01-05-2006 - Traces, n.5

Experience and Friendship
in the Quest for God

by Rebecca Cherico

Augustine’s Confessions hardly requires an introduction; it has had over fifteen hundred years of dissemination in the Christian world in both the original Latin and in a multitude of languages in translation. Its importance has not been limited to religious circles; it is generally considered the first autobiography and many who have no interest in Augustine’s conversion narrative have been fascinated by the strong sense of self and detailed personal examination that his work evinces. For those who have never (or not recently) read the Bishop of Hippo’s masterpiece, this is a good moment to consider doing so. Pope Benedict XVI has a great affinity for Augustine; he has even commented on his preference for Augustine’s theology over that of Thomas Aquinas, saying that Aquinas’s “crystal-clear logic seemed to me to be too closed in on itself, too impersonal and ready-made.” Augustine, on the other hand, seems to witness to a greater openness. The Pope has even included a symbol that recalls Augustine on his coat of arms. One of the images on it is that of a scallop shell, a traditional symbol of pilgrims, but one that also commemorates a famous scene that Augustine recounts. Augustine was musing on the nature of the Trinity when he saw a young boy on the beach. The boy had made a hole in the sand and was pouring seawater into it with a shell. Augustine asked him what he was doing and he told the saint that he was emptying the sea into the hole. Augustine recognized that his own attempts to understand the mystery of the Trinity were as structurally impossible as the boy’s attempts to empty the sea into the hole in the sand.
This story highlights one of the great strengths of Augustine’s Confessions: his use of his own experience in approaching the problem of God, and his humility in recognizing his own inability to reach Him on his own. The profundity of Augustine’s examination of his own life marks the entire length of the Confessions; he is constantly considering the signs of God’s presence in his life, and asking. His entire work, indeed, is addressed to a You–he frequently poses questions and exclamations of praise to the second person and he often calls upon this You to enlighten him as he attempts to understand His Will and fathom His Mystery. This You-who-make-me is continually in his thoughts and on his lips, and his autobiography is also a prayer addressed to his greatest love, a love which he came to later in life than he would have liked. The mystery of time and eternity that Augustine examines in Book XI is also related to his own life and one of the mysteries of his own existence, for Augustine wonders why–despite a fervently and devotedly Catholic mother–he resisted the call of the Lord for so long.
One of the other beauties of Augustine’s work is the importance of friendship that emerges time and again throughout his narrative. Augustine’s friends were of central importance throughout his life; he speaks of the dangers of bad companions, but it is through the goodness and tenacity of his friends that he comes to Christ. The importance of St. Ambrose in Augustine’s conversion is well-known; the Bishop of Milan played a key role in convincing St. Augustine of the truth of the faith. It is clear that Augustine had a great experience of the Church through his encounter with Ambrose–Ambrose was clearly the face of Christ for Augustine in a moment of confusion and struggle. Augustine is likewise accompanied by friends in many moments of difficulty. He comes close to the truth many times but it is only after much struggle and a long journey in faith that he is able, finally, to be received into the Church. And when he does so, he is accompanied by his friend Alypius, who joins him in his conversion.
Stylistically, one of the striking dimensions of Augustine’s work is the presence of tradition woven into the very fabric of his writing. Quotes or paraphrases from Scripture–particularly the Psalms–are omnipresent in his work. In talking about himself and his own life, Augustine thus echoes words that preceded him and will, he knows, follow him as well–words tied irrevocably to the reality of a life in Christ.