Reading the Confessions

Written by Nick Terranova, '14

What work have you read recently (book, play, etc.) that you thought was excellent and why did you think so?

This past February, I had the great joy of reading the Confessions of St. Augustine.  Before this year, I had heard of the book, but I had never thought of reading it.  When my class got to the book midway through the school year, our teacher praised the book for its brilliance, but also informed us that the book contained heavy reading material.

As I started Confessions, I immediately began to enjoy the unique, prayer-like style and the proclamations like, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”  After a while, however, Augustine began to talk incessantly about many different topics somewhat related to his conversion, but did not necessarily advance the “story” of his life.  He made so many references to his time and so many idioms of culture that I was constantly looking at the annotations in the back of the book so that I could understand what he was saying.  Going into the book, I expected a straight-up autobiography with some commentary interspersed.  Instead, what Augustine gave me were the inner workings of his conversion into Christianity and the changes of mind and heart that he had to undergo to be fully freed from the darkness of this world.  After finishing the first nine books and hearing the story of his life, I prepared for the deep philosophical discussions of the last four books.

I could not even concentrate on these books while sitting down.  I soon realized that, if I did not stand up and pace around my basement while reading the book, I would not focus on the text 100% and thus would get nothing from it.  Even though I enjoyed the philosophy that Augustine works through, the mental effort exhausted me, but I pushed on due to the promise that my literature teacher gave us in class about the four books bringing full circle themes presented in the first nine.

When I began reading the final book, which deals with Creation, I could feel the disparate pieces of the puzzle of the book slowly loosening themselves.  Suddenly, as I neared the end of the book, all of the pieces of the work cascaded down and arrayed themselves before me.  I suddenly saw the picture and the reality of what Augustine was trying to convey.   Through all of his prayer, symbolism, anecdotes, explanation, lamentation, and philosophizing, Augustine reaches into the depths of existence and discovers along with the reader that his conversion from mental darkness and lustful passion to intellectual clarity and unconditional love can illuminate the New Creation of the World and that the whole cosmos lifts itself up to God as a pure and holy offering because all of us as creatures know in the depths of our beings that we are “restless until we rest in God.”  Never before had I put so much effort into reading and understanding a book, but, with the exception of Scripture, never before had I reaped so great a reward from finishing a book.

After reading the Confessions, I was especially struck by the personhood of Augustine.  Here was a man who, although a bishop and a great intellectual mind, struggled with the same temptations and confusion that all of us struggle with.  In addition, he never let himself dismiss the gravity of his actions or lose sight of the incredible evil of even the most insignificant sin.  Even while lamenting over his sin, Augustine was also able to offer his sufferings to God and move on into his new life with Christ.  Augustine also lived and breathed the Psalter and Scripture and commonly used quotations from the two to complete his thoughts.  This illuminated the Scriptures for me and made me want to read them more in my everyday life. 

Through Confessions, Augustine gives all of us hope that, even though we are sinful people, all of us can with God’s grace turn around our entire lives and offer them as a sacrifice to God.  I will probably never look at my life or struggles the same way again.  For Augustine, life’s bumps and ruts are not a hindrance from God but a reminder of our human weakness and a means to further praise Him.  Augustine shows that God wishes to bring us into union with Him and make us a new creation in His love. 

As I move forward into my life, I will always keep with me the vision and lessons of Augustine’s Confessions because, if he could live a good Christian life, then so can I.

St. Augustine, pray for us.