Why does Augustine, especially in his Confessions, still command such interest today, and how does he correct the popular notion of "spirituality"? Several courses in our Princeton Seminary curriculum feature his thought; my own course on the
Confessions and Augustine's influence in the Middle Ages regularly has three or four times more students than any other elective I offer. Why? Perhaps because Augustine both supports and challenges the contemporary interest in our own
Anyone who opens this work looking for racy "confessions" will soon realize that the title means rather the confession of sinful pride, the confession of faith and trust in God, and the confession of praise. The author himself said that the work praises the righteous and good God, and is intended to excite the reader's mind and affection toward God. As a prayer of remarkable length, the whole thing is about God, relentlessly about God, and is thus directly opposed to the
spiritualitas of Augustine's time and our own.
The problem with "spirituality," from an Augustinian point of view, is not the occasional perversion ("Seven Spiritual Secrets for Fiscal Success"?), but at the very core-the simple starting point of our own "spiritualness" instead of God. This critique has some warrant in the Bishop of Hippo's own time, for the very word "spirituality" was coined back then in a letter stressing our ability and responsibility for our own
spiritualitas or spiritualness. This letter was long thought to be by Jerome but is known now to stem from Augustine's opponent Pelagius, or at least from his immediate circle. Suspicions that today's spirituality industry trades on an optimism about our innate abilities to improve our own spiritual life could cite the very creation of the word "spirituality" as infected by Pelagian works-righteousness. (On this and many other issues and texts relating to the history of spiritual theology and mysticism, see the ongoing multivolume work of Bernard McGinn,
The Presence of God, in this case, vol. II, The Growth of Mysticism [New York: Crossroad, 1994], p. 473, n. 14). Etymology and word history aside, the core issue for Augustine is the emphasis on God, on who God is and what God does, rather than any confidence in our own abilities, spiritual or otherwise.
Seminarians and other readers may be initially interested in Augustine's
Confessions because they want to read about him, but when they have the time to take their time, they realize, to their own devotional and theological profit, that it is all about God. The first challenge is to slow down and adapt to this kind of meditative reading. In so much of our reading, perhaps especially as seminarians and busy professionals, we are calculating consumers: How fast can I get what I want? Our reading is swift, silent, solitary, and sovereign; I'm in charge here. A slower, communal experience, at least in hearing the text in our mind's ear, subjects us to the rhythms and influence of someone else. We're not in charge here, and might even be changed.
Gozzoli's Baptism of Saint Augustine from the choir
of the Church of Sant'Agostino in San Gimignano, Italy
The Confessions subtly combine biblical images with theological-philosophical questions and Augustine's own testimony, all in the voice of prayer. The familiar motif of departure-from home, mother, church, and God-and then return combines elements of the parable of the Prodigal Son with Homer's
Odyssey, the philosophy of Platonism with the literary symmetry of chiasmus (Books 1 and 9, 2 and 8, and so on). Here and elsewhere, Augustine's spiritual guidance moves from the external world in to the interior self as the image of God-and then up to the superior realm of God's own nature and attributes. Perhaps most interestingly for seminarians and ministers, the
Confessions seem to assume some critique of or challenge to Augustine's own ministry back home: You fought the church, went away and got converted somewhere else, and now you want us to accept your ministry?! As he elsewhere explicitly opposed a Donatist insistence upon the personal history and integrity of the minister, so he here implicitly gives an anti-Donatist reply about himself as a minister of God: Yes, I opposed the church and ran from God, but God pursued me and changed me, and now my ministry in your midst depends upon God's faithfulness and not on my
Augustine's most poignant passages express this relentless emphasis on what God has done and is doing, despite our deafness and blindness. "You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness." He knows that God overcame him, but he is not lamenting a loss of freedom. One loose translation sounds like a modern love song, "You made me love you," and this is no complaint. The credit, the praise, the glory, and the thanks always go to
The Confessions reward our reading today because they are all about God, about God's transcendent majesty and humble incarnation, about God's justice and mercy, about God as source and God as goal. Reading the
Confessions, slowly, is not finally about a course, or a book, or a theologian, or ourselves and our spirituality, but about God. The experience of reading the work that way, paradoxically, does change us and our spiritual lives, but only as the by-product of keeping the emphasis where it belongs. If we lose ourselves in the focus on God, then we again find ourselves and indeed as changed. As in Gozzoli's beautiful rendition of Ambrose baptizing Augustine, the text, traditionally from Ambrose himself, says it all:
Te deum laudamus. We praise you, God. In that beautiful phrase, so ancient and so new, is the enduring power of Augustine's
Confessions and the only version of "spirituality" with a future.
Paul Rorem is the Benjamin B. Warfield Professor of Medieval Church History at Princeton Seminary.