What was St. Augustine doing when he was writing his Confessions
I’m writing this article as an exploration of St. Augustine’s possible motives for writing the spiritual classic, The Confessions in Thirteen Books, or more simply the Confessions. Confessions was begun around 397 AD and published near 401 AD, so about one or two years after St. Augustine had become a bishop, taking Valerius’ place as the bishop of Hippo. The article itself will cover what St. Augustine intended when he wrote the Confessions, what it meant in the context of his world and ministry as a bishop, where else we might find a prototype for the kind of work that he completed in the spiritual classic, what the book can teach us about St. Augustine and about the spiritual life, and finally a half of the document will go to answering some negative comments made by an Eastern Orthodox priest regarding St. Augustine's Confessions and its legacy in Western Christendom.
So to begin with I would like to provide more background to St. Augustine's Confessions by noting some of the works that St. Augustine was up to during the period between 397 AD and 401 AD when the work was being written, I will list them below. This list will helps set down what sort of works and interests St. Augustine had in mind before he began writing the Confessions.
So to begin with I would like to provide more background to St. Augustine's Confessions by noting some of the works that St. Augustine was up to during the period between 397 AD and 401 AD when the work was being written, I will list them below. This list will helps set down what sort of works and interests St. Augustine had in mind before he began writing the Confessions.
· [Just for reference] Conversion to Christianity and resting with friends at the Cassiciacum. There are various philosophical/religious documents that come out of this reflection (386 AD).
· Baptism by St. Ambrose, 387 AD
· “On the Catholic and the Manichaean Way of Life”, 387-388 AD, written as a lay person.
· “On Genesis, Against the Manicheans”, 388-389 AD, written as a lay person.
· “On True Religion”, 389-391 AD
· St. Augustine is ordained as a priest in 391 AD
· “On the usefulness of believing”, 391 AD
· “On the two souls, against the Manicheans”, 392-393 AD
· “On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis.” (unfinished), 393-394 AD
· “Commentary on Galatians” and “Unfinished Commentary on Romans”, 394-395 AD
· “On Continence” and “On Lying”, 395 AD, possibly written during his beginning his episcopacy.
· “Miscellany of Questions to St. Simplicianus”, 396-397 AD, written as a bishop
· “On Christian Teaching” (396-420 AD) and “Exposition on the Psalms” (396-420 AD)
· “Against the Basic Letter of the Manichees”, 397 AD, written as a bishop
· “ Against Faustus the Manichee” and “Against Felix the Manichee” (397-398 AD), written as a bishop
· “On the Nature of the Good” and “Against Secundinus the Manichee”, 399 AD
· “On the Trinity” (399 AD to 419 AD)
· “On the work of Monks” (400 AD)
· “On the Inquiries of Januarius” (400 AD) [Letters 54 and 55 regarding the Eucharistic fast]
· “On Baptism Against the Donatists” (400-401 AD)
· “On the Good of Marriage” and “On Holy Virginity” (401 AD)
· “The Literal Interpretation of Genesis” (401-415 AD)
· Tremendous amounts of sermons and letters are completed just as well.
So as you can see, St. Augustine’s Confessions were written during a furor of activity as shepherd of the Catholics in Hippo. St. Augustine at the start of his priesthood and episcopacy seems to have focused very much on countering the Manicheans in his community or abroad in Africa, since he had belonged to the Manichean community for some ten years of his life. Much of those ten years of his life he had spent as a persecutor of Catholics, and it was a big surprise for many African Catholics to see such a person come to life by the grace of God. They would have doubted his sincerity. Another interesting thing in this period is that St. Augustine began a number of other works devoted to both the monks that he was an abbot over (On Lying, On the work of Monks, Commentary on Galatians, among some letters as well) and the laity whom he was charged with caring for (Homilies on the Sermon on the Mount [not listed], Exposition of the Psalms, works on the Eucharistic fast, works on marriage and virginity, various sermons and letters, etc.). Near the end of his completion of Confessions St. Augustine begins a series of larger works against the Donatists, but not to be confused or mislead here, St. Augustine had actually been writing letters to Donatist bishops since very near the beginning of his priesthood, trying to convince them to end their schism. It seems that St. Augustine’s attempt at completing his commentary on Genesis might also factor into how Confessions ends with a reflection on God’s work in Creation and on the soul.
What is a Confession?
