Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Loving From Being Loved, Knowing From Being Known: Finding and Praising the True God in Book X of Augustine's Confessions

Introduction: After Narrative, After Conversion

The conclusion to Book IX of Saint Augustine’s Confessions would seem entirely appropriate as the conclusion to the work as a whole: Monica’s beloved son, so promising yet so rebellious, has finally converted to the Catholic faith, and after some brief time shared between them as fellow believers, the Lord who so faithfully answered Monica’s prayers takes her to be with him, and Augustine commends her witness to his readers as the extraordinary example she was. The climax of the narrative came in all its spiritual and rhetorical force, and Augustine narrates the gentle fade out with expectedly reserved finesse. End scene.

To the reader’s great surprise, Augustine has more. In fact, though “only” four books remain, the Confessions are not yet three-fifths complete. Augustine has a great deal more to say. But what more is there to say or do? The narrative is complete, and to be sure, Augustine wisely does not attempt merely to continue the story as he was telling it. Instead, he makes a critical decision, grounded in a simple truth that must not be lost to his readers: to have been converted is not the end of the story, but the beginning. If Augustine had left the story there, it would have communicated implicitly that conversion was the “point” of it all, and not the life with God created at conversion, as well as explicitly that Augustine was at the same place spiritually as a bishop ten years removed from his conversion, rather than on the same journey of transformation as all Christian believers. Book X is the spiritual bridge between the Psalms-infused, interpretive re-narration of God’s sovereign pursuit, calling, and claiming of Augustine in Books I-IX, and the conceptual theologizing of Books XI-XIII. On the one hand, Augustine continues to confess various sins in Book X, and seeks openly to present where he is in the faith a decade after his conversion, while on the other hand, he moves into sophisticated reflection on the nature of memory, the reason for confession, and other matters. The book is an amalgam of issues and topics, a rhetorical tour de force, a densely packed exploration of questions the reader may not have anticipated but Augustine clearly finds important.

The structure of Book X is both simple and complex: simple in its broad themes spread out with relative clarity, complex in the interweaving of those themes with detours, reroutes, and quick tangents, all discovered to be related to the task at hand. Augustine begins with an extended exploration of the character, purpose, and practice of confession in 1.1-5.7, which leads into a short foray (though with great resonance with what came before and what comes next) into the love of God in 6.8-7.11. A sizeable portion of Book X, and that for which it is well known, is Augustine’s sustained reflection in 8.12-24.35 on the nature and peculiar gift of memory: the intangibility of mental images, the process of learning, its relationship to the affections, the perplexing existence of (remembered) forgetfulness, the way memory leads to God yet also must be transcended, and finally the universal pursuit of happiness. In 25.36-29.40, a brief interlude emerges concerning God’s presence, love for God in return, and Augustine’s soon-to-be-infamous refrain, “Grant what you command, and command what you will.” This interlude segues seamlessly from confession and memory to active confession, in 30.41-39.64, of Augustine’s current temptations in the life of faith, walking honestly through the five senses touched on only briefly before, along with other potential sins. Finally, Augustine reaches his rhetorical and theological climax in 40.65-43.70, where he finds no other recourse for truth or salvation except in God’s mercy, poured out in the true mediator between God and humanity, Jesus Christ, whose cross offers true and lasting healing for all who are called and cleansed by him. Book X ends in an extraordinary flurry of New Testament quotations hailing Christ as the singular answer for the mass of sins remembered and named in all the previous pages.

Due to the wealth of content available, below we will limit ourselves to exploring three particular themes in Book X: making confession, love from and for God, and finding and praising the true mediator. Both structurally and thematically, these mark the beginning, middle, and end of Book X, and in a way are the poles around which the rest of what is discussed—however greater in volume!—finds its meaning and coherence.

