The Confessions of Saint Augustine
AUGUSTINE’S TESTIMONY CONCERNING THE CONFESSIONS
I. THE Retractations, II, 6 (A.D. 427)
1. My Confessions, in thirteen books, praise the righteous and good God as they speak either of my evil or good, and they are meant to excite men’s minds and affections toward him. At least as far as I am concerned, this is what they did for me when they were being written and they still do this when read. What some people think of them is their own affair [ipse viderint]; but I do know that they have given pleasure to many of my brethren and still do so. The first through the tenth books were written about myself; the other three about Holy Scripture, from what is written there, In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, even as far as the reference to the Sabbath rest.
2. In Book IV, when I confessed my soul’s misery over the death of a friend and said that our soul had somehow been made one out of two souls, “But it may have been that I was afraid to die, lest he should then die wholly whom I had so greatly loved” (Ch. VI, 11)–this now seems to be more a trivial declamation than a serious confession, although this inept expression may be tempered somewhat by the “may have been” [forte] which I added. And in Book XIII what I said–“The firmament was made between the higher waters (and superior) and the lower (and inferior) waters”–was said without sufficient thought. In any case, the matter is very obscure. This work begins thus: “Great are you, O Lord.”
II. De Dono Perseverantiae, XX, 53 (A.D. 428)
Which of my shorter works has been more widely known or given greater pleasure than the [thirteen] books of my Confessions? And, although I published them long before the Pelagian heresy had even begun to be, it is plain that in them I said to my God, again and again, “Give what you command and command what you will.” When these words of mine were repeated in Pelagius’ presence at Rome by a certain brother of mine (an episcopal colleague), he could not bear them and contradicted him so excitedly that they nearly came to a quarrel. Now what, indeed, does God command, first and foremost, except that we believe in him? This faith, therefore, he himself gives; so that it is well said to him, “Give what you command.” Moreover, in those same books, concerning my account of my conversion when God turned me to that faith which I was laying waste with a very wretched and wild verbal assault, do you not remember how the narration shows that I was given as a gift to the faithful and daily tears of my mother, who had been promised that I should not perish? I certainly declared there that God by his grace turns men’s wills to the true faith when they are not only averse to it, but actually adverse. As for the other ways in which I sought God’s aid in my growth in perseverance, you either know or can review them as you wish (PL, 45, c. 1025).
III. Letter to Darius (A.D. 429)
Thus, my son, take the books of my Confessions and use them as a good man should–not superficially, but as a Christian in Christian charity. Here see me as I am and do not praise me for more than I am. Here believe nothing else about me than my own testimony. Here observe what I have been in myself and through myself. And if something in me pleases you, here praise Him with me–him whom I desire to be praised on my account and not myself. “For it is he that hath made us and not we ourselves.”5 Indeed, we were ourselves quite lost; but he who made us, remade us [sed qui fecit, refecit]. As, then, you find me in these pages, pray for me that I shall not fail but that I may go on to be perfected. Pray for me, my son, pray for me! (Epist. CCXXXI, PL, 33, c. 1025).
Translated by J.G. Pilkington. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.)
Chapter 1. He Proclaims the Greatness of God Whom He Desires to Seek and Invoke, Being Awakened by Him.
1. Great are You, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Your power, and of Your wisdom there is no end. And man, being a part of Your creation, desires to praise You — man, who bears about with him his mortality, the witness of his sin, even the witness that You resist the proud, — yet man, this part of Your creation, desires to praise You. You move us to delight in praising You; for You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You. [cor nostrum inquietum est donec requiescat in Te] Lord, teach me to know and understand which of these should be first: to call on You, or to praise You; and likewise, to know You, or to call on You. But who calls upon You without knowing You? For he that knows, knows You not, may call upon You as other than You are. Or perhaps we call on You that we may know You. But how shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? Or how shall they believe without a preacher? (Romans 10:14) And those who seek the Lord shall praise Him. For those who seek shall find Him, (Matthew 7:7) and those who find Him shall praise Him. Let me seek You, Lord, in calling on You, and call on You in believing in You; for You have been preached unto us. O Lord, my faith calls on You — that faith which You have imparted to me, which You have breathed into me through the incarnation of Your Son, through the ministry of Your preacher.
Chapter 2. That the God Whom We Invoke is in Us and We in Him.
2. And how shall I call upon my God — my God and my Lord? For when I call on Him, I ask Him to come into me. And what place is there in me into which my God can come — into which God can come, even He who made heaven and earth? Is there anything in me, O Lord my God, that can contain You? Do indeed the very heaven and the earth, which You have made, and in which You have made me, contain You? Or, as nothing could exist without You, does whatever exists contain You? Why, then, do I ask You to come into me, since I indeed exist, and could not exist if You were not in me? Because I am not yet in hell, though You are even there; for if I go down into hell You are there. I could not therefore exist, could not exist at all, O my God, unless You were in me. Or should I not, rather say that I could not exist unless I were in You from whom are all things, by whom are all things, in whom are all things? (Romans 11:36) Even so, Lord; even so. Where do I call You to, since You are in me, or when can You come into me? For where outside heaven and earth can I go that from then my God may come into me who has said, I fill heaven and earth? (Jeremiah 23:24)
Table of Contents
At the beginning of Augustine’s Confessions is a reference to Pelagius, who shares a belief that is probably common to many even though it is heresy. Namely, Pelagius believed that we were able to achieve our salvation by our own efforts, that we were not wounded by Adam’s sin. On some level it can be seen as a popular image of God holding a scale, our good works on one side of the scale and our evil deeds on the other. Then, whichever weighs more gets us into even. Namely, we earn our salvation because of what we do.
The Christian view of salvation is quite different. We are saved by God’s free and undeserved gift. In no way can we earn our salvation, since the fall and sin of Adam has so damaged us. It is only this free and unmerited gift that enables us to be saved. Even our desire to know God is the result of the free movement of God’s grace that wants us to do so.
And so at the start of the Confessions we read the very famous quote from Augustine: our hearts are restless, O God, until they rest in you. While we have a natural inclination to want to know God, we can only do so because of God’s powerful will and gift of grace that enables us to do so.
Questions to Ponder
Where would you describe the restlessness of your heart? What is it you believe causes this restlessness?
If you were to describe the beginning of your life as it pertains to faith, what is it you would say?
Where in your life have you seen God wishing to move your heart to know him?
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