In this brief segment before I try to dive into why St. Augustine wrote his Confessions I hope will try to bring to mind what it means in Latin to confess something. I admit that I do not know very much Latin, and so what I write will be what I can glean from the resources available to me. Confiteor is the Latin verb to confess, to acknowledge and profess something, to admit, to avow, or to own up to something, and so when St. Augustine writes his Confessions we must understand that it isn’t simply St. Augustine confessing all of his sins to us as if the center of Confessions is actually St. Augustine as a man, himself, but rather the work is actually both a confession of sins, but more truthfully it is an avowal and professing of the mercy of God and His Providence which took care of him in spite of himself. In many of the psalms as a friend of mine noted, use the verb confess to mean to praise God, such as psalm 9/10, “Confitebor tibi, Domine, in toto corde meo, “I will confess/praise thee, O Lord, with my whole heart.”. St. Augustine had spent thirty years of his life lost from God and his book is a manner of reflection on those thirty years wandering and how God saved him through those means. St. Augustine’s way was twisted by his own design, and God made it straight, slowly and painfully.
As the Catholic Encyclopedia writes, “The Confessions (towards A.D. 400) are, in the Biblical sense of the word confiteri, not an avowal or an account, but the praise of a soul that admires the action of God within itself.” (Portalié, E.(1907).Works of St. Augustine of Hippo. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
Why did St. Augustine write Confessions?
St. Augustine’s Confessions are so popular that if anybody has ever read anything of St. Augustine it is likely to be this book. But why did St. Augustine even write this book? How did he find the time to write an entire reflection of his life in the view of God’s condescending mercy and grace? There are several theories as to the purpose of Confessions, and it is especially popular in academic scholarship to understand and write about this book. I’ve already hinted at a few theories but I will put forth what some scholars believe to be some of the motivating factors for why St. Augustine wrote this book.
James Joseph O’Donnell a classics scholar at Georgetown University writes in his book, “Augustine, A New Biography” (2005, ISBN: ISBN 0-06-053537-7) that he believes that St. Augustine’s Confessions were not written really for any practical purpose that is oriented towards others, at least not primarily, but the book’s main address is towards God. He writes, “…human readers are not only disregarded, but seated in the balcony and ignored by the performer on stage…”. There is some merit to this opinion in that it follows very closely to the text in which St. Augustine in almost every page reflects and writes a question to God or writes his own speech towards God. Every reflection of his life is coupled with a reflection on God. His infancy (which he doesn’t remember but writes about) is coupled with reflections on the Psalms and with his thoughts about his own caprice and waywardness in that stage of life, his childhood is filled with remarks at missed opportunities and grief over his faithlessness to God in all of his childhood sins, regret fills his heart when he speaks about his fall from grace during his adolescence as he began sins of lust and avarice and deep pride, and simply every aspect of his life is then coupled with an earnest praise and yearning for God. St. Augustine writes in his Retractationes (Review of Books is a better translation than Retractions) written around 427 AD regarding his view of Confessions after reading it again: “The thirteen books of my Confessions, which praise the just and good God in all my evil and good ways, and stir up towards him the mind and feelings of men. As far as I am concerned, they had this effect on me when I wrote them, and they still do when I read them. What others think is their own business: I know at least that many of the brethren have enjoyed them and still do.” (Retractions II. 6, 1) Beyond this little else is said or corrected in his Retractationes on Confessions.
It might be argued that St. Augustine’s words here in Retraction Book II remark that the book is written to stir up others to reflect on their own lives and the way that God has worked in their own life, but I think this is too simplistic of a reading. The book was written for his soul and for God it seems, as a way for spiritual reflection. To that effect the manner in which the saint read them repeatedly brought him a special appreciation for God’s love and mercy and just as well a feeling of repentance for his current failures. What others thought of his life was their own business says the seventy-three year old man. He is glad that others found use in his reflections, but I think the book remains primarily as a reflection for him. Remember, that in the Solliloquies that St. Augustine set out to know nothing but God and his soul, and Confessions is the outcome of such reflections which came only some five or six years after endeavoring and never quite completing Solliloquies.
However, we can state more reasons for why Confessions was written. Henry Chadwick, a certain scholar of ecclesiastical history, brought to attention the theory that Confessions was written as a way to convince many of the tumultuous ecclesiastic culture of Africa that his conversion was sincere. There is some merit to this theory as well, given that St. Augustine spent 10 years as a Manichean, much in the same way that St. Paul spent quite some time as a Pharisee hunting down and killing Christians. Looking to the works of St. Augustine you can see that St. Augustine’s earlier works were almost singularly focused on upending the Manicheans, perhaps as part of his desire to separate himself from the sect or more likely as a way of devoting himself to Christ. You can also see from his letters and later works that St. Augustine was working to end the Donatist schism and there is quite some work that he has actually put into this before his completion of Confessions. I suspect that a large push for Confessions was either Catholics who needed an answer to the Donatist jeering that their bishop was a grave sinner (remember the Donatists were in some part legalistic and did not forgive sins easily) or St. Augustine who did not have much credibility from the Donatists who did not know him.
