St Augustine of Hippo (354–430). Portrait by Philippe de Champaigne, 1645–50.

Today the liturgical churches of western Christianity commemorate the life of Augustine, bishop of Hippo and doctor of the church.1 At our home we are having a feast tonight because our hearts have been made glad in the gospel of Jesus Christ, which we have come to understand better because of Augustine.

The first book I read from the early church was Augustine’s Confessions—a common choice, since the Confessions are almost certainly the best known book from Christian antiquity. One could even make the argument that no book (in the western world, at least) has been more significant in shaping the way that modern people think about the self.2 The book takes the shape of an extended prayer, in which Augustine confesses his sins and acknowledges God’s goodness. And yet Augustine also intended this work as a confession ‘not unto Thee, my God; but before Thee unto my own kind, even to that small part of the human race who may chance to light upon these my writings.’ (2.3.5)

The entire work is rich both in explaining Augustine’s life viewed from faith and in confessing the God in whom he believed. Indeed, the theological richness of the work might be summed up in a phrase from another of Augustine’s works: Deus est qui deum dat’, ‘God is he who gives God’ (On the Trinity, 14.26.46). In the Confessions Augustine detects and acknowledges how God revealed himself even throughout Augustine’s waywardness and false belief, because ‘Thou has formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.’ (1.1.1)

And so I point you to four well-known and particularly insightful passages in the Confessions.

First, Augustine gives a clear-eyed explanation of the sinfulness of sin. In one passage, he describes stealing pears, though he had better pears of his own and only fed them to swine. (The parallels to the story of the fall in Genesis are not accidental.) Oliver Wendell Holmes dismissed the passage, writing, ‘Rum thing to see a man making a mountain of robbing a pear tree in his teens.’ But Augustine explains that to sin is to replace the love of God with the love of sin for its sinfulness. (Read 2.4 and 2.6.)

St Monica (331--387)

St Monica (331–387)

Second, the Confessions are noteworthy for their rich descriptions of Augustine’s human relationships, none of which is described with more detail and feeling than his relationship to his mother, Monica. In book 3, Monica has a dream that her son, who has become a Manichean heretic, will come to the true faith, symbolized in the dream by a wooden ruler which represents the ‘rule of faith’, or the creedal faith of the catholic church. She also pleads with a bishop to intervene with her son, whose word she takes as a prophetic utterance: ‘It is not possible that the son of these tears should perish.’ (Read 3.11 and 3.12.)

Third, both Monica’s dream and the bishop’s word come to pass when Augustine converts. In what is perhaps the most famous passage in the Confessions, Augustine describes how he heard a child’s voice in the garden saying, ‘Take up and read, take up and read’, and read from Paul’s epistle to the Romans. (Read 8.12.)

Fourth, in the Confessions Augustine expresses a kind of piety in which the believer returns to his heart, on which is written the law of God, and there finds God. In looking into one’s heart, one imitates the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘Return to your heart, O ye transgressors, and cleave fast unto Him that made you. … Descend that ye may ascend, and ascend to God.’ It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of this passage for ‘heart religion’, which is the hallmark of most of Western Christianity from before the time of the Reformation, including Christians writers from such diverse traditions as Philipp Jakob Spener and Nicholas von Zinzendorf (Pietism), Jonathan Edwards (evangelicalism), and Ignatius of Loyola (Catholicism). (By the way, notice the heart that Augustine is holding in the portrait at the top of this post. The heart, which is aflame with love, transforms the mind and points to veritas.) (Read 4.12.)

If you plan to join us in reading the fathers of the church and want to read something before we officially begin, or if you do not intend to take on the full course of reading but would to read one book, I commend to you Augustine’s Confessions.