Friday, February 25, 2011

The Thematic Structure of Confessions

St__Augustine_4Augustine divides his work into 13 books. Generally scholars have had difficulty finding a way to link the autobiographical material in Books 1-9 with Augustine’s soul searching present reflections in Book 10 and finally his allegorical exegesis of Genesis 1 in Books 11-13. Augustine’s treatment of the theme of memory and the Eucharistic theme Cavadini has identified show how these apparently varied parts fit together. The internal structure of the first nine books seems to follow ages of man according to the ancient world: infancy, childhood, adolescence, youth and maturity. In addition to this simple structure, Augustine may be employing other rhetorical techniques.

William A. Stephany has argued that one can recognize a clear structure to the first nine books of Confessions that is call a chiasm (from the Greek letter chi or ‘X’).[i] In a simple chiasm the elements in one statement are paralleled and reversed in the next statement A-B parallels B-A. For example Amos 5:5;

but do not seek Bethel; Do not come to Gilgal, and do not cross to Beer-sheba.

For Gilgal shall be led into exile, and Bethel shall become nought. (NAB)

In a more complex chiasm a series of items pair leaving a central item for emphasis such as “lying” in Psalm 52:3b.

Psalm 52:1b-5a[ii]


Stephany argues that,

“Books 1-9 of the Confessions form a chiasm, with Book 5 at the center and the other books arranged in pairs on either side of the central book: Book 4, in other words, balancing Book 6; Book 3 balancing Book 7; Book 2 balancing Book 8; and Book 1 balancing Book 9. So seen, Book 5 becomes the center of Augustine's narrative of conversion, the point to which the first four books lead, and from which the last four proceed.”[iii]

A diagram of the flow of Augustine’s account of his life shows the clear parallel elements;


Special emphasis is given to Book 5 and the parallel elements show contrasts between the Fallen and redeemed states. Stephany also comments on the contrasts within Book 5 between the Manichean bishop and Bishop Ambrose;

“At the beginning of the Book, Augustine awaits one Bishop expecting the truth, but he received only rhetoric; at the end of the Book, he frequents the sermons of the other Bishop out of professional curiosity, expecting only rhetoric, but he received the truth.”[iv]

As we begin to work our way through the various books, we will try to keep this overall structure of Books 1-9 in mind.  It is interesting to note that this same structure is seen in the famous Carmen Christi hymn found in Philippians 2.  This is one of St. Augustine’s favorite passages.

Text © Scott McKellar 2011

[i] William A. Stephany “Thematic Structure in Augustine’s Confessions,” Augustinian Studies 20 (1989):129 – 142.

[ii] Robert L Alden, “Chiastic Psalms (II): A Study in the Mechanics of Semantic Poetry in Psalms 51-100” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 19-3 (1976) 191-200, esp. 191-192.

[iii] Stephany, 129-130.

[iv] Ibid. 139.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What Sort of Book is Confessions?

The Genre of Confessions

James J. O’Donnell comments; “Augustine never practices the humility of the man who would escape attention. In prostrating himself before the divine in the Confessions, Augustine performs an astonishing act of self-preservation and self-justification and paradoxically, self-aggrandizement.”[i] Charles T. Mathewes has pointed out that our perception of St. Augustine precisely at this point is clouded by our modern notions of autobiography. Is the act of writing one’s story down not inherently vain? Mathewes argues that Augustine’s work “is not in fact merely autobiographical, it is properly speaking anti-autobiographical”[ii] The aim is pedagogical and psychological, helping us to recognize negatively that our sinful lives are far less intelligible than we presume and positively that our existence is a gift of sheer grace on God’s part. There is no presumption that we narrate our own lives, but rather that the story is only intelligible from the perspective of salvation.[iii] Does this allow St. Augustine to escape O’Donnell’s criticism? Augustine is probably not completely free of vanity, but Mathewes’ point is well taken and topic of grace is one of Augustine’s most prevalent themes.

Although parts of the work may have been published previously the work as a whole has a definite unity. The work seems to be divided into three parts. Books I-IX discuss Augustine’s past life, Book X his present life and books XI-XIII are a commentary on Genesis 1 and some philosophical issues. Scholars are not agreed on a single unifying theme. The ascent of the soul to God (or the fall and return of the soul to God) is one prominent theme. Others have focused on Book XI.2.26 and Augustine’s treatment of memory. Augustine discusses a memoria (memory) of the past (Books I-IX ), a contuitus (an intensive look) of the present (Book X) and an expectatio (anticipation) of the future (Books XI-XIII).[iv]

John Cavadini has suggested that although Augustine follows the ancient custom of not speaking directly about the secrets of the Eucharistic rite, he is nonetheless alluding to a Eucharistic understanding throughout this discourse.[v] The theme of memory is in fact Eucharistic. He notes that, “the Eucharist is at the intersection of memory and hope.”[vi] In fact, “the person bound to the Eucharist in faith is bound to the memorial of God’s mercy that configures or even defines all of one’s own memory.”[vii]