On Making Confession

Having spent so much time in the act of verbal-literary confession, to God and before others, Augustine takes up the topic of confession itself in the beginning of Book X. The first words of the section outline broadly what Augustine’s personal telos is in this act: “May I know you, who know me” (1.1). From this overarching aim comes the meaning of making confession—with both vertical and horizontal dimensions—though there is no one clear reason or definition. On the one hand, Augustine speaks out of the hope that, in knowing God through being known by God, he might be found “without spot or blemish” (Eph 5:27); and, on the other hand, in confessing to God through the heart and to others by the pen, he desires to love the truth and thus “come to the light” (John 3:21).

However, to confess one’s sins (or better, one’s whole self) is neither to tell God something he doesn’t already know, nor to share with others something not first initiated and revealed by God to the speaker (2.2). Yet to withhold confession would similarly not keep something about oneself hidden from God, but rather it “would be hiding you from myself, not myself from you.” The act of confessing, therefore, is the self-giving of oneself over to the One who, in delight and love, first gives one the gift of knowing oneself. For Augustine the only pleasure and the only joy reside here, in finding oneself in and through God; and thus does confession spring forth both audibly and silently—the soul cries out to God in displeasure or thanksgiving, in love the lips give voice to the heart.

“Why then should I be concerned for human readers to hear my confessions? And when they hear me talking about myself, how can they know if I am telling the truth” (3.3)? There is no simple solution to the problem of trust in public confession: “I cannot prove that my confession is true” to those who doubt. It is Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:7 that prove decisive: “Love believes all things.” Therefore, “those whose ears are opened by love believe me.” And yet, though “those love has bonded to itself and made one” will be willing and able to believe Augustine’s confessions, for what benefit? In point of fact, Augustine has many benefits in mind. By God’s grace, in “hear[ing] the confessions of my past wickednesses, which you have forgiven and covered up to grant me happiness in yourself,” the heart of the listener will be “aroused in the love of your mercy” (3.4). To know the mercy of God in another’s life is to believe, if only for a moment, that all is not lost in one’s own. Moreover, to hear of persons whose past sins were grave but have now been conquered in Christ is a delight and a pleasure. For on account of God’s actions in the past of one such as Augustine, many will give thanks to God for God’s faithfulness and might, which “is no small gift” (4.5). Furthermore, in hearing both of past sins and of present struggles, faithful brothers and sisters, whether approving or disapproving, will pray for Augustine and insofar as they righteously discern the good and the bad in him, they are loving him. “To such people I will reveal myself.”

Yet what comes from moving from the past to the present, from “what I once was” to “who I now am” (3.4)? Apparently “many wish to know” who Augustine is now, even “demand[ing] to hear from me what I am” (3.3). Here he must tread carefully, for the “wish to learn about my inner self, where they cannot penetrate with eye or ear or mind” (3.4) may easily become voyeurism, gossip, or slander. Only God knows human beings fully, and no one is privy to that knowledge except as God reveals it, or as it is shared freely. Augustine is careful, then, to articulate that he confesses before others for the sake of those he has been given to serve, his “masters” (4.6). Not feigning to sit in judgment on himself (1 Cor 4:3), it is “in this spirit that I ask to be listened to,” “reveal[ing] not who I was, but what I have now come to be and what I continue to be.”

In what follows Augustine entreats the Lord to be present to him in what he confesses, both of what he knows of himself, and of what he does not know of himself (5.7). We might call this section, having begun in 1.1, Augustine’s confessional prolegomena to the rest of Book X, as well as his hermeneutical hindsight concerning Books I-IX. After finishing his life narrative up until conversion, the reader now hears from the speaker what he is doing in confessing; and before wading through the still festering sins and trials of the Great Rhetor, Priest and Bishop of Hippo, Augustine prepares the reader properly to receive this sacramental participation in his life, and the life of the merciful God. What comes next, what makes up a sizeable portion of Book X, is Augustine’s measured and thoughtful act of confessing today’s sins. Even as he takes the time to reflect philosophically on how it is God has made him capable of such reflection, Augustine never loses sight—as we will see in the way he concludes—that the rightful subject of confessional speech is God, and that his self-presentation will have significant impact on the lives of those he loves and is called to serve.