I think there are some reasons however to place this reason as a secondary one. There are many, many scholars who find anti-Manichean and anti-Donatist themes and references present in Confessions and it does not surprise me at all that these are present, but one has to remember that St. Augustine was already building some renown as a faithful convert. By the time he was writing Confessions it had been about ten years since his baptism, but perhaps only one or two years as a known bishop. The African Catholic bishops may have been suspicious but in some respect St. Augustine’s speech at a council, De Fide et Symbolo (On the Faith and the Creed), regarding the orthodoxy of the Nicene Creed , made in 393 AD. The speech was well regarded by the large council of the African bishops. The African bishops even allowed St. Augustine as a priest to preach in Hippo in light of Valerius’ (the bishop at the time) very broken Latin. And so any pushback from Catholics to write the Confessions is I think unlikely, or indiscernible in modern times.
The way in which Confessions is written just as well doesn’t seem to be an apologetic meant to be circulated among those who are not Catholic either. The tome is simply too personal and more concerned with God’s majesty and mercy towards a very, very pitiable sinner for us to consider it to be a sort of response to Donatist and Manichean troublemakers. It’s possible that the humility (and feelings of personal humiliation at times) expressed throughout the book are a way to show the Donatists that he was once a sinner but now a changed man, but this sort of a view contorts the book as if it were intended for a Donatist audience that is never courted or really addressed in the book. What about the idea that Confessions is written in response to the Manicheans?
This idea that the book is written as a response to Manicheans might have some merit too since the last three books of St. Augustine’s Confessions go off on a tangent to explore some questions on Genesis. St. Augustine was also working on an exegesis and commentary on Genesis at the time, but I think the text itself works better as a reflection on God’s majesty, immensity, and glory in the act of not only Creation, but the renewed creation made in St. Augustine’s heart. He was looking for the truth of man’s heart, which only truly rests in the Lord and it would make some sense for his reflections on memory and on man’s creation in Genesis to fit in with his entire work on human anthropology as only being able to be solved in God’s love. Furthermore, we must recognize that St. Augustine was working on his De Trinitate (On the Trinity) and so reflections on what it means to be made in the divine image of God is a very important theme not only to that book, but to his own book. How was Augustine, the man, the sinner, made in the image of God? How was he restored? How is he being restored?
The last reason and motive perhaps was that St. Paulinus of Nola had been introduced to St. Augustine’s works from St. Alypius (St. Augustine’s beloved friend who became a Manichean with him and then a convert with him). It is suggested that St. Augustine’s response to St. Paulinus’ asking him for an account of his conversion and ascetical life was the Confessions. This has a good base to it and I think this would have likely been one of St. Augustine’s motivators to write Confessions but Confessions is never even addressed to Paulinus with a greeting of any sort which is common in works addressed to others, at least in typical Roman custom.
Ultimately, I think the best conclusion is that Confessions is the combination of a reflection on his own soul with all of the flurry with which his episcopal life had brought upon him. He was reading the works of St. Paul very much and God’s mercy on sinners was an important theme that resonated with St. Augustine for the rest of his life. Confessions is more honestly about God than it is about St. Augustine, though it is written from his perspective and his honest emotions towards God, the ultimate goal of the books is for the reader to look up at God.
What sort of a book is The Confessions?
I’ve already talked about what sort of book Confessions is in terms of its intended direction, but there is something different about St. Augustine’s literature. When St. Augustine was at the Cassiciacum reflecting on how to become a Christian he deliberately invented a new genre called the Soliloquies. The Soliloquies, St. Augustine notes in his Retractationes was his attempt at a new genre of writing in which he dialogues with himself. The genre was more or less a failure, as you can tell by asking people on the street if they havve ever heard of St. Augustine’s Soliloquies It’s a good early read of St. Augustine’s thought and self-dialogue (yes, not a monologue) but it’s not a magnum opus (great work). There are not too many autobiographies in late antiquity, but there are a few examples of Christians who spent some time on their own writing about themselves. St. Paul in the New Testament writes about himself, but as a way to show his divine credentials, as it is, and to introduce himself as an authority within the early Church. He often has to tell people that though he was not an original Apostle he was called in a special way to be a special Apostle. St. Hilary of Poitiers and St. Cyprian who are of a similar time period to St. Augustine did spend some time working on autobiographical statements, but certainly nothing of the size and length of St. Augustine’s own work. Perhaps the only other model to look to is Marcus Aurelius, the anti-Christian emperor some two centuries earlier, and his Meditations. Though Meditations bears some similarity in self-reflection to Confessions, it’s not very wide in scope and consists of small snippets mainly, so it’s tough to see Meditations as any sort of a Roman framework for St. Augustine. It does not seem that there is even that much evidence that Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations was ever read by St. Augustine, though it’s possible that he was familiar with the work as an Imperial orator prior to his conversion. I've not yet found any documentation that can point with any certainty that St. Augustine is familiar with this text.