A related theme is St. Augustine’s connection between the vices of 1 John 2:16 “the desire of the flesh, and the desire of the eyes, and the arrogance of a life” (concupiscentia carnis est, et concupiscentia oculorum, et superbia vitæ) and the triple concupiscence of the vices libido (lust of the flesh), curiositas (curiosity) and superbia (pride of life)[viii] O’Donnell sees this triadic pattern as the key to the first eight books and part of Book X. In Book X Augustine discusses each of the five senses as concupiscence of the flesh. He discusses touch (X.30.42), taste (X.31.45), smell (X.32.48), hearing (X.33.50) and sight (X.34.53) before moving on to curiosity (X.35.57) and finally worldly ambition (ambitio saecula) in Book X.38.63.[ix]

In the end, Augustine’s ‘confessions’ are not his alone but those of Adam and Eve and of the whole human race. The Confessions are rather the story of God’s own saving action and gracious work of forgiveness which culminates on the cross and is made present to us in the Eucharist. It is the story of our fallen state and of the “healing remedy who hung upon a tree, the medicine for our wounds” (Conf. X.13,35).

Text © Scott McKellar 2011



[i] O’Donnell, Augustine, p. 36.

[ii] Charles T. Mathewes, “Book One: The Presumptuousness of Autobiography and the Paradoxes of Beginning” in A Reader’s Companion to Augustine’s Confessions, Ed. Kim Paffenroth and Robert P. Kennedy, (Louisville: Westminster Press, 2003), p. 8.

[iii] Ibid., p. 8-9.

[iv]Van Fleteren, “Confessions,” 227-232, esp. 28.

[v]John C. Cavadini, “Eucharistic Exegesis in Augustine’s Confessions” Augustinian Studies 41:1 (2010) 87-108, esp. p. 89.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii]Cf. 1 John 2:16 “sensual lust, enticement for the eyes, and a pretentious life (NAB).” N. Joseph Torchia, “Curiositas In The Early Philosophical Writings of Saint Augustine” Augustinian Studies 19 (1988) 111 – 119. Torchia notes, “curiositas is intimately connected with Augustine’s theory of the soul’s fall. Curiositas abets the fall in several ways. In epistemological terms, it inspires the soul’s interest in lesser realities; such an interest manifests itself in natural science and those intellectual pursuits which direct the soul to vain, empty images. In a metaphysical sense, it prompts the soul to abandon a “higher”, contemplative mode of being in favor of a “lower,” temporal one. In a moral context, curiositas fosters the soul’s commitment to partial, limited goods in opposition to an abiding commitment to a greater, all-encompassing Good,” p. 118.

[ix] Cavadini, p. 100 n. 53.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

St. Augustine the Catholic

augustine1Augustine’s Conversion

Augustine’s despair quickly began to change, when in Holy Week in the year 386 he heard the preaching of St. Ambrose of Milan. He notes, “As I opened my heart to hear how skillfully he spoke, the recognition that he was speaking the truth crept in at the same time, though only slowly by degrees” (Conf. V.14.24). In particular he was struck by the following truths;

“I heard some difficult passage of the Old Testament explained figuratively; such passages had been death to me because I was taking them literally. As I listened to many such scriptural texts being interpreted in a spiritual sense I confronted my own attitude, or at least that despair which had led me to believe that no resistance whatever could be offered to people who loathed and derided that law and the prophets.” (Conf. V.14.24)

Augustine was intrigued by the citation of St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians; ‘The letter kills but the spirit gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3:6). He notes,

“I was delighted to hear Ambrose often asserting in his sermons to the people, as a principle on which he must insist emphatically, The letter is death-dealing, but the spirit gives life. This he would tell them as he drew aside the veil of mystery and opened to them the spiritual meaning of passages which, taken literally, would seem to mislead. (Conf. VI.4.6)

Augustine became aware of the possibility of the spiritual sense of Scripture and this led him to accept the authority of Sacred Scripture. He notes,

“It is because we are weak and unable to find the truth by pure reason that we needed the authority of the Sacred Scripture. . . .The Authority of sacred writings seemed to me all the more deserving of reverence and divine faith in that scripture was easily accessible to every reader, while yet guarding a mysterious dignity in its deeper sense.” (Conf. VI.5.8)

These shifts in his thinking prepared him for the mystical experience in the garden which he recount in Book VIII of Confessions. Augustine heard a child’s voice instructing him to "Pick it up and read, Pick it up and read” (Conf. VIII. 29) and imitating the example of St. Anthony whom he had just been reading he responds by picking up the Scriptures and reading Romans 13.