Love From God, Love For God

Having finished his thorough reflections on the gift, nature, function, puzzle, and role of memory, Augustine concludes he has “not found [God] outside it,” for everything he knows of God and has learned of God is available to him in his memory (24.35). Yet where does God actually dwell? Per Augustine’s experience and recollection, God is pleased to honor the memory by dwelling in it (25.36). Yet God remains immutably separate than the mind—he is “the Lord God of the mind,” “not the mind itself.” Yet once again, though God has “deigned to dwell” in Augustine’s memory, to speak of “places” with respect to the mind, much less concerning God’s presence, is ludicrous: “O truth, everywhere you preside over all who ask counsel of you” (26.37). And it is at this moment, that Augustine transitions, seamlessly, from conceptual reflection to uninhibited exultation—and to the beating heart of Book X.

Extolling the God unbounded by memory or learning, who is utterly present to all in careful attentiveness to their prayers, Augustine defines God’s “best servant” as “the person who does not attend so much to hearing what he himself wants as to willing what he has heard from you.” The remark cannot be taken as anything less than the fruit of Augustine’s hard road to submitting to God in conversion and self-renunciation. The time and pain of that journey comes forth in the beautiful opening words to the next section— “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you” (27.38)—the whole of which is renowned for its rhetorical brilliance in Latin and for the heartfelt depth of feeling Augustine speaks before God. Before his conversion, God was with Augustine, though Augustine was not with God, and delight in created things kept Augustine from delighting in God—and yet, “You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.” The incorporeal God, the immutable God, the God who is everywhere and therefore never limited to a single “place”—the very same God comes precisely to a man bent on “hearing what he himself wants” and overwhelms him with sound, with sight, with smell, with taste, with touch. This is the love of God: the all-consuming beauty of the divine mercy that crashes over every boundary and defense, every shield and rejection. And it is nothing less than the revelation that the greatest creaturely delight is in the Creator of heaven and earth, who gives freely and offers peace to great sinners, who satisfies every desire, who miraculously is able to be loved by his servants. This is none other than the living God discovered, narrated, and praised in the confessions of Augustine.

If “human life on earth [is] a trial in which there is no respite” (28.39), the Christian’s (and thus Augustine’s) “entire hope is exclusively in your very great mercy” (29.40). The God to whom Augustine makes confession—from whom he receives love, and to whom he returns love—is the God who lifts up, who heals, who has mercy on the lowly, the sick, and the pitiful (which, by extension, includes all humanity). In such a state of need, and in light of so merciful a God, Augustine entreats the Almighty infamously, but earnestly: “Grand what you command, and command what you will.” God here is not Sheer Power, much less Absolute Decision or some other philosophical suggestion; God is the merciful one, the origin of love, the gracious giver of peace and joy. Not only is God these things—that is, not only does God have these “attributes”—God has acted this way, toward humanity in general, but toward Augustine in particular! This God is no human projection, no stale idol: he is the living God who, in judgment on all human sin and ungodliness, speaks grace and unconditional love over them, pronouncing them free from all their burdens. Augustine knows this because God has done it to him. In context, therefore, his plea is not part of an abstract debate about free will—it is a prayer to the merciful God to act concretely on his behalf! “O love, you ever burn and are never extinguished. O charity, my God, set me on fire. You command continence; grand what you command, and command what you will.”

Augustine loves God because God first loved Augustine. Accordingly, Augustine lives continently because God first commanded continence and granted it to Augustine. The story of command, will, sin, and obedience is, for Augustine, nothing short of the story of the gospel, of God’s primal, originating, needless love for sinful human beings. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son... We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:10, 19).

