Saturday, April 30, 2011

Confessions Book 5: Meeting Faustus

imageIn this book Augustine begins to relate his experiences during his 29th year. In particular he had begun to read certain “philosophers” (we would call them scientists today) who had studied the sun and the moon and were able to predict accurately the precise day, and hour and extant of the next solar or lunar eclipse. This research and the accuracy of their calculations convinced him that they had discovered the truth. These truths seem to contradict central aspects of the Manichean myths. The Manicheans did not seem to have adequate answers to these and other philosophical problems but they assured him that when the Manichean Bishop, Faustus arrived he would answer all Augustine’s questions. Augustine notes,

Now, I had read widely in the works of philosophers, committed a good deal to memory and still retained it, and I began to compare certain elements from my reading with the long-winded myths of the Manichees. The philosophers’ conclusions seemed to me more probable . . . (5.3.3).

Augustine notes the human pride which accompanies the philosophers who examine these heavenly phenomena. Distracted with this knowledge they fail to look for the Creator who made these calculations possible. Augustine admits,

Many true statements do they make about creation, but they do not find the Truth who is artificer or creation because they do not seek him with reverence. (5.3.5)

In fact Augustine goes on to parallel these philosophers with the corruption of the human conscience as seen in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans 1:19-20. Their unsound reason, distorts the truth into a lie, “and they worship and serve the creature instead of the creator” (5.3.5). In spite of this distortion he admits they have come to many true conclusions and compare to Mani “who had written voluminously (and incoherently) on these subjects . . . there was a wide discrepancy” (5.3.6).

Finally Bishop Faustus arrived in Rome. He was a very persuasive and eloquent speaker. It quickly became evident that in spite of Bishop Faustus’ elegant speech, he was not knowledgeable about philosophy. Augustine says he was ill-educated in the liberal arts, apart from grammar, and had read very little of Cicero or Seneca. In the end Faustus turned out to be completely incompetent for Augustine’s purposes.

This created a crisis in Augustine’s belief because it was obvious that Mani was ignorant of these matters and yet “still had the effrontery to teach them” (5.5.8). To make matters worse Mani claimed to be speaking through the Holy Spirit, with his full authority.  Augustine realizes that this was sacrilegious because Mani passed off “his erroneous opinions as those of a divine person—himself no less” (5.5.8).  Although Augustine did not immediately leave the company of the Manicheans his enthusiasm for their beliefs was waning.

Text © Scott McKellar 2011


All quotes in this series of blogs from Confessions are from, St. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed John Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 1997)

Image from Chapel of the Choir, Church of St. Augustine.  Piazza Sant'Agostino 4, San Gimignano. Scene 4. After meeting Faustus of Mileve, Augustine decides depart for Ostia

Book 4: What is Beauty?

Roma-Jan-05-013Augustine recounts his early thoughts on the nature of beauty. He notes that he had written several books on the topic which he has now lost, though he seems quite familiar with their content. He theorizes that beauty has two aspects. First there is the idea that some objects have an inherent quality, ‘beauty’ which we recognize as intrinsic. We also recognize a second aspect; some things are beautiful because of their harmonious relation or adaption to other things.

Augustine begins to muse about a certain orator to whom he dedicated his work on beauty. Is the love of an orator different than the admiration of an actor? Can we love traits in someone that we wouldn’t wish to have for ourselves? He notes that someone can love a horse but not desire to change places with it (4.14.22). He asks, “Do I love in one man what I would hate to be myself, when I too am a man?” (4.14.22). Augustine analyses the problem philosophically and drives beneath the unity of the species ‘man’. An individual has hidden depths affections and ‘movements of the heart’ that are known only to the Lord. He concludes that our nature as individuals depends more on the will than on the intelligible structures we exemplify.[i]

Following the intuitions of Cicero, Augustine observed the unity found in virtue and the fragmentation of human life seen in the vices. Initially he thought that the disunity was caused by an indefinable substance of evil but looking back from the present the he notes that “evil is no substance at all” (4.15.24). Later he will understand that evil is not a thing but the absence of the good.[ii] As we shall see in Book 5, Augustine used the idea of ‘evil as a substance’ to avoid personal responsibility for his actions. Augustine thought that at this point that the mind or rational soul was the supreme good (4.15.24).