Fr. Bertrand de Margerie, S.J. notes that St. Augustine internalized two things from this experience of conversion. Firstly, that the words of Scripture are speaking to him directly as the ever-living Word of God. Secondly he saw the connection between divine providence and Church tradition, in the parallel between his experience and St. Anthony’s. [i]

After a short retreat with his friends, Augustine returned to Milan to be baptized. Not long after this his mother Monica died and he made plans to travel back Africa to establish something very like a monastery in Thagaste dedicated to the study of Scripture.[ii]

Augustine’s Ordination and Consecration

His qualities as a speaker and his recent conversion prompt the local people to acclaim him as a candidate for the priesthood. St. Augustine was ordained a priest in 391.[iii] Shortly after this the local Bishop Valerius has him consecrated as coadjutor Bishop. Realizing his short comings, Augustine pleaded with Bishop Valerius to allow him some time to study Scripture to prepare for this new role.[iv]

John M. Rist notes, “Yet at the time of his ordination Augustine’s biblical knowledge was still quite limited, for his intellectual formation had to this point been largely unscriptural.”[v] Augustine had spent most of his time studying Cicero, Virgil, Terence, and Sallust and only more recently the neo-platonic philosophy of Plotinus.  Beginning what was to become a lifetime of commenting on Scripture, Augustine first wrote a series of sermons on our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. 

Today, St. Augustine’s extant works total over 5 million words! This has led to the famous saying of St. Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636) that ‘the man who claims to have read all of Augustine is a liar’. Joseph Kelly comments, however, “The Famous remark of the Spanish scholar Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636), that anyone who claimed to have read all the works of Augustine was a liar, was referring not to the number of the saint’s works but to their accessibility in the early middle ages.”[vi]  No one library in the early middle ages contained all of St. Augustine’s works

St. Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636)

Text © Scott McKellar 2011


    [i] Bertrand de Margerie, S. J. An Introduction to the History of Exegesis Volume III Saint Augustine, Trans. Pierre de Fontnouvelle. (Petersham, Massachusetts: Saint Bede's Publications, 1991).

    [ii] There is some debate about how formally one should use the term ‘monastery.’ G. P. Lawless “Augustine's First Monastery: Thagaste or Hippo? Augustinian Studies 25: 1/2(1985) 65 – 78. Lawless argues with P. Brown for monastic style life at Thagaste. He notes, “Life at Thagaste was characterized by surrender of property and possessions (certainly in Augustine's case), fasting, fraternity, dialogue, prayer, spiritual reading, (principally the Scriptures) and work of an intellectual bent.” p. 68.

    [iii] Allan Fitzgerald, O.S.A. “When Augustine Was Priest,” Augustinian Studies 40:1 (2009) 37–48.

    [iv] St. Augustine, Letter 21 in Letters (1-99) II/1, trans. Roland Teske, S.J., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed. John Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 2001), p. 55-57. Cf. Michael Cameron, “Valerius of Hippo: A Profile” Augustinian Studies 40:1 (2009) 5–26.

    [v] Rist, Augustine, p. 15.

    [vi] Joseph F. Kelly, “Late Carolingian Era” in Augustine through the ages: an encyclopedia Ed. Allan Fitzgerald, John C. Cavadini. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) p. 127.  More details here

Text © Scott McKellar 2011

St. Augustine’s Own Story: Confessions

St Augustine BaptismIntroduction

 This series of posts will follow St. Augustine’s own story of his life in his most famous work, Confessions.  Augustine will describe his infancy, childhood, adolescence, youth[i] as well as his conversation and early life as a Christian. As we read Confessions we will examine each stage of his life in some detail but as an initial framework we should note some significant turning points in his life which divide his life into four periods. His life is divided into four periods by three ‘sign posts.’ [ii] The period of his early life, his conversion and Baptism (386), his ordination to the priesthood (391) and subsequently to the episcopacy, and the period following his re-examination of Paul’s letter to the Romans and his reply to Simplicianus (396). At each of these points his thinking takes a significant shift.

SoukAhrasSt. Augustine was born in Tagaste (now Souk Ahras in Algeria) in the year 354 AD. North Africa had long since fallen under the control of Rome and had experienced a long period Romanization and of material prosperity. Peter Brown notes an inscription at Timgad in modern southern Algeria which reads, ‘The hunt, the baths, play and laughter: that's the life for me!’ [iii] Augustine was the son of a non-Christian Father, Patricus, and a Christian mother, Monica.

