St. Augustine’s work begins with an introduction. O’Donnell points out the uniqueness of this introduction, noting that in “the history of Latin literature, its originality and oddity are clear”.[i] Rather than opening with a letter of dedication, Confessions begins with an abrupt direct address to a silent God. “Great are you, 0 Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise; your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning” (1.1)[ii]
The opening words echo Psalm 48:1 “Great is the LORD and highly praised” (NAB) and Psalm 96:4 “For great is the LORD and highly to be praised” (NAB) and Psalm 147:5 “Great is our Lord, vast in power, with wisdom beyond measure” (NAB). It is as though we have walked into a room to find Augustine praying and praising God.
Even though we are human and exist as part of a fallen creation we still long to praise God. Augustine reminds us; “You stir us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you” (1.1). These are the most famous words of this work. It is as if we were created with a God-shaped hole in our hearts. We have a natural God-given appetite for praising God. It is something which happens spontaneously in the human person.
The closest analogy is human love. If we imaging a young man who sees a young woman. The man looks at her not so much out of duty or social convention, but initially out of intrigue for her beauty. If the mysterious chemistry of human attraction is right between them, in further encounters he can be captivated by her beauty, intrigued by her person, draw by her personality. She remains a beautiful woman but also becomes a person with a name. St. Augustine puzzles over the mystery of ‘knowing.” He notes;
“Grant me to know and understand. Lord, which comes first: to call upon you or to praise you? To know you or to call upon you?” (1.1)
Do we not need to know and to believe before we can praise? But it would appear that merely seeking is enough to lead us inexorably toward praise. We are draw to praise by our very nature;
“But scripture tells us that those who seek the Lord will praise him, for as they seek they find him, and on finding him they will praise him” (1.1)
This whole section echoes St. Paul in Romans 10:14. Faith comes through hearing the Word preached. St. Augustine concludes; “My faith calls upon you, Lord, this faith which is your gift to me, which you have breathed into me through the humanity of your Son and the ministry of your preacher.” These words parallel St. Augustine’s own experience of conversion as he listened to the preaching of Bishop Ambrose. He notes later in our text,
“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).
Although friendships and other human relationships can bring us joy, our heart remains restless and without peace until we find rest in God.
Text © Scott McKellar 2011
[ii] Once again unless otherwise noted all quotes 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.