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Why and how to read Augustine’s Confessions

Many people are understandably intimidated by reading Augustine’s Confessions, but most who make the effort find they are amply rewarded. Here are some aids for those who take up this classic book.

Detail from "St Augustine in his Cell" (1494) by Sandro Botticelli (Image:

In the comments to my 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.)

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About Dr. Jared Ortiz 16 Articles
Dr. Jared Ortiz is Professor of Religion at Hope College and author of You Made Us for Yourself: Creation in St Augustine’s Confessions (Fortress Press, 2016) and editor of Deification in the Latin Patristic Tradition (The Catholic University of America Press, 2019). He is also founder and executive director of the Saint Benedict Institute.


  1. Thank You so much for your followup article, definitely will give it another try and use the tips you provided. Glad you mentioned the St Ignatius version. I like idea of footnotes and followup commentary to assist the reader. I have the Ignatius Press New Testament Study Bible that also contains very useful and extensive footnotes and associated commentary.

  2. “The important thing is to learn to dwell in the presence of God and be transformed.” This is possible for those who are disposed to receive God’s grace. St Augustine and St Monica are great saints from whom we can attain great spiritual benefits. I like to read and meditate St Augustine’s Confessions in Latin.

    Regarding me: On February 17, 2001, God gave me another great spiritual grace (I’m saying ‘another’ because, through my intimate friend, St Pio of Pietrelcina, God had already given me an extraordinary spiritual grace): the continuous presence of the Holy Trinity through the example of Saint George Preca. My mind is habitually thinking of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and as soon as any thought, be it good or bad, that does not agree completely with the will of God on me, will disappear automatically as soon as I become aware of it.

    So, please, if anyone wants to have the contiunous presence of the Most Holy Trinity, through a special grace, let them pray for it. God will surely answer your prayers.

  3. Excellent article – especially the line of exorcising our souls (healing our souls of sin) vs a spiritual exercise, and the difference – one removes weakness through prayer that strengthens the soul so we can avoid temptations, and other removes demonic influences through prayer that heals the soul through deliverance from evil.

  4. The Confessions may not serve well as an introduction into the life and thought of St. Augustine. His sermons may be more useful. One sermon is more manageable for the modern reader than a hyperextended prayer. The autobiographical content of the Confessions all but ends where his long service as a bishop begins. Another very readable way into Augustine is the biography written by his friend St. Possidius, who presents to the reader the Augustine who not only composed profound theological works but also practiced what he preached.

  5. In St. Augustine we find no ambiguity, but the clarity of real conversion. Pope Francis’ prayer intention for August is that the Church “may receive from the Holy Spirit the grace and strength to reform herself in the light of the Gospel.”

    We might also recall that emeritus Pope Benedict wrote his doctoral dissertation on St. Augustine. In 2007, during his “pastoral” visit to Pavia (where the saint’s tomb is found), Benedict recalled Augustine’s “three conversions.” “He always believed—sometimes rather vaguely, sometimes more clearly—that God exists and takes care of us.”

    The FIRST conversion is the interior road “toward the ‘yes’ of faith and baptism,” that “the Word was made flesh. And in this way, he touches us and we touch him.”
    The SECOND conversion was when “he founded a small monastery and by popular demand was ordained a priest by force [and now] he had to translate his [contemplative] knowledge into the thought and language of the simple folk of [Hippo] [….] we were given the gift of something more precious: the Gospel translated into the language of daily life.”
    And the THIRD conversion took place when he discovered that “only one is truly perfect and that the words of the Sermon on the mount are completely realized only in one person: in Jesus Christ himself [….] Augustine saw the final step of humility—the humility of recognizing that the merciful goodness of a God who forgives was necessary for himself and the whole pilgrim Church.”

    What would it mean to the Church of today, if we went more with the contemplative “Augustinian Option”? Not so much room here for a post-Vatican II, amnesiac, horizontal, and even accommodationist “project-church.”

  6. Count me among those who started Augustine and got about half way through before losing traction. But much of what I read, I enjoyed. Even with a good translation the phrasing can be difficult. I dont enjoy reading a book that requires commentary to re-explain what I just read. Someone would do us a favor if they compiled a more modern day translation, if possible, without losing the sentiment and the heart. I am always fascinated by conversion stories. Much of what makes him a great saint is that he led a profligate life at first, but had always been searching. Had done his worst in life and then saw the light. The depth of his love for God following his conversion is very moving in my opinion, and can be a great example for all of us.Its never too late to change. Or, to rediscover the importance of God, and come back to Him, and His church. Thank you for the reminder to tackle this book again.