A friend hinted to me that we might look to St. Patrick of Ireland (ca. 387 AD to ca. 460 AD) who wrote his Confessions in which he calls to mind his life and mission in a letter. In St. Patrick’s Confessions however he defends himself from the charges against him which seem to regard extortion with regard to the Sacraments, or heterodox actions. However in this regard he also discusses his mission of converting thousands and baptizing thousands and creating convents, etc. Never having read St. Patrick’s Confessions I cannot say how much of a model it could be in comparison to St. Augustine’s Confessions, but St. Patrick’s Confessions would have come far after St. Augustine even began his Confessions, much less before St. Patrick even became a priest.
There are of yet other models for autobiographies such as St. Gregory the Theologian (St. Gregory of Nazanzius) who wrote De Vita Sua as an autobiographical poem reflecting on his long hardships in fighting for Trinitarian orthodoxy and against Arianism. St. Gregory was, similar to St. Augustine, trained as an orator. St. Augustine had some exposure to philosophy and was a grammarian for some time, but St. Gregory was actually trained in philosophy and likely had a better handle on Greek philosophy than St. Augustine, which is not to say that St. Augustine is not a good philosopher (read Against the Academics and On the Teacher for a good preview). It takes quite some time to write an autobiography and it is curious that St. Gregory wrote at the end of his life and St. Augustine near the age of fifty years of age, both seemed to want to reflect on all that God gave them especially in a life in which most people didn’t even reach past forty or fifty. I am not particularly aware if St. Augustine was familiar with St. Gregory of Nazanzius’ work, though I recall that he does sometimes cite the Cappadocian Fathers in his De Trinitate and in his works against Julian of Eclanum, but he gets them confused at times, meaning his resources in Africa to their works must have been limited. Even at that it is a question of whether St. Augustine would have known of autobiographies in the East at the time of writing Confessions. It ultimately seems like it’s unlikely that St. Augustine knew of this sort of an autobiography and more or less wrote Confessions for himself and for God rather than following any sort of framework. St. Augustine as an experience writer had already tried before to write texts from without any prior frameworks and so it’s no surprise how original Confessions seems in the Western Roman Empire even if it has some fore-runners in the Roman Empire as a whole.
What sort of character does the book have and what does it reveal about St. Augustine?
My final remarks on Confessions is that it’s a book about God and the way in which for each and every one of us He seems to stoop down so low in humility just to raise us up out of our sins. St. Augustine says that God doesn’t stoop, but raises us up, and perhaps that is what his work is about, this raising up of a sinner by the grace and glory of God. It isn’t a book primarily about St. Augustine or a philosophical text about the self as some scholars like to say, it is the personal account and testament to God’s work.
As scholar, John C. Cavadini (at the University of Notre Dame), wrote in an article (The Darkest Enigma: Reconsidering the Self inAugustine’s Thought) in Augustinian Studies, that there is no aspect of St. Augustine’s writings in which he deals with a thing such as the ‘self’. He writes of an interior and an exterior man, but a concept of ‘self’ as we currently think of it is not to be found in St. Augustine’s writings. Cavidini argues that in St. Augustine there is no language of self, one because Latin does not contain the proper structure to talk about self at least in the way that English can, and secondly because for St. Augustine there is no stability in what he calls the interior and exterior man. There is no concreteness to which St. Augustine speaks of the self in this manner, but rather a self-awareness is not the awareness of a deep, self-contained being that is who we are, but rather the awareness of a disturbing and dark enigma. This mystery is the mystery of man in which when he dives deep within himself he sees an emptiness, a frailness, a brokenness that does not end with a looking upon one’s self but rather ends in the awareness of God and of the need to cling to Him for our perfection and fulfillment. I think there is a certain congeniality to this statement by Cavadini in that St. Augustine loves to quote in various of his works the phrase from St. Paul that “We see now through a mirror in an enigma, but then it will be face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12) especially in the De Trinitate (On the Trinity) where St. Augustine reflects on man being the Divine image (which is, I think a second reflection on his writings of the Confessions).
The article is very interesting to say the least, and only having browsed it I think it is accurate to say that for St. Augustine the interior (deepest parts of the soul and mind) and exterior man (the senses and body) are to be united by faith, hope, and charity into the life of Christ who is our one Mediator. So then as St. Augustine writes, "For of all those who have been made and fashioned of the Father, through the Son, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, none are gods according to nature” (On the Faith and the Creed, 393 AD). But rather we are made like God by grace and become like gods by participation and not by nature. And just the same, “For we are not reconciled unto Him except through that love in virtue of which we are also called sons: as we are no more under fear, like servants, because love, when it is made perfect, casts out fear; and [as] we have received the spirit of liberty, wherein we cry, Abba, Father. And inasmuch as, being reconciled and called back into friendship through love, we shall be able to become acquainted with all the secret things of God, for this reason it is said of the Holy Spirit that He shall lead you into all truth.” (Ibid) This is the true mission of the self, to become totally wrapped up into God, just as St. Paul tells us to clothe ourselves in Christ. You can see this constantly in St. Augustine’s Confessions as he references himself and his condition ever to God’s Providence and to his heart’s thirst for God. In St. Augustine’s Confessions the aim and desire is to know nothing but God and the soul, and even then to have one’s whole being consumed in the Divine Love, which without every heart will be restless.