Augustine interrupts the flow of his narrative with yet another anecdote, this time from seven years before he writes his first book. At the age of twenty he reads a Latin translation of Aristotle’s Categories. Again he highlights a mistake that he fell into as he tried to understand God as an instance of the categories rather than as identical with the ‘transcendentals’ (4.16.29).[iii] He will later correct this mistake in Book 7.

Plato had argued that the sensible world is a reflection or shadow of ideas which transcend the sensible realm. Chief among these transcendental properties are the one, the true and the good. Aristotle agreed with these transcendental properties but saw them not manifest in ideas but in the forms of actual things. One significant difference between Plato and Aristotle is that Plato indirectly also includes beauty as a transcendental property. Plato “argues in the Lysis and Timeaus that whatever is good (Greek: agathon) is also beautiful (Greek: kalon), and in the Republic that everything that exists participates in the good.”[iv] Augustine’s error was to attempt to see God as mere category rather than as a transcendental property. Jacque Maritain describes transcendentals as “concepts which surpass all limits of kind or category and will not suffer themselves to be confined in any class, because they absorb everything and are to be found everywhere.”[v] Ultimately Augustine is left awash in his own pride. He compares himself to the Prodigal son, who, “left you and set out for a distant land to squander it there on the quest for meretricious[vi] gratifications” (4.16.30). He concludes his prayer in this book,

We need not fear to find no home again

Because we have fallen away for it:

While we are absent our home falls not to ruins,

For our home is your eternity (4.16.31).

Text © Scott McKellar 2011






[i] Ibid., p. 108. Vaught notes that this is a development in thinking by Augustine which moved beyond common the Neo-Platonist thinking of Plotinus.

[ii] For a defense of Augustine’s views on evil against the objections of modern philosophers see Donald A. Cress, “A Defense of Augustine’s Privation Account of Evil,” Augustinian Studies (1989)20: 109 – 127.

[iii] Daniel Gallagher, “The Platonic-Aristotelian Hybridity of Aquinas’s Aesthetic Theory”, Hortulus: The Online Graduate Journal of Medieval Studies Vol. 2, No. 1, 2006, p. 2-15. Accessed 4/23/2011.

[iv] Ibid. p. 2.

[v] Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, trans. J. F. Scanlan (New York: Scribner, 1930), p. 30. As quoted in Gallagher.

[vi] “meretricious: of or relating to a prostitute : having the nature of prostitution”

Friday, April 29, 2011

A Pope for All Ages

A we approach the Beatification of Pope John Paul II I think we are all struck with the shear magnitude of his accomplishments.  The Vatican Website lists the statistics for his life.  John Paul II made 104 trips abroad and visited 129 unique countries.  He visited 617 cites, and  logged over 1,000,000 miles of travel during his 26 year long pontificate.  He wrote 14 major Encyclicals, 14 Apostolic Exhortations, 14 Apostolic Constitutions, and 45 Apostolic Letters.  He also performed 1338 beatification ceremonies and 482 canonizations.  It seems everyone wants to claim him, he is A Pope for Workers; The Pilgrim Pope ; The Youth Pope ; The Feminist Pope ; The Pope for Catholic-Jewish RelationsThe Champion of the PoorThe Pope for East-West Relations; and Pope  of Diplomacy. Fearless in hope and love, the Pope who changed and saved lives.

Pope John Paul II, Pray for us!

Book 4: Anecdotes from Augustine’s Life

In Book 4, Augustine tells us that he lived with a girl whom he does not name. The relationship was for pleasure and not for the purpose of marriage and family though he acknowledges that he was faithful to her. Later in Book 6 we will glimpse the deeper feeling he felt for this woman (6.15.25). Based on his discussion of his son Adeodatus in 10.6.14 the chronology of these nine years does not appear to be clear. It is likely that he had already taken this partner earlier (cf. 2.2.4).

Augustine relates a number of anecdotes from his life. A sorcerer tries to have Augustine engage his services in order to win a poetry contest through his occult arts and Augustine refuses. On the other hand, Augustine is greatly attracted to astrology. Looking back he sees how wrong minded this is and how even if astrology were to seem correct in its predictions this could be due to chance which he compares to the practice of randomly opening a book and happening upon a passage that appears to give a hidden message.

