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The Confessions of St. Augustine, written by Christianity's single most influential leader since the Apostle Paul, is the foremost classic of Christian spirituality after the Bible. Written by Augustine of Hippo (354-430) around 400, the Confessions is a spiritual autobiography, the first and only such work of its kind in the first 1,500 years of Christian history. It is unsurpassed in Christian literature as a psychological and theological depiction of divine grace converting the perverted human heart to its original, blessed state.
The most frequently quoted sentence from the Confessions is a prayer to God that expresses the primary premise of this work: "You arouse him [humanity] to take joy in praising you, for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you" (Book 1, chapter 1, verse 1). As is the case with other significant religious literary pieces, the Confessions serves as both a tool and trigger of spiritual and/or religious reflection and learning, and thereby has an impact on spiritual and/or religious development. The Confessions also offers a glimpse into and a model of a religious developmental journey. The Confessions consists of 13 sections called "books." The first nine cover Augustine's life during the years 354 to 388, from his birth through his conversion to Christianity to the death of his mother, Monica. Book 10 deals with memory, Book 11 considers the nature of time, and Books 12 and 13 comprise a commentary on the biblical book of Genesis.
Some scholars say that the first nine and last four books do not share a common theme, but the purpose of the last four books is probably best understood as the great thinker undergirding his personal recollections with their philosophical and theological context. God is at work through memory and in time revealing the mystery of divine purposes initiated in creation.
THE CONFESSIONS AND THE LIFE OF AUGUSTINE
The restless heart at the center of this work belongs to Augustine of Hippo, the religious genius who stood astride the great divide between two ages, the Early Church and the Middle Ages. Behind him were four centuries of formative Christian history, when orthodox Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and the true nature of Christ were hammered out, when the books of the Bible were settled upon, and when the essential means of public and private worship were given foundation. Before him were centuries of chaos and dissolution in the West, which would in large measure find preservation of orthodox Christianity's essentials dependent on work already done.
In his own life, Augustine faced most of the theological issues of his era and bequeathed to the Christians who followed him an unparalleled summary of the Christian faith as developed in the glory years of Roman Christian civilization. Augustine's perspective is a prototype of Western theology, and his fingerprints are found on its most characteristic and distinctive Christian motifs. One collection of Augustine's works consists of sixteen volumes of about 1,200, double-columned pages each. None has had more influence on Christian spiritual life than the Confessions, which also happens to provide great detail about the inner and outer life of its author.
The Confessions Years
Augustine was born in Thagaste, North Africa, to a Christian mother and a pagan father. As a child, Augustine pilfered from his parents and cheated at games with his friends. As a teenager, he and some friends stole some pears and threw them away. Interpreted by some as a sign of Augustine's overactive conscience, such memories are better understood as keys to his ability to see, even in seemingly trivial wrongs, something of humanity's attraction to evil. In response to the suggestion that his preteen mischief was unimportant, he wrote: "Is this childhood innocence? It is not. . . . For these are the practices that pass from tutors and teachers, and from nuts and balls and birds, to governors and kings, and to money and estates and slaves." He saw in the theft of the pears, committed for no reason except the love of doing wrong, a clear sign that he loved neither his crimes nor their results, but rather the evil that motivated the crimes.
Even in the midst of these early, self-destructive days, Augustine reflected, God was at work. Naming the blessings of his own natural giftedness, family, friendship, and life itself, Augustine wrote: "Even then I existed, had life and feeling, had care for my own well-being, which is a trace of your [God's] own most mysterious unity from which I took my being" (1.20.31). These themes permeate the Confessions: humanity's irresistible leaning toward destructive ways and God's grace constantly at work to save and set right creation, including the man, Augustine. Sexual conflict is another central spiritual issue in the Confessions. Augustine's mother, Monica, was a strictly moralistic Christian who considered his adolescent sexual passions a "present disease and a future danger" (2.3.8), while his proud pagan father joyfully recounted discovering signs of his 16-year-old son's maturing sexuality at the public baths. Both parents were more interested in their son's academic accomplishments than in helping deal with his promiscuity.
Throughout his life, or at least until his conversion, Augustine struggled to integrate love and sexual longing in a healthy way. At age 30, he still prayed the prayer of his youth: "Give me chastity . . . , but not yet!" (8.7.17).