St. Augustine was undoubtedly one of the most brilliant and gifted men to have ever lived—and we are fortunate that he left such a wealth of his brilliance in his many and varied writings. A prolific author, an immeasurably gifted homilist and brilliant catechist—and of course one of the great Fathers and Doctors of the Western Church—Augustine’s imprint on the Christian faith is unquestionable.
Peter Kreeft has written a book which deftly attempts (and, if I may spoil the rest of this review for the reader, thoroughly succeeds) to make the writings of St. Augustine—in particular, the Confessions—accessible and understandable. In I Burned for Your Peace: Augustine’s Confessions Unpacked (Ignatius Press, 2016), Dr. Kreeft not only makes the ancient Augustinian prose understandable, he also, and more importantly, helps guide the reader to numerous personal spiritual insights, using Confessions as the roadmap and instruction.
This is not the first book Kreeft has written about another book. I suppose for someone so prolific, he is bound to do quite a bit of writing about other writers’ writing. Because of Kreeft’s insights and vast knowledge, such books are valuable resources; they reflect his love for teaching, something he has done for decades at Boston University. The way that he is able to unpack the complex and profound thought of figures including St. Thomas Aquinas, Socrates, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, S.J., Brother Lawrence, Pascal, and St. Augustine, makes these books invaluable for the education and edification of those who read them.
One of the most important takeaways from Kreeft’s book is that St. Augustine is not unattainable. Certainly the Bishop of Hippo was brilliant, and certainly he had insights into things that most of us can only pray about, but that is what makes his writing and thought so valuable and timeless. His works give us insight into the depth of our faith, but they are not just for the highly educated. Quite the contrary!
We are all blessed, in the depths of our very selves, with a yearning for God. Augustine famously wrote in the Confessions, “Our hearts were made for you, O Lord, and they are restless until they rest in You.” This yearning, the burning in the bosom, is a hallmark of human experience, and a prime factor in understanding the work of St. Augustine.
One of the symbols traditionally associated with St. Augustine is a burning, flaming heart. While the meaning of this symbolism of this image could fill many book-length treatises, one certain connotation is the heart burning with love for God and the thirst for understanding and communion with Him.
At one point in the book, Kreeft examines the fact that the Confessions is so filled with questions. “Questions are a primary kind of ‘confession’, viz., confessions of ignorance,” notes Kreeft. “The Confessions has more interrogative sentences in it than any other Great Book that is not in literal dialogue form. These questions are not rhetorical; they are real. And they are not mere mental curiosity: they come from the heart. They bleed.” Once again we are reminded here of the burning heart. Burning with questions. Burning with love of God. Burn with the desire to live in the civitas Dei.
Dr. Kreeft works his way through Augustine’s masterwork by examining a number of topics and questions which Augustine addressed. Unpacking these insights on matters such as astrology, beauty and logic, time and procrastination, the problem of evil, Plato, and many others, Kreeft helps the reader to better understand what we can learn from this holy man.
One of St. Augustine’s most passionate and fiery passages in the Confessions comes near the end of his book—and Kreeft’s as well:
Thou didst call and cry to me and break open my deafness: and Thou didst send forth Thy beams and shine upon me and chase away my blindness: Thou didst breathe fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath and do not pant for Thee: I tasted Thee, and now hunger and thirst for Thee: Thou didst touch me, and I have burned for Thy Peace.
And it is Kreeft’s skilled hand which guides the reader to burn right alongside Augustine for the peace of the Lord.