This is my final series of notes on Augustine’s Confessions. Although there are 13 books in the Confessions, we’re only covering books 1-9 in our Bible study, so at least for the moment, this will be my final set of notes.
Opening Meditation (9.1)
As always, Augustine is mystified by the nature of human will. Now that he was a Christian, he says, “Now I did not will to do what I willed, [but] began to will to do what thou didst will.” Paradoxically, his own will was not formerly free when he simply willed to do what he wanted: rather, his will became free the moment God gave him the grace to will what God wanted.
Leaving the World (9.2-6)
Augustine and his friends decided to leave their secular employments and devote themselves full-time to God’s service. Augustine did not quit his job immediately, however, but waited for several weeks, until the start of the harvest vacation (from late August through mid-October). He seems a little worried that people might think he took this time because he wasn’t completely committed, but says that he actually took this course due to the opposite fear: that if he were to leave in the middle of the term, it would look ostentatious and proud.
Some of thy servants, my brethren, may say that I sinned in this, since having once fully and from my heart enlisted in thy service, I permitted myself to sit a single hour in the chair of falsehood. I will not dispute it. But hast thou not, O most merciful Lord, pardoned and forgiven this sin in the holy water, along with all the others, horrible and deadly as they were?
Augustine’s friends took his conversion in various ways. Verecundus, his landlord, was rather dismayed to find Augustine following this path; although he was interested in becoming a Christian, he only wished to do so if he could become as “complete” a Christian as Augustine, i.e., a chaste, unmarried one. Since he was married, and divorce was considered an even worse state than marriage, this was obviously not possible. It was only when he fell ill and was on his deathbed that he allowed himself to be baptized. In contrast, Nebridius was excited, and quickly abandoned the last remnants of his docetic heresy, in submitting himself as a candidate for baptism.
During the harvest vacation, Augustine left to a country villa in Cassiciacum, a small village north of Milan, within sight of the Alps. He was accompanied by his son Adeodatus, his mother Monica, Alypius, and half a dozen others. While at Cassiciacum, he wrote several important treatises, including a dialog with his son called The Teacher, The Happy Life, Soliloquies, and several others.
What Augustine treasures most about this time, however, was not the writings which he finished, but the hours spent in prayer and meditation on the Psalms. Paragraphs 8-11 are basically a meditation on the Old Latin text of Psalm 4, which of course, being a translation of a translation of a translation, differs in some important ways from what we read in the NIV. To take just a couple examples:
Know that the Lord has magnified his Holy One.
Know that the LORD has set apart his faithful servant for himself.
The Old Latin “magnified” and “Holy One” seem to be clearer references to Christ than “set apart” and “faithful servant”.
Be angry and do not sin.
Tremble and do not sin.
Augustine interprets “be angry” as “Be angry at yourself for your sins so that you will not sin” (a different interpretation than Paul gives it in Eph. 4:26). The NIV translation seems to be saying, “Tremble at God, so that you will not sin.” The object of the initial verb is different, though the thought is similar.
Many are saying, who will show us the good? O Lord, the light of your face shines bright upon us.
Many, LORD, are asking, “Who will bring us prosperity?” Let the light of your face shine on us.
Augustine interprets the verse to mean, “Only when God’s face shines upon us can we know the true good” (in both a philosophical and moral sense). In contrast, the NIV seems to mean, “Only when God’s face shines upon us can we be prosperous” (in both a pecuniary and moral sense).
Augustine also apparently experienced a (relatively minor) instance of divine healing. He was suffering from a toothache, which was probably a dramatically more troublesome experience in the centuries before modern dentistry and analgesics than it is now. It was troubling him horribly, however, and he asked for prayer; and as soon as his friends knelt to pray for him, the pain disappeared.
Augustine mentions only briefly the death of his son (which took place about a year after this point). He was clearly a proud father, and if the dialog reproduced in The Teacher is any indication, a justly proud one. It’s very interesting, though, and perhaps just a little disturbing, that he seems to feel no grief about the premature death of such a talented and promising son, “our companion, as if he were the same age in grace with ourselves”.
Augustine mentions how moving he now found the hymns and psalms sung in the church – which were apparently a new innovation. Presumably shortly before his conversion, during the height of the Arian controversy, the empress Justina attempted to enforce Arian doctrine in Milan, going so far as to attempt to remove the orthodox Ambrose by force. When the soldiers arrived, they found the people of the church barricaded inside. Ambrose refused to give up the church, though he equally refused to use force to keep the soldiers out. To keep the people’s spirits up during this time of heightened confrontation, Ambrose borrowed a tradition from the Eastern Church, that of communal (and antiphonal) singing. This was an early version of what later became Gregorian chant, and it’s the first recorded communal singing in church (apart from various NT references to “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”). Seven of the hymns that Ambrose wrote are still a part of the Roman Catholic liturgy.
Monica’s Life and Death (9.17-33)
Some of the customs Augustine describes seem quite strange to us, and even perverse, such as the rule instituted by Monica’s nurse that children should only drink water at mealtimes:
“You drink water now only because you don’t control the wine; but when you are married and mistresses of pantry and cellar, you may not care for water, but the habit of drinking will be fixed.”
This reminds me of Aristotle’s recommendation that infants should be exposed to the cold as much as possible, so that they would grow up used to it.
Similarly, Augustine accepts with a certain equanimity the fact that bad-tempered husbands beat their wives (this is at best mildly problematic for him), and that masters beat their servants (he seems to think this is a good thing).
On the flip side, some of what Augustine commends his mother for seems downright farsighted: such as the role she played as peacemaker in various quarrels:
She would disclose nothing about the one to the other except what might serve toward their reconciliation. This might seem a small good to me if I did not know to my sorrow countless persons who, through the horrid and far-spreading infection of sin, not only repeat to enemies mutually enraged things said in passion against each other, but also add some things that were never said at all.
Towards the end of this section, Augustine describes a vision which he and his mother together experienced. It is similar in many ways to the “Plotinian ecstasy” which he experienced and describes in 7.23, but is much more specifically Biblical (not necessarily Christian) in its content.
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, and we gradually passed through all the levels of bodily objects, and even through the heaven itself, where the sun and moon and stars shine on the earth. Indeed, we soared higher yet by an inner musing, speaking and marveling at thy works.
Augustine’s reaction to his mother’s death is almost – almost – the opposite of his reaction to the death of his friend in book 4. He never says anything like, “I knew that I would see my mother again.” His consolation appears to be somewhat deeper than that – though he clearly experiences grief as well, though in a much more subdued form than he had experienced as an adolescent, despite its surface similarity:
I was then left destitute of a great comfort in her, and my soul was stricken; and that life was torn apart, as it were, which had been made but one out of hers and mine together.
Despite his determined, near-pagan stoicism, God eventually graced Augustine with an unwanted gift of grief:
It was a solace for me to weep in thy sight, for her and for myself, about her and about myself. Thus I set free the tears which before I repressed, that they might flow at will, spreading them out as a pillow beneath my heart. And it rested on them, for thy ears were near me.