In his confessions, Saint Augustine reflects upon his life in the light of scripture and the presence of God. He begins with his infancy, pondering the many sins of his life before his conversion, and he confesses not only his sins but even more the greatness of God. This work presents a wonderful contrast between the Holy God who created all things and whom heaven and earth cannot contain and a commonly sinful man who has joyfully received God's loving salvation and mercy.
Many scholars consider Saint Augustine to be among the greatest and most influential fathers of the early church. And as you listen to his The Confessions of Saint Augustine, you will find the confident humility that is common among those whom Jesus calls "great in the kingdom of heaven". Augustine wrote as a common man, and so his words span time and tradition. May his confessions guide you to the one whom he confesses.
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The text is lively and clearly translated by the well known Wesley theologian and philosopher, Albert Cook Outler, and is well read intimately and prayerfully by Emily Hanna. A woman's narrative voice works well, as Augustine's Confessions are deeply personal and intimate. The inserts of cello played by Peter Plantinga (any relation to Alvin, the famous evangelical Christian philosopher?) at appropriate intervals allow the listeners to pause and meditate at the right moments. What a privilege to "hear" the confessions of St. Augustine! A perfect way to enter Lent or any other spiritual pilgrimage.
Augustine's restless quest for peace, happiness, and truth in the midst of his scattered, dispersed, and distracted life of wonderings, pervades the entire book from the beginning to the end. His powerful words such as "I became to myself a waste land" (2:10) or "in this our straw house" (9:7) found their way into works such as T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" and "The Hollow Men." Augustine was already a post-modern before the dawn of the medieval Christendom, which he dominated also.
His struggle to overcome and to be free of both his carnal desires ("the glue of lust") and, at the same time, of the errors of worldly wisdom never ends. He frankly admits, for example, of taking another concubine after his betrothal (because the two-year wait until the marriage was too long) is as striking as painful; as is his reference to the struggle to purge himself of sensual images in his own dreams that he recounts apparently at the time of writing the book in his mid 40's. (His dream analysis is as interesting and insightful as Descartes.')
His restlessness, however, is not confined to things that are sensual alone. It also pertains to his intellectual quest toward topics such as God, Christ, evil, memory or the mind, happiness, time, creation, etc. But ultimately the book is about finding or reaching God, who is beyond our reach and knowledge. For instance, how are we to understand God, who, as Augustine says, "is near when I am far from Thee"? What kind of space does he dwell, where His nearness is not reciprocal to our nearness and His distance not equivalent to our distance? How are we to understand His time, when He knows what we want before we seek it? He already has the foreknowledge of what we are going to seek in the future. Or, how can we understand the eternity when for Him the past and the future is all in the present?
Augustine gives a brilliant analysis of memory (Book 10) but fully realizes in the end that God is not something we can remember. Thus, he squarely rejects the Socratic mimesis as the source of all knowledge--without ever having read Plato! He cries out in the end: "But where in my memory dost thou abide, O Lord? Where dost thou dwell there?" (10:25) He ends the analysis of memory with a profound admission that we cannot recall God by the power of our memory; and we cannot seek God unless and until He first seeks us: "You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours" (10:27).
Likewise, at the heart of his brilliant analysis of time (Book 11), he pauses to confess his/our limitations into knowing the nature of time and invokes God's help to enlighten and strengthen him to go on, as he does, in his inquiry. In so doing, Aristotle's association of time with objective motions of heavenly bodies is decidedly refuted. Instead, Augustine locates time in the subjective consciousness, thus paving the way for the 20th century phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, who read Augustine carefully, for his own analysis of time as transcendental consciousness itself, which Heidegger even further developed in terms of the epochal sending of Being (Geschichte or history). (Augustine's words 'memory,' 'attention,' and 'expectation,' are strikingly similar to Husserl's words 'retention,' 'attention,' and 'protention' that he uses to refer to the past, present, and future modes of inner time consciousness.) Without actually having read Aristotle and, for that matter, Plato too (except through the second hand transmissions--for all we know, Augustine only read Plotinus in Latin translation), Augustine's analysis of objectivity, i.e., images (or, in Plato's terms, forms or, in the medieval term, essence) of things and of time is brilliant. His thinking is unparalleled, "perhaps one in a thousand years," as my teacher Adriaan Peperzak told me once. If St. Paul, according to Giorgio Agamben, had singlehandedly determined the fate of Western civilization; St. Augustine had set the entire agenda for the western philosophy and literature. He had dominated the medieval thought without a doubt but arguably also the modern and even the post-modern thoughts.
His affectionate account of the dialogue he had with his mother, Monica, in Ostia while awaiting a voyage to Africa is well known as a classic account of mysticism both he and Monica apparently experienced in the room at the window overlooking the garden (Book 9). One is struck by how fragile such an experience is, however. For even after such a 'mystical' experience he had, Augustine continues to struggle to find peace and rest (sensually, intellectually, and spiritually all around). It is worth dwelling on the account he gives.
Augustine writes: "And when our conversation had brought us to the point where the very highest of physical sense and the most intense illumination of physical light seemed, in comparison with the sweetness of that life to come, not worthy of comparison, nor even of mention, we lifted ourselves with a more ardent love toward the Selfsame (Idipsum)" (9:10). That to which he refers is beyond language and cannot be described. But Augustine attempts to recall what cannot be expressed by prefacing: "What we said went something like this..." No exact account can be given. A provisional or partial recollection will have to do.
What he recalls is conveyed through the Scriptural texts (Psalm 19:1,3; Psalm100:3; Habakkuk 2:20)—as paraphrased and combined—and put under the hypothetical 'if.' He writes: "If to any man the tumult of the flesh were silenced; and the phantoms of earth and waters and air were silenced; and the poles were silence as well; indeed, if the very soul grew silent to herself, and went beyond herself by not thinking of herself; ... if every tongue and every sign and every transient thing... if any man could hear them, all these would say, 'We did not create ourselves, but were created by Him who abides forever' (9:10). If only the whole creation were to fall silent, they would then be able to attest to God; and if we too were to fall silent, we can only then ‘hear’ them speak the inaudible: that they are not the Creator: "for actually if any man could hear them, all these would say..."
They would speak only "if [they] were silenced...." And we could hear them, only if we were silenced. “The heavens are telling the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1, NRSV). This “telling” is both inaudible and audible. Inaudible because they speak in their silence; audible only if we along with the whole creation were silenced. They speak in their silence; and we hear this silent speech only if we ourselves fall silent: “let all the earth keep silence before him” (Habakkuk 2:20, NRSV). In the silence of the heaven and the earth, we hear: “It is he what made us, and we are his” (Psalm 100:3).
What kind of speech is this “telling [of] the glory of God”? What kind of hearing will hear such a speech spoken in silence? Is man, who is said to be ‘a house of being,’ capable of hearing such a speech, as he is said to hear the call of Being in his proper mode of thinking, according to Heidegger? There is no thanksgiving (danken) in Heidegger’s thinking (denken), despite the close etymological connection between the two terms, as Jean-Louis Chrétien correctly observes in The Ark of Speech. Both he and Jean-Yves Lacoste show the plausibility of conceiving human existence in a way other than Being of being: in the way of praise and worship as the essential mode of human existence. To praise in a speech that holds the whole creation together in silence (Chrétien) and to worship liturgically in a vigil awaiting the fullness of time (Lacoste in his Experience And the Absolute) can no longer be discarded simply as pietism of a primitive religion. The silent speech of the whole creation Augustine and Monica heard in their ascent to the “Selfsame” thus offers the direction by which whole of our existence can and must be oriented and redefined.
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