As the Catechism reminds us all forms of divination are grave sins against the first commandment;

All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to "unveil" the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone. (CCC 2116)

In this book Augustine also relates the painful experience of the death of a friend in Thagaste. One of the overall themes of Confessions is that of ‘friendship’ both in its positive and negative aspects. Augustine clarifies that “friendship is genuine only when you bind fast together people who cleave to you [God] through the charity poured abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (4.4.7). In this anecdote, he discusses a deep but purely human friendship. Meeting a childhood friend, Augustine leads him into Manichaeism and together they experience a friendship ‘sweeter than any sweetness’ (4.4.7). After only a year of being friends, the young man becomes fatally ill with a fever and is baptized. To Augustine’s surprise when his friend recovers temporarily he completely rejects Manichaeism. Augustine describes the anguish of their parting but comes to realize that his misery is due to his mind being chained by friendship to mortal things (4.6.11). “Woe to the madness which thinks to cherish human beings as though more than human!” (4.7.12). His intense grief over this loss, lead him to leave Thagaste and his memories there and to move to Carthage. In Carthage he notes that “what restored and re-created me above all was the consolation of other friends” (4.8.13) and allowing his mind to be distracted by their pleasant company.

This distraction is not truly a cure for his soul. Confronted with the death of a friend, the ‘god’ of Manichaeism is not able to bring rest to his soul. He is unable to live with his grief or to flee from it though he does flee to Carthage. The ‘re-creating’ he speaks of above is related to what he says about time. He writes;

Time does not stand still, nor are the rolling seasons useless to us, for they all work wonders in our minds. They came and went for day to day, and by their coming and going implanted in me other hopes and other memories. (4.8.13)

Time “becomes a principle of association that collects and disperses ideas and memories into the unity of the present moment”[i] The ideas and memories from earlier times are juxtaposed by time to rearrange their order and significance. Recollection is possible because time is linear but it is also discontinuous and reconstruction is necessary. The key to reconstruction or transformation is learning to love all things in God. Augustine writes;

If sensuous beauty delights you, praise God for the beauty of corporeal things, and channel the love you feel for them onto their Maker (4.12.18).

This is not a naive denial of the continued power of concupiscence after our conversion. Augustine notes, “Why follow your flesh, perverted soul? Rather let it follow you, once you are converted” (4.11.17). This is not to imply that once we are converted we effortlessly return to the state of original innocence experienced by our first parents in the garden. Augustine continues,

Return to your heart, then, you wrongdoers, and hold fast to him who made you. Stand with him and you will stand firm, rest in him and you will find peace. Where are you going, along your rough paths? (4.12.18).

We must seek Christ, the bridegroom, who has withdrawn from our sight, “so that we might return to our own hearts and find him there” (2.12.19). This interior transformation allows us to bring Christ into the world carry others off to God, because we “burn with the fire of charity” as we speak in the Spirit.

Text © Scott McKellar 2011

[i] Vaught, Journey, p. 98.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Book 4: Augustine the Manichean

Manicheans wiki commonsIn book 4, Augustine begins by describing his floundering in the Beliefs of the Manichaean sect for nine long years (from his nineteenth to his twenty-ninth year). Vaught notes the movement in Books 2-4 from stealing, to loving, then finally to deceiving. Augustine is deceived and he deceives others.

The founder of Manichaeism is Mani who was born in Babylonia under Persian rule in 217. Mani’s personal history was written by his enemies and contains often contradictory unreliable accounts.[i] In modern time several manuscript collections of Manichaean writings have been discovered in Northwest China (Turkestan) and Egypt.

The beliefs of the Manichaean appear to fit within the broad category of Jewish Christian heresy of Gnosticism.[ii] As we noted above in the introduction, Manichaeism was particularly concerned with the problem of the existence of evil. Where did evil come from? Did God create evil? These questions were answered by proposing a radical dualism between the realm of light, or God and the realm of darkness or Satan. According to the Manichaean doctrine, Adam and Eve are actually the progeny of male and female demons. The first human parents are not the creation of God but resulted from Satan’s evil initiative. Particles of the Kingdom of Light were trapped in the visible world. God countered this tactic of the devil by sending Jesus from the realm of light to reveal divine knowledge (Greek, gnosis) to Adam and Eve.