Augustine’s Early Life

Apparently the general atmosphere of the home was Christian it was not initially very pious. Although St. Augustine recounts that he first learned his faith from his earliest memories. “with my mother’s milk”. . . “my tender little heart had drunk in that name.” (Conf. III.4.8) Following a misguided practice of the times, young Augustine was enrolled by his parents in the catechumenate but not baptized. He notes; “My cleansing was therefore deferred on the pretext 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” (Conf., I, 11.17)[iv]. He laments this practice, and what he regards as the squandering of his youth. He notes that in his youth he initially turned his “attention to the Holy Scriptures to find out what they were like” (Conf. III.5.9). Unfortunately, after comparing the Bible to Cicero’s dignified Latin prose he judged the Scriptures to be ‘unworthy’ (Conf. III.5.9) He later notes,

“My swollen pride recoiled from its style and my intelligence failed to penetrate to its inner meaning. Scripture is a reality that grows along with little children, but I distained to be a little child and in high and mighty arrogance regarded myself as grown up.” (Conf. III.5.9)

Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J. comments on the difference between the Latin Bible Augustine read and the later Vulgate translation;

“The Latin Bible that Augustine read was different. Its language was uncultivated, awkward, grammatically deficient, sometimes barbarous, and occasionally incomprehensible. A man trained to exquisite good taste, who sneered at those who said omo instead of homo, (Confessions 1, 18, 29) might well find the Christian Bible repulsive.”[v]

The main concern of his parents was for his career and so he was sent to the metropolis of Carthage to study rhetoric. His studies of Cicero lead him to an interest in philosophy. In his personal life he entered an unofficial marriage with a concubine and had a son, Adeodatus.

Augustine the Manichean

While in Carthage, he joined a self styled ‘Christian’ group following the Mesopotamian prophet Mani. He became an ‘auditor’ (listener or hearer) of the Manicheans. Manichaeism answered the question of the existence of evil by proposing a radical dualism between the realm of light, or God and the realm of darkness or Satan. Adam was the product of the mating of a male and female demon, as was Eve. The first human parents are not the creation of God but resulted from evil’s initiative. Light was trapped in the visible world. God counters this tactic by sending Jesus from the light realm to reveal divine knowledge (gnosis) to Adam and Eve. For the Manicheans Jesus was not the same as the orthodox Christianity, since human flesh in their view has evil origins and comes about through procreation which emulates the demonic origin of Adam and Eve[vi].

Augustine’s conversion takes place after he succeeds to the Chair of Rhetoric in Milan in 383. Here he meets Bishop Ambrose who is an eloquent speaker and who defends the Old Testament against the criticisms of Manicheans. St. Augustine’s main difficulty with the Bible (aside from the poor Latin style of his translation) was the lack of agreement between the genealogies of Christ in Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Looking back he writes;

“I am speaking to you as one who was myself caught out once upon a time, when as a lad I wanted to tackle the divine Scriptures with techniques of clever disputation before bringing to them the spirit of earnest inquiry. In this way I was shutting the door of my Lord against myself by my misplaced attitude; I should have been knocking at it for it to be opened, but instead I was adding my weight to keep it shut.”[vii]

Again looking back in his work The Usefulness of Belief (AD 391), Augustine writes,

“But there is nothing more rash—and rashness as a boy I had plenty—than to desert the professed expositors of books which they possess and hand on to their disciples, and instead to go asking the opinion of others who, for no reason I can think of, have declared most bitter war against the authors of these books.”[viii]

Under the teaching of the Manicheans Augustine had come to profess “despair” which led him to believe that the Old Testament was filled with difficulties that could not be resolved (Conf. V.14.24).

Text © Scott McKellar 2011


[i] St Augustine follows the ages of man according to the ancient world: infantia, puerita, adulescens, and iuventus. Frederick Van Fleteren, “Confessions” in Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A., Grand Rapids, Erdmanns, 1999, p. 229. James J. O’Donnell notes, “To approach that book with the best effect, let us dwell on the Augustine of 397, the forty-two-year-old getting ready to tell his story in the form destined to become famous. For him, “youth” (iuventus) ended at forty-five, to be succeeded by “maturity” (gravitas) and then by “old age” (senectus) at sixty.” O’Donnell, Augustine: A New Biography (New York: Harper 2005) p. 26-27.

[ii] John M. Rist, Augustine, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. p. 14.

[iii] Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, Revised Edition with a New Epilogue, ?

[iv] Unless otherwise noted all quotations 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.

[v]Joseph T. Lienhard , Augustinian Studies Volume 27, Issue 1 – 1996, p. 9).

[vi] J. Kevin Coyle, “Mani, Manicheism,” in Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A., Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1999, esp. 521-522, cf. Serge Lancel, St. Augustine, trans. Antonia Nevill, London, SCM Press, 2002, p. 31-36.

[vii] St. Augustine, Sermon 51, trans. Edmund Hill, O.P., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed. John Rotelle, O.S.A., New York, New City Press, 1997, 51.6.

[viii] St Augustine, De utilitate credendi , vi, 13, trans. Burleigh, p. 301.