    • I gave up when Aigudtine went on snd on and on about time. You say he’s brilliant .,,ok..,well he tired me out with his endless speculations.
      His mother Monica was a true saint praying endlessly and humbly for her husband and son.
      Augustine was proud that his father never beat his mother after a night of drinking and womanizing..apparently a normal feature of Carthigian marriages.
      Augustian’s great crime as a renegade youth was enjoying the theft of some pears with his budfies!
      Yet at 17 or so he had taken a lower class woman as concubine and sired a son by her. How come only one child in many years of hanky lanky?
      He left the Faith to pursue some weird heresies and finally the extreme illogic of their exalted expostulator convinced him it was all BS.
      He had a nervous breakdown perhaps when finally he heard a voice saying “take and read” and miraculously opened just the right book to just the right text.
      His telling of bread and circuses- he and friends going to the Coliseum is interesting and points a finger at todays sports and foodie foibles.
      The best of Augustine for me is how he praises the goodness and beauty of Almighty God but I can see that everytime I look out the window or into a babies smiling face. Gotta finish Confessions someday.
      Oh …. After his parents arranged a suitable contract of marriage for him he sent away his woman… back to Carthage… she distraught.,,but it wasn’t long before he took another one… for a short time… then the breakdown.
      Just listing a few things in case some might want to know what’s in Confessions

      • It sounds like St. Augustine suffered from some classic fallen-nature, procrastination, & bad choices. Unlike many of us he eventually figured things out correctly with God’s help. At the end of the day the critical thing is how we finish, not how we began.

  7. I wondered whether Dr. Ortiz and readers have an opinion on the recent translation of The Confessions by Sarah Ruden. Any takes on that?

  8. I put off reading the Confessions for years and at 63 finally picked it up a few months ago. Why did I wait so long! It is an incredible gift and I agree with your comments about the level of inspiration to prayer and reflection that it provides. I also agree the first 9 books are the most accessible. I struggled through Book XI on time, but persevered to the end and am glad that I didn’t give up and leave it unfinished. Absolutely worthy of another reading from cover to cover.

  9. I teach Philosophy at University. I teach St Augustine in Medieval Philosophy. I don’t teach prayer or biography of St. Augustine in Philosophy but Augustine as a philosopher using his faith to understand. I had read the Confessions several times. I relate to the book as a teacher of Philosophy.

  10. Dr. Ortiz, I am old enough to remember when “Good News for Modern Man” (a translation) and the Living Bible (a paraphrase) came out. I was just a young teen, but I eagerly read both of them cover to cover (after trying to read the King James Version and the New American Standard Version several times when I was younger and failing!).

    As I got older, I learned that these editions of the Scriptures were not suitable for teaching or exegesis but were very good for helping non-scholars (me!) read the Word of God.

    I would like to suggest that you or other scholars write a “paraphrase” of various “Great Spiritual Works That All Christians, Especially Catholics, Should Read Before They Die.” Use modern language, as was done in the Living Bible, and make it “come alive” for those of us who are not “scholars” and never will be.

    I have tried to read several books recommended by priests and Catholic speakers who have earned advanced degrees and are called “Doctor”; e.g., Chesterton’s books. I am not a literary dropout, and I have a B.S. in Biology/Medical Technology and worked for 40 years in the Microbiology Department of a hospital laboratory, making friends with such creatures as Escherichia coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae. But when it comes to “British language”–I am clueless! I couldn’t get past the first chapter of “Orthodoxy”, and even when I try to listen to Chesterton impersonators on the Catholic TV channel or radio, I feel like I’m hearing a foreign language!

    So perhaps it would be beneficial if the scholars who routinely recommend that Catholics and other Christians read these “great works of faith” would make them more accessible to everyday Americans who are used to listening to “The Today Show” rather than lectures on philosophy and theology. Thanks for thinking about this.

    • A number of theology books are over my head but some things St. Augustine said are easy for me to understand:

      “O Holy Spirit, descend plentifully into my heart. Enlighten the dark corners of this neglected dwelling and scatter there Thy cheerful beams.”
      –St. Augustine

  11. As with many I couldn’t complete the Confessions in a single read. Augustine was an inquisitive philosopher who was versed in rhetorical argumentation noted by Jared Ortiz. He applied a profound knowledge of psychology. A reason why his search took so many years, countless frustrating efforts, turmoil in which he draws the reader, accounting for the high number of reader casualties like myself. Those who return know there’s much that deserves continued, dogged effort.
    St Thomas Aquinas quotes St Augustine in his Summa Theologiae far more than anyone else. He corrects Augustine who taught God illumines the soul in its apprehension of truth. That is true on a hierarchal spiritual scale not in the ordinary apprehension of the intellect. That capacity Aquinas teaches is inherent to our nature. Nonetheless, Augustine’s genius is evident in his wisdom, practical insight.
    Dr Ortiz is right in alluding to Augustine as something of a mystic, ‘Augustine, [who] will stretch your mind, for sure, and your heart, if you let him’. That’s what those who attain that interior knowledge of God are capable of. We let Augustine effect that in us when realizing [not identical] similarity in our own journey to God. A most significant dimension of that journey is realization of the infinite polarity of good to evil, a radical distinction that Manichaeism dilutes, making them necessarily complementary, the like to which we struggle with in life prior to conversion to the exquisite truth that is Christ.

  12. Thank you for your insightful article about St Augustine.

    A very orthodox and wise Carmelite prioress (now retired) told me that Maria Boulding is best avoided; a conclusion I was coming to anyway!

    For the record, Maria Boulding is English, as is the prioress, and as I am !

    PS I can see why people would be intimidated by Augustine’s City of God, but not by his Confessions.

  13. Besides reading the actual CONFESSIONS, may I recommend Peter Brown’s AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO: A BIOGRAPHY? The newest edition, 2013, covers recently discovered letters and sermons by the saint. The last known letter that St. Augustine wrote, just before the Vandals besieged his city, was written to the father of an eight year old boy to encourage his son’s study of Greek. What a gracious gesture from such a titanic figure!

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