In Augustine’s time the Manichaean religion had spread to Rome and Carthage and across North Africa. In practical terms the adherents of this faith considered themselves Christians. They believed that the present visible world was a mixture of light and dark elements. God, “the Father of Greatness” set up the sun and moon as collector stations for light to pass back to the realm of light. Adam and Eve were created as the progeny of demons to counter the Sun and moon and keep the light trapped in the material world principally by generating offspring. In turn God countered this move by sending Jesus from the light-realm to reveal divine knowledge (gnosis) to Adam and Eve. Coyle notes that this was not the Jesus of orthodox Christianity, “for Manicheism seems to propose several entities called Jesus” yet none of them was a savior except as the bearer of saving knowledge. Further since they believed matter was evil, the “true” Jesus could not have been born of Mary.[iii]

The followers of the Manichaean religion tried to help the world through the agency of its members who were divided into the Elect (who were generally Manichaean presbyters, bishops, and deacons) and the auditors or hearers who included both men and women. The ultimate goal was the release of all light from matter through the agency of the Elect. The Elect carried out this task through digestion. They practiced a rigorous asceticism eating no meat and consuming certain grains, vegetables and fruits thought to contain light. Once enough light was release and great fire would erupt and complete the process of separation of light and darkness. The Elect followed a rigorous moral and ascetical code. They were not permitted to kill any living thing, including harvesting food (others had to do this for them) and they observed frequent prayer (seven times per day) and fasting. The Elect were perpetual wanders owning nothing and depending on the Hearers for their care. The Hearers lived a less restrictive life with fewer prayers and fasts and were allowed to marry (though procreation was discouraged).

Text © Scott McKellar 2011


[i] Coyle, “Mani, Manicheism,” in Augustine through the Ages, p. 520.

[ii] The Standard work on Gnosticism is Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: the Nature and History of Gnosticism, trans. Robert McLachlan Wilson (San Francisco: Harper, 1987) based on expanded revised German ed. (1980). Two other important works which argue persuasively that Gnosticism is a post-Christian phenomenon deserve mention. Edwin M. Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticism: A survey of the Proposed Evidences, 2nd ed., (Eugene, Wipf and Stock, 1983) and Simone Pétrement, A Separate God: The Christian Origins of Gnosticism, trans. Carol Harrison (San Francisco: Harper, 1984).

[iii] Ibid. p. 522.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Book 3: Student Years at Carthage

st augustine detailArriving at the great capital of Africa, Carthage, Augustine says that he was “In love with loving” not that he was in love with anything but that he was “casting about for something to love” (3.1.1). Vaught comments, “If the love of stealing is a love of nothing, the love of loving is love for the deeper nothingness from which stealing for its own sake emerges.”[i] This vacant idea of loving is linked to sexual promiscuity, where the desire to love and be loved is sweeter if he can enjoy a lover’s body. His desire to experience strong emotions is fed by being a spectator at the theatrical shows featured Carthage. He enjoyed being moved to tears by the theatrical tragedies (3.4).

In Carthage Augustine became a master in the School of Rhetoric with a goal of working in the law courts (3.6). He associated with a group of friends who called themselves the ‘wreckers’[ii] but distanced himself from their activities of bullying sensitive freshmen.

Studying treatises on elegance, he discovered a work by Cicero, called Hortensius which contained an introduction to philosophy. He was “won over not by its style but by what it had to say” that is by the notion of philosophy as the love of wisdom. He notes, “I was aroused and kindled and set on fire to love and seek . . . wisdom itself” (3.8).

As mentioned earlier in the introduction, Augustine’s interest in philosophy led him to read the Sacred Scriptures. He was immediately put off with the poor Latin translation that existed at the time (cf. Sermon 51.6). He was looking for the elegant prose of Cicero and found instead what appeared to be barbarous and unappealing. He blames his lack of appreciation on pride.