Below will be reproduced the first chapter of St. Augustine’s Confessions:
St. Augustine’s Confessions, Book 1, Chapter 1:
“1. Great are You, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Your power, and of Your wisdom there is no end. And man, being a part of Your creation, desires to praise You, man, who bears about with him his mortality, the witness of his sin, even the witness that You resist the proud, — yet man, this part of Your creation, desires to praise You. You move us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You. Lord, teach me to know and understand which of these should be first, to call on You, or to praise You; and likewise to know You, or to call upon You. But who is there that calls upon You without knowing You? For he that knows You not may call upon You as other than You are. Or perhaps we call on You that we may know You. But how shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? Or how shall they believe without a preacher? (Romans 10:14) And those who seek the Lord shall praise Him. For those who seek shall find Him, (cf Matthew 7:7) and those who find Him shall praise Him. Let me seek You, Lord, in calling on You, and call on You in believing in You; for You have been preached unto us. O Lord, my faith calls on You—that faith which You have imparted to me, which You have breathed into me through the incarnation of Your Son, through the ministry of Your preacher.”
The reference in the grasp to know God is always to put God before man, and one can note how much more St. Augustine is concerned with God acting upon him rather than him reaching out to know God within himself.
Answers to Fr. Sergei and Seraphim
I would like to end this reflection on St. Augustine’s Confessions to address some concerns that a certain Seraphim, a Catholic, asked me to write a response to. This entire article was written with the aim of addressing an article written by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov, an Orthodox priest. I do not want to disparage Father Sergei’s reputation or call into question anything regarding his character, but I only want to defend my patron saint from what I think might be a somewhat ungenerous article regarding the saint’s work. I do not want to disparage Fr. Sergei in any way at all in this part of my article, and in fact I hope I can show due reverence to his holy priesthood. May the Lord preserve me from speaking ill of a priest. I believe that Fr. Sergei’s critique of St. Augustine in his essay, ‘Blessed Augustine’s View of Self’ is a misunderstanding of St. Augustine’s Confessions and I hope to serve my patron saint well in trying to put St. Augustine in a good light. I hope that Fr. Sergei does not take this article as an attack or as denigrating his ministry or academics, but rather I only hope to insist that we all move forward towards the truth which we all must love dearly. May St. Augustine intercede on our behalf to discover him as he would have wanted us to know him, an honest man willing to concede his faults but always to work hard to know and love God.
Fr. Sergei writes at the outset of his essay that he doesn’t want to make too much of a statement about St. Augustine’s influence in the East. From what I’ve read, St. Augustine’s reputation as a saint was honored in the Eastern Churches on account of his reputation as being a saint in the Western Churches. Most readings of St. Augustine in the Eastern Churches, from what I’ve read, were during polemical spats between the Eastern and Western Churches during times of schisms in which St. Augustine was consulted as a Latin Father who taught certain things that sounded peculiar to the East. St. Augustine’s De Trinitate was not translated in to Greek until the 13th century by Maximos Planoudes, but ultimately most of St. Augustine’s works were not read in the East, which is simply another story in and of itself.
Onwards in Father Sergei’s essay he makes a comment regarding F.J. Sheed, a translator of the Confessions, which roughly speaking comes to say that St. Augustine was the only light in the Western Church for seven hundred years while the Eastern Church had many lights. I think this is an unfortunate statement since we were once one holy Church. To denigrate the Western Church’s pre-schism saints is to denigrate the Church itself, or so it seems to me. There were many saints who are revered even in the Eastern traditions like St. Bede the Venerable (672 AD- 735 AD), St. Gregory the Dialogist (540 AD – 604 AD), St. Leo the Great (391 AD -461 AD), St. Ambrose of Milan (330 AD-397 AD), and perhaps others as well. I was dismayed to have read this statement in Fr. Sergei’s essay, but perhaps this is because of a lack of acquaintance with the Latin Church and the writings of St. Augustine at large. I wonder if I am misinterpreting Fr. Sergei here on this occasion, however.
