In the comments to my recent CWR article on different translations of the Confessions, a reader related the common experience of trying to read Augustine and giving up. “The time to read and digest the Confessions is a monumental task.” He wonders whether it is worth it for the average Catholic to slog through Augustine. Especially, I might add, when there are so many other good spiritual writers out there with more accessible texts.
The gentleman then suggests a follow up article covering “the spiritual value of reading the Confessions” and some “approaches to reading it.” While I do not think the Confessions is required reading for every faithful person, I do want to take up this reader’s suggestion and offer some guidance for those who do want to read and digest it.
The spiritual value of reading Augustine’s Confessions
The Confessions changes lives. I know this is true because it changed mine. I read the Confessions as a freshman in college when I was a very lapsed Catholic in search of a way. I admired Augustine’s questioning God, his profound introspection, and his honest struggles with sin. In the Confessions, Augustine is everyman; he is you and me, a sinner who struggles with lust, ambition, and distraction. I have read the Confessions more than a dozen times over the past twenty years and each time it is fresh. It is the kind of book that grows as you grow. Each time I read it, I am beckoned to go deeper, further up and further in.
Augustine teaches us how to pray. Currently, I am re-reading the Confessions for an undergraduate course I am teaching at Hope College. My prayers were already formed deeply by this work when I wrote my dissertation on it, but I have found even now that I am praying more throughout the day and that my prayers are shaped by what I am reading. I find I want to confess more, to praise God more, and to see everything in the light of God. Augustine shows us how to turn every moment, every memory—good and bad—into a prayer of praise and thanksgiving. Augustine teaches us to do now what we will be doing forever, that is, if we in fact do now what he teaches us to do.
Augustine teaches us who God is and who we are. The Confessions begins with a distinction between the greatness of God, who is eminently worthy of praise, and us humans, a portion (or “particle,” in one lovely translation) of God’s creation, who are encumbered by our mortality, by weakness and sin. Yet, we are made for God. We are made with a dynamic orientation toward him and we are restless until we rest in him. The Confessions explores the nature of God and the nature of human beings in light of God. So, in addition to learning how to speak to God properly, we also learn how to think about him, and ourselves, properly.
Tips for getting through the Confessions
Get past the first five pages. The first five pages of the Confessions contain Augustine’s most famous line about our restless heart, but they also contain some of the densest and most rhetorical writing about God, including dozens of questions he does not answer! Some people just give up at this point (though others truly love all the questioning and searching). Just keep reading. The narrative picks up and soon you will be thinking about infant sin, bad educations, adolescent pranks, sexual escapades, heretical sects, overbearing mothers, the nature of sin, as well as saints and friends and God’s goodness and providence and a story worthy of the Coming Home Network.
Choose the right translation. Make sure to choose the translation that is right for you (see my essay here). If you are really intimidated by the prospect of reading the Confessions, then get the translation by Fr. Benignus O’Rourke (a beautiful rendering of the first nine books) or the study edition by Ignatius Press (very readable with helpful commentary and essays from a Catholic point of view).
Or, seriously, listen to an audio version. Augustine’s culture was an oral culture and the Confessions was meant to be heard. I have listened to the beautiful old Outler translation on Librivox (free!) with a solid reader with a charming accent. Audible has more contemporary translations, like Boulding or Chadwick, as well as the wonderful 19th-century Pusey version read by a great British actor. Again, choose the version that is right for you!
Read it with someone. Can you get a friend or group of friends to read it with you? Is there someone at the parish who could help lead you through it? Can you read a chapter at a time aloud together and then discuss it? Do something to keep yourself accountable!
Some insights for approaching the Confessions
The Confessions is a prayer. Most people think the Confessions is an autobiography. But this is not quite right. There are certainly autobiographical elements in the Confessions, but the work is first and foremost a prayer. It is a prayer of praise for who God is and a prayer of thanksgiving for what God has done in Augustine’s life. Augustine invites us to pray with him, so that, together as the body of Christ, we might lift up our heart to God and find rest. If you approach the work as an autobiography (or any traditional genre), you will likely get frustrated. But, if you allow Augustine to stir up your mind and heart to God without worrying about understanding every idea or digression, then you will find yourself being slowly transformed.
The Confessions is meant to exercise our souls. The Confessions is an exercitatio animi, an “exercising of the soul.” Augustine writes it in such a way to stretch our minds and hearts so that we might come to know God better and to love him more. Augustine asks more than 700 hundred questions in this book. Not every question will be your question and sometimes Augustine will teach you to ask questions you didn’t know you wanted to ask! Either way, Augustine is a fellow seeker who takes us by the hand and drags us up to God with him. Again, do not worry if you do not understand all the twists and turns in the story. Ask and seek and knock along with Augustine and he will guide you from lower things to higher things, from lower loves to the highest One.
The Confessions is meant to exorcise our souls. The Confessions is not grace itself, but many have found it to be a vehicle for God’s grace. The Confessions is what we might call a “general examination of conscience” in which Augustine looks back over his whole life, including his present life, and (re)reads it in the light of God’s mercy. He invites us to do the same. He shows, tells, and models for us how disordered loves can become ordered, how we can learn to love the Creator over his creations, and how to love his creations by referring them back to the one who made them.
At the end of Book 9 of the Confessions, Augustine relates an experience he shared with his mother, Monica, toward the end of her life. As they both ponder her imminent death, they turn their thoughts to the life of the saints in heaven. But as they talk, their souls are lifted up so that they come into the presence of God until they both, together, see, hear, smell, taste, and touch God. Augustine, one of the most brilliant minds the world has ever seen, shares this mystical experience with his holy mother, an uneducated middle class woman of Punic descent.
I relate this story to drive home the point that I do not think everyone needs to read the Confessions. Some will read other beautiful books and some will need no particular books to get them to the same destination. The important thing is to learn to dwell in the presence of God and be transformed. This is not a task for the elite or the educated only, but for everyone. Indeed, education often enough gets in the way of advancing toward such a goal. And this is one reason Augustine wrote the Confessions: to show those read (or hear) it a path up to God.
Many people are understandably intimidated by reading Augustine’s Confessions, but most who make the effort find that they are amply rewarded. Whether you read only the first nine books (which cover his aversion from and conversion to God) or also brave the final four books (which are profound explorations of memory, exegesis, time, space, and the Church), Augustine will stretch your mind, for sure, and your heart, if you let him. I think most of you will be glad you tried. Whether you get a lot from it or a little, you will get something beautiful.
• Related at CWR: “What translation of Augustine’s Confessions should I read?” (January 25, 2021) by Dr. Jared Ortiz
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted on February 6, 2021.)
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!