Finding and Praising the True Mediator

In 40.65 Augustine begins to wind down his work in Book X. He even reviews the material he has traversed, such as the external world, the body and its five senses, and “the recesses of my memory,” noting that without God he “could discern none of these things, and...found that none of these things was you.” In a sense, his explorations and confessions have been an attempt to find God, to know him with the physical senses, to locate him in the mind, to call on him for forgiveness. “But in all these investigations which I pursue while consulting you, I can find no safe place for my soul except in you.” Yes, Augustine finds himself once again where all his journeys lead him: God’s holy rest.

Yet in his prior yieldings to lust, castigated with “the sicknesses of my sins,” Augustine was greedy, “unwilling to lose” the God who had come to him yet also unwilling to give up the lie of his living (41.66). “This is why I lost you: you do not condescend to be possessed together with falsehood.” “Condescension” is the key word for this concluding section, for it points backward to Augustine’s attempt to “find” God, and points forward, finally, to its definitive answer.

Having lost God, where to turn? How to be reconciled? Was it to angels, or to prayer, or to sacred rites that he should have turned (43.67)? Many have taken such routes, among other more mystical and experiential possibilities, yet they have been ensnared, no doubt often without their knowledge, to the evil one. “They sought a mediator to purify them, and it was not the true one.” Little has been said of Christ up to this point in Book X, but it is here that Augustine finally discovers the material, bodily “place” of the true God. In mercy, love, and grace the immortal and sinless God condescends to human flesh for the sake of salvation, and is the true mediator between God and humanity insofar as he is both God and man. God “sent him so that from his example [humanity] should learn humility,” and he “appeared among mortal sinners as the immortal righteous one, mortal like humanity, righteous like God” (43.68). In a single paragraph, Augustine lays out a concise but robust Christology: Christ the true mediator, sent to teach humility, voided death by virtue of sharing in it as one “united with God by his righteousness,” thus making salvation known both to past and future saints, being both truly human and the eternal Word equal and one with the one true God.

The Incarnation, however, is, like all matters of the Catholic faith for Augustine, not simply about doctrinal purity or theological sophistication. Rather, the Incarnation of God is cause for worship and exaltation: “How you have loved us, good Father: you did not spare your only Son but delivered him up for us sinners. How you have loved us” (43.69; cf. Rom 8:32). Christ was victorious in life and death before God precisely because he was victim; and because he was both priest and sacrifice, his offering cleanses sinners of their “many and great...diseases,” for his “medicine is still more potent.” Echoing his encounter with the Books of the Platonists and the first chapter of John (VII.9.13), Augustine asks who could have thought the Logos of God was lovingly near to humanity “unless he had become flesh and dwelt among us?”

Bringing that past moment of indecision into the present, he recalls nearly “taking flight to live in solitude” (43.70). But completing the circle, and formally culminating the narrative connections of Books I-X, Augustine recalls God forbidding him to flee, and comforting him with the fact that Christ’s death provides for living not for oneself, but for Christ (2 Cor 5:15). The climactic finish entails a furious succession of biblical quotations, some from Paul, but primarily (and fittingly) from the Psalms (6:3; 21:27; 54:23; 61:5; 68:6; 118:18, 22; 142:10). He makes closing, implicit reference to the Eucharist, from which “in my poverty I desire to be satisfied...together with those who” share it with him. Book X’s final words: “And they shall praise the Lord who seek him.”

Conclusion

We have seen how complex and interconnected the themes and subjects of Book X of the Confessions are, but perhaps nothing illuminates their coherence more than, having just discussed the middle and closing sections, restating Augustine’s opening words: “May I know you, who know me” (1.1). Like his later expositor Calvin, Augustine must take up the task to find and to know God as the God who knows Augustine—no knowledge of God without knowledge of self—and thus must make confession, must explore within himself, where (and how) it is that God has been and continues to be. Ultimately, however, what Augustine finds—as he knew he would—is the God of all mercy, neither empirically locatable nor identifiable through the senses, but revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that true mediator between God and humanity, whose gracious healing is sufficient for even such a sinner as Augustine of Hippo.

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