Father Sergei continues in his essay to remark from a source titled Augustine (a biography) that St. Augustine was cut off from the consensus of the Fathers, I would argue that this isn’t a very good way to really place St. Augustine into his African Catholic context. After all, St. Augustine’s views were influenced very strongly by that of St. Ambrose of Milan and many bishops came out of St. Augustine’s monasteries, where he taught as an abbot. St. Ambrose himself was conversant with much of the Roman Empire, East and West, so we should expect that he formed St. Augustine well. To say that St. Augustine and those influenced by him were somehow opposed or out of touch with the other Catholic saints and teachers of the Patristic age is too simplistic, I feel. St. Augustine often in his earlier writings and even in his later ones calls believers to hold to the ‘rule of faith’ or to look to the ‘universal teachings of the Catholic Church’. One can see this in his “On the Faith and Creed” where he references both Latin and Greek modes of reference to the Trinity or in his two books “Response to Inquiries of Januarius” where St. Augustine discusses the Eucharistic fast and the tradition of Easter. St. Augustine just as well was relatively active in African counsels which would have put him in constant contact with many African bishops who would have had much contact with other bishops. We ought to know that not all of St. Augustine’s views were kept, and try as he might to keep as close to Scripture and the teachings within it, we know that on some parts of his teachings some were scandalized.
Fr. Sergei also writes Latin theology and ecclesiology tend to be individualistic as opposed to the conciliarity of the Eastern churches, and that this may be a reflection of Augustinian thought. I don’t think this is a fair analysis of St. Augustine’s thought, intention, or aim in his writing the Confessions, which is Fr. Sergei’s main text to analyze in this essay so as to put himself forward as the focus of the text. The story is the story of a soul looking upwards and acknowledging God in every step of his life. I hope this can be seen in my posting of the first chapter of Book 1 of St. Augustine’s Confessions. It is the same story that each of us ought to tell as well. Life with God is always personal, and the love of God as the Carthusian monks say is so strong that it is the sort of intensity of love that one thinks is intended only for our one soul alone, that is to say God loves us especially as His special creation.
It’s not always true that autobiographies in the East or West were apologetic in nature, though this is often the case. This is a comment made by Fr. Sergei. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations weren’t apologetic nor polemical but invitations to himself to reflect upon. As for the further comments that Book 1 of St. Augustine’s Confessions and the rest of the book is polemic or defensive in nature, that may or not be true, though it does go to some aim to show the errors of the Manicheans and philosophers, I do not think this still puts St. Augustine at the forefront or poster-boy of the Confessions. He is the one through which we get to see St. Augustine’s experience with God, and through this, to see God more in our own lives. This introspection of the self is not unique to Latin Romans, so it does not seem defensible that St. Augustine’s Confessions invented or intended the individualistic self that we see in Locke and Descartes.
Fr. Sergei states further that the manner in which other saints talk about themselves only to offer a defense of themselves and then immediately deflect away from themselves so as to focus on Christ is not consistent with St. Augustine’s Confessions. He then claims, “St. Augustine’s work, on the other hand, not only contains much larger autobiographical sections, but arguably has the intent of capturing the readers’ attention and keeping it focused on the very persona of the famous Bishop.” St. Augustine’s Confessions follows his life so as to show and magnify the work of God despite his sinfulness and wicked ways. He did not write the Confessions as I argued above, primarily for other people, but for himself to reflect on God’s special love for him, despite him being a sinner.
Fr. Sergei comments next, Just as the Sacrament of Confession had developed into a deeply private rite by the time St. Augustine ascended to an Episcopal throne, his Confessionsare to be read in private: in a study, a monastic cell, an eremitic comfort of one’s favorite arm-chair, or, as was Margaret Miles’ choice, in the tight bonds of “pleasure and luxury” at a Mediterranean resort:” This, to my knowledge, is quite wrong. The Sacrament of Penance as a private relation between priest and confessor was not always the case, and in fact the Sacrament of Penance which brought back sinners prevented from taking Communion (ex-communicated) often involved a public penance, at least for the greater sins. St. Augustine writes, “If his sin is not only grievous in itself, but involves scandal given to others, and if the bishop judges that it will be useful to the Church, let not the sinner refuse to do penance in the sight of many or even of the people at large, let him not resist, nor through shame add to his mortal wound a greater evil” (Sermon 151, n. 3) Typically these public penances would only be for the worst of sins, and not easily allowed a second time, though St. Augustine writes in letter 153 that it is permitted on the occasion of great contrition and sorrow. Private confessions seem to be a later adaptation, though of course ex-communication and prohibition from Communion in light of grave sins is still retained. As for the comment by Fr. Sergei that Confessions was meant to be read in private, I don’t frankly know if this is true, though it seems plausible..
The captivating nature of St. Augustine lies, I think, in his frankness and capacity to discuss the parts of his past that haunt him and the manner in which God’s Providence even made use of it. St. Augustine put his rhetoric to good work in the Confessions, but it ought to stand far from becoming an book of sheer joy as if it were a novel read for pleasure. Personally when I read Confessions I felt joy and sorrow in reading it. Joy that in the beautiful praises of God and sorrow both because of my own lack of such depth in contrition for sins and sorrow at the long and arduous journey with which St. Augustine had to suffer in order to find God.