About this same time he began to listen to a group of Manichaean’s who “subtly maneuvered” him into accepting their views. The raised questions about the origin of evil and criticized anthropomorphic descriptions of God, and the moral practices of the Old Testament saints (3.7.12). The Manichaean’s were confused about the existence of absolute morals found in God’s eternal law rather than codes based on human custom and did not understand the idea of progressive revelation (3.13-3.8.15). God had slowly revealed his nature in the Old Testament. Looking back Augustine called absurd the belief of the Manichaean’s that if one of their elect ate a fig and belched or groaned in prayer “he would spew out angles, or even particles of God” (3.9.17).

Augustine’s deception led his mother Monica to grieve for him with many tears and to implore God for help. As she beseeched God, she had a vision or dream which Augustine recounts. He notes, “She dreamed that she was standing on some kind of wooden ruler, and she saw a young man of radiant aspect coming toward her” (3.11.19). The young man was happy while she was sad. He asked her why she was sorrowful, and she said because of his ruin. He admonished her to take note that, “where she stood, there also did I” (3.11.19). She took courage in the belief that Augustine would eventually be a Christian, though for nine more years Augustine “floundered in the mud of the deep and the darkness of deception” (3.20).

Text © Scott McKellar 2011


[i] Vaught, Journey, p. 69.

[ii]Eversores, literarily those who upset, overthrow, sack the city” Boulding, WSA I/1, p. 78 n. 12.

Book 2: Adolescence

AdamAndEveIn book 2 Augustine moves on to discuss the sins of the flesh he committed during adolescence. He notes that he only delighted in loving and being loved but without proper restraint. His erupting puberty sent him into a “fog of lust” and he “floundered in the tumultuous sea” of his fornications (2.2.2). He asks, “Who was there to alleviate my distress?” Why did his parents not encourage him to marry? Could he not have been content to use his sexuality to procreate children? Yet he recognizes that he would not have found peace in marriage, since he feels called to the celibate life. Yet at the age of sixteen his family tolerated him forming a relationship with a concubine, rather than a marriage (2.4).

In that same year he was forced to return to his native Madaura, while his father saved up to send him to Carthage. Although he recounts that his mother warned him to keep clear of fornication and adultery, he was reckless and did not head her advice. Driven on by peer pressure he recounts that he even pretended to obscenities that he had not committed (2.7) in order to appear a rascal to his adolescent friends.

In Augustine’s mind one particular episode in the adolescent life stands out, and that is the robbing of the pear tree.[i] Augustine reminisces about the thief of pears from a tree near his home. With a group of boys he stole the fruit simply to enjoy stealing. He notes that its fruit was “not enticing, either in appearance of flavor” (1.4.9). The boys took enormous quantities of fruit and ate very little, the rest they thru to the pigs. The wasteful act was done primarily for the sinful pleasure of doing what was forbidden.

Does Augustine intend to highlight this episode because of its parallel to eating the fruit of the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil in the Genesis account of the Fall? Is there a contrast with his later conversion under the Fig tree in the Garden in 8.12.28? Both seem quite likely but why specifically a pear tree? Shanzer has proposed that the pear may also be a verbal allusion to the pagan Roman literary tradition.[ii] The common Roman understanding of pears is that they are ordinary and cheap. There are apparent parallels between this story and a parable in Horace about an unwanted gift of pears which also involves boys and pigs. Shanzer notes,

Horace explored the graceless and useless gift with a rustic fable that highlighted the behaviour of the giver. Augustine took a criminal and meaningless theft and explored it from the point of view, not of the giver or receiver, but of the taker. In both cases boys and pigs get pears, in neither does either derive any good from the fruit. The stories are two different reflections of the similar facts.[iii]

An even stronger reaction might come from a Manichaean background. Manichaean mythology believed that trees sprang up from the semen of demons and there fruit contained the particles that escaped from the Kingdom of Light. A Manichaean would never intentionally pick fruit and if they did they would ask one of the Manichaean elect to ingest it to release its hidden light.[iv]

While all of this must surely have been in his mind, the focus appears to be on the Genesis parallel and the mystery of sin. Augustine makes it clear he had no ethical reason to steal the fruit. It was stolen purely for the pleasure of the act itself. He also makes clear seven times in (2.8.16-2.9.17) that he would never have stolen the fruit alone. Does the theme of negative peer pressure, or the danger of bad friendships, parallel the situation of Adam and Eve? Does it parallel the ‘stolen’ pleasure of sexual concupiscence?

