The BEST: Augustine’s Confessions

Asher Oser Tradition Online | July 28, 2022

Summary: In his Confessions, Augustine (354-430) gives an account of his journey to faith. Augustine is humbly transparent about his failures. The zeal that grips the converted does not appear in this work.

The first nine books of the work trace Augustine’s life from his birth in 354 until his conversion to Christianity in 386. Born and raised in eastern Algeria, he entered a privileged Roman social life that he came to see as sinful. Augustine was educated to devote himself to material rather than spiritual pursuits. The book tracks his pursuit of popular philosophies including Manicheism, skepticism, and Neoplatonism, until he slowly comes to discover his mother’s Christian religion.

In the last four books (X-XIII), he pivots to philosophical themes such as memory and time.

Augustine of Hippo

Why this is The BEST: To talk about God is to make Him abstract, to cordon Him in the distant and unbridgeable third person. When we talk to God that gap becomes a little smaller. The need for both settings are captured beautifully by our berakhot, formulated in the second and third person, they shift us between closer and more distant settings. Because the Confessions are a prayer, Augustine only addresses God in the second person. Opening with You are mighty, Master, and to be praised with a powerful voice, the work is anchored to a closer setting, giving it an intimate quality that draws the reader into its orbit. At the same time, it never crosses into that easy familiarity with God for which Rava recommended stopping Job’s mouth with earth (Bava Batra 16a).

At the outset, Augustine asks whether one must know something about God to pray to Him or whether through prayer we come to know God:

Grant me, Master, to know and understand whether a person ought first to call on you or to praise you; and which of the following is first, to know you or to call on you? But who invokes you without knowing you? In his ignorance, he might call on the wrong thing. Or instead, are you invoked in order to be known?… But those who search for God will praise him, since by seeking him they will find him (Confessions [Ruden trans.], I:1).

Anyone familiar with God’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy—which according to tradition God himself prayed (Rosh HaShana 17b)—can appreciate the symbiotic relationship between prayer and theology. Moses prayed to know God: “Please, show me Your Glory” (Exodus 33:18) and many synagogues prominently display the advice Rabbi Eliezer offered his students on his deathbed: “Know Before Who Thy Stand” (Berakhot 28b). We pray to the God we know and through prayer we come to know God. In the Confessions Augustine recasts his life as one long prayer, itself a bold theological statement, worthy of Rav Kook’s insight (in the introduction to Olat Reiyah), that formal prayer is but a revelation of a soul that is in a constant state of prayer.

Funny as it is, the quote (and prayer) for which he is best known, “Give me chastity and self-restraint, but do not give it yet” (VIII:17), was not meant as a witticism but a sincere reckoning of his spiritual state prior to his conversion. He wonders why it is that “The mind commands the body, and there’s instant obedience. The mind commands itself and there’s resistance” (VIII:21). Augustine sustains a searing investigation into his own thoughts and deeds, creating a master class in self-analysis.

At one point he stole some pears and writes with unceasing honesty about what drove him to commit this crime:

But I wanted to commit this crime, and commit it I did, though destitution didn’t drive me to it—unless I was starving for what was right but turning my nose up at it anyway, and at the same time stuffed and swollen with my own sinfulness: so I stole a thing I had a better sort of in lush supply already; and I didn’t want to enjoy the thing my hand grasped for—the actual stealing, the transgression, was going to be my treat (Confessions II:9).

In the Confessions Augustine quotes copiously from Biblical verses, especially the Psalms, but he did not reference the verse that speaks so directly to his youthful theft, “Stolen waters are sweet and purloined bread is delicious” (Proverbs 9:17). Augustine already possessed pears and admits that they were “a better sort” and in “lush supply,” the fruit he was looking to taste was the thrill of transgression. The allure of sin is powerful enough, explains the Vilna Gaon in his commentary to this verse to season even bread and water, the plainest of foods.

The issues that he writes about continue to interest people of faith. What is the meaning of friendship and to what extent is it possible to be friends with someone of a different faith? What is the role of family in nurturing faith, and what happens when children and parents, or parents themselves do not share the same faith commitments?

Whether such a work can encourage us to reflect on our own lives is an open question. Augustine himself remarks, “Humankind is quite inquisitive about someone else’s life, but quite lazy about correcting their own. Why do they ask to hear from me who I am, when they don’t want to hear from you who they are?” (X:3) And yet, there is perhaps more to learn from the failures of great people than their successes. As Rav Hutner once wrote, “Who knows of all the wars, struggles, stumbles, tumbles and backward falls” (Letter #128) of our great people. Augustine was not one of our great people, but the record he left is one of the best accounts we have of a person who struggled to become a great person. Still, this lesson is difficult to replicate and not one the work imparted to me.

When he wrote the Confessions, Augustine was a middle-aged man looking back on his younger years. I am now close to the age Augustine was when he began to write the Confessions. As I reflect on my choices, Augustine’s mature awareness of God’s providence in his past helps to move me in that direction. What he experienced at the time as his own choices are now refracted in light of God’s providence. There is no great moment of physical salvation – he’s not miraculously saved from war or illness – instead there is a sense that God has constantly been at his side. Thinking in these terms is the goal of every ben or bat Torah. Ramban asserts that the mysterious messenger who sends a lost Joseph in the direction of his brothers “teaches us that the Divine decree is true and man’s industry is an illusion. For God prepared a guide to deliver him to them” (Genesis 37:15). As my disappointments and failures pile up, as well as successes still beyond my reach, Augustine encourages me to consider how the “Divine decree is true and man’s industry an illusion.”

Rabbi Dr. Asher C. Oser is the Rabbi of Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong. Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.


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