Next Father Sergei discusses the sort of disenchantment with which saints realize their sinfulness as they come closer to play with fire as the Carthusian monk wrote in the essay Beyond the Absolute (see part 3 of my post here). The Eastern Orthodox, writes Fr. Sergei, are blessed with a spirituality that recognizes that the closer we are to God the closer we see the stains in our souls. The Catholic West, he writes, is not so blessed and sees in itself something to be glorified of, or to centralize the spiritual life upon the self in its holy accomplishments. This statement is somewhat surprising and is a bit controversial. Below is a statement by a Carthusian speaking about how the monk in the monastery finds his brother monks to be mundane, fraught with frailty, sin, and idiosyncrasies that seem incompatible with the image of saintliness:
“A deeper insight into souls gradually allows us to discover that behind these disappointing exteriors [of the brother monks’ behavior] often lie real treasures of interior life, of generosity, and of an authentic search for God. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that these precious gems are often buried in unattractive dress. How could it be otherwise, face to face with the Absolute? Is this not the price of such dangerous proximity to fire? For it highlights all our faults, all our roughness of character and all the petty misery which in other circumstances would be swallowed up in the surrounding sea of trivialities. To wish to come face to face with the light of God is deliberately to consent to expose all our faults and pettiness to the hard light of day. These [faults] first become apparent to others, and then, as we become enlightened, to ourselves. We first discover mediocrity in others and afterwards, in ourselves. We first discover mediocrity in others and afterwards, in ourselves.”
Fr. Sergei, next, writes that St. Francis of Assisi had once said that he did not know of any sin that he did not “know of any sin that he had not paid for through confession and repentance” (Blessed Augustine’s View of the Self). While this is possible that St. Francis paid for every sin he knew with penance and confession, it ought to be known that he reportedly said, “If I had only once committed a small sin, I should have sufficient reason to weep as long as I live.” And in that manner we do know that St. Francis sinned, in fact mortally, in many areas of his life, especially in the manner in which he reports his fear and disgust when faced with a man afflicted by leprosy calling out to him for help. The shame of this event turned St. Francis’ life around. St. Francis reportedly said, according to a vision [of St. Alphonsus Liguori?], “'For dear saint, if one venial sin displeases God so much that a whole life spent in weeping for it would not be sufficient to make reparation for it, how great should be my grief, I, who have sinned so much?”
Furthermore, Fr. Sergei quotes Ugolino, an excommunicated Franciscan known for his rigorist nature and party-spirit, writing about the Life of St. Francis, in an exaggerated manner in which St. Francis was turned into an alter Christus and into a light comparable to God. I think this is an exaggeration on the part of Ugolino (of whose work I have been able to browse through a curious twist of God’s Providence), and in another manner, as Seraphim relates St. Seraphim of Sarov similarly reflected a Taboric light during his life time. It is interesting perhaps to compare the holiness and lives of these two saints, both who embraced a radical poverty.
The other examples such as St. Therese of Lisieux might be explained as well, but I will not go on to explain all of the other examples, because the focus is on St. Augustine. St. Augustine was not presumptuous as Fr. Sergei might be implying of Western Spirituality. He died having the penitential psalms of David on his wall so that he might die praying them. A legend recounts that a sick person approached St. Augustine on his deathbed hoping to be healed, to which St. Augustine replied humbly that there was nothing in him to heal him and if there was that the saint would have healed himself. Nonetheless St. Augustine allowed the person to come forward and the person was healed. Presumptuousness is not the character of St. Augustine’s Confessions and there are numerous of his sermons that warn against having faith and many works and saying that our work is over and that we can die safely in God’s arms. The man prayed and was disturbed by many things in his own soul that he could not control. He was wracked by guilt by dreams of temptations and sorrowful for his having obtained these things, while accepting God’s will to put him in such areas.
Fr. Sergei writes next that autobiographies are unknown to the Eastern Orthodox or their saints. As Seraphim writes however that St. John of Kronstadt’s “My Life in Christ” is such an example of an autobiography and is not read as an attempt to usurp the Church’s prerogative of evaluating the life of a Christian only at the end of his life.
It greatly disturbs me that Father Sergei would write that a saint of the Eastern and Western Churches is capable of being the Fore-Father of Spiritual Relativism. Such a person I believe St. John the Theologian would call an anti-christ. How is it that the Church could hold St. Augustine to be both a saint and an anti-christ? To me this is completely absurd. Surely there must be something else that Fr. Sergei meant to say here. The further comment that there are many ways to be Catholic is somewhat upsetting when Father means to oppose this to there being one way of being Orthodox. There is one Christ, there is One Way, One Life, and One Truth, and so it seems to me that there is one way of being a Christian, though perhaps different perspectives. We should respect that God has given different perspectives and means into the Life of God, and that He has made us all special with unique gifts so that we can each learn to practice humility and patience in the spiritual life.
