St Augustine of Hippo
Oxford University Press
"It's easily the most important book, for classical reasons apart from anything else; it's the first by several hundred years. . . The first and best 'journey of a soul' story in all Christian history. Loved most of all for its honesty, and admissions of weakness, doubt, and confusion."
"And men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty wave of the sea, the broad tides of rivers, the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, yet pass over the mystery of themselves without a thought.
IN ONE way, it is enough to see that St Augustine alone has two works in the all-time top ten to know that he is the greatest writer ever in Christian history. But I suspect that the decision would have been a little harder to make but for the guiding of the Holy Spirit, which prompted him, at the age of 43, after six years as a priest, to write Confessions.
It is a work that influences the interpretation of everything else Augustine wrote. It stands apart from everything else of - or before - its own time: an act of self-disclosure, the first psychologically rounded, utterly compelling self-portrait of a human being in all European literature.
Confessions takes the form of a human search for God, for divine truth, through a struggle between cultures and teachings. After two years working on a new translation of Confessions, I have found, as all its many translators do, that it shaped and influenced me as I worked.
What I value Augustine for most, as a theologian, is his hunger for the truth, and his persistence in wrestling with theological problems of a kind we hardly dare address today: the meaning of creation; the nature of time and memory; the place of humankind in God's scheme of salvation.
What I value most about him, as a human being, in Confessions is his self-awareness, his capacity to appraise his own motivations, and see through the appetites that control him, as they control us all.
Famously, even notoriously, he knows his characteristic sin to be sexual weakness; so he remarks that he is barely troubled by other temptations such as gluttony. I suspect that, nowadays, he would find extreme dysfunctionalities over food in modern society (everything from anorexia to morbid obesity) quite as disturbing as its ambivalent attitudes to sexual appetites.
BUT, from the complexity of such individual propensities to sin, he has the insight to recognise self-love as the foundational sin. This is an insight only touched on in Confessions, but central to his longer, later book City of God, in which he considers human history, and the providence of God, and where the choice between self-love and love of God is at the very heart of the work.
Many people enjoy the first nine books of Confessions more than the last four. One to nine are about his childhood, adolescence, search for truth, family relationships, and friendships - the "human interest" elements that make the work so appealing and familiar.
But the last four are the crown of his achievement. They persuade the reader, mostly by argument, sometimes by ecstatic prayers of lyrical beauty, to change from a self-centred life - a human being in search of God, and first discovering God - to a God-centred life in the perspective of God's eternity.
They explore the meaning of the act of creation, and draw from it a message of human welcome into the Kingdom of heaven. The last words of Confessions are an echo of scripture: "So the door will be opened to you."
The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.
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