfaction with the answers that Faustus, a Manichean bishop and the man whom he hoped would be a spiritual and intellectual father-figure for him, the twenty-eight-year-old Augustine is finally in a position to give his mother’s Catholic religion a fresh hearing. The preaching of Ambrose in Milan proves unexpectedly helpful in opening up the Scriptures to a mind that earlier dismissed them as simplistic or else impenetrable.
Book six begins the journey back home. Under the influence of Monica Augustine sends the beloved mother of his son Adeodatus (a name that touchingly means “given by God”) back to Africa. His passions, however, are still uncontrolled, and so he takes another mistress. In book seven we find an intellectual resolution to some of the problems that had been raised in book three: the need to use our intellects rather than our imaginations in order to grasp the immateriality of God, the origins of moral evil in our human power of free choice of the will, and the unique role of Christ as mediator between the creation and the Creator.
The crisis comes to a head in book eight, where Augustine’s growing conviction about the truths of the claims of Christianity meets the obstacles of his unchecked lust. He even dares to pray, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”6 The moment of conversion takes place when Augustine is pacing in a garden, at his wit’s end, until he hears the voice of a child playing some game: “Tolle et lege” (“pick [it] up and read [it]”). Taking that phrase as a command, he snatches up a text from St. Paul that his friend Alypius had been reading. The first phrase on which his eyes fall seems to him like a special message from God: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences.”7 Book nine recounts his reception into the Church through baptism by Ambrose, his true spiritual father, at aged thirty-two. It also includes a touching scene in which Augustine shares a mystical vision in a garden with his mother Monica and then an account of her death.
Although the Confessions is not written for another ten years after the baptism, almost nothing is said about that decade. Instead, Augustine turns to other topics as a way to better appreciate the significance of having finally made a definitive choice to live for and in the true God. Book ten considers a topic of great concern to an autobiographer: the mysteries of the human memory. Book eleven is the most speculative of the entire work: a reflection on the relations between time and eternity. Yet it too has profound autobiographical significance, for Augustine has become convinced that our true goal is life forever with God, and that our life within time is decisive for whether we will reach that goal.
Books twelve and thirteen are perhaps the most surprising inclusion: a sustained reflection on the creation story from Genesis. The reason for turning to this topic seems clearly to be Augustine’s desire to understand more deeply the significance of his baptism. Since Christianity holds that the sacrament of baptism is our spiritual rebirth and thereby the regeneration that begins to heal us from the damage done by the effects of original sin, Augustine finds it crucial to ponder the world as God first created it. Recalling God’s original intent and meditating on the way in which things were before the Fall are particularly helpful, in Augustine’s judgment, for keeping the baptized mindful of how to live after receiving the cleansing waters of the sacrament.
In these final sections of the Confessions we meet yet again some of the reason why this book is so valuable still. In our own day, when most Christians are baptized as infants, we tend not even to think of an issue that loomed so large for those baptized as adults in the early Church: the need to make decisive changes in their new lives as Christians. In fact, the need to take seriously the question of how to live as Christians is crucial for all of us. If we do not do so, it will be no surprise that we Christians seem so little different from those around us (if not actually worse, for we will all too easily suffer the consequences of the vice of presumption in resting content that it is enough simply to have been baptized).
As we will see in future installments of this series, the pattern that Augustine uses in his autobiography will often be adopted by later writers: a journey out and then back. It will often prove to be the case that those who undertake to write such autobiographies in mid-life will look back at their childhood and will there identify some key images that crystalize the life-long urges in their hearts. For Augustine, the opening book offers just such images. There he is writing about events that he cannot directly remember but only infer from things that others have told him and from what he has observed in little children. We find there a great desire for his mother’s love and a great longing for language. The first of these desires will only be fulfilled when he comes to a spiritual union with his mother after his baptism. The second will be increasingly fulfilled by the very pattern of prayer to which Augustine comes in his Christian life. It is no surprise that pervades the narrative within his autobiography.
In the second part of the pattern, we find a series of crises that emerge during adolescence and young adulthood. In these books the young Augustine works through various promising but ultimately illusory alternatives in the hope of reaching the goals of love and knowledge that had emerged in his nascent experience. Only after serious disillusionment with his own efforts to satisfy himself by the pursuit of the objects of his undisciplined passions does he turn to what is truly satisfying. There was nothing inevitable about the outcome of the journey, but something deeply consoling when he allows God to forgive him and heal him.
Considered in this way, the autobiography of Augustine can be seen to take its pattern from a story in the Scriptures to which Augustine himself often alludes: the story of the prodigal son.8 In pondering the pattern of the younger brother who wastes his portion of the inheritance and then returns to find at home an outpouring of mercy from his father that is entirely beyond anything he could imagine or expect, Augustine finds in the Gospels the pattern for his biography: the journey out and the journey back. At its heart Christian autobiography turns on an experience of the mercy of God.
1 There are many editions of Augustine’s text and numerous translations. For those who wish to consult the Latin text, let me recommend The Confessions of Augustine, edited by John Gibb and William Montgomery (New York: Arno Press, 1979), a reprint of the Cambridge University Press edition of 1927, for it has a superb set of notes. Among the many fine translations into English, I have a preference for the one by F. J. Sheed (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993 ). The recent translation by Maria Boulding, O.S.B. (Hyde Park NY: New City Press, 1997) is readily available as part of the The Works of Saint Augustine series.
2 For a detailed account of this point see John Freccero, Dante: The Poetics of Conversion (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1986). Among the many good recent translations of the Divine Comedy, that by Anthony Esolen (New York: Random House, 1996) deserves special mention, by reason of the quality of his notes in the area of spirituality and theology.
3 Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt Brace, 2005 .
4 Dante Alighieri, La vita nuova , Italian text with facing translation by Dino S. Cervigni and Edward Vasta (Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995).
5 Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979 ; Thomas Merton and Robert E. Daggy, Day of a Stranger (Salt Lake City UT: Gibbs M. Smith, 1981).
6 Confessions VIII.7 in Sheed’s translation, p. 139.
7 Confessions IX.12, in Sheed’s translation, p. 146.
8 The story of the Prodigal Son is found in Luke 15:11-32. Augustine’s allusions to the story are found throughout the Confessions, e.g., in his account of his theft of the pears in Confessions II, 4-10.