The next section of his text talks about how the beautiful form of physical things attracts our eyes (2.5.10). Augustine then discusses friendship which draws human beings together, but notes that “sin gains entrance through these and similar good things when we turn to them with immoderate desire” (2.5.10). He then moves on to enumerate a list of vices which lurk in “counterfeit beauty” (2.13); pride, ambition, flirtatiousness, curiosity, ignorance and stupidity, sloth, extravagance, avarice, envy, anger, timidity, and sadness (2.13). He concludes that, “a soul that turns away from you therefore lapses into fornication” (2.14). He asks, “Is there anyone who can take stock of his own weakness and still dare to credit his chastity and innocence to his own efforts?” (2.7.15). Although this incident of stealing fruit is real, it stands as a metaphor for his own meaningless stolen pleasures which are a part of the corruption of the bad company he kept.

Text © Scott McKellar 2011





[i]Danuta Shanzer, “Pears before Swine: Augustine, Confessions 2.4.9” Revue des √Čtudes Augustiniennes, 42 (1996), 45-55. Augustine appears to have mixed thoughts from both the classical author Horace and the Bible in Gen 3.

[ii] Ibid., p. 50.

[iii] Ibid., p. 52-53.

[iv] Vaught, Journey, p. 55.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Infancy and Childhood (Confessions 1.6.7-1.20.31)

st augustine detailIn discussing his infancy Augustine is forced to talk about what he in a sense cannot know or understand because he cannot remember and as an infant he lacked the cognitive tools to assess his environment. This beginning highlights a profound place of humility that represents our common condition as humans. We all begin in a state of original innocence. Although we cannot examine this state through recollection we can explore it by inference through the observation of other infants. St. Augustine is not attempting to engage in scientific enquiry or to develop a theory of cognition. His focus is on the will and the practical context of communal interaction. Carl Vaught notes, “The infant’s struggles to express its desires reflect a fundamental opposition between positive and negative elements in its nature, and it is out of this internal conflict that the negative community of fallen individuals emerges.” [i] Here we begin to touch on the tension between original innocence and original sin in the human condition. The Church affirms that the doctrine of original sin is an essential part of the faith (CCC 388-390). The Catechism reminds us;

How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam "as one body of one man".293 By this "unity of the human race" all men are implicated in Adam's sin, as all are implicated in Christ's justice. Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. (CCC404)

Or solidarity with Adam leaves us afflicted with this condition but the Church has not clearly defined the exact mechanism for its transmission. Various theories were being debated at the time of St. Augustine and even today the Catechism calls this “a mystery that we cannot fully understand” (CCC404).

By analogy to other babies Augustine recounts his first smiles and also his tantrums “because my elders were not subject to me” (1.8) and even the “sins of infancy” including greed and jealousy (1.7.11) though he is quick to point out that we do not discipline infants for this behavior because they would “not have been able to understand” (1.7.11). Ultimately Augustine moves on, comparing his infancy to a dark blank in his memory on par with the time he spent in his mother’s womb (1.12).

Moving on to his boyhood Augustine begins to describe his acquisition of language. Some modern philosophers have criticized Augustine for what they perceive to be his overly simplistic approach to the subject. Ironically this is based on a failure to read him carefully. Augustine makes it clear that language is learned through a framework of social conditioning based on the interactions with the linguistic community formed by his parents and nurses (1.8.13).[ii]

Augustine’s early school experiences appear to be mostly negative. He enduring being beaten at school and recounts his heart felt fear of such torments. Hi parents only mocked his punishments. Looking back he notes the irony of disciplining children for their love of play when many similar adult pursuits are considered “business” (1.15). Yet he acknowledges his fault, “I sinned because I disobeyed them not in order to choose something more worthwhile, but simply because I loved games” (1.10.16). His disobedience was motivated by the triple concupiscence of vain glory, curiosity, and lust. For these follies he begs God’s mercy.