It is perhaps interesting that Fr. Sergei wrote: “In the modern West it is not at all uncommon for people to be fascinated with their own lives and experiences, including (or, especially?) spiritual ones in just the same way as those who thought of themselves as “great” in any way have always been.” Contrary to this in fact, St. Augustine writes that he wrote this text for those who are too interested in the lives of others, and not enough in their own. The saint wrote that the Confessions is a means by which men and women can see a way to investigate their own lives with sorrow for our sins, and joy in the life of God. This is what St. Augustine says in Letter 231 to Darius regarding his Confessions, “Join me in praising Him to whom, and not to myself, I desire praise to be given." I know that this is the manner in which I have read Confessions.
It is then puzzling when Fr. Sergei remarks that St. Augustine is a saint and that the Confessions is the book intended for St. Augustine and God, and nobody else. I agree that the book is intended primarily as a confession of praise and humility before God.
However the following paragraph remarks that St. Augustine was the only spiritual light of the West and despite Confessions being so individual-centered as Fr. Sergei claims, the Catholic West lost sight of an eremitic (the basis of words in English like hermit) life style from the Deserts Fathers of Egypt and Syria. This is polemical, and dismissive of the fact that St. Augustine was an abbot, and that St. John Cassian was read popularly for more than a millennia in the Catholic West. For those who do not know, St. John Cassian was in Syria and translated many of his talks with these monks into Latin. From St. John Cassian’s works come the inspiration for St. Benedict’s Rule, which was almost universally read in the West.
I agree with Fr. Sergei at the end that we must re-evaluate St. Augustine as a theologian, monastic abbot, bishop, and saint in order to move further with reconciling the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. What I however disagree with is that St. Augustine saw the self as a thing in which one can exalt or understand as complete unto itself. St. Augustine wrote in one of his commentaries on the Psalms (Ennarrations on the Psalms) that to love oneself first is ultimately to love ones’ self incompletely and in fact when we love ourselves first we are actually hating ourselves. He writes this because he means to say that to love ourselves truly we must love God first, even to the point of having some self-hatred about our faults. This is one of the paradoxes that St. Augustine loves very much and often uses in his writings. The soul is never complete in this life; “We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now I know I part; but then I shall know even as I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We see God’s love dimly and in the next life we shall see Him as He is and then we shall know Him even as we know ourselves. And yet this is the paradox, we do not even know ourselves very well in this life. What is the mystery of man? The Church has always answered that we cannot truly know or be ourselves unless we are first in Christ. The mystery of our identity and the mystery of God’s Self are intimately wrapped together, and that is why we are made in the Divine image so that the image could not be fully understood or meaningful without its source.
I pray that Fr. Sergei re-evaluates his remarks considering a saint that we celebrate jointly, but more than that I pray that Fr. Sergei have a happy and holy priesthood. Though I do not know Fr. Sergei, I have a feeling that he is a good man and a good priest. I hope that he prays too for my own salvation, as I know I fall very short of ever deserving salvation. May God grant His mercy.
We must all embrace humility and prayer as our life’s vocation in the good hope that God will send us where He desires us to be. I did not write this article to become a polemicist and pray that the Lord joins our Churches in due time. May the Lord grant me as well to not have to address other persons in writing response articles, I only desire to be a scribe. I hope that I can be a scribe that can perhaps open others to God, but ultimately a scribe. I hope in my writings to let others increase in holiness, while I remain hidden, all the while praying that God might make me holy as I ought to be. I apologize if this article is seen as an ad-hominem attack on Fr. Sergei, who I am very sure is a man of God and who strives to do what is best for his flock. May we all find peace in the Lord and embrace His love as St. Augustine would direct us to do.
I will post my friend’s prayer below:
“May God have mercy upon us for speaking against a priest of God, and may this priest of God forgive us for doing so. Blessed Virgin, Immaculate Queen of Heaven, look down from heaven and behold thy sons longing for the protection of thy maternal care. Grant us thy favor, and the favor of thy Son our Lord and God. Soften our wicked hearts to behold the sin which blinds us. Grant us to love thee more and more that we may love the Body which thou didst bring forth and which thou dost nurture now as always. Pray for our souls, gracious Mother, holy Maid, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ, the blessed fruit of thy womb. Forgive us, we pray, for the sins which we commit in crucifying that Body…forgive us, that by our sins in crucifying his Body—and dividing against our brethren--we cause thy sorrows to multiply. Forgive us, dear Mother, and bring us into the chamber of our God and King, presenting us with thy prayers before His most just judgment. We place our trust in thy most tender care and powerful intercession.
Through the intersessions of the Theotokos, Savior, save us!”
Much of the work on St. Augustine's reasons for his Confessions comes from Augnet.org and a little bit of my own research. I hope that there are not too many typos involved in this essay.