Saturday, March 13, 2010

"The Confessions" by St. Augustine

So I can't seem to find anything lately that I can manage to get beyond the first 15 pages in, and so have decided to write about a book that I read about a year ago...

Probably what struck me most about "The Confessions" is how readable it was. Considering the impact this book has had on Catholic theology and Western culture I was expecting something very dense and esoteric, sort of like "Summa Theologica", but "The Confessions" reminded me more of "Story of a Soul" by St. Therese in that both are very personal 'spiritual autobiographies' that have impacted Church teaching.

I liked coming across the more famous passages; the shaking of the pear tree, "late have I loved thee" and "make me chaste, but not yet"; lines and passages that I had heard repeatedly over the course of my life but had never read in their original context. Also I found some other really great lines that I hadn't read before: "I was looking for You outside myself and I did not find the God of my own heart", and "true beauty is seen by the inner eye of the soul, and not by the eye of the flesh."

Probably what I liked the best was his awesome interpretation of scripture! Although raised Catholic, St. Augustine writes that as a young man he could not accept a literal interpretation of the Old Testament and so had totally rejected it. After listening to the preaching of St. Ambrose, however he realized that these passages needed to be understood figuratively. The last book in "The Confessions" is actually entirely an allegorical interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis. St. Augustine justifies his interpretation with this brilliant line: "When so many meanings, all of them acceptable and true, can be extracted from the words that Moses wrote, do you not see how foolish it is to make a bold assertion that one in particular is the one that he had in mind? Do you not see how foolish it is to enter into mischievous arguments which are an offense against that very charity for the sake of which he wrote every one of these words that we are trying to explain?"

From this passage we see that Augustine is both intelligent and meek, such a rarely-seen combination and such a breath of fresh air!! And additionally that he clearly he understands that for a Christian, charity is paramount to any other quality, including intelligence.

I found it almost comical to read about how OUT OF CONTROL St. Augustine was before his conversion! At one point, he became engaged to a women, and so cut off relationship with his mistress. The engagement was to last for two years, however, and since Augustine "was more of a slave of lust that a true lover of marriage" he actually took in a second mistress to 'carry him through' the engagement! Clearly, chastity was one area that made converting to Catholicism a huge obstacle for St. Augustine! (I actually read somewhere that after he had become the Bishop of Hippo, he wouldn't even allow a women to be in the same room as him (unless it was his sister) to keep himself from being tempted again to enter into sexual sin!)

It is difficult for me to sing enough of the praises of this excellent book, but probably one point in "The Confessions" where St. Augustine seems to depart from ultra-intelligent wont is his rationale for rejecting astrology. He rejects astrology because he believes that making an accurate reading of the stars was based on luck and not on skill. I disagree that reading the stars is so entirely up to chance, as though a person were playing a slot machine. Probably a better explanation of why a Christian would reject astrology is that even thought it bears some validity, its source and its design goes against Christian charity.

But then, what do I know? Who I am to really challenge St. Augustine? One thing that I really can say for certain is that The Vatican certainly did something right when it made St. Augustine a Doctor of the Church!!!!!
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