Next he recounts an incident where he became deathly ill with a fever. He earnestly begged to be baptized but recovered. He notes;

My cleansing was therefore deferred on the ground that if I lived I would inevitably soil myself again, for it was held that the guilt of sinful defilement incurred after the laver of baptism was graver and more perilous (1.11.17).

Looking back Augustine, asks God to what purpose his baptism was delayed. He could have entered adolescence with the graces of this sacrament to face the waves of temptation. God has turn to profit the lessons he learned.

In his studies Augustine loved Latin literature and hated Greek. He preferred learning in the language of his community rather than studies in a foreign tongue. His boyish mind was taken with the frivolous tales of Virgil’s Aeneid. He notes how he wept “over Dido, who killed herself for love” (1.13.20). He notes further that he gave full reign to his curiosity studying the Greek and Roman myths which model many obscene deeds. He complains about the use of words as finely-crafted vessel into which “the wine of error” was mixed “by teachers who are drunk themselves” (1.26). Augustine recounts how he became a gifted speaker, yet he recounts how empty and vacant it is to recount “licentious deeds in correct and well-turned phrases, in ample and elegant style” (1.18.28). One can be trained in fine speech yet still neglect the eternal rules directed to unending salvation (1.29).


Text © Scott McKellar 2011




[i] Carl G. Vaught, The Journey toward God in Augustine’s Confessions: Books I-VI, (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003), p. 32.

[ii] Vaught, Journey, calls Augustine’s account “proto-Wittgenstienian.” p. 41.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Paradox of God’s Omnipresence (Confessions 1:2.2-1.6)

CreationSt. Augustine begins with a series of paradoxical questions about the nature of God. If the heart naturally longs for God, how does the soul encounter him? Do we first invoke him or praise him, or do we first know him or call upon him? What is the role of faith? Following intuitions from Scripture, Augustine notes that beyond the natural knowledge of God is the preaching of the Gospel. The incarnation leads to the progression of first hearing, then believing, to calling and seeking, and then ultimately to finding and praising. It is in finding that we fulfill the natural longing that God has placed in each heart.

Yet how do we conceive of this relation between the soul and God? How can God be said to “come into us” or “fill us”? How can we contain an infinite God? In fact God is everywhere wholly present, yet cannot be contained wholly by anything or anyone. Augustine notes;

“Yet all those things which you fill, you fill with the whole of yourself . . . Are you not everywhere in your whole being, while there is nothing whatever that can hold you entirely?” (1.3.3).

God is series of paradoxes, “supremely merciful and infinitely just, most hidden yet intimately present, infinitely beautiful and infinitely strong, steadfast yet elusive, unchanging yourself though you control the change of all things, never new, never old, renewing all things. . .” (1.4.4).

Ultimately it is through the eyes of faith that Augustine is able to understand. He says “Lord open the ears of my heart.” “The house of my soul is too small for you to enter: make it more spacious by your coming. It lies in ruins: rebuild it” (1.6).

One is reminded of C.S. Lewis’ final Narnia book, The Last Battle, where Lewis compares Narnia to the experience of heaven.

The further up and further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.

  Elsewhere quoting the text of Isaiah 7:9 (Old Latin of the LXX), Augustine will say, “Unless you believe, you will not understand.” (Answer to Faustus, 12:46, and 22:53)[i] This phrase is probably the source of Anselm’s famous motto is “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum).

Text © Scott McKellar 2011










[i] Answer to Faustus, a Manichean, Trans. Roland Teske, S.J., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed. Boniface Ramsey, (New York, New City Press, 2007),12:46 (p. 156), 22.53 (p. 335). Cf. also his Sermon 118.1 where he says “faith precedes, understanding follows.” Sermons III/4 (94A-147A) Trans. Edmond Hill O.P., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed. John E. Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 1992), p. 225.





[i] Answer to Faustus, a Manichean, Trans. Roland Teske, S.J., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed. Boniface Ramsey, (New York, New City Press, 2007),12:46 (p. 156), 22.53 (p. 335). Cf. also his Sermon 118.1 where he says “faith precedes, understanding follows.” Sermons III/4 (94A-147A) Trans. Edmond Hill O.P., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed. John E. Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 1992), p. 225.